It’s crunch time – for both Boris Johnson and Labour. With Johnson’s hard Brexit bill getting a second reading but his parliamentary timetable in ruins, all the options narrow down to a binary choice
Does Labour trigger a snap election, with a high chance of losing – or does it aim for one in March, at the cost of seeing Johnson lord it over the Commons and “get Brexit done”? It’s brutal, but it should be a no brainer for a radical social democrat. We need an election before Christmas.
There are of course arguments against it. In the north of England, Labour MPs in specific former industrial heartland seats fear they’ll lose them if the election is turned into a proxy referendum on Johnson’s deal.
One described this to me as a potential “tsunami” – but in fact it will be a threat localised to specific seats: Burnley, Barnsley or Bassetlaw, for example. The ex-industrial North is in general more pro-Labour than it is pro-Leave. Having been in both Bury seats last week for example, it looks to me like we can hold them, even despite the lack of love for Jeremy Corbyn.
So the rational fears of some MPs can be mitigated if the party leadership is prepared to take a number of bold and unorthodox actions.
First, though the discipline on Leave-leaning Labour MPs has been rightly strong over the Bill and procedure, the party’s conference position would allow them – as Shadow Cabinet Office minister Jon Trickett has already done – to state openly that, in a referendum, they would vote for Brexit.
Second, any Labour candidate who wants to support Leave in a referendum should be allowed to say this, and campaign for it in their local manifesto. It’s entirely congruent with the party’s overall position, and its desire to keep the Leave and Remain-voting sections of the working class together.
Third, the left needs to learn how to fight a defensive campaign in these parts of the north of England while going on the offensive in working-class seats elsewhere: Swindon South, Southampton Itchen, Bolton West and Plymouth Moor view are all takeable – with or without a Liberal Democrat surge and a Nigel Farage effect. In 2017 Momentum rightly ignored the party HQ’s pleas for defensive targeting – but this shouldn’t lead to the left fetishising the offensive in politics, especially where a four-party parallelogram of forces makes the outcome, seat by seat, hard to predict.
Another section of Labour MPs, together with the Liberal Democrats and Tory independents, wants to avoid an election for different reasons: they still dream of a six-month interim government led by Ken Clarke, a “referendum first”, and the convenient end of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party. The Labour right, in addition, think a March election would give them time to mount a leadership challenge against Corbyn.
Today they need a wakeup call. None of this is going to happen.
Clarke, Letwin etc. are fine liberal Tories of the type that will disappear in the next generation, but they are still our class enemies. Their voting patterns this week show it. We can make tactical unity with them to stop Johnson’s bill, but the entire purpose of a delay with a technocratic government would be to keep power in the hands of the elite.
If we refuse the election, Johnson will get his Brexit deal through, and it will be the “will of the people” – albeit narrowly – that we leave the EU. This of course leaves a lot to fight for.
In a March election, Labour could present its alternative post-Brexit policy – which I hope would be close alignment to the Single Market, a customs union and freedom of movement. It could say: now we’ve left we can get on with our anti-poverty strategy, our Green New Deal, and our plan to boost productivity through investing billions in infrastructure and skills.
This is the scenario Johnson fears most: the Churchill scenario where he “wins” the Brexit war but loses the peace. But I would rather go to the polls now.
The reason has nothing to do with my desire to defeat Brexit. Brexit is no longer the main issue: the main issue is whether we can defend democracy, choke off this flood of xenophobia and toxicity, and come out with a country oriented to Europe and the world, rather than to Trump and its own navel.
People are right to be “sick of Brexit”. But when they ask “why won’t they let us leave” the answer has to be clear and principled: because we don’t want to harm our country – economically and diplomatically – by leaping into the void Johnson has prepared.
The cure for toxicity is mass involvement in political action – and that is what an election is. People are tired of marching. How many more marches can there be of one or two million people, which achieve brief exhilaration? How much longer do we want to leave the electorate standing on the sidelines while John Mann and Melanie Onn parade in and out of Downing Street to do deals with their new mate Boris?
There is justified weariness at having to be spectators in the biggest decision facing this country for half a century: that’s what drives the crimson-faced rage and mental stress we see in public debates.
The British people need to become, once again, agents in their own destiny, and if we can’t get a referendum because this parliament won’t vote for one, we must get one by electing a Labour government, or a Labour-led coalition.
If there is anguish and concern about the prospect of an election in Labour’s ranks, it is justified. The relentless tabloid and broadcast attacks on Corbyn have damaged his standing on the doorstep. That is an unavoidable fact.
But the strategic problem for Labour is that its old tribal alliance has fallen apart. When lifelong Labour voters in Yorkshire warn they’ll “lend their votes to Boris to get Brexit done” they are effectively signalling to their counterparts in Govan, Leicester, Merthyr Tydfil and Poplar that they are prepared to subject them to five years of austerity under an English nationalist government, for the sake of a bigger principle. It is the opposite of solidarity.
The emergence of this problem has brought numerous parts of the left face to face with a problem they’ve tried to solve by nostalgia. The real working class of Britain – i.e. the people who actually work – are in their majority cosmopolitan, outward looking, tolerant, networked and skilled. This is true even in the places stigmatised by the liberal intelligentisa as “Leave-voting areas”.
Labour exists to defend the poorest and most vulnerable, and to redistribute wealth towards them, but it can only do so as a party of the real, progressive, multi-ethnic working class – capable of building, on top of that, an offer to the lower middle class in swing seats.
Nobody wants to “abandon” traditional Labour voters in small towns – but if a minority of Labour voters, especially among the old, want to abandon our project of a tolerant, open society, we cannot follow them down that rabbit hole. Better to be clear on that and recalibrate electoral strategy than to go into denial. Ours has to be the party of the future.
So I hope Labour is prepared to trigger an election, through a vote against the Queen’s Speech and a Vote of No Confidence in Johnson’s government. I don’t think Labour can win outright – not because of Corbyn but because of Scotland. The Johnson administration has been a watershed for the political atmosphere in Scotland: to many of those I met in Dundee last weekend, it feels like their nation is handcuffed to a lunatic.
But we can still achieve a Labour-led progressive government, which delivers a second referendum and ends austerity. We can do it by doing something you can’t do when you’re trapped in Parliament night after night: getting onto the doorsteps and making the case.
To win the coming election we are going to need tactical voting in England on an unprecedented scale. The Labour hierarchy will refuse to countenance it but the membership I hope will take matters directly into their own hands. With a clear steer, in the final week of the campaign, it will be possible for every voter in Britain to know how to vote in a way that removes Johnson from office.
A political opposition exists to bring down the government and form a new one. If we fail now, then we try again. The class war is called a “war” for a reason: every major clash is a battle but the stakes in the bigger conflict don’t go away. In fact, with climate change, the fragmentation of the UK and the coming global recession, they’re set to intensify. That’s why I want an election now.