Bitterly divided, chaos ridden, vulnerable to potential rupture: these are all descriptions that could, in many respects, be accurately applied to both the Conservative and Labour parliamentary parties today. Recent weeks in politics have been marked by wrangling, rebellion, manoeuvring and muttering. Chatter about splits and realignments, as well as the possibility of a snap general election, is in the air.
On one side of parliament, the Tory crisis continues to escalate. Each new commons debate or Lords vote serves to heighten the turmoil. Theresa May is perilously close to falling off her tight rope. Both the party’s warring factions threaten to push her fatally off balance. The only thing staying their hands is fear that a general election would deliver a Corbyn-led government – a development they worry might further awaken the appetite of working class people for fundamental, socialist change.
Meanwhile, Labour’s Blairite fifth column remains resolute in its determination to undermine Corbyn and protect the interests of Britain’s capitalist class. The rebellion by 75 MPs (the majority of Labour’s back benchers) in support of the so-called ‘Norway Model’ marked a significant moment in the ongoing battle between Labour’s ‘two parties in one’.
Gushing sentiments exchanged between MPs supposedly on opposite sides of the political divide, hint at what a potential parliamentary realignment might look like. To give one example, on 12 June, the arch-Blairite MP Wes Streeting wrote of one of the most prominent Tory remainers on twitter: “I don’t care what anyone says, Anna Soubry is made of steel. Powerful speech in defence of parliament and democracy.”
Now Chris Leslie, a former Labour shadow chancellor, has published his own ‘centrist manifesto’. While claiming that this is ‘not about a new party’, the stated aim of fleshing-out a political platform for the so-called ‘centre ground’, attempting to go beyond the issue of Brexit, hints strongly that he and others are giving serious consideration to the prospect of a Blairite breakaway or broader realignment. Nonetheless, should a split materialise it is unlikely to clear out all the Blairites. The fight to transform the Labour Party into a workers’ party would remain.
But if recent events have been tumultuous, the period we are entering threatens to be even more so. On 18 June, the government suffered a heavy defeat in the House of Lords over Dominic Grieve’s ‘meaningful vote’ amendment to the EU withdrawal bill. The amendment calls for parliament to be given the final say on any Brexit deal, a position which the so-called ‘hard Brexiteers’ are desperate to avoid. Following the Lords defeat, May now faces the task of trying to avoid a further, more significant, loss in the Commons.
Responding, in part, to mass pressure on the question of the future of the NHS and eager to grab a few positive headlines, May to announced an (in reality paltry) increase in spending on the health service (see front page). But even this has been the subject of a Brexit row. Government ministers have openly disputed May’s claim to be able to fund the spending with money saved as a result of EU withdrawal – the ‘Brexit dividend’.
Veiled threats are very much a thing of the past where the Tory party is concerned. Now, MPs announce that they are considering bringing down May’s administration live on television. On 17 June, Grieve openly stated that rebels could “collapse the government”. The prime minister’s attempts to diffuse the situation over his ‘meaningful vote’ amendment by putting forward a supposed compromise wording, which would have made any parliamentary vote over a Brexit deal effectively non-binding backfired, paving the way for her defeat in the lords.
But it is not just the Tory remain-backers making threats. David Davis, May’s Brexit secretary, is now reported to have threatened to resign on five separate occasions. A walkout by the supporters of a ‘hard Brexit’ from May’s cabinet, including Boris Johnson and David Davis, could trigger the collapse of the government and a possible general election. Even if May is able to cobble together a deal between warring factions and avert an immediate defeat in parliament, further headaches will follow closely behind.
Among the issues still dogging the government is the thorny question of the Irish border. May’s attempt at a sticking plaster – the so-called ‘backstop arrangement’, in which the status quo essentially remains in place pending an undefined ‘new customs arrangement’ – is fraught with contradictions and remains the subject of bitter disagreement. Hostilities could be further heightened as the question of the role of the European Court of Justice – which EU negotiators are demanding is given continued jurisdiction so long as the backstop arrangement remains in place – comes to the fore.
Indeed, there is little prospect that the crisis in the Tory party will ease. On the contrary, it is set to intensify further, potentially to the point of a government collapse. Yet where is the leadership of the trade union and labour movement against the backdrop of all this turmoil? 8 June marked one year since the last general election and the huge surge behind Corbyn’s anti-austerity manifesto. May’s weak, divided government has been able to stumble on only in the absence of mass action being organised to kick the Tories out. The trade union movement has the opportunity to deal a crushing blow to the Tory government. The Trade Union Congress should act now to build mass action against the government, including the coordination of strikes.
At the same time, Corbyn’s blows against the government have been dampened by the Labour leadership’s continued, futile attempt to maintain unity with the party’s pro-capitalist wing. While Corbyn and McDonnell have experienced sustained attack from the Blairites over the last 12 months, barely a shot has been fired in return.
Recent events revealed more sharply than ever what’s really at stake in Labour’s civil war. The 75 MPs backing the ‘Norway Model’ – which would mean signing up to a package of neoliberal rules and regulations in return for access to the European Economic Area – were placing their loyalty to the interests of the capitalist class first and foremost. The love-in between the Blairite right and pro-remain elements on the Conservative benches has demonstrated that the label ‘red Tories’ is no exaggeration.
The potential for a snap general election gives renewed urgency to the task of taking on the Blairites. Any Jeremy Corbyn-led government would face ferocious attack from the capitalist class, who will fight determinedly to protect their interests. But, should a snap election be called, a Corbyn victory is far from guaranteed.
Among the possible pitfalls is the potential that the Blairites continue to muddy the water on the question of Brexit, leaving working class people confused and potentially suspicious as to what the party really stands for. The role of right-wing Kier Starmer as shadow Brexit secretary has already served to significantly muffle the position put by Corbyn on the negotiations – in defence of working class people and opposing privatisation demanded by the EU.
Socialist approach to EU
The Socialist Party has been consistent in calling for a class-based, socialist approach to the EU. For us, the question is not ‘hard or soft Brexit’, but Brexit in whose class interests? We call for Corbyn to adopt a socialist, internationalist approach to the negotiations, which has as its ‘red lines’: tearing up the EU bosses’ club rules and demanding workers’ rights; an end to all neoliberal regulations that demand austerity and privatisation; removing the barriers to policies such as nationalisation; stopping the ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and conditions created by the posted workers’ directive and other rules; guaranteed rights for all EU workers living in the UK; and an anti-racist, pro-refugee rights position.
If Corbyn were to adopt such a stand and articulate it clearly and directly, not allowing the likes of Kier Starmer to confuse, dilute and subvert the message, then, along with clear socialist policies, it could lay the basis for winning mass support among working class people.
Indeed this approach should be applied more broadly. In a recent interview on Radio 4, John McDonnell was at pains to reassure big business that they have nothing to fear from a Corbyn-led government. He explained how he had put his cards on the table with the boss of HSBC bank when they met recently: “let me be clear, we are not going to nationalise the banks” he reported saying. But nationalising the banks is exactly the type of measure that will be necessary to prevent the kind of sabotage a Corbyn government would be likely to face from the capitalist establishment if it threatens their profits.
Rather than spending their time reassuring mega-rich business leaders, Corbyn and McDonnell should instead be preparing working class people to fight to defend their anti-austerity stand and go further. Ultimately to meet the demands and aspirations of working class people, that means being prepared to carry through the socialist transformation of society.