Plans for blue murder
Eddie Ford is not remotely surprised that Theresa May has called a snap election
As we predicted, Theresa May has gone for an early election. Droves of commentators and MPs claim to be “shocked” and “stunned” by the decision, but, if anything, I am slightly surprised that she prevaricated for so long. To its credit, the Labour Party too had expected this to happen sooner or later - having being on a near permanent election standby ever since Theresa May’s crowning.
What is a bit astonishing are those, whether on the left or the right, who appeared to actually believe May when she said there would be no early or snap election - were they really that naive? Her constant talk about needing a period of “stability” in order to “deal with the issues that the country is facing”, and so on, was painfully transparent guff - you hardly needed to be a genius to work that out. It was only to be expected that the Tories, inside and outside of parliament, would play along with this charade and downplay the idea of an early general election - pontificating about putting the national interest first, and all the rest of it. But in the end the inevitable happened and Theresa May has chosen to ruthlessly advance the interests of the Tory Party and those whose interests it serves.
In her unscheduled speech outside Downing Street on April 18,1 the prime minister essentially made the case that she needs to secure a hard Brexit majority. So she wants the June 8 general election to be another referendum on Brexit - just as all the by-elections up until now have been mini-referendums about Europe, whatever the specific local context. She went on to argue that there needs to be an election now because at this particular juncture there was a “one-off chance” to prepare for a successful Brexit, “while the European Union agrees its negotiating position and before the detailed talks begin”.
However, she declared - completely disingenuously - that the “country is coming together, but Westminster is not”. You cannot trust the professional politicians, especially those in the opposition parties - who are out to wreck Brexit in any way they can. But luckily you have Theresa May speaking up for the ordinary working people. Or, as the Daily Mail put it rather directly, “Crush the saboteurs” - it praised May’s “stunning move” that “calls the bluff” of the “game-playing remoaners” (April 19). Meanwhile The Sun predicted that June 8 will “kill off Labour” in what would be “blue murder” (April 19).
Continuing on the theme of treachery, May declared that “our opponents believe that because the government’s majority is so small, our resolve will weaken and that they can force us to change course” - but this will never happen under her watch. She will fight them on the beaches, in the halls of the parliament and the negotiating rooms of Brussels. Concluding her argument with total hypocrisy, she said June 8 represented a “moment” to show that “you are not opposing the government for the sake of it” or “treat politics as a game” - rather, “it will be a choice between strong and stable leadership in the national interest, with me as your prime minister, or weak and unstable coalition government”. Just as the Tories did in the last general election, May is trying to scare English voters by conjuring up the spectre of a Labour-Scottish National Party coalition government with maybe the Lib Dems thrown in for good measure.
Naturally, Jeremy Corbyn welcomed the opportunity to “give the British people the chance to vote for a government that will put the interests of the majority first” - with Labour offering an “effective alternative” to a government that has “failed to rebuild the economy, delivered falling living standards and damaging cuts to our schools and NHS”. As our readers doubtlessly know, under the 2011 Fixed-Terms Parliaments Act, it requires two-thirds of MPs to vote for the dissolution of parliament and the holding of a fresh election - the prime minister cannot just directly call an election whenever he or she feels like it. But after a 90-minute debate following PMQs on April 19, both Labour and the Lib Dems voted for Theresa May’s motion allowing for the dissolution of parliament on May 3 - with the SNP abstaining on the grounds that it believed in the principle of fixed-term parliaments, although it would not “stand in the way” of an early election.
Interestingly, May has ruled out participation in any TV debates with other party leaders and political opponents - saying rather pathetically that elections were all about “getting out and about and meeting voters” and “knocking on doors”. The truth is that May fears she would come off second best, following Corbyn’s performance in televised debates prior to the Labour leadership elections. Why give him a helping hand, when, as it stands, Labour is heading for a thrashing, thanks to the overt opposition to Corbyn’s leadership from the right of the Parliamentary Labour Party?
It is worth noting that for some the thought of campaigning under Corbyn in a general election was simply too much to bear. Both Tom Blenkinsop and Alan Johnson have announced they will not stand for re-election in June. John Woodcock too, MP for Barrow-in-Furness, has said he “will not countenance” voting for Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister because of the Labour leader’s stated opposition to nuclear weapons - though he still plans to seek re-election on June 8. A career is a career, after all. Perhaps bringing some joy to the heart of such careerists, Corbyn has said Labour MPs will be automatically reselected as candidates in their constituencies, as there is insufficient time to consult local members before polling day.2
Needless to say, there are several secondary reasons for Theresa May’s decision. For example, there is the fact that a June 8 election will have the useful side-effect of shoving aside the embarrassing expenses scandal that has seen the Crown Prosecution Service and 14 police forces investigate up to 24 Tory MPs for all manner of financial wrongdoings.3 Obviously, if they were all disqualified - admittedly an unlikely scenario - then May would lose her majority. She also wants to “smash rebels too”, to use the words of The Sun (April 19).
But, of course, the number-one explanation has been Labour’s consistently appalling poll ratings. What Tory leader, let alone Tory prime minister, is going to pass over an opportunity to decimate her majesty’s official opposition? Or, as the satirical website, Newthump, aptly puts it, “Theresa May announces snap annihilation of the Labour Party.”4 Two recent surveys have Labour trailing by 21 points.5 A ComRes poll for TheIndependent and Sunday Mirror has the Tories on 46% and Labour on a miserable 25% - with the Lib Dems enjoying a mild renaissance on 11%, the UK Independence Party stuck at 9% and the Greens on 4%. Meanwhile, a YouGov report for The Times has the Conservatives on 44%, with Labour trailing on 23%.
