Image: Jeremy Corbyn at 2018 Labour Party Conference. Rights: Han Yan/PA ImagesThree parties, three delusions. Sorry to disappoint (depending on your point of view) but there’s not going to be a ‘people’s vote’ / second referendum, nor an early General Election, nor Boris Johnson becoming leader of the Conservative Party.
Johnson’s leadership hopes, at least, we can dispose of quickly. With Conservative MPs voting via a secret ballot for the top two candidates for party leader, Johnson is way, way short of getting his much sought-after opportunity. Daily Telegraph front page splashes at the drop of a column, and a fawning fan base amongst the Tory members, is about all he can now look forward to. And as his chances of a leadership bid disappear even both of those will rapidly lose their impact too. My heart bleeds.
Why we won’t have a People’s Vote or an early General Election
Far more serious are the closely linked delusions of a second referendum and early General Election. While it is foolhardy to rule anything out in politics the likelihood of either are on the outer margins of remote. Their enthusiasts have been allowed to get away with ignoring the parliamentary arithmetic for far too long. As MPs return to Westminster it’s time everyone wised up.
Labour (kind of) backing a second referendum via a barnstorming Keir Starmer speech was one of the supposed highlights of Labour’s conference. But while a crowd-pleaser for the People’s Vote crowd, it was pretty irrelevant. Lib-Dems, SNP, Plaid, Green, most Labour MP’s can push for a People’s Vote as much as they like. But there won’t be enough of them to defeat a Tory-DUP majority unless about 30 Tory Remain rebels vote to split their party for a generation, ending their own careers in the process. At every twist and turn of the Brexit saga so far the so-called Tory rebels have largely failed to deliver the votes when it mattered. Why should it be any different this time?
And if they Tory remain rebels did deliver? There remains a huge unanswerable. Polls suggest the result would be narrow, whoever won. Just suppose the vote to leave is reversed by a 51% to 49% majority. Where would that leave us? It is ironic that the most ardent supporters of a People’s Vote are also backers of Proportional Representation, yet here are more than happy to back the worst possible version of First Past the Post. Any referendum on constitutional change should surely be subject to both a turnout and requirement for a two-thirds majority. Anything less is a democratic disaster waiting to happen.
So, no second referendum before Brexit Day, 29.03.19. And though conference delegates rapturously received Corbyn’s call for an early General Election, that is right off the scale of possibilities. Under the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, the next election is due on 5th May 2022. Wishing something to happen doesn’t make it reality.
Again, do the maths. This time we are looking for 30+ pro-Remain Tory MP’s willing to not just split their party but to destroy it by voting with the Opposition to bring their own government down. Of course on the other wing of the party there are the Tory Leave hardliners but very few of them want anything more than simply getting out of the EU.
Of course on the other wing of the party there are the Tory Leave hardliners. Ideologically-driven, sure, but for the most part just getting out of the EU will be sufficient, they’ll force a no-deal if necessary, but bring down their own government? I doubt it.
Michael Gove has quietly but persuasively suggested to his parliamentary colleagues that once out of the EU almost anything they want is possible. So why would they throw away that opportunity in order to topple May?
If there’s one factor that unites all the Tory parliamentary factions above all else, it’s the absolute necessity of clinging on to power, and they’ll sacrifice almost anything to maintain that. The DUP? They are not going to give the opportunity to win power to any party with a smidgen of commitment to a United Ireland – something a Corbyn government would have more than a smidgen of.
So no chance there of forcing an early General `election. And if, or more likely when, May is replaced by AN Other Tory leader, then he or she is going to want to hold on to office for as long as possible and certainly not make the same disastrous mistake as May by calling a snap General Election.
Corbynism vs the threat of the populist Right
Whilst they fire up their various enthusiasts, these delusions need to be put to bed as quickly as possible in order to wise up to the reality, and prepare for a General Election that will take place three years and a few months after Brexit has already taken place.
Not nice, but that’s the political terrain of the near future. And nobody really knows what it will end up looking like. Probably not the free trade nirvana of a Global Britain that the most fervent Leavers are promising us. Nor the entirely scorched earth economic wasteland that ardent Remainers warn us of. Probably somewhere in-between. Britain doing what it’s best at, coping, while the fabric of our society is slowly torn to shreds.
Labour will seek to set out an agenda for post-Brexit economic revival that John McDonnell began to describe in his well-received conference speech. Freed from the Brexit impasse, this is Labour’s big opportunity. Not just to break from neoliberalism and the austerity it has imposed on us, but to shape a popular base for an alternative.
But post-Brexit such a project is likely to be underway in much changed political circumstances. When Brexit fails to deliver any kind of boost to either the economy or our hard-pressed public services, the risk is a populist backlash. And waiting in the wings to take advantage are a revived, racist, populist Right. Not UKIP Mk 2 – potentially something much bigger and nastier than that. Something prepared to say that yes we got out of the EU, but that’s not enough we need to get rid of immigration too, and they can take their Mosques with them. Check the polls right now. A party that barely exists, UKIP, is hovering at around 10%. Imagine where they would be if they were actually functioning, and if voters were fired up by the kind of backlash I am describing.
