According to the media over the 8-9 July weekend, the argument among Tory MPs is whether to replace Theresa May now by David Davis, or to wait to replace her until the autumn. Even Tory party chair Grant Shapps has no confidence in May: “Theresa May will need to operate a completely different model to remain in power”. Getting May out will be a first step in bringing down the Tory government. Only a first step.
Tory writers proverbially boost their party as “the most formidable fighting machine in political history”. There is half-truth to it: under Davis or some other new leader, the Tories will not quietly fade, but dodge, swerve, and push to get through the storm. Only half-truth. Many Tories now reckon their relentless policy of the last seven years, cuts after cuts, is unworkable. Many disagree with May’s “hard Brexit”. In a 6 July opinion poll, Labour led the Tories by 8%, 46% to 38%. Opinion polls bounce around. Even allowing for that, it’s a big result. Labour touched 45% a few times in polls in late 2012 and early 2013, but hasn’t been over 45% since spots before the 1997 and 2001 general elections (actual results: 43%, 42%). The Tories can be forced out. Not just May.
Labour has rightly rejected Theresa May’s call on 9 July for cooperation in working out policies. Labour should move on from that to full-scale, aggressive non-cooperation in Parliament, designed to make it impossible for the minority government to continue. For example, Labour should refuse to “pair” absent MPs. It’s a known tactic: the Australian Tories did it in 2010, when Labor formed a minority government, and Australian Labor did it initially in 2016, when the Tories (called Liberals in Australia) came out of an election with a tiny majority.
At the Bakers’ Union conference in mid-June, Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell rightly said: “What we need now is the TUC mobilised, every union mobilised, to get out on the streets. Just think if the TUC put out that call — that we want a million on the streets of London...” The Labour Party should not wait for the TUC to do. The Labour Party itself should officially mobilise for the big demonstration planned at the Tory party conference in Manchester on 1 October, and call its own demonstrations — on the NHS, on public sector pay, on school cuts — now.
We should not just wait for a big demonstration in October. Every Labour voter or supporter becomes a ten-times-more-powerful factor when organised. Local Labour Parties should become campaigning centres, and include in their campaigning a push to make Labour councils defy Tory-imposed cuts. New young Labour supporters should be organised into active constituency Young Labour groups. Industrially, it is a time to push forward every dispute. The bosses no longer have a confident and solid weight from the government behind them. No-one dares deny that the slide in real wages is a scandal.
A fourth strand is needed. In addition to parliamentary non-cooperation, protests, strikes, that fourth strand is the transformation of the Labour Party into a living, democratic, intelligent party, where policies are made through debate at every level of the party and the trade unions, rather than being handed down by clever officials. The 8 June manifesto was a great step forward, but it is not enough. It leaves huge gaps. What about public ownership of the banks, whose profit-greedy machinations can wreck everything? What about freeing unions from the Thatcher anti-union laws as well as Cameron’s? What about workers’ control in industry? What about the international dimension?
Back in the 1970s, an Italian writer put a basic truth well: “The fact that we cannot spell out the alternative does not necessarily mean that it does not exist. It exists as a murmuring among the proletariat”. He paraphrased a revolutionary anarchist from the time of the Spanish Revolution of 1936-7: “The bourgeoisie might blast and ruin its own world before it leaves the stage of history. We carry a new world here, in our hearts. That world is growing in this minute”. The murmuring grows louder. The job of socialists is to help it raise itself to a triumphant shout.
Labour should fight for free movement
“Undoubtedly”, reports the Guardian (10 July), “the prime minister will need the support of the Labour front bench to implement Brexit”. The Tories should not get that support. May’s is a “hard”, mean Brexit. It blocks people’s free movement between Britain and Europe. It offers EU citizens currently working and living in Britain a second-class-citizen future so limited that MEPs from all the European Parliament’s main political groups have said they will veto the Brexit deal unless that is improved. It restores trade barriers, with a vague promise of conjuring up new trade openings elsewhere. It points towards cutting the protections which workers in Britain have got through EU harmonisation, so as to make the newly-walled-off British economy a “competitive” destination for global capital.
Nothing from the 23 June 2016 referendum obliges Labour to support that Brexit. In fact Labour says it opposes that Brexit. But Labour backed the Tories in the Article 50 vote. After continuing to speak out for free movement for some months after 23 June 2016, Jeremy Corbyn eventually fell into line with his right-wing deputy Tom Watson. The argument from Watson and his like is that the referendum vote created a democratic mandate which Labour must respect. For the Tories in office to take a skewed snapshot vote and interpret it as a blank cheque for their interpretation is not democracy.
Democracy is an open and ongoing process in which a majority collective will is formed, adjusted, implemented, with always the possibility of minorities arguing back and becoming majorities. On the latest poll, 44% think the 23 June majority was right, 45% wrong. Only 26% expect the government to get a good deal. 31% expect a poor deal and 15% no deal at all. (So nearly half of those supporting Brexit expect a bad outcome from it!) Asked to choose between barriers against immigration from Europe and free trade, people went 58% for trade-plus-immigration against 42% for barriers. (YouGov, 23 June). One poll (Survation, 18 June) has shown a majority for a second referendum, on the eventual deal, though others show majorities against that.
In the event of an impasse in Parliament — and Labour should aim for that! — a second referendum would probably become unavoidable and popular. If it comes, it should give the right to vote to 16-17 year olds and to EU citizens living in Britain, the people most concerned. Labour’s studied ambiguity — opposing free movement, but setting that message to pro-migrant music; pledging to support Brexit, but appearing as the party of “soft” Brexit; accepting exit from the single market, but wanting to get (how?) the same advantages as the single market — that studied ambiguity seems to have “worked” electorally, for the moment. But politics is not just about what seems to work for a moment. It is about principle and consistency.