The only way forward for our side is an emboldened working class and a radical set of politics stage centre in the mainstream, argues Lindsey German
The Brexit debate continues to dominate British politics as the year draws to a close – but there is absolutely no sign that there is any solution to the impasse. Latest news talks about Tory ministers secretly preparing for a second referendum; right winger Liam Fox is calling for a series of indicative votes in parliament until MPs agree on a way forward and the pariah Tony Blair senses an opening because of the chaos.
The scale of this mess is such that most people I speak to or engage with in any way on this question are far from happy, regardless of how they voted. There is a sense of foreboding and gloom, there is also the sense that many major issues in people’s lives – whether to do with work, education, health, housing – are being completely sidelined by the Brexit debate.
The inability to see any way out of the crisis is not just to do with the particular denseness and mediocrity of so many politicians but with the fact that the vote in the referendum was extremely unwelcome news to the vast majority of the British ruling class. The gamble by David Cameron failed and with it began this two and a half year process which has ground to a halt now that it is obvious that May cannot get her deal through parliament and that the EU27 are unwilling to alter the deal in any substantial way.
What is now patently obvious is that the solutions to the crisis are about one thing - how those who control the status quo manage to maintain the status quo with as little damage to their system and their privilege as possible. This is why there is talk of the second referendum, or MPs ‘taking control’ of the process. But it is also why there is talk of a government of national unity. These are highly unusual in Britain – there was one between 1940 and 1945 in conditions of wartime, where Churchill was effectively in coalition with Labour. There was also the National Government of 1931, where Labour’s leader joined forces with the Tories and Liberals during a period of intense economic crisis, which entailed major attacks on the working class. Labour split, only fully recovering when it won the 1945 landslide election under Attlee.
The fact that this step is being mooted suggests desperation, but it is also about shaping a particular sort of politics in Britain. The aim is to try to prevent a hard right wing Brexit which crashes out of the EU since this is clearly not the wish of the bulk of the ruling class. But it is also about preventing any radical or alternative politics coming through in the wake of Brexit, which might begin to present the sort of people’s Brexit which Labour highlighted in the election.
Such a national government would be acceptable to many Tories, to the Lib Dems and probably to other smaller parties. It would, however, be a major threat to a Jeremy Corbyn. Any national unity government would be one which subsumed class interests and which would continue with the anti-working class politics of the existing government. Those Labour MPs and supporters arguing for a second referendum see this as an alternative to a general election because they see it as a means of weakening Corbyn and the left, rather than moving the left forward.
Three things need to happen to prevent either of these and more generally the weakening of Labour’s message. The first is that it is imperative to call for a general election, which is the only way of breaking the impasse in politics and also in widening the agenda so that we talk about the economic and social issues which are making so many people’s lives a misery, and which are at least part of the reason why the vote happened in the first place.
Secondly, Labour needs to stop retreating on the question of the second referendum, which has in recent months only led to confusion, and to, if anything, a weakening in the opinion polls.
Finally, the movement needs to organise. For the debate on Brexit to be left to the confines of parliament and the mainstream media is a mistake. The working class, left and labour movement to be part of the fight for an election which puts forward radical left policies and which can see a Corbyn-led government in Downing St. That’s why the People’s Assembly demonstration for an election, due to take place on 12 January, is so important.
We know that we will enter the New Year with May’s crisis still in full swing. There has to be a left, class-based response to that crisis, and it has to be organised in the streets, within the unions and workplaces and among communities.
This last month, many of us have taken inspiration from the yellow vests movement in France. There have also been the huge protests in Hungary, Albania and Serbia, largely involving young people. They reflect high levels of discontent and of struggle, as people grapple with poverty, inequality and injustice. Everywhere, there is a revulsion at inequality and a tired but determined desire to overcome the wrongs that people are facing. These struggles often manifest themselves in ways which the left finds difficult to process, and they all come in ways which aren’t necessarily in line with our preplanned ideas. Men and women make history but not in conditions of their own choosing.
The real test for the left is to rise to the occasion, to understand that these protests are central to challenging the neoliberal order and that if the left doesn’t lead them then the right will step in to do so. The danger of this doesn’t need to be spelt out.
I think 2019 will be an immensely challenging year, but one with great rewards if we can only get it right. In that spirit, I would like to wish everyone a very happy and peaceful Xmas, and a new year where working class people begin to take back some of what is their due.
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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