The Tories shan’t topple on their own, we need to build and maintain the pressure
against them, argues Lindsey German
Theresa May’s decision to pull the vote in parliament on the Brexit deal was all the evidence needed that she was totally frightened of humiliating defeat in the Commons and the probable end of her leadership. It is hard to see what she has achieved from it, however, apart from a delay of execution, since she reiterated her support for the original deal, can only get reassurances, as opposed to changes in the deal, which will make very little difference to the nature of the Irish ‘backstop’, and is almost certain to face defeat in parliament when she returns with the deal.
The retreat on the vote, only hours after loyal government ministers had been made to declare that the vote would go ahead, is a quite astonishing move and one which underlines that this government presides over the worst parliamentary chaos seen in decades. Last week, the government was defeated three times and found to be in contempt of parliament. This week its defeat would have been so substantial that despite weeks of bravado May ran away from the prospect.
The situation is a complete mess, and one where it is clear that there is no obvious majority for any particular outcome. It is hard to think of historical parallels where the situation has been so dire, and none where the prime minister has managed to hang on in the wake of the crisis.
In any normal times, this crisis should have led to her resignation, it won’t because we are not in normal times. Big business, the British establishment and the EU are all in despair at May’s government but they also fear the alternative of a left Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn. So the increasingly spectral Tory government – backed by the ghastly DUP – lurches on.
What should happen now? Labour is clearly planning a no-confidence vote around the time when the deal comes back to parliament. The problem is leaving this decision too long and allowing her (or a possible Tory successor) to regain the initiative.
There is again much talk of a leadership challenge and it may well be initiated this week or next. The fact it hasn’t happened till now reflects the divisions within the Tory party about an alternative, not any enthusiasm for May. However, a potential new leader would face exactly the same impasse and chaos.
There are, it seems to me, no successful options for mainstream politics out of this impasse. In the short term, there are increasing demands for a second referendum. The motor for this is the so-called People’s Vote campaign – whose backers and supporters are for the most part very far from caring about the ordinary people they claim to champion. Indeed, they refuse to acknowledge that the 2016 vote had any legitimacy. The campaign employs 60 people in its Westminster office and has tripled its spending in recent months. It has no shortage of money and is backed by some of the wealthiest people who see some kind of second referendum as the only solution.
But such a referendum wouldn’t change anything, even if it could get through Parliament, which is still a big if. And while we don’t need to necessarily speculate over whether it would lead to riots among Leave voters, it certainly would cause widespread anger and even further distrust, if possible, for politicians. The pressure from within Labour for this second referendum is, however, intense, and is also very dangerous. It can lead to a greater bitterness in Leave areas which, even if it doesn’t lose Labour many seats, can lead to an alienation from Labour which will damage Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership.
It is also far less democratic than a general election, which is the only democratic outcome that can begin to deal with the crisis. This is firstly because a Labour or Labour-led government would have a different set of priorities from the Tories, both in terms of trade union and workers’ rights, environmental protection, and good jobs, but also in terms of supporting migrants’ rights and not being in hock to the Ulster Unionists and their backers in the Tory party.
The election has to be about a range of issues, not just Brexit. While the media commentators were horrified that Corbyn last week devoted his questions at PMQs to Universal Credit, the truth is he was right - this has more direct impact on the everyday lives of people than the debates about the Brexit deal. Every week, another damning report about the state of Tory Britain is in the news, but is largely ignored by politicians and media. Last week, we heard that 8 schools send more pupils to Oxbridge than the other 3000 put together. This week, we hear that Crossrail is delayed another year, and has received yet another bailout, and also that the outsourcing company Interserve, which has many public sector provision contracts, is in financial trouble. There is talk about a new recession, as spending falls.
Britain is crying out for a change of government, and one of the great, largely unremarked, scandals of recent months has been the sabotage of this demand by Labour MPs and prominent figures who subjugate all of these issues to a Brexit vote. May’s cheap jibe at Corbyn in Parliament yesterday about business fearing a Labour government (as if they are happy these days with a Tory one!) is echoed by some MPs on his own side.
Any resolution to the Brexit crisis which ends up benefiting working people will of necessity entail a level of popular protest on the streets, an increase in industrial action and a very hard fight to secure a Labour victory. All of this will require a turn to class politics and organisation.
The days, weeks and months ahead are going to see this crisis playing out at different levels. There will be many twists and turns in how it plays out, and the stakes will be increasingly high for working people. The left has a duty to raise these class politics and to do everything they can to ensure they are successful in their outcomes, not subordinated to an argument within mainstream politics which cannot deal with these questions.
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
- 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
- Boris Johnson should worry about his own families: not ours - election briefing 5 December