Tory collapse is only half the story; Corbyn’s Labour needs to sharply recalibrate around anti-austerity and class politics, argues Lindsey German
So May is going at last – to be replaced by Boris Johnson, certainly if the Tory party membership have their way. In the meantime, huge swathes of Tories will be voting for Farage’s Brexit party in the European elections, which are still heading towards a catastrophe for the Tories. It’s incredible that Johnson can be seen as a future prime minister, given his cluelessness as foreign secretary. But upper-class bombast can carry you a long way and he has that in spades. Johnson appeals to the Tories in the same way that Farage does – right wing politics, with more than a dash of racism always near the surface, but with an extrovert, man of the people persona which allows these extremely rich public school educated men to pose as scourges of the elite.
After the EU referendum in 2016, Farage looked finished – there was no place for UKIP once the voters had decided on Leave – and Boris was forced to withdraw from a leadership contest with May, allowing her a coronation. That they are now in strong positions – Farage’s Brexit party will top the poll on Thursday, and unless Johnson can be kept off the ballot paper he will become leader – speaks volumes of the government’s slow-motion failure to deliver Brexit, and the bitterness which this has created.
If Johnson becomes leader he will try to vie with Farage to win back those Tories who have flocked to support him, and to win a forthcoming general election on a tub-thumping and divisive platform. However, the interesting feature of the Brexit party in this election is that Farage is focussing on the sense of betrayal over Brexit, rather than anything else. At present Farage is not playing the race card, just the democracy card. An interesting post on Facebook which described Farage’s rally in the traditional mining and steel town of Merthyr Tydfil in south Wales, reported firstly that it was lower in size than perhaps expected, and that none of the speakers said anything that could be construed as racist.
This doesn’t mean of course that they are not using racism at all, or certainly that they will not use racism in the future, but it does mean that Farage understands he can only win the level of support he has by channelling the huge amount of anger about the failure to carry out the decision of the referendum. To do so he is prepared to downplay his racism, and he has some cover from erstwhile lefts who now support the Brexit party, but we can be sure that a campaign where he and Johnson are in competition (and with a myriad of fascist and extreme right parties spewing their filth) will have racism and scapegoating at their centre.
There has to be a strong left counter to this. It isn’t going to come from the Lib Dems who still defend their appalling record in coalition with the Tories. The only party which can defeat Farage in these elections and the Tories in the general election which will surely come in the autumn is Labour. The end of the talks between May and Corbyn finally came on Friday and not a moment too soon. There was nothing to gain for Labour except damage to its reputation, and ending the talks won’t do Labour any harm in the polls. While the big story in these elections is the rise of the Brexit Party, Labour looking like a clear second (and with I would guess 20% plus of the vote) will be quite an achievement. It is clear that Labour’s position is losing it votes in both directions, probably more damagingly to the Brexit party. It seems to me that the Guardian and the Lib Dems are trying to scupper that lead, hoping that the latter will move into second place, but that seems highly unlikely. Keir Starmer and Tom Watson seem to be encouraging Leave voters to switch, given their constant harping over a second referendum.
We should remember that while the Tories are in meltdown, Labour isn’t. However, Labour needs to be clearer and bolder. The aim of bringing together both sides is a good one, but it needs to be done on the basis of class politics which leads with the attack on austerity and Tory values, and which demand a general election rather than another Tory leadership stitch-up. Jeremy Corbyn must put himself at the head of this and not get bogged down into which legislation, will there be a second referendum, would Labour support it? None of this comes across clearly, and just traps Labour in the establishment arguments which are fixated with Brexit and Westminster politics. Labour needs to be back out on the streets in opposing Trump’s visit next month, and arguing against the racist policies which fuel the right.
That needs to start now. But just a word to those voting tactically on Thursday. The only tactical vote is for Labour, because they are the only people who can beat Farage, and the higher Labour’s vote the stronger its left leadership will be. The alternative is strong Lib Dems – which will help Watson and Starmer. A no-brainer.
We only have to look at the vile rally held in Milan at the weekend by assorted fascists and the extreme right across Europe to see that there is still scope for even more racist scapegoating, all dressed up in the name of combatting the elite in Brussels. So it is delightful to see the fall of the right-wing Austrian government because its vice chancellor – from the far-right coalition party – has had to resign following a major corruption expose. Heinz-Christian Strache of the FPO was caught on video talking to someone he supposed was the niece of a Russian oligarch and promising major state construction contracts if said oligarch bought Austria’s biggest paper and turned its editorial line in favour of the FPO. That’s pretty unsubtle even by the standards of corruption scandals. These parties claim honesty and probity and this is one of their sources of appeal to disgruntled voters. I suspect there is a massive amount of this among far-right parties and it is one way we can attack them. Because the leaders of these parties want to use ordinary people to get them into power but have no intention of abjuring the privileges and perks which accompany that power.
A danger to all women everywhere
The decision of the US state of Alabama to pass a highly restrictive abortion law is also driven by the far right. The law restricts abortion to 8 weeks and so denies it to many women including victims of crimes such as rape and incest. Many women do not even know they are pregnant at 8 weeks, and it will hit hard the very young, the menopausal (whose periods are often irregular), those without decent healthcare and those who simply do not know they are pregnant.
This is a hugely serious attack, rolling back one of the major advances which came out of the women’s movement of the 1960s, and will mean that women have far less control over their bodies. In Britain, limited abortion became legal in 1967 and my generation, including a number of friends, were the first to benefit from it. It was challenged by right wing bigots from the beginning and one of my first major political campaigns was combatting James White’s bill to place restrictions on the law in 1975. The basic argument we put was that women had the right to choose whether to have a child. Those who didn’t want an abortion, fine, but for those who did they should be able to have a safe legal abortion when they needed it. For the vast majority, that is in the early stages of pregnancy, but the possibility of late abortions should not be ruled out, although they are fairly rare.
We also argued that rich women would always be able to get abortions (it was rumoured that Princess Margaret had one in a Swiss clinic in the 1950s), while it was the poor who would suffer. Interestingly we received huge support while leafletting from middle-aged women, who had experienced or had friends who had experienced illegal and dangerous abortions – estimated at 100,000 a year before 1967.
This change over abortion was part of a liberalising of women’s rights in the 60s and 70s. The right is threatened by strong independent women, who challenge their views of women as passive homemakers.
Donald Trump has endorsed restrictive abortion laws, wanting the right to abortion only in cases of rape, incest and danger to life. His influence is helping to fuel an international movement against abortion, which is being strongly resisted everywhere. It should be, because laws like Alabama’s are a danger to all women everywhere.
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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