Current attacks on democracy have to meet maximum resistance but this is not an end within itself, argues Lindsey German
The mindset of those who control Downing Street is clear – it’s their way or the highway. The power grab that marked Boris Johnson’s accession to office moved up through the gears this week as he decided to prorogue parliament from next week until the middle of October. The response has been outrage across the country as the clear motive of this move is to deny the possibility of further discussion and the potential prevention of a no-deal Brexit. The response of special adviser Dominic Cummings to his arbitrary sacking of an Asian woman working for the chancellor – if you don’t like it, fuck off - pretty much sums up the Downing Street clique’s attitude to the rest of us.
The prorogation is remarkable, not least because it is so obviously a manoeuvre to stop debate within Parliament. Whatever we think of that institution it is preferable to autocratic rule. It is also unprecedented for a government to do so when it is already in such a weak position; even with the odious DUP in support, Johnson has only a minority of one. The reality is he can get nothing through parliament and he can barely face parliament without his weakness becoming apparent. That is why he and his allies are relying so much on pronunciamentos from within No 10 and on a form of shock and awe which is designed to confuse and intimidate their enemies.
So far, they have had some success, and Labour’s weakness over the summer has only highlighted this. But we shouldn’t forget that Johnson himself is acting from a position of weakness not strength. He may succeed in his aims but that is by no means certain and it will still leave his government vulnerable.
The outcry over his prorogation is real and justified. There is much debate on the left about whether it is a coup. Maybe some of us (myself included) use the term too loosely. It is obviously not a military coup and I don’t suppose most people who use the term think of it as comparable to what happened in Chile in 1973, for example. But neither is it parliamentary business as usual. It is an affront to the democratic process since Johnson and Cummings are determined to trample on even the very limited democratic forms which exist in Britain.
Any parliamentary democracy is preferable to dictatorship or autocracy, and people are right to get on the streets to defend it. But it raises the question of what sort of democracy is British democracy? And here the slogan of simply restore democracy are not enough, because a cursory glance at the British democratic process is enough to demonstrate that it is very far from a genuine accountable system.
The unelected monarch who agreed to the prorogation stands at the head of an edifice which includes the unelected House of Lords. The unwritten constitution allows a huge amount of power to these unaccountable institutions of monarchy, Lords and the courts. The Commons are elected but there is little process of recall – even MPs like Change UK who switch parties have no need to resign or forego their substantial salaries until the following election. Constituents have no real control over their MPs. The present parliament has been elected in its majority to respect the referendum result but in the case of many MPs, is now actively agitating for its opposite.
Parliament is not the protector of democracy – real reform has always been initiated from outside and has been enacted by MPs when they had little choice because of mass movements. This has been true for the right to vote for women and working-class people generally, for trade union rights and for our civil liberties. The defence of these liberties will come from outside parliament as well.
Protest matters – but so do its politics
My assessment is that Johnson made his move in response to the decision by the various opposition parties last week, which sidelined a vote of no confidence and prioritised cross party attempts to block a no deal Brexit. That was a mistake. It lessened the likelihood of a Vote of No Confidence against Johnson, and capitulated to Jo Swinson and Chukka Umunna in their refusal to countenance Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister of a caretaker government.
These parliamentary manoeuvres are designed to weaken Corbyn and the left. Whatever the outcome of the various debates, it is clear that the opposition to Johnson needs to move well beyond the confines of parliament.
On Saturday tens of thousands of people took to the streets across Britain in demonstrations against the coup. I didn’t join the one in London because I am really opposed to these protests dividing on Leave/Remain lines, which will be incredibly damaging to building something which tries to unite different sides. I know many people with whom I’m in agreement on most issues who did go, and there are mixed reports – Diane Abbott was heckled when she called for Corbyn in Downing Street but there were also many good placards and banners. There’s a mixed picture across the country - big demos everywhere including Chester and Lewes, and in lots of places, a call for Leave and Remain to unite and fight, which is exactly the right sentiment.
However in some places the protests seem dominated by EU flag waving, hostility to Leave voters and a determination not just to stop a no deal but to reverse the referendum. This will only exclude those who don’t like Johnson’s policies or his trashing of process but who are not themselves Remain.
Anyway the size of the protests is encouraging and I will be outside parliament joining the People’s Assembly demo on Tuesday when it reconvenes. But the politics of these protests matter because they can go in different directions. The demos headed up by the likes of the Lib Dems and Blairites are about subordinating working class interests and lining up behind the liberal wing of capital, which represents uncritical support for the EU. There has been a great deal of hot air talked about whether the demos are ‘middle class’ or not. The truth is most will contain middle class and working-class elements. However, it is incumbent on those attending to fight hard for working class involvement – including that of ethnic minorities who in London make up a big part of the working class, and who were largely absent from Saturday’s demo.
The key question is who dominates and in what interests are the protests organised? Do they subordinate to the Lib Dem type politics or do they also fight for an alternative to Tory policies? Do they support other causes, such as the industrial action planned by the CWU, for example? Do they support the election of a left government as an alternative to Johnson? These aren’t preconditions for coming on the demo but they need to be reflected in its composition, speeches and demands.
In this, there needs to be a left pole of attraction within the movement and there has to be unity on left. The stakes are incredibly high. The Tories are repeating one simple message which will have strong appeal in the election which is surely coming: we are the only ones delivering Brexit, and we’ll bung you some money for schools and hospitals as well. The next couple of months can determine politics in Britain for many years to come.
A new Windrush?
Everyone, whichever way they voted, must oppose the terrible treatment of EU nationals. The vile Priti Patel has said that their free movement will end on 31st October. This is probably unworkable, and even the government is now talking about postponing, but it is certainly completely unacceptable. The government could have guaranteed these rights three years ago but has refused. Now a high proportion of the 3 million affected will face problems returning to Britain if abroad, dealing with work, housing and all sorts of other issues – as well as feeling insecure and worried generally about their future.
This has all the hallmarks of a new Windrush scandal in the making, but on a much bigger scale. We have a vindictive and racist government, an incompetent Home Office, confused and labyrinthine regulations. I hope opposition to this becomes part of all the demonstrations.
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 government wants to follow the money, not the science – weekly briefing
- Herd today, gone tomorrow? – weekly briefing
- A failed government in a failed system – weekly briefing
- World War 2: we weren’t all in it together
- Government and opposition: all in it together? – weekly briefing
- Lockdown? This government should be locked up – weekly briefing
- Coronavirus is showing that war has never been about security