Now is not the time for wait-and-see, even a small victory could break the back of this wretched regime, writes Lindsey German
There have been plenty of weak governments in Britain, and plenty of nasty ones. But when has there been a government which combines weakness and nastiness in the way that Theresa May’s does? There are only two reasons why May didn’t lose her job on June 9th after she lost the Tories their parliamentary majority: one was that there was no unity about who should succeed her, the other that such a move might trigger a further election and that the victor would be Jeremy Corbyn.
So she has been allowed to limp on, the prisoner of various factions, having a disastrous conference and now losing votes in the Commons, despite the bribery of the DUP which has allowed this bunch of extremist bigots an unprecedented influence in UK politics. The New Year opened with an honours list which rewarded the various officers of the Tory 1922 committee – a body which is central to maintain support for her within the party – and which created loads of new Tory peers to help her push support for Brexit through the Lords. Alongside this was a feeble attempt to claim that she was now back in control (a claim of course readily endorsed and propagated by her supporters in the media).
Meanwhile, back on planet earth, the New Year opened to reveal many of the cracks in British society. I have made the point often in this briefing that nothing much works in the infrastructure. That view has been spectacularly underlined by the reality of the NHS crisis, where there are horror stories in every hospital; by the fiasco of allowing the rail privatisers like Virgin and Stagecoach to escape liability for their inflated bids; by the fact that British rail fares are five times their European counterparts for what is generally a much worse service; by the continuing crisis of homelessness and housing shortage.
There has been no response from the government to any of these problems except to carry on doing what they have been doing, which helped create the problems in the first place. Apologies from Jeremy Hunt and May over the NHS nightmare conveniently forget that the solution is in their hands. It means finding the money to run good quality properly staffed public services, not cutting essential areas and allowing the market to provide – in other words, handing over large sections of the public sector to the mercies and profit taking of the big private companies.
This is all nasty enough, but it is accompanied by further forays to bring the market into the public sector, for example in the universities, plus divide and rule policies designed to foster division among working people. Hence the row in the Tory party over whether to count students as part of the net immigration figures, which May is insisting on because she does not want to lose support to the right wing press or former UKIP voters. Hence the continued militarism and jingoism, this year to be combined in yet another royal wedding. Hence the continued scapegoating of those on benefits, the homeless or refugees, and the demonising of anyone who goes on strike for a decent living standard.
There are plenty of issues where the Tories can be opposed and defeated, and this is the basis of Jeremy Corbyn’s support as Labour leader. But, despite the best efforts of Labour activists and some MPs, the majority of politicians and the media and business establishment are determined to make this all about Brexit.
It has to be said that the Tories are making an absolute mess of Brexit, seemingly incapable of dealing with what appear straightforward issues. That is not mainly because of lack of planning or incompetence – although both play a part – but because the Tory party is divided on this and has become disengaged from the vast majority of the British ruling class, which is pro-Remain. It therefore becomes a barrier beyond which the Tory party cannot make progress. It fears loss of support from the far right and right wing media if it makes too many concessions to the Remain side, but also fears too much isolation from some of its biggest markets.
The Brexit fiasco has led to a growing chorus from the Blairites and their myriad friends for Remain. The great vote loser Tony Blair himself was given seemingly limitless time to tell everyone last week how disastrous Labour’s position was and how it had to support Remain. Blair, the likes of Chuka Umunna, and the unelected Lord Adonis (who splashed his opposition to May on rail privatisation and gained a platform for supporting a second referendum) want to use the issue to undermine Corbyn, and see this issue as a wedge issue which will break many of his supporters from him, unless he too capitulates to a second referendum.
The answer to this from Labour should be: there can be no second referendum, given that voters were promised the result would be final. Support for another vote would surely be the easiest way to rebuild support for Ukip and worse. It would also be profoundly undemocratic, underlining the common view that the elite simply don’t care about people’s political views and decisions. It also doesn’t make electoral sense for Labour, given that 70% of Labour constituencies voted Leave. While there is a big majority of Labour members for Remain, this is not evenly spread throughout the country, which matters in a first past the post system, and which could if pursued mean a further Tory victory and a very hard Brexit.
There is a big and urgent debate to be had about what sort of Brexit we should have. Should Britain become a low wage, low skill tax haven on the edge of Europe, or should it provide investment in education and jobs, sustainable agriculture, building houses, and creating a high quality infrastructure? These questions aren’t just, or even mainly, about Brexit – they are about a future which benefits the many, not the few.
In this sense, Brexit cannot be seen as separate from what happens elsewhere in British politics. And the ‘elsewhere’ has to include a major component of struggle and campaigning against the priorities which have got us into this mess in the first place. The rail strikes, the demo in support of the NHS on 3 February , the protests planned against Trump’s proposed visit, the small victories over wages for groups like the McDonald’s workers, the Grenfell marches – these are the antidote to a political establishment which wants us to pay while they carry on business as usual.
We do not know whether this government will hold together or whether there will be another election this year. We should certainly demand one. But we shouldn’t rely on it happening through inertia. It will happen if the social crisis is too great for the Tories to hang on. And we are part of making that a reality.
And on the Irish question
One of the big arguments put by Blair, the Irish government, and the EU is that Brexit will damage the Northern Ireland peace process by reinforcing a hard border. There has been freedom of movement for people between Ireland and the various parts of the UK since 1923 – right through the various Troubles and conflicts, through the Second World War when Ireland was neutral, even during the worst bombings on the mainland. People north and south don’t want a hard border, for a range of totally understandable reasons. If there is a hard border, it will be imposed by the EU. There is, in my opinion, a much better alternative - a united Ireland. This would certainly be the preference of the majority of people in the island as a whole. The Northern Irish state was established to enable Britain to hold on to Ireland’s industrialised north east corner, in the face of demands for independence across the country.
Time to go, as the old slogan used to say. But we know what the Conservative and Unionist party, and their friends in the DUP, would say about that.
Would you give this man a job?
All of us were no doubt horrified at the appointment of Toby Young to the board of the Office for Students, the body supposed to oversee students’ issues in universities. He is a right wing ideologue who appears to use his privilege to sneer at most of the rest of humanity. His tweets are simply disgusting, which is perhaps why he has reportedly deleted 50,000 of them. His obsession with women’s breasts doesn’t mark him out from lots of other men. But it and his other degrading remarks should disqualify him from any public office.
I find it hard to imagine anyone who was not so privileged being able to hold down pretty much any job once this sort of thing had come out into the open. In many workplaces, it would lead to dismissal. But not if you write for the Spectator, or are a Tory fan of Theresa May.
It’s usually working class people who are castigated for racism and sexism – and certainly there’s plenty of it about. But it takes a certain sort of elite education, wealth, and help from your friends to carry on in this blatant way, to expect to be rewarded for it, and to be defended by the likes of Boris Johnson or Michael Gove. It’s a sense of entitlement and contempt for others which should have no place in a civilised society.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Where do we go from here? – election briefing 13 December
- We have a world to win – election briefing Polling Day
- Ignore the naysayers and keep fighting – election briefing 11 December
- Lindsey German: don't underestimate how far we've come - video
- One nation or the one percent? - election briefing 10 December
- Ten points to remember before polling day – election briefing 9 December
- Antisemitism, politics, and voting Tory - election briefing 6 December