Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour must reorientate on class politics to create a bulwark against the right and the far right, argues Lindsey German
So after more than three years of constant abuse from the Tories and their loyal attack dogs in the press, Jeremy Corbyn suddenly became someone that, in the words of one Tory minister, ‘we can do business with’. You can only hope not, in the interests of all of us. Talks with Theresa are for one purpose only, to try to dig her out of the hole entirely of her own making, as Britain heads towards a no deal Brexit in five days' time, or alternatively a longer extension to article 50 which is by no means certain, and which would involve an election to the EU parliament in May.
Corbyn had little choice but to enter into the talks given his situation inside the Labour party, where there is increasing pressure for a second referendum and Tom Watson is skulking in the wings waiting for his cue as Iago, and given the furore on previous occasions when Corbyn has refused to discuss with Theresa May. But it is clear that all the Tories are offering is a pretence that really Labour hasn’t understood their deal and that it is pretty close to a customs union which Labour wants. Labour is therefore rightly saying the talks are going nowhere. Time to call a halt and put forward a direct appeal for a general election on the basis of a People’s Brexit.
Even these feeble talks have created apoplexy from Tory Brexiteers, furious that they go some little way to treating Corbyn as a serious political figure, so neutralising some of the madder caricatures about him as a terrorist lover, Marxist, antisemite that have become de rigeur for the media. Of course, the truth is that Corbyn is none of these things, and his programme for Labour is a fairly standard left reform programme which would have looked unexceptionable in the 1970s, rather than a fundamental threat to the ‘British way of life’ that it is now portrayed.
Indeed, Labour has already compromised too much over Brexit, satisfied with a customs union which in reality would maintain very close connections with the EU, and making increasingly unacceptable noises about limiting immigration (on this see Emily Thornberry last week). Any Brexit which Labour should support has to be diametrically opposed to May’s plan, and must above all allow a future Labour government to protect and extend existing workers’ rights, and take control of privatised industry on a wide scale. There is no clear signal on this from Labour. Unfortunately, the clearest signal is that the clamour for a People’s Vote or second referendum is getting louder in the PLP and shadow cabinet. Thornberry and lead negotiator Keir Starmer both vociferously back it, and now 80 Labour MPs have written to Corbyn backing one.
I find it very hard to understand the myopic thinking on this. It seems to me that such a move would create huge problems for Labour electorally and would also herald the end of Corbyn and a left leadership. The news from Newport should sound a warning over Brexit. The by-election in Newport West, caused by the death of the longstanding Labour left MP Paul Flynn, returned another Labour member it is true. But Ruth Jones held onto the seat with a reduced majority, UKIP increased its vote to come third, and all parties reported an angry and discontented mood among electors, no doubt over a range of issues but crystallised by the debate on Brexit. Turnout was not much more than half of what it was in 2017, there was a small swing to the Tories, which really shouldn’t be happening at present, and the results overall suggest a disillusionment with politics and parliament which is totally understandable but which can head in a very negative direction.
The Telegraph headline on Saturday highlighted the idea of Brexit ‘traitors’. UKIP trebled its vote, and its actual name on the ballot paper in Newport was ‘UKIP Make Brexit Happen’. It’s not hard to see that the sense among leave voters that the pro-Remain parliament is frustrating and possibly overturning the referendum result. A second referendum would greatly reinforce that view, with consequences that would have long term implications.
An election to the European parliament in May, as now looks quite likely, would have one winner only – the right and far right. Farage and Batten would both do well with the Brexit means Brexit, don’t trust the main parties' line. Both main parties would do badly as far as I can see. Tory council candidates in next month’s local elections report frustration and anger and their party support plummeting. Labour would lose votes to leave parties. The outcome would not be good.
Labour can still break out of this morass, but only by appealing to clear anti-Tory and pro-working-class politics, and by campaigning for a general election on these lines. But this means not accepting the politics of the People’s Vote crowd who are seen quite rightly as trying to overturn the original referendum result.
Something rotten in the state...
Why is the film of soldiers in the Parachute regiment using a photo of Jeremy Corbyn for target practice not a bigger issue and why hasn’t it led to daily condemnations from politicians and media alike? This is at a time when one Labour MP has been murdered by the right, when a fascist has just been convicted of attempting to murder another Labour MP, when the Finsbury Park mosque attacker was avowedly attempting to take out Corbyn, when he was assaulted by a ‘Brexit supporter’ at the same mosque, and when generally there is great concern over attitudes to politicians and their safety.
Instead, apologies from the military and MOD have been half-hearted at best, and the general tone is that this is a ‘lark’ or example of ‘high jinks’ in the army. The head of the army quite rightly made a very angry statement condemning an alleged assault of one young woman by six soldiers which went on YouTube – but no such similar statement has been made over Corbyn.
We have to assume several things. One, this was partly about Bloody Sunday, the killings perpetrated by the paras in 1972, which Corbyn has always condemned and for which it was recently announced that one (!) soldier is being prosecuted. The second is that there is a significant amount of sympathy and organising within the army for far-right views – witness recent court cases involving soldiers and the greeting young recruits gave recently to fascist Tommy Robinson. The third is that those who run the army must know at least some of this and prefer to turn a blind eye to it. In the 1970s serious military figures including the head of the SAS, David Stirling, talked openly about a military coup in Britain. We shouldn’t assume this has all gone away.
Libya: chaos of the West’s own making
Back in 2011, I, along with my organisation the Stop the War Coalition, opposed the bombing of Libya – then the latest extension of the war on terror – and the regime change which followed. The bombing was orchestrated and led by the British, French and Italian governments, backed by the UN and of course the US, but also agreed to by Russia and China. There was very little support for our position. Only a handful of MPs voted against it, many on the left actually supported the bombing because they wanted the overthrow the Libyan leader, Gadhafi, and thought it a humanitarian intervention.
How wrong they were. The ensuing near-decade has seen Libya wracked by civil war, and now the UN-backed government, which has no legitimacy in much of Libya, faces overthrow by Haftar, a military figure from Benghazi. US troops have withdrawn, always a sign that the end is coming. The British and their allies are trying to blame the chaos on Gadhafi but he was overthrown and killed 8 years ago. This is a war of the West's own making. And we must resist their repeated appeals to the best humanitarian instincts of people to make them back future wars.
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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