Phony brinksmanship cannot conceal a party hopelessly out of step with the class it strives to represent, argues Lindsey German
Just when all the commentators were saying Theresa May had run out of road, she suddenly announced another delay to a parliamentary vote on her Brexit deal. Now instead of a ‘meaningful vote’ on 27 February, this Wednesday, she will hold one by 12 March – only two weeks before the date to leave the EU. The news has been greeted with horror by representatives of big business across Britain. The Institute of Directors tweeted that ‘businesses have lost all faith in the political process’, while British Chambers of Commerce said ‘unbelievable to businesses that political tactics still being put before economic considerations’.
It won’t just be them who feel this frustration. These businessmen and directors are happy to go for a deal which continues the neoliberal policies which are making working peoples’ lives so difficult. Nonetheless, you can understand their frustration. After all, they have always seen the Tory party as the representatives of their class. And now they have a Tory government acting like a bunch of drunken Young Conservatives at a hunt ball, willing to set fire to the whole building to get their way.
Theresa May just simply refuses to countenance any alternative and despite the most humiliating defeats, which would have led to resignation from any other prime minister, just carries on regardless. Her aim is to hold the Tory party together at all costs – or at least while she is prime minister.
Even that isn’t working too well, as seen by the defection of three Tory women MPs, and the public calls by three of her cabinet to delay article 50 beyond 29 March. But it is clear she is still fearful of antagonising her hardline Brexiteers.
Despite May’s stonewalling, it still seems to me that there won’t be a no-deal Brexit. Instead, this prevarication is leading to signs that parliament is moving towards a position where they vote for May’s deal but then have a 'People’s Vote' which will choose between that option and remain. This is the favoured outcome of many MPs, and would be welcomed by much of the media and the establishment. The directors would breathe a sigh of relief. So might many members of the public – I saw that one poll showed 75% of people polled wanted this agony to end, regardless of how it ends!
What’s wrong with that, some might say? Well, quite a lot. In the Through the Looking Glass world which is British politics, the received wisdom is almost that the Remain side won the referendum, and that leaving is a denial of democracy. But of course Leave won, and it is those who want to vote again who are denying democracy. I have rehearsed many times my objections to this course, not least that it will fuel the far right and will force Leave supporters to back May’s deal, even though clearly many do not. For Labour to back it would be a betrayal of many of its members.
Meanwhile, the economy shows many signs of going into recession. The announcement that Honda is closing its factory in Swindon is a blow to the workers there, and there has to be a change in policy which leads to investment in new green jobs and ends austerity. That will only happen with a left Labour government – and the fight for that is becoming more intense.
This is about an attack on Corbyn – from inside and outside Labour
The splinter from Labour of 9 of its MPs is about a number of things. Firstly, it demonstrates the continued hatred of Corbyn by Labour’s right, and their refusal to accept his place as leader, despite two overwhelming votes for him and a much better than expected Labour vote in 2017. The repeated assertion that they don’t want Corbyn as prime minister forgets that this is not up to them but up to the members and the electorate.
Secondly, it is about a second referendum, and a refusal to accept the vote in 2016. Again the contempt for ordinary voters is clear for all to see.
Thirdly, it is about antisemitism, about which a great deal of highly misleading points have been made. One of the MPs, Luciana Berger, has suffered serious antisemitic abuse, for which she should receive solidarity and sympathy. But as far as I can see, most of it has not been from Labour party members but from those with far-right ideas. There is a problem of antisemitism within Labour, to be sure. But according to its General Secretary, this is now being dealt with. The number of complaints to Labour includes many about people who are not members of the party.
Yet Labour’s problem on this – which is no greater than any other party – has now been accepted as a major political question. It is routinely denounced as institutionally antisemitic, which it is not, and is linked to bullying and misogyny in many narratives.
These attacks are a travesty of the truth, but they are repeated so endlessly that many will believe them. Jeremy Corbyn himself has been the subject of much bullying by MPs, as when they walked out of his shadow cabinet in 2016 and demanded his resignation. These are the same MPs, presumably, who Tom Watson wants to be brought back into the shadow cabinet.
It is clear from Watson’s response to The Independent Group, leaving was aimed at attacking Corbyn further, and his plan to set up a parliamentary group around right-wing Labour ideas is a further sign of this. Labour needs to confront Watson in his High Noon moment. The aim here is to use the threat of further defections to change policies away from the left. It is the latest attempt at a coup against Corbyn, and it cannot be conciliated. In this respect, Corbyn’s spirited rally in Broxtowe on Saturday was the right response, whereas John McDonnell’s concessions were not.
This is another crisis for Labour and can be resisted only by mass grassroots mobilising, as has been done previously. And Labour should make it clear that it will not compromise on the politics and policies that are so widely supported by the membership, unlike the disastrous extreme centre policies which the majority of MPs espouse.
What of those who have left? Eight Labour MPs have joined with three Tories. They have no policies but already those among them have defended austerity, rejected raising levels of tax for the rich and ruled out nationalisation. So we can be fairly confident that this party – if it flies, which is in my view still unlikely – will be a Lib Dems mark 2. While it claims to be something new, it is a desperate throwback to a centre which is narrowing as the result of political polarisation.
The obvious way to test support for these MPs would be through by-elections - they should resign their seats and stand on their politics, which are not what they were elected on. They refuse, calling elections a ‘diversion’. Their contempt for their voters is palpable. They will also vote against a no-confidence in May, keeping the Tories in power.
That’s because the real enemy for them is the left, symbolised by Corbyn. They will work within and without Labour to defeat him. Our side needs to stand up to them
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