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25 September 2019

Boris Johnson has been weakened but Labour still needs a clear plan to defeat him

The progressive majority in Britain has just two weeks to get its act together. 

By Paul Mason

It took us 28 days but, technically at least, we have stopped Boris Johnson’s coup. Johnson intended to use the suspension of parliament to prevent MPs exercising control and scrutiny over his last-minute attempts to force through Brexit. Thanks to skilful cross-party opposition led by Jeremy Corbyn, plus the Supreme Court and 21 Tory rebels, he has failed. The Benn act now obliges him to seek an extension to Article 50 after the European Council on 17-18 October.

But in reality, the coup attempt against parliament goes on. Johnson continues to flout constitutional norms, arguing the toss with judges, forcing civil servants to produce Tory propaganda videos and the general staff to appear in them. His strategy of tension — perpetual confrontation with the judiciary and parliament — is popular with exactly the demographic that sees Brexit as the empowerment of “us” — white English people — against “them”: foreigners, the educated and salaried workforce, and the institutions of the multilateral, rules-based order.

The potential outcomes depend on whether Johnson faces any significant amendments to the Withdrawal Agreement. If he does, MPs have the chance to impose a Kyle-Wilson-style amendment forcing a Brexit referendum. If he does not, any attempt to defy the Benn act has to go straight to the courts and simultaneously trigger a vote of no-confidence. Corbyn has said there will be no attempt to bring the government down until after the European Council — so the progressive majority in Britain has two weeks to get its act together.

If Johnson can be deposed in parliament, Corbyn should attempt to form a caretaker government to deliver an extension to Article 50 and a free and fair general election. However, he’s unlikely to succeed.

There was strong private support in Brighton, among trade union leaders and centrist Labour MPs, for an interim government led by either Margaret Beckett or Ken Clarke. The unsolved question is: what will be its purpose? 

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Now that MPs are back at Westminster they can, and must, thrash out the preferred options, which are as follows: 

a) A Corbyn-led minority government which oversees an Article 50 extension and an election before Christmas. 

b) A grandee-led coalition involving the Lib Dems and Tory rebels, which delivers an election.

c) Or a version of the above which functions as a true technocratic government and delivers a referendum by March followed by an election later in the spring

The polls are volatile and so is the mood. While political scientists worry about the reliability of straight party preference polls at a time like this, political activists have to rely on experience. Mine is that the mass support for the Johnson/Farage project is real, but still a minority and fragile. 

As long as Johnson is grandstanding to parliament, the judges and the “luvvies” (tabloid speak for educated people) he looks good. Over the next two weeks, parliament has to make him tread a 30-day Via Dolorosa towards an abject climbdown after the European Council. Once that happens, the polls will turn decisively against him. Right-wing voters hate weakness and he will be a multiple loser. 

Already, the fragility of his support among right-wing voters is evident. While the fascists are on the streets chanting for Johnson, and the racist pensioners are getting bussed to Farage’s rallies, the polite conservatives of the Tory shires are deeply worried, and so is business — especially the millions of small and medium business owners who form the backbone of Conservatism. Numerous City voices are saying, quietly, that a Corbyn government restrained by an expanded Lib Dem presence in the Commons is better than the disintegration of our democracy.

In this context, the #StopTheCoup demonstrations were important. They stole the mantle of insurgency from Johnson and may have played into the Supreme Court judgment. The global climate strike injected another element of mass action into the situation and I expect the 7 October Extinction Rebellion (XR) protest to do likewise.

Compared to the vibrant scene on the streets, the Labour Party conference exposed the weakness of the political opposition to Johnson. The real divisions were not on the conference floor — between trade unions and constituency delegates (though these were real and bitter and have implications, as I discuss below).  

The most important practical division lies between a group of centrist MPs who see the technocratic coalition and a referendum as a convenient way of stopping Brexit and sidelining Corbyn, and a group of pro-Corbyn left MPs who, along with their SNP counterparts, want an election as soon as possible. A third group led by Stephen Kinnock, who actually want to vote for Johnson’s deal, look unlikely to be able to do so, but add to the disorganisation.

At root, Brighton showed that Labour’s members and union affiliates would rather be fighting something else than Brexit. They do not see resisting it as a vital part of the class struggle, they continue to fantasise about a “Labour Brexit” and they are prepared to swallow outright lies, which I saw being spread by word of mouth on the conference floor (“if you support Remain it’s an attack on Corbyn”). 

In addition, at constituency level in former industrial areas, the virulence of xenophobia and the understandable anger over the “theft of Brexit by the elite” is demoralising Labour activists and parliamentary candidates. They know that, with its current position, Labour could easily lose Vauxhall to the Lib Dems while losing Barnsley direct to the Brexit Party. But they don’t know what to do about it other than to produce ever more detailed left economic policies that fail to animate the popular imagination.

In these circumstances, there are very few good options for radical social democrats. If Corbyn cannot form a minority government, then given Labour’s weakness, I’ve become convinced that the “referendum first” option is preferable. A referendum between May’s deal versus Remain could take Brexit off the electoral table — but would be unprecedented.

If it’s impossible to produce a short-term technocratic government, then the moment that becomes clear, Labour has to collapse the government and go gangbusters for an election, leading with a limited but radical economic offer focused on climate change and public investment, and the offer of a second referendum.

While the MPs fight trench warfare in the Commons, the labour movement itself has to intersect with XR and maintain the street protests against Johnson. To the leadership of XR, which is trying to detach the protest from official politics, we have to say: you can’t stop a burning planet with Boris Johnson in power. The Lib Dem offer on climate is pitiful and Labour activists are now armed with a concrete Green New Deal offer. If we get this right, making a Labour Green New Deal the centrepiece of our work around the XR protests, every teenager in the country will become an ambassador for a Labour-led progressive government, no matter how their parents voted in the Brexit referendum.

Finally, the Labour conference demonstrated the crying need for the internationalist left to clarify and formalise a political project beyond Corbynism. Forget the appalling optics of the trade union machinations against Remain, free movement and an ambitious net-zero carbon target, and focus on the content: in each case we have union leaders who are using the short term interests and prejudices of their members to put a block on progressive policies that will benefit the whole working class, and indeed the whole country. This will now be amplified as the unions try to impose numerous yes-people as parliamentary candidates, thwarting those committed to Remain-Reform, to free movement and to a net-zero carbon target.

Corbynism is currently less effective than the sum of its parts, and those parts need to work out how to simultaneously co-operate to defeat the party’s right, while creating space to outline where the left project goes in its next phase. 

For a start, we need to democratise the party — fighting for open selections and removing the power of the conference bureaucracy to manipulate what’s debated. But more importantly, the left needs to harness the mass struggles that are bubbling up around climate, austerity and — in Scotland — independence. 

The lesson of the past six weeks is that the masses make the difference. Johnson’s shuffle of shame towards the European Council on 17-18 October will happen against the backdrop of a mass climate civil disobedience movement. He has the power but we have the people, and for the next two weeks, activists in every part of the left need to get busy connecting with the people, preparing them for two weeks of chaos and drama that could begin when Johnson returns from Brussels.

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