The clock is continuing to tick for British Prime Minister Theresa May and the Tories. The stakes are high for everyone – May and the Tories and behind them the British capitalist establishment. But also for the working class and the labour and trade union movement. What happens in the next few weeks can be critical.
May’s Brexit deal goes to the vote in parliament on 11 December and as we go to press, it is looking likely that it will fall. This would be a huge setback for big business, which, at this stage, despite their Remain position, have reluctantly become reconciled to May’s fudged deal.
This is because it is the softest possible Brexit that attempts to retain as much of the neoliberal rules and directives of the EU that they believe they can get away with. As the vote nears, doomsday scenarios from the financial institutions, including the Bank of England, are being brought out to give the impression that May’s deal is the only option.
There may be a TV debate between May and opposition Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn on the deal [though the BBC has withdrawn from televising the event]. But the danger is that the labour and trade union movement reduce themselves to bystanders, even though this vicious anti-working class Tory government is tottering and nearly off its feet. In a period such as this, the movement must urgently act. We have called for an emergency Trade Union Congress general council that should organise a mass demonstration around the demand of ‘Tories Out – for an immediate general election.’
If this had been done, it could have totally changed the situation. However, in the absence of this action, other forces are attempting to fill the vacuum that can divide the working class. Ukip and the far-right figure, Tommy Robinson, have called an opportunist and divisive ‘Brexit betrayal’ demonstration two days before the parliamentary vote on 9 December.
This will be countered by Remainers campaigning for a ‘People’s Vote’ – in reality a second referendum – allowing Robinson and Ukip to portray themselves as the defenders of democracy in upholding the 2016 result.
But if there was a mass anti-Tory, anti-austerity demonstration led by Corbyn, John McDonnell and the trade unions, it would have the potential to unite workers against the government. This should have already been called – time has been lost – but plans should now urgently be put in place to call such a demonstration on 15 December if May loses her vote.
Imagine if Corbyn used the TV debate to appeal to workers and their families to come to such a mobilisation, promising that he will table a vote of no-confidence if the deal is lost. He could put forward the anti-austerity programme of last year’s general election, explaining how his policies to renationalise the railways, Royal Mail and other privatised services and industries would run counter to EU regulations and May’s deal. He could also explain how such a government would link up with workers’ struggles across Europe, such as the fuel protests in France against Macron, the poster-boy of many pro-austerity Remainers.
This would immediately change the whole debate – giving a working-class alternative to the Tory and Blairite Remainers and the Tory hard Brexiteers, both of them committed to protecting the profits of big business at the expense of workers.
However, the pressure is being put on Corbyn and McDonnell to retreat. Over the weekend, Sir Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, has cranked up this message still further. McDonnell’s earlier interview with the BBC signalled a passive acceptance that a general election will not be held: “We should have a general election but that’s a very difficult thing to do because of the legislation that David Cameron brought forward. If that’s not possible, we’ll be calling for the government to join us in a public vote.”
McDonnell justified this because of the “difficulty” in overcoming Cameron’s Fixed-Term Parliament Act. But this poses things in purely parliamentary terms and ignores the potential of a mass movement that he could lead with Corbyn and the unions in fighting for an election. He should remember the protest in Parliament Square in 2016, organised when the Parliamentary Labour Party were meeting as part of the attempted Corbyn coup. It helped to galvanise the campaign to defeat the Blairites. Better still, he should remind himself that despite the Act, there was a general election called last year, just two years into the five-year term. And the result has left May’s government in crisis!
McDonnell has also admitted holding secret talks with Blairite spin-doctors Alistair Campbell and Tom Baldwin, now playing a leading role in the People’s Vote campaign, allowing sections of the media to strengthen the emphasis on another referendum at the expense of a general election. The People’s Vote campaign includes the likes of Tory Anna Soubry and Blairites Chuka Umunna and Sadiq Khan, who virulently oppose Corbyn and his polices.
This is a dangerous road, creating a perception that perhaps Corbyn is allying with the neoliberal pro-EU campaigners. The Momentum group are one of the organisations supporting the 9 December Remain demonstration. All this is an anticipation of how he could come under huge pressure if elected into government. Actually, the Blairites see a second referendum as a means to avoid a Corbyn-led Labour government.
Corbyn must stand firm in opposition to any Brexit deal that retains the anti-working class, neoliberal and pro-austerity features of the EU bosses’ club. He should whip Labour MPs to vote against May’s deal, and should it fail, be prepared to table a vote of no-confidence in order to force a general election. But it should be backed up by a mass mobilisation of the working class through joint action by Corbyn and the trade union movement. This is the urgent strategy needed to force the Tories out and unite workers for a socialist alternative.