The establishment's operation to save May's Brexit deal is in full swing. We have to make sure they can't find a way out of this crisis, argues Lindsey German
The British ruling class is now in a full scale political crisis. There is no agreement on Theresa May’s Brexit deal, with cabinet consensus breaking down within hours, and with the loss of the second Brexit secretary in 5 months. The general assessment of most people from whatever political standpoint is that May cannot win this deal in parliament. She has lost the support of the craven DUP, and she is not likely to be able to rely on much help from Labour MPs, much as many of them would like to be able to vote for her but they know it’s politically untenable to do so. There is still talk of a leadership challenge.
In the face of a parliamentary defeat for May, it seems to me the constitutional convention is that the Tories – already a minority government – should stand aside and allow Labour to try to get a deal through parliament, and failing that should call a general election, where all parties can put their position and voters can decide.
This is anathema to the Tories and to the British ruling class. Many of them don’t want Brexit, and will do what they can to stop it. But they want even less a Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn, hence the pathetic attempts from most sides to shore up May and to try to force the deal through parliament, by claiming that the only alternative is no deal.
So the pro-Brexit ministers like Michael Gove are staying in cabinet, although they do so while trying to hold a gun to May’s head. The BBC echoes the Tory propaganda which treats May as a hapless messenger rather than the architect of the deal. Big business urges compromise and responsibility. According to George Parker in Friday’s Financial Times:
‘Chancellor Philip Hammond and business secretary Greg Clark urged business leaders to back the deal. “We need to create a sense of momentum that will carry this through,” Mr. Hammond told business leaders. “It is essential that we repeat — and repeat again — the logic of pursuing a deal rather than a no deal approach.”’
It is project fear all over again. No one much likes May, no one much likes the deal, but they are trying to build support for it as an alternative to total collapse. It is unlikely to work, but obviously there is a huge amount of pressure being put not to go too far, trigger a leadership contest, or anything that might lead to a Corbyn government.
This binary deal/no deal is ostensibly the Tories’ and EU’s final offer. It isn’t of course. There can be more negotiations, an extension of article 50 and much else. If there were a new government then the EU would reopen negotiations with them, whatever is now being said.
But this political crisis requires a strong political response from the left – and that means looking at the alternatives.
I must say I find it strange that so many on the left seem to favour a second referendum over a general election. I oppose such a move – it would not be at all certain to reverse the decision and even if it did that would be by a narrow margin, so would end none of the division which is now so obvious. It would alienate leave voters, strengthen Ukip or whatever grotesque formation succeeds it, and give rocket boosters to the far right. What would be the question on the ballot paper? May’s deal or no deal? How would that satisfy any remainers, and indeed many leavers as well? A final question on this is what would be the mechanism for calling such a vote, given that no Tory prime minister could do it, and it is doubtful that anyone would get it through parliament.
So it isn’t democratic and it probably isn’t workable, but I fear there is an inexorable logic moving it forward in the current crisis-ridden vacuum that is British politics.
A general election is, on the other hand, both more democratic (as close as that gets in this bourgeois society) and deals not just with one issue but with the totality of mainstream politics. There are a lot on the left who keep saying an election can’t happen because the Tories don’t want it and because of the fixed term parliaments act. We should remember that act has already been overridden once and can be done so again. Elections happen when governments can’t rule any longer and they see no alternative to this procedure. Our job on the left is to make it as hard as possible for them to continue and to deepen the political crisis.
The left shouldn’t prioritise a second referendum over an election because in effect it throws a lifeline to the Tories and ignores many of the real issues as Mark Serwotka said on Question Time last week.
Instead, we should be injecting the class politics so desperately needed in the debate. The UN special rapporteur's intervention on poverty, revealing that nearly half of our children live in poverty, is genuinely shocking even for those of us aware and politically active. It has been deliberately engineered by the Tories who have introduced the hated universal credit, institutionalised food banks, exacerbated the housing crisis and ramped up the politics of scapegoating to help this process. The NHS is in a parlous state, schools are failing children (my local star academy is known colloquially to parents and children as ‘the prison’), libraries, parks and other public amenities are being trashed.
The gap between rich and poor is obscene, as is the speculation, asset stripping and sheer greed evident throughout business. The Tories do not want to discuss any of this – instead, they will use anti-immigrant rhetoric to try to divert attention away from their crimes.
Labour has to centre on these questions, and on creating decent jobs and education. None of this is going to be solved if we talk about Brexit in the terms that the Tories or right wing Labour want us to.
This week and next we have to do everything to strengthen the left, and to fight to get rid of this government. Labour has to campaign much more strongly for an election and has to help make life as difficult as possible for May, not come to her rescue as some Labour MPs tried last week. We have to support all the actions – strikes on rail, the teachers’ demo, anti-racist protest and Extinction Rebellion - that can help build the opposition. In Scotland there should be calls for a new Independence referendum which is growing in support, and in Northern Ireland for a poll to unite north and south.
Their crisis is very deep – we need to make sure they don’t find a way out of it.
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’.
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