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.