The Brexit blizzard is there to blind us; it's time to take out the Tories and that means a general election, argues Lindsey German
I was part of the launch event for the ‘Britain is Broken, We can’t afford the Tories’ campaign organised by the People’s Assembly and backed by the Daily Mirror. It featured among others strikers from Wetherspoons and TGI Fridays, health workers and teachers, the editor of the Mirror, a message from John McDonnell, Richard Burgon MP, Potent Whisper, all talking about austerity, and what is happening to the working class in this country.
The stories and statistics are really quite shocking. They reflect a society where everything is geared to the market and profit, where everyone from five year olds to ambulance drivers and care workers are tested, timed, marked, monitored – all for the purpose of making them work harder while competing with their peers. Libraries are closed, housing becomes impossible, schools are ever more draconian, working conditions worsen.
As even Ian Hislop of Private Eye – no friend of the left – has noted, Brexit is driving everything else off the news and political agenda. This is highly convenient to the Tories, who continue with their austerity policies while proclaiming the end of austerity. But Labour and the rest of us on the left shouldn’t allow this to happen. We have to up our game on these questions and try to widen and deepen the very many protests, strikes and campaigns which are going on around the country.
These protests and strikes cut across the Brexit divide, and their success is essential in not only winning their particular demands but also in challenging the agenda of all sections of the ruling class, which is to continue to worsen the conditions and living standards of working people in Britain.
When I first became politically active nearly 50 years ago, there was a sense of working class power in Britain. The late 60s and early 70s saw some big victories for organised trade unions, the Labour government of 1964-70 introduced many reforms which liberalised society (even though they began the attacks on trade union organisation that was later continued by the Tories), and a Tory government was thrown out of office as a result of conflict with the miners. The Tories feared that power, which is why in 1984 Thatcher took on the miners, and their defeat affected the whole trade union and working class movement.
Trade unions have been in decline since their high point in 1979 of over 13 million members. Today, while the majority of people still see themselves as working class, there is not that sense of working class power. Yet it is the only force which will decisively shift the balance of wealth and power back towards the vast majority of ordinary people and away from the rich.
In terms of the obsessive EU debate, as I said in the meeting I don’t want a remain or leave option which leaves us where we are. There has to be much more fundamental change, regardless of where we end up in relation to the EU.
Therefore, to reiterate: I don’t want a second referendum – which I think would have catastrophic effects on politics and drive more working class people into the hands of the far right. I don’t want May’s deal or a hard Tory no deal. The only answer to the impasse is a general election – an election which could alter domestic policies as well as decide options for leaving the EU.
There is much talk of Labour moving towards backing a second referendum, and it may still happen. It would be seen as a betrayal by many labour voters, and they would be right. There may be some MPs assuming that Labour votes will stick with the party, but that is to ignore the potential for Ukip or even for abstentions which let in the Tories.
The danger is the combination of Labour adopting a second referendum position, while at the same time doing far too little to support and spread the resistance to Tory austerity policies. That would be an unpopular retreat on the one hand, but also a failure to mobilise working class organisation over issues affecting everyone’s lives. In places like Doncaster or Sunderland, where Labour councils are implementing the austerity policies, that could be a very serious failure indeed.
The bad, the ugly and the alternative
The world leaders gathered at the G20 summit in Buenos Aires last weekend demonstrated, even more graphically than usual, the ugly face of capitalism. It wasn’t just the welcome handshakes for Saudi Arabia’s crown prince Mohammed bin Salman, up to his neck in the murder of Jamal Khashoggi, which stretched from a clearly admiring Russian president Putin to Theresa May. There was newly elected Jair Bolsonaro from Brazil, a fascist who threatens his opponents with extinction. There was Donald Trump, fresh from attacking refugees at his border, threatening trade wars, but agreeing to back off, for now, over escalating the trade war with China.
The ugliness and brutality of these representatives of neoliberal capitalism reflects the crisis of that particular model, as the era of free trade comes to an end. Trump’s trade wars reflect his desire to halt the decline of US capitalism, a desire which clashes with China in particular. It is hard for anyone to see anything but further crises and conflict coming out of the summit. The world leaders left the summit with an agreement (in itself not a foregone conclusion) but divided over major issues, including trade, migration and climate change.
This failure reflects the inability of capitalism to deal with what are now becoming severe or even existential crises. What greater indictment of the system is that after years of summits and agreements, climate change is becoming far more obvious and yet virtually nothing is being done to stop it; that war and misery are driving millions to become migrant and refugees; and that the capitalists are falling out among themselves over their trade deals.
There will be more and more protests as a result of these and other issues. In France the huge Gilets Jaunes movement led to street fighting in the centre of Paris this weekend. The preening figure of Macron is slumping in the polls as his attack on working people is backfiring. The movement there, according to good reports, contains elements of right and left, as is perhaps unsurprising when something erupts on this scale.
The crucial question for the left is whether it can give leadership to the movement so that it marginalises racism and scapegoating, at the same time as fighting for demands which benefit working people. We will face the same sorts of tests in Britain, maybe over Brexit. But the confusion in politics internationally is great – there is bitter resentment of governments but no clear path forward. It’s a big task for the left, but one we have to take on. We can make a start by demonstrating against the fascist Tommy Robinson next Sunday 9 December who is using the Brexit issue to spread his hate. I’m very glad that this looks like being one united demo now – well done to those making that happen.
I was saddened to hear of the death of Harry Leslie Smith, 95 years old and a fighter to the end of his life. I first came across Harry, like most on the left, a few years ago, when his publicist sent me a copy of his first book, Harry’s Last Stand, which was about his childhood in poverty and the need to change the world today. I spoke with him a few times at meetings, but my main channel of communication was through Twitter direct messages. These usually consisted of me asking whether he could speak at a meeting/demo/event and him replying, quickly and courteously. Most recently, I asked him to speak at the conference against the far right that I’m involved in organising next 2 March. His reply was yes, as long as you pay my fare from Yorkshire and get me a hotel for the night. Simple requests, straight and to the point.
I’m very sorry that now won’t happen, and grateful for getting to know him on however limited a basis. Many kind words have been spoken about him, about his childhood, his war record and much else. I would like to add one thing. To me there was one outstanding aspect of him: that he never gave up. He became involved in active politics less than 10 years ago, following the death of one of his sons. For most people of that advanced age, this would have probably ushered in a physical and mental decline. His response was the opposite. He dedicated his life to fighting against injustice and made a real impact.
He became a well-known and well-loved figure. Most of us probably couldn’t do what he did at his age, but we can all see his life as an inspiration to do what we can while we can, and to ensure that we help carry the struggle on for the next generation.
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
- When Towering Inferno meets Groundhog Day - weekly briefing
- Protecting war criminals and torturers: the Tory bill and Starmer's shame
- Second time farce, but it will lead to tragedy - weekly briefing
- Where next for the left? - Lindsey German
- Tory failure: the explanation lies beyond stupidity - weekly briefing
- No to the exam factory: what kind of education do we want? - video
- Labour adrift while the second wave builds - weekly briefing