It’s the strikes, protests and campaigns outside of Westminster that can pave the way for a Corbyn-led victory, argues Lindsey German
Boris Johnson’s expected stint as British prime minister began with a brutal cull of those within his own party who dared to oppose him. They have been replaced by a cabinet of horrors in the form of Priti Patel, Dominic Raab, Gavin Williamson, Jacob Rees-Mogg – all of whom will make their mark on government by introducing some of the most reactionary policies, even by Tory standards.
This internal Tory party coup – where less than 100,000 people from a particularly narrow and bigoted section of the population got to choose the new prime minister – in itself represents a total abrogation of parliamentary democracy, facilitated by the Fixed Term Parliament Act, which enables unpopular government to hang on for five years without having to account for itself. It is compounded by the other effective coup against democracy – the unholy alliance between the arch reactionary DUP and the minority Tory government, which has enabled it to maintain a parliamentary majority since 2017.
The idea that this government has any kind of mandate is laughable, or it would be if the consequences were not so serious. For this is a class war government which is not only dedicated to driving through Brexit by October 31, without a deal if necessary, but is also dedicated to continuing the tenets of Tory rule – attacks on working people, tax breaks for the rich, a ramping up of repressive policies around policing and migration, and the continuation of austerity in real terms.
It has been enabled because of the debacle over Brexit. Three years ago, Johnson was nowhere close to becoming prime minister. What has changed is May’s inability to deliver Brexit plus the increasingly strident calls for a second referendum. The pressure within Labour to move towards a Remain position and now to call for a 'people’s vote' has allowed the right wing Leave campaigners to take the political advantage within the Tory party and Johnson and his allies have been ruthless in doing so.
There is no alternative but to see this for what it is – an onslaught on the left and working people which must be resisted. And that means stepping up several gears both in terms of electoral politics and in terms of agitation against a government which will fight us to maintain its control.
First, the electoral politics. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has been on the defensive for months now, mired in controversy over antisemitism and Brexit. There have been repeated attempts to use these issues above all others not just by the right, but by Corbyn’s many enemies in the PLP in order to force him out. Labour should put forward policies which build on those which were successful in 2017, and which challenge the power of private capital in housing, industries like rail and the utilities, education and health. It should also find a way of generalising the million and one discontents which one hears in conversations up and down the country – from the state of the GP service, which is little talked about as part of the NHS crisis, to the environmental crisis, to student funding, to privatisation of parks and libraries, to the raising of the pension age, especially for women.
Dealing with all these questions and many more requires a huge rebalancing of wealth and power, and will be bitterly resisted by those who hold it at the moment. But this isn’t just about pouring billions into public services and other areas desperately starved of cash, it is about democratic involvement of millions of people in bringing that change about and therefore having some stake in it.
It also means refusing to get bogged down in the whole Brexit debate for which there are no easy answers. Much damage has already been done on the left by those who prioritise a second referendum above all else. Those who back the 'people’s vote' position on the left are convinced that Labour needs to triangulate to Remain in order to recapture votes lost to Lib Dems and Greens, rather than continue to try to support a soft form of Brexit. They claim that anyway, many Leave voters from 2016 have changed their minds. They discount the most recent evidence to the contrary in the EU elections where the Brexit party came top with a very simple message.
That message is now being taken up by Johnson, no doubt in close consultation with Farage. The cabinet expects a no deal Brexit followed by a general election. The hope is that such a development will accord him a victory to carry out the biggest attack on working people since Thatcher.
There should be overwhelming opposition to this electorally, but as we have seen in recent months electoral politics is highly fragmented and there is absolutely no certainty of outcome in any election. Personally, I think that Labour would do much better than its polling suggests in the circumstances of a general election, when parties have to fight on a range of issues. It would also appear that the election when it comes – and everyone now thinks it won’t be far away – will be much more of a two-horse race than appeared a couple of months ago.
In these circumstances, Labour really does not want to get saddled with the epithet of Remain party which Johnson is trying to force on it.
Our optimism and theirs
The second and more important strand to all this is what we as a collective left do. It is easy to forget when you focus on parliamentary politics, but there is a large and vibrant left in Britain when you include not just the far left – which continues to be fragmented but can and does unite around specifics such as the Trump demos – but also the Corbyn left in Labour, and the very large number of campaigns from anti-fracking to stopping library closures to campaigning over migrants and refugees, which take place up and down the country.
There are also isolated but very important strikes taking place or planned, from civil servants to airport workers, which are themselves major achievements given the draconian anti-union laws which Britain has.
Strengthening the left and building solidarity across the movement are central to stopping the right, and showing the new government that it will not get its way. This will also help strengthen the Corbyn project, which needs to come out fighting over the summer and where Corbyn himself needs to put his case. Those on Labour’s right and in the Lib Dems and Independent Group claim they have an alternative but they have proved themselves yellow Tories. The deeply unimpressive Jo Swinson has already made it clear she will align to the right but not to Corbyn in the event of a coalition. And in the battles of the class war, we know what side they will be on.
Johnson talks about optimism and wants to portray an idyllic Britain, at peace under a vicious Tory government. It’s a lie, in reality we will see more breaks for the rich and more repression of those resisting. But we need our own sort of optimism on the left, which can project a different vision of society – and one which is achievable by our own collective efforts. In the words of Antonio Gramsci’s old adage, we need serious assessment of the enemy that we face – pessimism of the intellect – but also optimism of the will because we have the power to bring about change.
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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