We must demand a general election to resolve this crisis, argues Chris Nineham
British politics is paralysed. Parliament has tried to take back power from a failed government, but it itself appears unable to resolve the situation. In response, sometimes it feels like the establishment and the media have forgotten that we live in a parliamentary democracy at all. Despite the fact that it is the normal method of selecting a new government when the incumbent is unable to rule, the general election option is barely mentioned. On the few occasions that it comes up, presenters and pundits get back to discussing a referendum as fast as possible.
To explain this and to chart a way forward, we have to understand how we got here, something most mainstream commentary is failing to do.
There are two central problems facing the British establishment. The first is that the main party of British capitalism has a different view of the EU to that of its business backers. The City of London and most British exporters want to stay in Europe while most Tory party members are virulently anti-European. Colonial nostalgia and little England parochialism have been the basis of Tory ideology for decades. Now they have become a problem. They no longer really fit with the ruling class agenda of globalisation. Politics has become partly disconnected from the main economic interests in society.
The second problem for our rulers is the massive discontent that has been created by that globalising project. Whatever the precise content, the Brexit vote was undoubtedly a rebellion against the prevailing economic and political order. Corbynism too is obviously a product of widespread discontent with neoliberalism. May wildly underestimated the level of support for real change when she called last year’s election, and it left her in a minority government in hoc to the DUP, the most reactionary parliamentary party in Britain.
Corbynism, so far at least, has blocked off another possible escape route for the establishment; handing the whole mess over to Labour to sort out. Corbyn and his support base are too radical for them to risk Labour for now.
There is a third problem. The big European powers were never likely to be very sympathetic to a major economy pulling out of the EU. But they are particularly intransigent now because of their own crisis. In country after country, there is a growing opposition of different kinds to the neoliberal EU project. In France, for example, Frexit signs are more and more common amongst the Yellow Vest demonstrators as they protest against unfair taxes, inequality and cuts to services. In Italy, there is huge opposition to EU demands for budget cuts. The fear is flexibility on Brexit would only fan the flames of rebellion.
The preferred solution in the mainstream is more and more clearly becoming a second referendum. This isn't because they think a referendum would be more democratic or even that it has a better chance of resolving the situation sensibly. Far from it. First of all, it is because a referendum is the best chance of getting us back into the European Union which is what they want most. Second, it is a way of dealing with the situation which doesn't raise the possibility of Jeremy Corbyn becoming PM which is what they want least.
A referendum is unlikely to resolve the situation because according to all the polls, the country is still divided pretty much down the middle. At a technical level, it is hard to see how an agreement could be reached in parliament about the wording of a ballot anyway. More importantly, it would (rightly) be perceived by many people as an attempt to overturn a decision the elites didn't like and so cause massive resentment. As things stand there wouldn't be an option on the ballot paper that would address the widespread feelings of anger against inequality and of powerlessness that largely drove the Brexit vote in the first place. If a way could be found of organising a referendum it would have a profoundly divisive and destructive impact on politics, not least because it would very likely drive a good deal of anti-Brexit sentiment into the hands of the far right.
Of course, calling a general election wouldn’t solve the problem in itself. It is a central part of the radical socialist tradition to underline the limitations of parliament as a mechanism for change. But with a Corbyn-led Labour party at least it would offer the chance of refocusing politics onto the pressing social problems that are at the top of most people’s list of concerns: homelessness, the breakdown of services, food poverty and so on. It could also offer the chance of a Brexit deal that will make it easier not harder to address them.
These two things are connected. To win an election, the Labour leadership needs to up the profile of its campaign for radical change, but it also needs to make it clear that it will not be pressured into calls for a second referendum or getting nearer to a remain position. If it does either of those things it will be turning its back on the majority who voted leave, concentrated as they are in Labour constituencies, making an election victory unlikely and a resolution to the problem impossible. The key is to get back to its People’s Brexit position, making clear that it will fight for a Brexit that allows for government intervention in the economy, regulation of business behaviour and the possibility of capital controls. The People’s Brexit approach went down well in the general election and has a real chance of uniting everyone who wants to see an outcome to this mess that benefits working people.
Some say its impossible to force a general election under the parliamentary procedures brought in by David Cameron. This is to underestimate the volatility of the situation. The Tory rebels’ failure to dislodge May by an internal no confidence vote actually makes the possibility of her falling by other means more likely. Anyway, in crisis situations, change is no longer regulated by constitutional niceties or simply what happens in parliament. When official politics is gridlocked and unresponsive, wider forces can, in fact, must come into play.
We have got to the point now where the political system is failing us and where the establishment is turning its back on the limited democracy on offer in parliament. Across the channel, the Yellow Vest protestors have shown what ordinary people can achieve when they are angry and organised. We should welcome the People’s Assembly’s call for a demonstration on 12 January calling for an end to broken Britain and for a general election. It is time that we, like the French, stopped being spectators and started taking matters into our own hands.
Chris Nineham is a founder member of Stop the War and Counterfire, speaking regularly around the country on behalf of both. He is author of The People Versus Tony Blair and Capitalism and Class Consciousness: the ideas of Georg Lukacs.
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