Extra-parliamentary activity is still the key to shifting a Westminster logjam further solidified by the EU elections, argues Lindsey German
What an incredible and unwelcome result in the EU elections here in Britain. The Brexit party from a standing start got one third of the total vote. The Lib Dems beat Labour into third place with the slogan Bollocks to Brexit. Labour’s vote got eaten from both sides leaving its share even lower than during Gordon Brown's government in 2009 - certainly worse than I expected.
There were some very good aspects to the election. The fascist ‘Tommy Robinson’ received a humiliating vote, and his friends in UKIP did little better. Change UK - the supposed new force in British politics and a miserable amalgam of right wing Labour and liberal Tories - were trounced without a single seat.
Most importantly, this election surely reflects an existential crisis in the Tory party, its vote at an historic low, and not just its voters but its activists and even councillors voting and campaigning for Farage's party. There is a meltdown and civil war in the Tory party which will get worse at least during the upcoming leadership contest.
So where does this leave the state of British politics?
First the Tories. It is reasonable to ask whether this is the end for them, the death throes of the historic party of the British ruling class and the oldest political party in the world. Their divisions over Europe, their ageing membership and voter base all reflect much deeper issues to do with Britain’s role globally and its long term decline.
The fact that the favourite to succeed the unlamented Theresa May is Boris Johnson tells you about the parlous state of the party. Many Tories may be whistling about his prospects to become prime minister but any rational approach would see him as a disaster. Boris is a liar, cheat and demagogue, who is prepared to use racism to build support and is all about Boris. He is also less popular than he used to be. I grew up in his constituency in west London and I would be surprised if he isn't losing support given the overall unpopularity of the Tories. The Brexit party came top here so will stand in the general election.
The fact that Johnson will be a deeply troubling prime minister is also concentrating the minds of Tories and the establishment more widely, which is why Michael Gove is emerging as the Stop Johnson candidate. It’s anyone’s guess whether he or another will succeed.
In any case, the Tories have no real legitimacy to continue in government. Their votes are dwindling, the new leader will be selected by a tiny and unrepresentative group of people and it is completely constitutionally unacceptable to continue with a minority government without going to the country.
A general election is therefore most likely by the end of the year. The issue will become particularly acute if Johnson tries to go for no deal Brexit by 31 October.
What of Labour? The election results are very bad for Labour as well, although still in a different league from the Tories.
The swing to the Lib Dems and Greens from remain supporters took one set of votes, and the swing to Brexit took another.
This is the result of trying to put a position which unites both sides of the referendum divide at a time when both sides are becoming more polarised. Jeremy Corbyn's original position of a People's Brexit had more chance of working. It was an approach that accepted the referendum result but committed Labour to a progressive Brexit. Since Labour is so split on Europe I think the shift was understandable, but it does not reflect the political reality. Now there is huge clamour for a second referendum which already Diane Abbott and John McDonnell are moving towards.
I appreciate that these elections are being used to confirm what everyone thought before they took place, but I honestly can’t see on the figures produced how it would be anything but hugely divisive and achieving the same outcome or a very narrow one the other way. It would also have a terrible effect on Labour’s chances in areas such as Yorkshire, the North East and South Wales.
The arithmetic is fairly clear - politics less so. The centre is regrouping itself around this issue and will keep pushing for a referendum. The result allows the likes of Tom Watson and Alastair Campbell to posture and try to challenge the existing leadership. This may entail a leadership challenge or it may at present be about trapping Jeremy Corbyn into such a position which he has so far correctly resisted, and tying his hands to make him less effective.
The referendum has had a destructive effect on British politics and that is going to continue. Farage is back, having been sidelined by the original result. The Lib Dems have made a major recovery after their austerity and tuition fees policies left them discredited. I feel nothing but contempt for those on the left who voted for them in these circumstances. It has been a very damaging process for Labour. The Lib Dems will hang on to some of these votes and hope to do a deal with right wing Labour or Tories to form a future coalition.
The Greens are more left and principled but have made remain the major issue and have spent too much of their time attacking Corbyn.
The impasse at the top of politics can only be resolved elsewhere. That requires a focus on wider politics as well as trying to address the EU question. The major class divisions which cut across leave/remain, the issues facing people over their jobs, housing, education, are the ones on which people can find some unity. The left also needs to ask itself some questions: can the Corbyn project succeed in winning an election and making the first steps towards changing British government policies? How can Labour’s right be defeated? How can the left relate especially to working class people in the old industrial areas?
There needs to be widespread debate about this and about how we defeat Farage and the wider right.
There also needs to be a stepping up of activity. The trade unions and Labour should mobilise to demand a general election now. And the Trump mobilisations next week must be mass protests against him but also about this bankrupt Tory government.
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
- The nasty parties unite to stop Corbyn - election briefing 12 November 2019
- The world turned upside down - election briefing 11 November
- Why have the Greens joined an anti-Labour alliance? - election briefing 8 November
- The mask keeps slipping - election briefing 7 November
- Rees-Mogg: the ugly face of class privilege - daily election briefing 6 November
- The battle that will shape a generation – weekly briefing
- Trump’s coming to London during the election