The logjam shan’t be broken without a fight and the front line for our side is the urgent demand for a general election, argues Lindsey German
If you want proof that the Tories believe there are more important issues than Brexit you only have to look at the votes in parliament last week. Theresa May was heavily defeated as her deal with the EU was humiliatingly rejected. The scale of the defeat was a record-breaking 230 votes – far more than enough for any prime minister to resign and for the electorate to have a chance to choose a new government.
Yet the following day, every single one of the Tory MPs, plus the despicable DUP, who railed against her deal, voted against Labour’s motion of no confidence in her government, one after the other standing up to heap eulogies of praise on her.
There is no logic to this given that she has lost not just a minor vote but her whole flagship policy on Brexit - except for two things. One is fear of a general election, when Tories clearly fear that Labour will make further advances and that they will lose seats. The other is that the Tories and the DUP are perfectly content with May’s policies on practically everything else.
So the vile consequences of universal credit, the hostile environment for migrants, the abject failure of the privatised rail system, the collapse of a decent education system, the failure of the big contracting out to companies like Carillion, and much much more – they are all perfectly liveable with.
Indeed, they have confidence in May to continue her ruthless anti working class policies and to govern on behalf of the rich and powerful. Labour’s programme, and its demands that any Brexit cannot be an abandonment of workers’ rights, environmental standards and legal safeguards, is a real threat to them.
While the other opposition parties joined with Labour in the no confidence vote, their actions since show that at least some of them are equally frightened of Labour getting anywhere near Downing St. The Lib Dems reverted to propping up the Tories – a role that they carried out so well between 2010 and 2015 – by saying they would not join in future confidence votes unless Corbyn committed to a second referendum. They rushed to meet May straight after the confidence vote, while Corbyn refused unless she ruled out a no deal Brexit.
So too did the Scottish and Welsh nationalist parties and, disappointingly, the Green MP, Caroline Lucas. Corbyn was right to refuse, since the meetings were a waste of time and the other parties all concluded that she would not rule out no deal. Lucas should be a natural ally of Corbyn, but has thrown in her lot with parties to the right of him, so spends much of her time attacking him and Labour.
They are united in favour of a second referendum without pausing to consider who would benefit from such an outcome. It would provide a way out of a very deep hole for the Tories, who would blame it on everyone else while escaping the consequences of their actions. It would inevitably strengthen the far right, who would use the campaign to denounce politicians for betrayal. It would damage Labour’s left, while strengthening the Blairites, and it would damage Labour electorally. It’s hard to see why the SNP are so exercised about it, since another outcome if remain won would be to weaken the case for Scottish independence.
Those most keen on a second referendum also seem least keen on a General Election. Yet, despite the narrow loss of the vote of no confidence on Wednesday, there is increasing talk that it will happen. A recent article in the Financial Times put it like this:
‘It might be the only feasible way to get out of the Brexit morass without splitting the Conservative party: currently she is facing a choice between a hard Brexit favoured by Eurosceptics and a softer form of exit or no exit at all, favoured by pro-Europeans. Both sides have been issuing her ultimatums, threatening resignations or votes against the government if the prime minister fails to fall in line with their demands.’
May is bringing her deal back to parliament on 29 January, and if it is rejected again – as still looks the most likely outcome –then she may well see an election as the only way out of the impasse. The danger of a major split in the Tory party, the historic and usually very stable party of British capitalism, might lead her and her allies to find an election more palatable.
It is wearily familiar but nonetheless completely inaccurate to blame the fiasco around Brexit on Labour. Corbyn has acted to try to bring together both sides in his party and to argue that any relationship with the EU has to be measured in terms of how it affects the mass of working people. He should continue to resist the calls from his own side for a second referendum, which many pro-remain Labour supporters themselves reject. Only 71 Labour MPs signed a call for such a development last week, far fewer than had been trailed. Now is the time to stand firm, not give in to a well-funded but highly damaging campaign.
He is also right to reject no deal since this would be entirely on the terms of the Tory right, would be a victory for the likes of Liam Fox and Jacob Rees-Mogg and would be used to force worse wages and conditions on many workers.
Corbyn should also reject the narrative which is always May’s default position that the referendum was all about freedom of movement and migration. It was not, and it should not be an excuse to further restrict migration to this country.
As a number of us have been saying for some time now, a general election would go some way to breaking this logjam. Firstly, it would change the parliamentary arithmetic. Secondly, it would inevitably shift the terrain of what is debated, so it would not just be about Brexit. It would have the potential to unite different sides of the left who have been so (in my view unnecessarily) divided on this question, and begin to present an alternative to what we can all agree is a time of growing far right confidence, all too often boosted by the mainstream media – see the appalling treatment of Diane Abbott on BBC Question Time. The fight for a change of government is the best way to start that.
Time to end the Union
It seems to me that this is a great opportunity for those in Ireland, both north and south, who want a united Ireland, to step up the agitation for it. The DUP are a bigoted sect. There are corruption claims affecting Arlene Foster and Ian Paisley, who conveniently keeps forgetting expensive holidays paid for by someone else. They are the only reason that Theresa May is still in office. Northern Ireland’s Stormont hasn’t met for well over a year. The DUP are a poison in British politics.
Perhaps I’ve missed it, but I don’t hear a big clamour for a poll which could decide whether Northern Ireland remains part of the UK or joins, as it should do, with the rest of Ireland. This would solve the ‘backstop’ argument in one go, would be a blow to the Tories who depend on and use the union for their own political ends, and would right a historic injustice to the Irish people, who had partition forced on them nearly 100 years ago. I totally understand why Sinn Fein don’t take their seats in Westminster, but they should be raising and campaigning around this demand, as should the Irish left as a whole.
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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