David Cameron on the campaign trail in Wells. Photo: Dan Kitwood/WPA Pool/Getty Images
Show Hide image

Owen Jones: if the Tories get more seats than Labour, get ready for a Very British Coup

Don't let the right tell you that if Labour come second on seats, their government would be "illegitimate".

“No firing squads, no torture or retribution, no bloodshed. A very British coup, wouldn’t you say?” Amid an election campaign that has become ever more ominous in tone, I find myself remembering these words, uttered by Sir Percy Browne, the head of MI5 in the former Labour minister Chris Mullin’s epic 1980s political drama A Very British Coup. Harry Perkins, a leftist ex-steelworker from Sheffield, has swept to power on a radical programme, only to face co-ordinated establishment sabotage. In a climactic scene, Sir Percy blackmails Perkins into resigning on grounds of ill-health.

Ed Miliband is no Harry Perkins. A commitment to raise the top rate of income tax to the same level as Japan’s, to levy a tax on the top 0.5 per cent of homeowners and to cut public expenditure every year is not exactly parliamentary socialism in our time. But long ago, most of the media and other powerful forces in British society decided that the prospect of Miliband as prime minister was simply unacceptable. His leadership represents a modest departure from three decades of consensus established by Thatcher’s governments, but any departure is deemed intolerable. The highly personalised “Get Ed” campaign has taken a sinister turn. The Tories and their media allies are now declaring that a government led by Miliband would be illegitimate. A very British coup of our own. Although openDemocracy has been warning about this possibility for weeks, discussion has been all but banished from the mainstream media.

Our parliamentary system is quite straightforward. A government needs to be able to muster the support of the majority of sitting MPs in order to be legitimate. If it can survive a vote of no confidence, and most MPs back its Queen’s Speech – the government’s legislative programme – then its democratic legitimacy is unimpeachable. The magic number in order to govern – given Sinn Fein’s boycott of the Westminster parliament – is 323. But the Tories and their allies are arguing otherwise. They have told newspapers that they will “declare victory” if the party wins “most seats and votes”, and that Labour will have no “legitimacy” if it is the second party in terms of seats and needs to rely on the SNP. When Theresa May and the Mail on Sunday suggested that an SNP-backed Labour government would represent “the worst crisis since the abdication” – eclipsing the minor blip of the Nazi conquest of Europe – it was rightly mocked on Twitter. But this may well prove a mild foretaste of what is to come.

We are sleepwalking into a dangerous moment. If there is a left-of-centre, anti-Tory majority in parliament then the Tories must fall, however many seats they have won. Left-wing parties will have won the election and a left-of-centre government led by Labour must take office. And yet it would be deemed “illegitimate” by the Tories and most of the media. That really would be a situation with few precedents in an advanced democracy: where the opposition and media refuse to accept the democratic legitimacy of the national government.

The “unionist” Tories have been fanning English nationalism over the past few weeks for two obvious reasons: to boost the SNP in Scotland, in order to increase the likelihood that the Tories will emerge the biggest single party; and to damage Labour in key English marginals. They may well succeed, ensuring a Tory triumph in the general election and leaving this whole scenario redundant. But it never was just a strategy aimed at winning on Thursday. It is a scorched-earth policy, all aimed at what happens after 7 May. The plotters will attempt to administer a fatal blow to the Union, whether they see it as such or not: they will tell the Scottish people that the MPs they have elected are political pariahs who have no rightful say over the governing of the country. And then they will wage the mother of all campaigns against the legitimacy of a Labour-led government.

Our very British coup will surely unfold this way. The Tories declare victory if they have the most seats, regardless of the parliamentary arithmetic. Key supportive newspapers endorse this line and pressure is put on the broadcasters to follow suit. The Tories begin publicly reassembling their coalition with the Lib Dems within hours of the polls closing, despite knowing they have no majority in parliament, in order to cement the image that they remain the legitimate government.

In the run-up to the Queen’s Speech on 27 May – with David Cameron remaining as Prime Minister – the media campaign against the SNP will make the current onslaught look timid. Amid political uncertainty, a falling stock market and the value of  the pound are used to build an atmosphere of national emergency. A handful of right-wing Labour MPs – the likes of Rochdale’s Simon Danczuk, perhaps – are wheeled out on TV to echo the line of illegitimacy, helping to construct a narrative of growing Labour turmoil. Moves to depose Miliband are encouraged. The aim will be straightforward: to make it politically impossible for Labour to form a government even though left-of-centre parties have a parliamentary majority, and to pave the way for new elections against a backdrop of right-wing hysteria.