Putting things into true perspective, the Labour Party under Ed Miliband had a healthy-looking 13% lead over the Tories in a YouGov poll published at this stage in the electoral cycle - although we all know what happened. And remember, this is all in the midst of Corbyn’s supposed reinvention as a ‘populist’ - which has seen him talk about introducing VAT on private school fees in order to pay for free school meals, increasing the carer’s allowance by £10 a week, more money for the NHS, etc. Also, in this period the Labour leader has kept a near monastic silence about the ‘anti-Semitic’ allegations and smears - thinking if you just keep on talking about the NHS and all things nice for long enough, you will eventually reach peak popularity.
But what has been the result of this ‘populist turn’? Poll ratings that indicate Labour is on the verge of a 1931-style wipeout, which saw Labour reduced to a rump in parliament - at the very least, Labour is heading towards a crushing defeat, especially now that Scotland has been all but lost (not that everything is going the way of the SNP). Some papers would have us believe that there is going to be a massive upsurge of the centre ground, but this is nonsense. The Lib Dems might well double their number of seats ... but so what? The plain, unpalatable truth is that the post-Brexit Tories are in the ascendency, Theresa May winning more voters to her side - partially from Labour, but crucially from Ukip. Indeed, the latter is losing people hand over fist to the Tories - with Diana James, the extraordinarily short-lived former leader of the party, now “considering” running for parliament as a Conservative.
Of course, we don’t even have to wait until June 8 to test out Labour’s popularity - or otherwise - in the real world, as opposed to the mysterious realm of psephology. On May 4 we have the local elections, the widespread expectation being that Labour will lose about 125 councils, whilst the Lib Dems will gain up to 100. Even worse, at least in terms of symbolism, the general betting is that Glasgow - which has been Labour-controlled since 1980 - will be captured by the SNP. That would be extremely bad news indeed for Labour.
However, we should not be obsessing about poll ratings - or election results either, for that matter. Even the anarchistic, ‘direct action’ Socialist Workers Party has succumbed to this malady, crazily informing us that one way for Corbyn to save Labour from its “poll quagmire” is by “backing Scottish independence” (Socialist Worker April 11). If Corbyn were to be foolish enough to follow the SWP’s advice, Scottish Labour would immediately split in the name of the union. SWP comrades seem to have taken leave of their senses, mixing left Labourism with SNP-style nationalism.
Of course, we call for people to vote Labour, just as the SWP does, but this is not our aim in and of itself - that by definition would be capitulation to opportunism. No, first and foremost we must fight to transform the Labour Party and, more broadly still, root the idea of socialism and the alternative society in the working class movement, so it becomes a truly popular idea - something that ordinary people can understand and want to struggle for. Or, as Keir Hardie splendidly said in 1910, our MPs should be in parliament “not to keep governments in office or to turn them out, but to organise the working class into a great political power to fight for the coming of socialism”.6
Like Keir Hardie, we want to build up an army for socialism - not elect this or that government into office regardless of its leadership or programme. Given our perspective, we are not surprised or horrified by the latest opinion polls - as we do not believe that even the worst Labour government is better than any Tory government, as many on the left seem to take as a matter of faith. What matters is the organised strength and political understanding of the working class ... something not taken forward by those obsessed with electing a Labour government for the sake of a Labour government. Hence, we want Labour to be a genuine alternative to the Tories, and the capitalist system as a whole - one that aims to mobilise the working class and does not base its strategy on winning over the likes of the Daily Mirror, Sun or The Guardian. If Labour were to become such a party - a militant opposition working with other forces in Europe - then an electoral defeat need not be at all catastrophic. Rather, it would act as a spur to greater political activity and clarification. And if Labour did become a party worthy of socialism, it would be attacked infinitely more fiercely than anything we have seen up to now - no amount of ‘news management’ or clever-clever presentation would stave off the assaults. Instead, you would be forced to fight fire with fire.
Alas though, a lot of people on the left are looking at these polls and despairing, because they have been fed the story, or lie, from groups like the Labour Representation Committee that if you present a wish list of left reformist demands (more council housing, NHS money, etc) then you will almost automatically become popular. Jeremy Corbyn, the leader dreamed of for so long by these sections of the Labour left, was meant to be a shoo-in - their route to power and the social democratic paradise.
If you really believed all that malarkey, then you are bound to become disillusioned - meaning you either drop out, as some are likely to do post-June 8, or move sharply to the right in the manner of former Trotskyists such as Dave Osler, Owen Jones and Paul Mason. The latter now thinks the opposition parties “should come together to ensure a tactical vote for the best-placed anti-Tory candidate” in order to get a “social justice” Brexit. Mason wants Labour to “promise to lead a coalition” at Westminster with a view to holding a “normal” election in spring 2019 to “ratify any deal the incoming government does” (The Guardian April 19). The logical extension of this argument is that Jeremy Corbyn should make way for another leader with more ‘sensible’ politics.
We in the CPGB totally disagree. Labour partisans should redouble their struggle for independent working class politics - totally rejecting coalitionism and critically defending Jeremy Corbyn from the forces to his right.
6. R Miliband Parliamentary socialism: a study in the politics of Labourism London 1973, p29.