The quagmire of the mainstream cannot conceal that there's more to politics than Westminster, writes Lindsey German
Watching the sound and fury signifying nothing in parliament this week, it is clear that MPs have no solution to the crisis we face. The last week has demonstrated the possibilities and dangers inherent in the political situation in Britain. This week may well be crunch time in deciding whether the left moves forward or the Tories' appalling behaviour is rewarded by them continuing in office. The possibilities became increasingly apparent at Labour’s conference, where delegates mapped out the path to a better society, with resolutions on a green industrial revolution, building council housing, challenging the power of big Pharma, and rejecting racist scapegoating and immigration controls.
Jeremy Corbyn overcame the problems created over the deputy leader and staff resignations which dogged him earlier in the conference to emerge with the potential to develop a strong left manifesto, and having roundly defeated the trap of turning Labour into a fully Remain party. His challenge to Boris Johnson following the court case against him was a powerful conference call to arms.
The legal ruling was a blow to the Tories so they decided to ignore it - and may well do so with future challenges. It will need a political challenge to get rid of them and this is not sufficiently strong in Parliament. Nor should we hold illusions in the role of the judges. They will undoubtedly use their powers against a left government to hinder nationalisation, abolition of private schools and anything else that challenges the rule of capital and the rich and powerful.
The dangers come from those who have no intention of letting Corbyn take office and who will fight by fair means or foul to stop him. Top of the list here is Johnson himself, and his partner in crime Dominic Cummings. Johnson’s reaction to the Supreme Court finding his prorogation of parliament unlawful has been quite astonishing but also completely calculated: he has been in turns abusive and defiant, accusing parliament and the courts of frustrating the popular will.
He ignores the fact that the people initially to blame for delays on Brexit are of course the Tories who had a majority in 2016. His language has been aggressive and unpleasant, deliberately so, since he and Cummings think this will play well with Leave voters across the country, allow them to hoover up Brexit Party votes and regain their majority in a forthcoming election through portraying Labour as a Remain, establishment party.
In doing so, like Donald Trump, he is prepared to use inflammatory language which can only help the right, including the far right, and heighten the huge divisions and tensions already existing with the divisions over Brexit.
The real question is, how do we defeat him? And all the evidence from the past few days in parliament is that there is little understanding from most MPs how to do this.
Because, however reprehensible Johnson’s behaviour and language, the answer to it not to aim your main fire at his unparliamentary antics. This is especially important when MPs and parliament are so unpopular, and when they are widely seen as having failed to resolve the result of Brexit.
Incredibly, many of the MPs have turned the whole debate into being about them. I fully accept that political discourse has become much more unpleasant and sometimes dangerous in recent years, and that some – especially female – MPs have been the targets of threats and violence. We all have the memory of Jo Cox, killed during the referendum campaign by a nazi.
But we should also be sceptical about this as the central approach. Many people are under threat much worse than that faced from the mass of MPs, including from racists and fascists, and do not have the same privilege and protection that MPs position gives them. And it is hard to ignore the fact that much of the abuse aimed at Jeremy Corbyn himself and the unbelievable levels of attack on Diane Abbott have come from their own side in parliament. It was after all Jess Phillips who said she would ‘stab Corbyn in the front’ and who abused Abbott at a PLP meeting; it was Margaret Hodge who called him a ‘fucking antisemite’ and a racist.
More importantly, the danger is that pitching the argument like this only plays into Johnson’s hands. It also plays into the hands of those in other parties who have no interest in helping to office a Labour government, and every interest in stopping it. It is clear that the only people who don’t want a no confidence vote against Johnson, apart from his own party, are the Lib Dems and the ragbag of Change UK and independents who hate Labour much more than the Tories.
We should never forget that one of the main reasons why politics in Britain is in such an impasse is that the other parties (and a good section of his own) fear the prospect of a Corbyn government more than anything else and will do everything to prevent it.
The SNP has quite rightly called for a no confidence vote this week and for a Corbyn-led caretaker government to lead to an election in November. The party argues that nothing else will stop Johnson defying legal strictures and going for a no deal Brexit. Jo Swinson has refused to countenance this but now is the time to call her bluff. If the Lib Dems refuse to go for Johnson then they will lose electoral support, and will deserve to.
I know that many Labour people fear an election because of the polls. In my view, it is impossible to tell the outcome of the election. The first past the post system is very hard to read when there are four parties all with a sizeable vote share. Johnson may be able to build a pro-Leave vote which allows him back into power. But this depends a great deal on what happens in an election, and on how much people vote on issues other than Brexit.
Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour has to get out and fight for its policies, the latest being the immensely popular pledge to scrap Universal Credit. I fear that the pledge for a second referendum will damage Labour, but the talk of wanting to build across the Brexit divide is absolutely the right approach. The danger is that Corbyn and Labour will be seen firstly to facilitate Remain, and secondly to be dragging out the process through another set of voting to Remain or Leave. Clearly the view of many voters – whatever their inclination in outcome – is to get it over with and get onto other political issues.
Labour cannot get trapped into looking as though it wants to drag the whole process out to facilitate Remain. But having said that, no one really knows how much the class questions will begin to break through the present stalemate. The Tories certainly have done their best to try to pre-empt a popular attack from Labour on austerity, with repeated promises for the NHS and schools. But a strong left campaign can challenge that and force other issues onto the agenda.
That’s where Labour needs to go. The danger is that the move for a national government will knock that off course and keep the debate confined to within the walls of Westminster and Whitehall. The real losers in that will be the left and Corbyn, whose only salvation lies in extra parliamentary mobilisation.
The demo in Manchester at Tory party conference, called by the People's Assembly, was a really good mobilisation against everything Boris Johnson stands for. There were loads of trade union banners, Labour Party contingents, students - people of all ages and backgrounds. There is a totally different atmosphere to politics on the ground than there is reflected through the mainstream media. People were very up for a fight and knew the seriousness of the one approaching with the election.
It was inspiring to hear strikers from the North West and the CWU rep who talked about their strike ballot. I’m hoping that these politics can come across in the election. Whether they do or not - lots of working people are not taking the Tory attacks lying down.
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
- Rebellion in the air – weekly briefing
- Waspi women: stung by the state – weekly briefing
- Stalingrad - book review
- Playing by the rules only works if both sides agree - weekly briefing
- Bolton’s gone but an oil war could be about to start - weekly briefing
- Bolton's out, but we can't trust Trump or Johnson
- Stop Boris Johnson - general election now!