There is nothing for Labour to gain from putting the ‘national interest’ first and delaying a general election, argues Shabbir Lakha
As of Monday night, Parliament has been suspended by an unelected Prime Minister with the authority of an unelected monarch. The prorogation of Parliament has exposed the ruling class' contempt for democracy as well as the flaws in our democratic system. At this moment, both the government and the opposition have talked about acting in the national interest.
What is the national interest?
It was in the national interest to bail out the banks in 2008. It was in the national interest to cut the budget deficit through a programme of austerity. It was in the national interest to go to war with Iraq and Afghanistan. It’s in the national interest that our navy is patrolling the Mediterranean Sea to stop refugees. It’s in the national interest that we sell weapons to Saudi Arabia and that we spend over 2% of our GDP on defence as per Nato guidelines. It’s been in the national interest to roll out the red carpet for Donald Trump twice.
It’s wasn’t in the national interest to prevent the Grenfell tower fire or ensure it doesn’t happen again. It isn’t in the national interest to fix the housing crisis and stop 600 homeless people dying a year. It isn’t in the national interest to support disabled people or ensure children aren’t going to school hungry or that the NHS is functioning properly.
Fundamental to socialist thought is the basic understanding that society under capitalism is divided into classes and that it is based on the exploitation of the working class. What is in the interests of one of the main classes in this conflicted society will be to the detriment of the other. The national interest has always been the interest of the ruling class.
That is why John McDonnell was wrong to say on the Andrew Marr show that Labour should “put the country before party”. At a time when 14 million people are living in poverty and the food bank queues are growing exponentially, putting the majority first would mean getting this Tory government out now.
Instead, by teaming up with the Lib Dems and Change UK and other architects and enablers of austerity, Labour is in danger of looking like part of the establishment that has caused so much damage.
Jo Swinson and others in this “rebel alliance” still maintain that they will never support a Corbyn caretaker government in order to secure an election at some future date, so soon that national interest could mean backing Ken Clarke or Harriet Harman to become Prime Minister.
Emily Thornberry’s attempt to explain Labour’s Brexit policy on Question Time has shown that it’s untenable and the national interest could soon be to get behind revoking Article 50 at all costs or, as Tom Watson is pushing for, to support a second referendum before a general election. All of this is just kicking a general election further and further down the road.
The danger with Labour being embroiled in playing parliamentary games at the expense of a general election is that outside of the Westminster and party activists’ bubble, games are exactly what this is being seen as. Every day without a general election, that Labour has now twice voted against, will only make its promises to end austerity, to extend workers’ rights and take on big finance and millionaire tax avoiders less credible.
In 2016, the Remain campaign focused on telling British people ravaged by three decades of neoliberalism and 5 years of Tory-Lib Dem austerity, that if they voted to leave the EU it would make their lives worse. Just as it didn’t work then, putting off an opportunity to end austerity because the alternative may be worse is not likely to convince working people bearing the brunt of Tory rule.
There is also an argument that Labour’s chances of winning an election before 31st October is more likely to result in a Johnson victory, mainly because Labour can’t win a general election which is centred on Brexit. I don’t discount this logic, especially with Labour’s Brexit policy what it is, but do people think Brexit will stop being an issue on 1st November? Even if we crash out without a deal, and especially if we don’t and the EU grants an extension, Brexit is not going to stop being an issue.
All that pushing a general election down the road does is give the Tories more time to prepare their campaign with all the powers of executive office – which they are already doing – and gives credibility to the ludicrous idea that Boris Johnson is the champion of the people and Labour is defending the establishment.
It also allows the Lib Dems, Blairites and Tory Remainers the opportunity to manoeuvre for not a general election but a national unity government led by anyone but Corbyn with the aim of a second referendum and/or revoking Article 50. Following the passing of the Benn bill in the House of Commons last week, Labour frontbenchers announced they would support an election once the bill was passed and had Royal Assent, but it was after a meeting with the other opposition parties that this changed. This is the direction of the balance of forces within the PLP and between Labour and the other parties, and the decision to delay an election has to be seen as a retreat on the part of the leadership.
The left would do well to remember that when the election was called in April 2017, Labour was 24 points behind in the polls and the number one issue was Brexit. Sure, a lot has changed since 2017, not least Labour’s Brexit policy, but it was the radical manifesto, an energetic campaign powered by hundreds of thousands of people and the media being forced to give Labour equal airtime that shifted the debate and saw Labour’s poll ratings skyrocket. The extra-parliamentary left played a big role in this, with the People’s Assembly and #VoteNHS credited by some research as succeeding in making the NHS and austerity the main issues in a number of marginals where Labour made huge gains.
Sticking to alliances with the people who openly say they will do everything they can to stop Jeremy Corbyn becoming Prime Minister, in order to play “3D chess” in a now prorogued Parliament, keeps the issue stuck on Brexit and reduces the thousands of Labour supporters to spectators.
We need class interests above “national interest”, and we need a general election now, not later.
Shabbir Lakha is a Stop the War officer, a People's Assembly activist and a member of Counterfire.
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