This isn’t fascism, the kneejerk labelling of preference for sections of the Left. In many ways that would make it easier to confront and defeat. Jackboots and swastikas thankfully have only had deposit-losing support amongst the British electorate. Rather, it’s a toxic mix of racism, Islamophobia and English nationalism.
We shouldn’t restrict ourselves to narrow party-political self-interest. For one thing, it’s just as conceivable that a populist Right could split the Labour vote in some seats, as split the Tory vote in others. But these, to put it mildly, are short-term considerations. A successful populist Right would shift the entire political discourse towards a much uglier place than even where we are now. Racism and immigration would come to dominate politics in the way Brexit did.
Labour is better placed than others to face down this challenge, to articulate a different sense of community, nation and the world than the one that the populist Right seek to establish. To expose the causes of, and solutions to, the genuine grievances working-class communities faced, both before and after Brexit. This is what Labour needs to be preparing for, now, with localised, community campaigning of a sort the party has too infrequently engaged with in the past but thanks to the huge surge of membership and enthusiasm it has the potential to initiate now on an unprecedented scale. Backed with not just physical resources but the vital intangibles of imagination and hope too.
All of this will be of considerably more significance than the much talked-about Centrist party of some media commentators’ dreams. Ending their parliamentary career with lost deposits is only attractive to the most embittered few Labour MPs. Swapping Westminster for jobs that will pay them handsomely for their undoubted talent is likely to be a much more tempting proposition. And for those who stick it out there’s the opportunity to hold the balance of power, and real influence, should Labour form either a minority government or govern with a wafer-thin majority. If I shared their politics (I don’t) I know which one I’d plump for. A handful of possible reselection contests won’t change the calculations. But a combination of bridge-building within the PLP and a party membership confident in the party’s policies just might.
The electoral challenge ahead
But first Labour has to win. Apart from a changed political terrain, we can also be fairly certain that it won’t be Theresa May leading the Tories by 2022, unless Brexit has gone swimmingly well…
Both the Conservatives and the Lib Dems are likely to have more formidable leaders than at present, and to run better campaigns than they did in 2017 (it would be hard for any of that to be worse).
And the Tories will be favoured by boundary changes too, if they can force them through, as well as by new obstacles to voter registration including the rolling out of voter ID. All of this will depress turnout in precisely the areas and demographics Labour most needs to win. In crude terms it needs its 66 target seats, and a swing of just 3.6%, for an outright majority. Though we shouldn’t forget that a mere 0.98% swing the other way, delivers the same to the Tories. Even this far out it’s fairly obvious the next General Election is going to be very tight, with the result entirely determined by Labour’s targets and defences. Nothing else much matters.
One complication along the way is likely to be Scotland. Much ignored by the English Labour Left, 18 of the 66 Labour targets are in Scotland. All are SNP held currently, and the SNP was also second in the four ultra-marginals Labour currently holds north of the border. Scotland is both crucial to a Labour victory.
Currently Labour is making next to no headway in Scotland; a distant third to the SNP and the Scots Tories in the polls. It’s MSPs are in the process of an almighty bust-up that makes the Westminster PLP sweetness and light in comparison. Fortunately the Scottish Parliamentary elections take place in 2021 a year before the General Election. If Scottish Labour fails to make gains by then, the priority surely should be to win Tory held English seats and leave the SNP to their own devices. After all, it’s a battle with a broadly social-democratic party, not the Tories. A party that will (if Labour fail to win an overall majority) vote to support the vast majority of the Bills Labour puts forward, either in formal coalition or backing a Labour minority government.
Such a strategy has nothing to do with tactical voting , or the ‘Progressive Alliance’ as proposed by Compass and others. Backing the candidate of a party you don’t actually believe in has next to no positive appeal for the hundreds of thousands who’ve joined Labour overflowing with enthusiasm and commitment. Campaigning for them is the closest thing to anathema I can imagine. It is an entirely negative tactic. Tactical campaigning is the precise opposite, and it will help Labour win in those 66 seats it must gain for victory.
Remarkably, in my neck of the woods (East Sussex) it will be on the streets of Hastings, Crawley and East Worthing that history stands to be be made. OK, Hastings is used to a spot of history-making, but Crawley? Worthing! Crawley, number 45 on the list of 66. Worthing bubbling under just outside the 66 but in with more than a shout of a Labour gain. Win Crawley and Labour is well on the way to being the largest party, win East Worthing and it has a majority and preparing to form a government.
Historic, because when 2022 comes it will be just like ’45 and ’79, a General Election that establishes a new consensus. Attlee and the post-war settlement. Thatcher and the beginning of its replacement with neoliberalism. In 2022 Corbyn threatens to break with neoliberalism, and this autumn what has fired up Labour more than anything else has been the mapping out the politics that will come in its place. Not just in places like Crawley and Worthing, but also in Thurrock, Telford, Mansfield, Corby, Walsall, Stevenage and the like – this is where history will be made. Not in Westminster or think-tanks but in those towns, on their streets. We live in frightening times right now, but a period of hope and expectation too, an era when taking part really can make a difference. The sands are shifting but there are waves to make too. Its our turn now to make some history. Personally, I can’t wait.
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