Appeal to class loyalty
Boris Johnson has finally got his election to ‘get Brexit done’, writes Eddie Ford, but the final result is anyone’s guess.
On his fourth attempt, Boris Johnson finally got what he wanted. With Labour backing he secured a general election for December 12 by 438 to 20 votes after the European Union granted a ‘flextension’ until January 31. While Jeremy Corbyn - who declared that the election would represent a “once-in-a-generation chance to transform our country” - is satisfied that this rules out no deal, in reality it just means moving the cliff edge again. Interestingly, given the Fixed-Term Parliament Act, does this mean that every election from now on will have to be in December?
Previously, the prime minister had failed in his bid to get an election under FTPA terms - needing two-thirds but only getting 299 of the 434 votes required to pass, with 70 MPs voting against the motion and the remainder abstaining. As that happened before the EU came to its final decision on an extension, Labour and the opposition were still spooked by the thought of a ‘no deal’ crash-out on October 31 - it was not worth the gamble. Maybe Emmanuel Macron would not budge and insist on a very short extension that ruled out an election or even a veto, however unlikely that might have seemed. The opposition parties also objected to the fact that the vote was linked to another hurried effort by Boris Johnson to get his Withdrawal Agreement Bill through parliament before it was dissolved to make way for the election - having rejected last week the government’s proposed three-day timetable (“programme motion”) for the bill.
Still desperate for an election, the prime minister agreed to put WAB on ice for the duration of this parliament and instead replicated - or photocopied - a simple one-page bill proposed by both the Liberal Democrats and the Scottish National Party seeking to amend the FTPA by providing a one-off definite date for the election: in this case December 9. Under the unamended FTPA, the prime minister can use his royal prerogative powers to set the date for the election - suspicious MPs fearing that he might use jiggery-pokery to get election day falling after the new deadline of January 31, or engage in some other form of skulduggery. The Lib Dems’ and SNP’s sudden enthusiasm for an election was an acceptance that a second referendum was never going to happen with this government or parliament - the only way to achieve that goal is to get more ‘remain’ MPs elected. Of course, Johnson’s WAB is a live grenade for both parties, the Lib Dems in particular. If it were ever to pass and therefore ‘get Brexit done’, their core appeal to ‘remain’ voters would be at serious risk - hence they might have calculated that it was a ‘now or never’ moment to get a ‘remain’-fuelled surge at the ballot box.
As for Ian Blackford of the SNP, when asked whether he accepted that a potential outcome of a general election could be a Tory majority and thus a no-deal Brexit, he replied that is was “up to the Labour Party and others in England and Wales to do their job in defeating the Conservatives”, whilst “we will do that in Scotland”. Blackford added that in Scotland “we have the insurance policy of having a referendum on independence”, which the SNP obviously intends to make the central election issue.
When it came to the actual vote on the early election bill, the Lib Dems and SNP abstained because their preferred day of December 9 was rejected - apparently those three days would make all the difference. Almost half of all Labour MPs were absent or voted against the legislation - a sign of unhappiness about a snap election. A total of 127 Labour MPs, including Corbyn, actually voted for Johnson’s bill. Those rejecting an election included strongly pro-‘remain’ campaigners, such as Margaret Beckett, Peter Kyle, David Lammy and Owen Smith - the useless leadership candidate, who said he would be standing down in any case.
Parliament will dissolve by November 6 for a short campaign of five weeks, so long as the House of Lords passes Johnson’s legislation over the coming days - which it will.
Speaking in the House of Commons, Boris Johnson argued that a “new and revitalised” parliament was needed to take Britain out of the EU. “We are left with no choice but to go to the country to break free from this impasse,” he told MPs - it was time for the country to “come together to get Brexit done”. However, he struck a far more cautious note later at a backbench meeting of Tory MPs, telling them that it would be “a tough election but we will do the best we can” - not exactly the Churchillian rhetoric you would expect.
Just like many Labour MPs, lots of Tories are less than overjoyed by the thought of an election. One worried: “It’s like a can of paint. Once it’s open, it’s going to splatter everywhere. No-one really knows how it’s going to turn out”. Another said: “You’d be hard pressed to find a colleague who is certain this election is a good idea.” Some fear that knocking on doors just before Christmas will generate a backlash, while others are anxious, understandably enough, about how Boris Johnson’s noticeable failure to “die in a ditch” will impact on voters. Will they buy his narrative that parliament is to blame for the breaking of the October 31 deadline or rather punish him by voting instead for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party? Furthermore, how do the Tories make net gains, when their own ministers predict big losses in Scotland, where they hold 13 seats. Questions, questions, questions.
