Lindsey German on the perils of Labour timidity, global migration and local ballots
Why would an electoral party fear the electorate? Especially when it gives a chance of getting rid of a brutal, right wing and cynical government headed by a proven liar and cheat. Yet this is the ludicrous situation Labour now finds itself in.
The reasons given range from the meteorological – it’s too cold and dark in December – to the mystifying – that No Deal has to be taken off the table. Yet elections have happened in autumn and winter as recently as the 1970s and actually turned out well for Labour. A political crisis as large as the one we are facing demands at least attempts at resolution and an election is the only way to change the parliamentary arithmetic to do so.
Labour keeps stressing that nothing can happen until No Deal is off the table, but this is an impossible demand. As long as the deal isn’t completed, No Deal can’t be off the table. Even if Johnson signed in his own blood to take No Deal off the table, if he then went on to win a subsequent election he could then tear up his previous promise, since no parliament can bind future parliaments. So the slogan becomes an increasingly meaningless mantra.
It has been talked up incessantly as part of the general fearmongering around Brexit, with the repeated assertion that Johnson wants No Deal. Well, now he has a deal and one with which the EU27 are pretty content. Which is why they will grant a further extension until January to take it over the line. The only dissent from this comes from France’s Emmanuel Macron, who is clearly working closely with Johnson and who wants a much tighter deadline to put pressure on parliament to vote it through.
Johnson’s Withdrawal Agreement Bill has passed its second reading, but he lost the timetable on the bill so will now face lots of scrutiny. Labour wants to prevent it going through. It is right to do so – recent Financial Times revelations showed the intention is to weaken workers’ rights following the deal. The obvious way of doing so would be to demand an election immediately – before Johnson’s 12th December date, which gives him more time to progress the deal.
As Shakespeare says, ‘delays have dangerous ends’. The refusal by Labour to seize the opportunity of an election will cost it dear, especially since the Lib Dems are now tabling an amendment to the Fixed Term Parliaments Act to have an election on December 9th, backed by the SNP. Labour, I would have thought, will have no choice but to back this – even if it doesn’t, the bill would pass on a simple majority, so starting an election campaign with Labour as the only party voting against it. To be trumped on democracy issues by the Tories and their junior partners is not a good look.
The problem for the Parliamentary Labour Party is that it doesn’t want to lose an election – with the possibility of MPs losing their seats - but it even less wants to win with Corbyn as leader. So delay is the tactic, hoping against hope for a second referendum, trying to repeatedly extend the deadlines from the EU, and probably launching another major attack on Corbyn’s leadership in the new year.
The continuity Remain policy which was forced on Corbyn earlier this year is the main reason for Labour’s low standing in the polls. We were told months ago that Labour had to fully embrace a Remain position in order to win back those who abandoned them in the Euro elections. Labour has agreed to a second referendum with a Remain option on the ballot paper. Luckily delegates at last month’s conference had more sense than to go even further down the Keir Starmer road. That’s more than can be said for those members of the shadow cabinet who posed on the stage at the People’s Vote march.
And the result? Labour continues to lag in the polls, with three published at the weekend showing the Tories at least 10 points ahead of Labour. The policy certainly isn’t working vote wise.
Instead of acknowledging this and trying to find ways to rectify it, Labour is compounding this mistake with one which may turn out to be even greater – running scared of a general election. And of course the two questions are linked.
Labour’s abandonment of those who voted Leave in 2016 has been led by those for whom membership of the EU is much more important than any of the class issues that face actual and potential Labour voters. They are happy to join in a cross-class alliance with Remain Tories, yellow Tory Lib Dems and Blairites who have left Labour. They remain horrified of a Corbyn government and would be much happier in a national government of the sort they have been touting for months.
Refusing an election will help those people and hinder Labour’s left. Many on the left also fear an election, mainly because they look at the polls and fear that Labour will lose. That is a possibility and we have to be honest about it. But there is nothing to suggest that it will be better in three or six months’ time, after more Downing Street propaganda and overt electioneering, coupled with a leadership threat.
And we have to be confident that if Labour builds on and strengthens its 2017 manifesto, if it mobilises its 500,000 members and a much wider number of supporters in a confident and radical way, then it can shift the votes in its direction. If it gets accused of denying the people a vote – which is what Johnson is saying – it will look shifty and scared, and deservedly so in many cases.
It strikes me that many Labour activists are apprehensive, rightly given what is at stake, but they are also very much up for a fight, and believe that a month of campaigning will weaken Johnson and strengthen Corbyn. The more we go on the offensive, the more we harness those discontented with British society, the more we argue the election in class terms, the better Labour will do. The more activity there is outside parliament, the more that will lift the spirit and organisation of Labour and trade union activists.
The more it is dragged into the Brexit morass, with the likes of Kier Starmer making the running, the worse it will be. Those of us who argued for an election back in early September were told this was all about clever tactics and an election would soon follow. It hasn’t and Johnson is stronger than he was back then. Time to take him on.
Death by border controls
What a heart-rending story the death of 39 migrants in a container is. When people think about the conditions in which these poor people crossed continents and eventually died a horrible death, their humanity and sympathy comes to the fore. Which is precisely why our government and those across the rich world do their best to dehumanise migrants. We don’t see them as individuals or human beings but as ‘economic migrants’, ‘scroungers’ and ‘illegal immigrants’.
The migrants who died are of course victims of people traffickers, who can only be described as scum. But they are only at the mercy of these people because they are victims of much bigger villains, those who decree that borders will be closed, and strictly policed, those who create a hostile environment for migrants, and those who use the situation of migrants as a political football.
Stand up most mainstream politicians. In country after country, we find that arguments originating as the ideas of the far right are adopted by ‘respectable’ politicians as they scapegoat migrants. Their policies are reserved for the poor, the vast majority of them non-white, and are one of the main instruments of increasing racism.
Migration has always followed the needs of capital. People travel often long, arduous and dangerous journeys, to work and live in better conditions than their original homes. Countries like Britain need and depend on migrants but scapegoat and criminalise them at the same time, thus ensuring they are denied basic rights.
Why should it be a crime to cross a border, or to be judged on which country you were born in? It is completely illogical and wrong. It should be a pretty basic human right that everyone has the right to equal treatment wherever they are, and that includes those who want to move across borders.
A lot hangs on this vote
Ballot results are out this week over action by my union, the UCU. There are two ballots, one for all universities on pay, workload, equality, and one for pre 92 universities over pensions. I think from talking to people there will be a yes vote because there is very widespread discontent, but will it get over the 50% threshold? I really feel if it doesn’t, then the employers will further attack including over national bargaining. So, very important – if you haven’t voted go and vote today, even if you vote no (I hope of course that none of you will) because it pushes up the turnout.
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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