Our side needs to stand firm in the face of Theresa May’s inversion of strong and stable, argues Lindsey German
So it looks like this could be the end for Theresa May. It was hard to imagine her sinking further into the mire of Brexit - but this week she managed it. Whereas when I wrote last week it looked possible that she would garner enough votes for her deal to go through, thus avoiding a no-deal Brexit or any delay to leaving the EU. Instead, she ended the week totally humiliated in Westminster and Brussels. Now the talk is that she will be forced out as prime minister, and she is beleaguered from all sides of her own party. The various leaks about forcing her out, and the no-deal delegation to Chequers on Sunday including Johnson and Rees-Mogg, are more like something from one of Shakespeare’s history plays where warring aristocrats plot against each other than the supposedly stable party of the British ruling class.
The turning point was her speech on Wednesday from Downing Street where she essentially absolved herself of all blame for the Brexit fiasco while at the same time blaming MPs for not delivering her deal. The speech managed both to say nothing but also to insult practically everyone. Since then, her own MPs have been in turmoil, with even the whips threatening to resign, and with one former cabinet minister telling the I newspaper that ‘no one is ready to defend her’.
Consequently, she is under attack from across her party but has also alienated those like some Labour MPs who wanted to vote for her deal but find her intransigent position too difficult to accept.
She has fared no better with the EU 27 leaders who have refused to cooperate with her plans. She has been denied the extension till June that she requested and has been given a much shorter time - till May if she manages to get her deal through Parliament or only till 12 April if she does not. She is in hock to the EU leadership which is viciously neoliberal and which, led by French president Emmanuel Macron, is not going to lift a finger to help May or anyone else.
There is little that can save her now. One thing would be if she could save her deal and get it through the Commons, but that looks increasingly unlikely - at least without the quid pro quo that she would resign anyway. The other would be if she was rescued by politicians who should know better - step forward Tom Watson, Labour deputy leader who has said that he will back her deal if she then puts it to a public vote where the choices are her deal or remain. This would be a lifeline to May and delay the prospect of a general election - no doubt a totally deliberate calculation on Watson’s part.
The danger here is that the politicians who have brought us this mess now want to continue to with more of the same, many of them arguing for some sort of second vote, others talking about continuing in the single market or adopting the Norway option, which effectively means staying in the EU in all but name. There are also rumblings about a national government to deal with the crisis and certainly, there are plenty of right-wing Labour MPs who will join with the Tories if the government collapses still further.
None of this would solve the problem of the growing anger at the failure to reach a settlement which carries out the result of the referendum. I spoke at a meeting in Bristol last week where one guy spoke of the very deep anger among working-class people he knew about the politicians, and how they felt this was a betrayal of democracy. Many of us have had the same anecdotal experience and there is a desperate need for the left to recognise this sentiment and relate to it.
There is also the danger of cross-class collaboration in the form of dealing with a national emergency. This is the thrust behind the ludicrous joint statement between the TUC and the main employers’ organisation the CBI, which is so far the prime example of this. But while the CBI may prattle about jobs, it cares not at all about workers’ rights and wants EU membership because it wants the continued smooth running of capital across the continent. The TUC should be fighting for its members, not getting into cosy chats with the people attacking them.
And what is the national emergency? It is an emergency of the British ruling class which is caught over Brexit, but it is not an emergency for the rest of us. Indeed, the Brexit debate is not helping with an honest accounting over a range of issues which face working people in Britain. The sense that people are fed up with talking about Brexit is at least in part because so many major issues are affecting their lives and are not being dealt with.
The talk of a general election is growing. I think it will be very hard for the Tories to avoid one this year, so great is their crisis. As I have always said, it is the scale of the crisis rather than the bare parliamentary arithmetic which will determine such an outcome.
If and when that happens we will have a huge job on our hands fighting for a left government led by Jeremy Corbyn and we can see already - with Watson and the ill-fated Independent group - that there will be desperate opposition to him. This is going to come down to a fight for politics which benefit working class people and organisation, rather than dragooning them behind one or other wing of the ruling class.
Marching to the wrong tune
Lots of people marched for a People’s Vote in London on Saturday. What was the march about? The demand was for a second referendum, ignoring or disdaining the actual people’s vote back in 2016. But already that demand seems to have been superseded by the call to revoke Article 50 and so remain in the EU, the demand of a petition which has an astonishing 5m plus signatures. The PV campaign is the continuity Remain campaign from 2016 and its assumption is that a rerun would allow Remain to win. So it’s about reversing the democratic decision, then.
There were no doubt many good people on the march, including people I would regard as friends and comrades. However, I think they made a big mistake in doing so. This was not a march of the left but of the establishment. It was addressed by Lord Heseltine (who was most responsible for destroying the coal industry, without which Brexit probably never would have won anyway); assorted Tory politicians who have voted for austerity and cuts (ditto); supported by David Miliband, Tony Blair and Alastair Campbell (warmongers all); and praised by Richard Branson and Bob Geldof. The march also had an anti-Corbyn element, epitomised by the keynote speech by deputy Tom Watson, whose aim in life is to destroy Corbyn.
These are people who sit there and preside over austerity, a housing crisis, growing inequality, disastrous wars and the rest of the neoliberal agenda - but who are prepared to get on the streets over a deal which they think will weaken British capitalism.
No self-respecting socialist should march to these people’s tune. Their aim is to use decent sentiments to back a neoliberal agenda. It is part of a defeated ruling class strategy to regain the initiative. There are some on the left who felt they had to be on the march, because they believe so strongly that they want to reverse the decision; others who thought that it deserved respect because it was big. But there can be big marches with many good people on them which are not progressive - the Countryside Alliance in 2002 was one such example.
There was, it is true, a Left bloc on the march - but its slogans left something to be desired (nothing on Islamophobia, nothing on Fortress Europe) and the truth is that no one takes that section of the march as representative of anything. Indeed most people probably didn’t even notice it. It might make socialists feel better but the tail is not wagging the dog here.
A tale of two marches
The march organisers decreed in advance that a million would turn up and sure enough they did.
I doubt myself that it was a million, but it was hundreds of thousands. It seems to me that this figure was trumpeted certainly by those who orchestrated the Iraq war in order to lay the ghost of the massive protest against the war which still has its reverberations in British politics. And how like the arch spin-doctor Alastair Campbell to set the 1 million figure and repeat it often enough so that many believed it.
The march was very big but was certainly smaller than the Iraq war march in February 2003, whatever Campbell says. Two opinion polls in 2003 found that the figures then were closer to 2 million. ICM for the Guardian said that ‘at least one person from 1.25 million households in Britain went on Saturday’s anti-war march in London’. Given that many households had more than one person on the march, it is safe to put the figure close to 2 million. In addition, YouGov for the Telegraph found that 4% of people claimed to have marched on 15 February - slightly over 2 million.
What were the other differences between the two? We had few establishment backers, one Lib Dem speaker (who was so nervous being on the march that he kept well away from the front banner); no Tory speakers; no expensive advertising on the London tube or London papers or rich donors paying for coaches; a much more working class and multicultural composition, with many trade union banners and huge numbers of ethnic minorities; a movement built from the grassroots. In addition, we were marching against the ruling class and the elite, whereas Saturday’s march was welcomed and supported by many of them.
Very different altogether then.
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
- This fight will take everything we’ve got – weekly briefing
- In the long run, the class struggle is king - weekly briefing
- The throne behind the power – weekly briefing
- Barbara Ehrenreich: a class act - obituary
- Ten reasons to prepare for a class war autumn – weekly briefing
- The stakes are at their highest for 40 years – weekly briefing
- Starmer backs the wrong side again…and again