To get rid of the Tories, Labour must fight the status quo with radical class politics, argues Alex Snowdon
Boris Johnson’s government is wrestling with a major and ongoing political crisis. It has repeatedly lost Commons votes since Johnson became prime minister and the opposition parties largely control parliament. Over 20 Tory MPs have been expelled from the parliamentary party. Johnson’s suspension of parliament was ruled illegal by the Supreme Court, forcing him to bring MPs back to Westminster.
All of this has understandably encouraged the idea, particularly on the left, that Johnson is in a hopeless position - one that can only get even worse, as his inability to get either a deal with the EU or a general election prevents him finding a way out of the crisis. This has much truth in it: the Tories are split, the crisis is deep, and Brexit remains a nightmare for the government as it is for the whole political mainstream and indeed the British ruling class.
Yet it would be dangerous to either assume that Johnson has no exit or to underestimate him. He is aiming to win the next general election, whenever that may happen. Collateral damage in the form of expelled MPs, lost parliamentary votes or complaints about the tone of political debate are manageable if they do not obstruct that larger aim.
Johnson’s team are already fighting an election campaign. It is much closer in content and tone to Donald Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign than a conventional Tory election campaign: unashamedly populist, insurgent, superficially anti-establishment, polarising and bitter. This includes pitching policies designed to either be vote-winners (like increasing police numbers) or to neutralise Labour attack lines (pledging more money for schools and the NHS).
But it is about much more than policy. The election is framed as being about a prime minister determined to uphold the popular will, as expressed in the 2016 referendum on EU membership, against the relentlessly obstructive behaviour of a majority-Remain parliament. Proposing an election, together with Labour voting one down, has helped Johnson promote this narrative. He is pitching himself as the popular democrat while goading Labour for its timidity and alleged hypocrisy.
The Tories’ aim is to rally as much of the Leave vote behind them as possible. Attracting even a small minority of Labour Leave voters - those who voted Leave in 2016 and Labour in 2017 - could be enough to tip some Labour seats the Tories’ way. This could potentially give the Tories a parliamentary majority, even if they lose some seats to the SNP and the Lib Dems.
Such a strategy is boosted by recent polling showing widespread public weariness with the Brexit debate. Large numbers feel it has gone on long enough and just want the government, whichever party might be in office, to get on with taking the UK out of the European Union. There is clearly growing impatience with politicians who are seen to be slowing down our exit from the EU. There is also no avoiding the fact that the Tories are consistently polling significantly higher than Labour, while Johnson’s approval ratings are much higher than Jeremy Corbyn’s ratings.
In this context there are a number of obvious dangers and problems for Labour. The disastrous scenario of Labour being a ‘Full Remain’ party - committed to not only a second referendum but to campaigning for the Remain option in it - was averted at the party’s conference. Yet the position it adopted was merely the ‘least worst’ of the two options: it still commits the party to pursuing a fresh referendum, risking alienating many Leave voters and out of kilter with the public mood of impatience and weariness.
This is closely linked to the way that Labour can be characterised by the Right as part of a broader Remainer and anti-democratic elite. Putting off a general election is in this respect self-defeating, as it encourages the idea that Labour is prolonging a parliament that is, by any definition, not fit for purpose and avoiding a democratic contest in the country at large.
It is dangerous, too, for Labour to allow politics to be defined by Brexit, with an obsession with the issue merely emphasising what Labour has in common with other opposition parties, such as the Lib Dems, when it desperately needs to be fighting for an alternative social vision and set of policies.
In recent days we have seen politics sucked back into the stultifying conventionality of Westminster. The narrow obsession with the tone of political debate and allegations of abusive behaviour towards MPs sadly reinforces that sense of a remote Westminster disconnected from people’s lives. Complaints about un-parliamentary language have dominated political news in the last few days, rather than Labour MPs forcing the often exciting and inspiring policies passed at Labour Conference into the political debate.
It is right to condemn Johnson’s rhetoric and many of the arguments underpinning it. But merely doing that fails to connect with the issues and concerns of millions of voters who are left cold by the Westminster soap opera. We should not forget that for years, even decades, disillusionment with politicians has swelled. Labour cannot be an effective party of anti-establishment insurgency while positioning itself as defender of the parliamentary status quo.
The radical policy agenda discussed, and overwhelmingly supported, by delegates to Labour conference points in a totally different - and much more hopeful - direction. The policies and announcements on a Green New Deal, schools (including the abolition of Ofsted), public ownership, scrapping prescription charges, social care and much more need to be popularised. Jeremy Corbyn is right to sustain the momentum by making important new announcements about replacing Universal Credit with a fairer benefits system.
The policies passed at the conference need to be endorsed unambiguously by front bench figures, and articulated by them. They need to be in the manifesto. There should be no rowing back on these policies, as appears to be happening with the motion on migration and migrants’ rights.
Ultimately the best way to popularise them is through a general election campaign. That requires a willingness to bring the current government down and fight a general election. There should be no further delays.
Corbyn’s longstanding commitment to move beyond Leave/Remain divisions, articulating a class politics that seeks to unite the great majority, needs sustaining and amplifying. The debate needs to be broadened and Labour has to be combative and radical, championing a substantially different set of policies to a failed status quo.
We also need to keep building the pressure on a government that is weak and crisis-ridden but also dangerous. The demonstration at Tory conference, called by the People’s Assembly, comes at a crucial time. It should feed into an autumn of concerted popular opposition to the Tories, and campaigning for a left-wing government, that looks well beyond the confines of parliament.
Alex Snowdon is a Counterfire activist in Newcastle. He is active in the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War Coalition and the National Education Union. He is the author of A Short Guide to Israeli Apartheid (2022).
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