As I say, the Tory campaign of fear or smear over Scotland could prove a success, allowing Cameron to return to No 10. If not, a very British coup will begin to unfold as soon as the polling stations close. It will have few opponents in the mainstream media. The left and the Labour movement will have to mobilise in great numbers. The health of our democracy and the future of our country will be at stake

Owen Jones joins the New Statesman this week as a contributing writer


Owen Jones is a left-wing columnist, author and commentator. He is a contributing writer to the New Statesman and writes a weekly column for the Guardian. He has published two books, Chavs: the Demonisation of the Working Class and The Establishment and How They Get Away With It.

Show Hide image

Jeremy Corbyn supporters should stop excusing Labour’s anti-immigration drift

The Labour leader is a passionate defender of migrants’ rights – Brexit shouldn’t distract the new left movement from that.

Something strange is happening on the British left – a kind of deliberate collective amnesia. During the EU referendum, the overwhelming majority of the left backed Remain.

Contrary to a common myth, both Jeremy Corbyn and the movement behind him put their weight into a campaign that argued forcefully for internationalism, migrants’ rights and regulatory protections.

And yet now, as Labour’s policy on Brexit hardens, swathes of the left appear to be embracing Lexit, and a set of arguments which they would have laughed off stage barely a year ago.

The example of free movement is glaring and obvious, but worth rehashing. When Labour went into the 2017 general election promising to end free movement with the EU, it did so with a wider election campaign whose tone was more pro-migrant than any before it.

Nonetheless, the policy itself, along with restricting migrants’ access to public funds, stood in a long tradition of Labour triangulating to the right on immigration for electorally calculated reasons. When Ed Miliband promised “tough controls on immigration”, the left rightly attacked him.  

The result of this contradiction is that those on the left who want to agree unequivocally with the leadership must find left-wing reasons for doing so. And so, activists who have spent years declaring their solidarity with migrants and calling for a borderless world can now be found contemplating ways for the biggest expansion of border controls in recent British history – which is what the end of free movement would mean – to seem progressive, or like an opportunity.

The idea that giving ground to migrant-bashing narratives or being harsher on Poles might make life easier for non-EU migrants was rightly dismissed by most left-wing activists during the referendum.

Now, some are going quiet or altering course.

On the Single Market, too, neo-Lexit is making a comeback. Having argued passionately in favour of membership, both the Labour leadership and a wider layer of its supporters now argue – to some extent or another – that only by leaving the Single Market could Labour implement a manifesto.

This is simply wrong: there is very little in Labour’s manifesto that does not have an already-existing precedent in continental Europe. In fact, the levers of the EU are a key tool for clamping down on the power of big capital.

In recent speeches, Corbyn has spoken about the Posted Workers’ Directive – but this accounts for about 0.17 per cent of the workforce, and is about to be radically reformed by the European Parliament.

The dangers of this position are serious. If Labour’s leadership takes the path of least resistance on immigration policy and international integration, and its support base rationalises these compromises uncritically, then the logic of the Brexit vote – its borders, its affirmation of anti-migrant narratives, its rising nationalist sentiment – will be mainlined into Labour Party policy.

Socialism in One Country and a return to the nation state cannot work for the left, but they are being championed by the neo-Lexiteers. In one widely shared blogpost on Novara Media, one commentator even goes as far as alluding to Britain’s Road to Socialism – the official programme of the orthodox Communist Party.

The muted and supportive reaction of Labour’s left to the leadership’s compromises on migration and Brexit owes much to the inept positioning of the Labour right. Centrists may gain personal profile and factional capital when the weaponising the issue, but the consequences have been dire.

Around 80 per cent of Labour members still want a second referendum, and making himself the “stop Brexit” candidate could in a parallel universe have been Owen Smith’s path to victory in the second leadership election.

But it meant that in the summer of 2016, when the mass base of Corbynism hardened its factional resolve, it did so under siege not just from rebelling MPs, but from the “Remoaners” as well.

At every juncture, the strategy of the centrist Labour and media establishment has made Brexit more likely. Every time a veteran of the New Labour era – many of whom have appalling records on, for instance, migrants’ rights – tells Labour members to fight Brexit, party members run a mile.

If Tony Blair’s messiah complex was accurate, he would have saved us all a long time ago – by shutting up and going away. The atmosphere of subterfuge and siege from MPs and the liberal press has, by necessity, created a culture of loyalty and intellectual conformity on the left.

But with its position in the party unassailable, and a radical Labour government within touching distance of Downing Street, the last thing the Labour leadership now needs is a wave of Corbynite loyalty-hipsters hailing its every word.

As the history of every attempt to form a radical government shows, what we desperately need is a movement with its own internal democratic life, and an activist army that can push its leaders as well as deliver leaflets for them.

Lexit is no more possible now than it was during the EU referendum, and the support base of the Labour left and the wider party is overwhelmingly in favour of free movement and EU membership.

Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and Diane Abbott are passionate, principled advocates for migrants’ rights and internationalism. By showing leadership, Labour can once again change what is electorally possible.