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Labour has a path to power - but only if it stands up to the Tories on Brexit

A victory for Theresa May will be a mandate for the most right wing, nationalist and authoritarian government programme in recent times. Labour can beat it.

Is it because the date of the election could derail a potential criminal investigation into Tory election spending in 2015? Is it because they anticipated a Labour leadership succession? Is it because of looming government split? Really, none of that now matters. Theresa May has pulled the trigger, calling a general election timed to hit Labour at its weakest, and, more importantly, before the tangible effects of the Tories’ Brexit plan hit people’s lives.

Despair is the easiest emotion for Labour supporters - lagging by 18 points, we are in a worse polling position than at the same time in 1983. But despair is also pointless and boring – and with politics more volatile than it has been in living memory, the left must grit its teeth and relish the fight ahead. Election upsets are a defining feature of our political era, and like it or not we are now presented with the task of taking transformative social and economic policies onto the doorstep. A month ago, leftwinger Jean-Luc Melenchon was on 11 per cent in the polls. In a few weeks he could be the President of France.

Labour has a path to power – but, like successful electoral insurgents all over the western world, it must be clear about the issues that are at stake and hit its enemies hard. In France, Melenchon’s campaign has produced a video game (“Fiscal Kombat”) in which he literally attacks bankers in the streets and shakes them down for cash. Labour will always lean towards a strategy that clings to respectability and cautiousness. Jeremy Corbyn must banish it, and set out a narrative that attacks not just “this Tory government”, but the political and economic elites as a whole. Free school meals and a £10 minimum wage were a good start; now we need to see the flip side of the “kinder politics”.

By far the biggest temptation that Corbyn will face is to attempt to make this election about anything other than Brexit. With Labour’s base divided at the referendum, and his closest allies and internal support base still divided on questions like Article 50 and free movement, the natural instinct for the Labour leader will be to take a series of defensive stances on immigration and Brexit, and move the conversation on to something else. This tactic worked well in a Labour leadership election, where the electorate is much more concerned with, say, rail nationalisation, and keen to digest a large number of policy areas.

At the 2017 general election, it will be suicide. With the Tories pursuing their “52 per cent strategy” and the Liberal Democrats standing on an unapologetic platform to represent the 48 per cent, Labour would be gambling hard on its ability to change the subject with no backing in the mainstream press to do so. That won’t work, because everything in British politics and society – including economic credibility, and any conception of fairness and social justice – is bound up with Brexit. To win, Labour must absolutely work beyond the divisions of the referendum. But if anything that will require talking about Brexit more, not less.

The Brexit plan for which Theresa May is seeking a mandate promises a future of regression and social decay. It aims to deregulate Britain, in a race to the bottom which will abolish workers’ rights and environmental protections, and open up further avenues for privatisation. It will divide people by nation and race – laying blame on immigrants, breaking up communities and setting the clock back. May will almost certainly enter this election pledging to abolish the Human Rights Act, even to withdraw Britain from the European Convention on Human Rights. Labour can present a bold vision of a modern and open society with higher wages, decent housing and civil rights inside the European single market.

The Great Repeal Bill is an attempt to hand the executive powers to change the law – to legislate by decree – that in almost any other western society would be unconstitutional. It is part of a wider power grab by the political elite, giving themselves and a range of corporate interests more and more power over the state. Labour can be the guarantors of British democracy, introducing a wave of democratic reforms such as a written constitution, more powers to local government, proportional representation, and measures to limit the revolving doors and the role of big business in the functioning of government.

A decisive victory for May at this election will be a mandate for the most right wing, nationalist and authoritarian government programme in recent times. Labour can beat it, but to do so it must replace wonky, mealy-mouthed Brexit policy with a clear commitment to membership of the single market and to maintaining and extending the progressive aspects of EU membership. It must replace equivocation on immigration with a principled defence of free movement and a sharp alternative narrative about who to blame. And, above all, it must stop trying to change the subject. 

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Nicola Sturgeon is betting on Brexit becoming real before autumn 2018

Second independence referendum plans have been delayed but not ruled out.

Three months after announcing plans for a second independence referendum, and 19 days after losing a third of her Scottish National Party MPs, Scotland’s First Minister Nicola Sturgeon booted the prospect of a second independence referendum into the heather. 

In a statement at Holyrood, Sturgeon said she felt her responsibility as First Minister “is to build as much unity and consensus as possible” and that she had consulted “a broad spectrum of voices” on independence.

She said she had noted a “commonality” among the views of the majority, who were neither strongly pro or anti-independence, but “worry about the uncertainty of Brexit and worry about the clarity of what it means”. Some “just want a break from making political decisions”.

This, she said had led her to the conclusion that there should be a referendum reset. Nevertheless: "It remains my view and the position of this government that at the end of this Brexit process the Scottish people should have a choice about the future of our country." 

This "choice", she suggested, was likely to be in autumn 2018 – the same time floated by SNP insiders before the initial announcement was made. 

The Scottish Lib Dem leader Willie Rennie responded: “The First Minister wishes to call a referendum at a time of her choosing. So absolutely nothing has changed." In fact, there is significance in the fact Sturgeon will no longer be pursuing the legislative process needed for a second referendum. Unlike Theresa May, say, she has not committed herself to a seemingly irreversable process.

Sturgeon’s demand for a second independence referendum was said to be partly the result of pressure from the more indy-happy wing of the party, including former First Minister Alex Salmond. The First Minister herself, whose constituency is in the former Labour stronghold of Glasgow, has been more cautious, and is keenly aware that the party can lose if it appears to be taking the electorate for granted. 

In her speech, she pledged to “put our shoulder to the wheel” in Brexit talks, and improve education and the NHS. Yet she could have ruled out a referendum altogether, and she did not. 

Sturgeon has framed this as a “choice” that is reasonable, given the uncertainties of Brexit. Yet as many of Scotland’s new Labour MPs can testify, opposition to independence on the doorstep is just as likely to come from a desire to concentrate on public services and strengthening a local community as it is attachment to a more abstract union. The SNP has now been in power for 10 years, and the fact it suffered losses in the 2017 general election reflects the perception that it is the party not only for independence, but also the party of government.

For all her talk of remaining in the single market, Sturgeon will be aware that it will be the bread-and-butter consequences of Brexit, like rising prices, and money redirected towards Northern Ireland, that will resonate on the doorstep. She will also be aware that roughly a third of SNP voters opted for Brexit

The general election result suggests discontent over local or devolved issues is currently overriding constitutional matters, whether UK-wide or across the EU. Now Brexit talks with a Tory-DUP government have started, this may change. But if it does not, Sturgeon will be heading for a collision with voter choice in the autumn of 2018. 

Julia Rampen is the digital news editor of the New Statesman (previously editor of The Staggers, The New Statesman's online rolling politics blog). She has also been deputy editor at Mirror Money Online and has worked as a financial journalist for several trade magazines. 

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