Building some bridges as part of his election campaign, Boris Johnson has restored the party whip to 10 of the 21 rebel MPs who were kicked out of the parliamentary party in September after they voted for the Benn Act (‘surrender act’). Four have already announced that they will stand down at the election, but the others will be free to seek re-election as Conservatives, subject to the agreement of their local parties.
One of those still whipless, former chancellor Philip Hammond, said he feared the ‘leave’ “cohort that has seized control in Downing Street and to some extent in the headquarters of the Conservative Party” wanted to use the election to remove MPs like himself from the Commons and in general “change the shape of the Conservative Party in parliament” - ie, move it sharply to the right and become the ‘Vote Leave Party’. Perhaps with a hint of desperation, it seems some Tory MPs are asking the Brexit Party not to run candidates in their seats, according to the Brexit Party chair, Richard Tice, who said he had received a frantic text message from one Tory, who had urged Nigel Farage not to stand a candidate in his constituency, as that might let in the Lib Dems.
The Brexit Party has so far vetted 600 candidates for a general election and there is a presumption it is aiming to stand in all 650 seats - it took 29 seats in this year’s European elections and also has four Welsh assembly members. However, Farage is still offering the Tories a “non-aggression pact”- which is a bit odd, when you consider that he denounced Boris Johnson’s EU deal. Anyway, the Brexit Party wants a free shot at Labour heartland seats and in return it has offered not to run where a Tory MP is enthusiastically backing its brand of Brexit or where a Tory has a reasonable chance at beating a Labour rival. But his offer has been contemptuously dismissed by the Tory leadership, a No10 source saying Farage was “not fit” to be allowed near government. Boris Johnson is still convinced that he can mop up Brexit Party votes by pitching ‘the people against parliament’ in the election - the heroic struggler against the arrogant metropolitan elite.
You could argue that these nervous Tory MPs are worrying too much, if the latest Opinium poll for The Observer is anything to go by. That has the Tories on 40%, Labour at 24%, Lib Dems with 15% and the Brexit Party getting a fairly low 10% - meaning that Labour is standing still, which is not good news, whilst you do not have to be a genius to work out that Boris Johnson’s strategy appears to be working. He is encroaching upon the Brexit Party. Then again, some pundits are predicting that there will be a “record number” of non-Conservative and non-Labour MPs in the coming parliament, maybe over a hundred - making the thumping majorities of the past near impossible.
Another interesting poll by Opinium reveals that 57% of adults surveyed believed that the Brexit referendum should never have been called at all - compared with 29% of voters who believed it was the right decision (the rest were ‘don’t knows’). This demonstrates why the CPGB was right to call for an active boycott of the referendum. If Labour and the trade unions had refused to support an anti-democratic and fraudulent operation, we would be in a much better place politically. As things stand now, independent working class politics barely exists - trammelled into the bourgeois politics of either the ‘leave’ or ‘remain’ camps.
It is worth mentioning again the 19 Labour MPs who defied the whip by voting for the second reading of Boris Johnson’s WAB, whether because they believe the prime minister’s promises or out of electoral advantage purely for themselves. This despite the fact that leaked documents obtained by the Financial Times showed the government is planning to demolish workers’ rights after Brexit - which should hardly come as a blinding revelation.
We read that the workers’ rights and environmental commitments contained in Johnson’s Brexit deal leave “room for interpretation”. The leak suggests that the government thinks it will be able to disregard pledges to maintain a “level playing field” and find ways to erode employment rights after Britain has left the EU. According to a government memo, it can now be argued that it is “inappropriate for the future UK-EU relationship” that disputes about commitments on employment and other areas, such as the environment, tax and state aid, should be subject to binding arbitration. The FT comments that the British government’s understanding of what constitutes a level playing field will be “very different” from the EU’s and that the pledge is a “much more open starting point” for negotiating a trade deal in the future. In other words, a plan for a reduction in regulations, whereby the UK would try to out-compete on the basis of generous tax cuts for corporations and the wealthy, combined with exploitative working conditions, low wages, environmental destruction, and so on.
Labour will need to appeal to class loyalty in the general election. We expect another woolly manifesto that commits Labour to running capitalism in the interests of ‘the many, not the few’. But the left needs to be clear - that is impossible. We fight for a clear, socialist perspective.
Not that the issue of Brexit can be avoided. Far from it. Oppose all proposals for a withdrawal. Deny the legitimacy of David Cameron’s June 2016 referendum. Fight for sweeping constitutional changes both in the UK and the EU: abolish all monarchies, abolish all second chambers, abolish standing armies, abolish the EU commission and council of ministers. Establish a popular militia, for PR elections and a sovereign EU parliament.