As Parliament reconvened on 25 September, Boris Johnson declared:
“This Parliament is gridlocked, paralysed, and refusing to deliver on the priorities of the people. It is not just unable to move forward...
“The Leader of the Opposition and his party do not trust the people. The Leader of the Opposition and his party are determined to throw out the referendum result, whatever the cost….
“The people of this country have had enough of it. This Parliament must either stand aside and let this Government get Brexit done, or bring a vote of confidence and finally face the day of reckoning with the voters”.
This sort of appeal to an alliance of the executive power with “the people” against the elected representatives and the democratic political process is the typical tactic of demagogues and despots, of what Marxists call “Bonapartist” politics.
As in the classic case, of Louis Bonaparte and his referendum in France in December 1851, ending the “Second Republic”, Johnson rests his appeal on a referendum.
It is an exceptionally tawdry appeal: to a referendum over three years ago, where crucial sections were excluded (EU citizens settled in Britain, 16-17 year olds), and where the issues were posed altogether differently from in Johnson’s rush to a “no deal” crash-Brexit.
Johnson hopes to supplement it with a general election run as a new referendum on Brexit, but a rigged one. If he can scoop up enough of the Brexit Party vote, and the Lib Dems eat away enough of Labour’s vote, then, Johnson hopes, he can “win the election” with a clear minority of the vote, thanks to the first-past-the-post system. He can claim a mandate to proceed with a Trump-like programme.
He makes a show of coupling every statement that he will comply with the law (the Benn Act, obliging him to request a Brexit deadline extension) with a bombastic promise to find some way to defy, flout, or get round it (“Brexit on 31 October, come what may”).
The labour movement must be ready to mobilise on the streets again, as we did after Johnson announced his unlawful shutdown (“proroguing”) of Parliament on 28 August.
And we must organise and prepare for the general election which is sure to come fairly soon.
The Labour Party conference in Brighton on 21-25 September was a feisty, lively one which approved a range of radical policies.
Labour voted for a “Green New Deal” to reduce carbon emissions, with free or cheap public transport, full public ownership of the big six energy companies, repeal of all anti-union laws, and expanded good “green jobs”.
It reaffirmed commitment to a new public vote on Brexit. It voted for continuing freedom of movement between Europe and Britain, and extending it.
Labour voted to replace the exam-factory-focused Ofsted, to integrate private schools’ assets into the state system, and to move to a standard four day work week.
Labour is also committed to a state-owned medicine-manufacturing operation, free prescriptions, and free social care for
Labour has also announced plans to transform Universal Credit into a much less mean, more generous benefits system.
Labour was already committed to an increase in the minimum wage, winding back social cuts, abolishing university fees, and renationalisation of some utilities.
All that is good. Socialists in the labour movement need to work on three dimensions.
First, to get the policies into the Labour manifesto. The Labour leaders have already signalled that they don’t want to stick to conference policies on free movement or abolition of private schools.
Second, to get a coherent, convincing campaign for the policies.
That campaign has to overcome two problems. On the most immediate and urgent issue of the general election, the Brighton conference was manipulated into planning for Labour to signal evasion and triangulation.
Labour’s plan now is to go into the election with no commitment on Brexit and a promise to decide a policy after the election through a special conference.
In other words, to signal to voters that it lacks clear direction and well-defined convictions it will fight for.
That signal threatens to compromise Labour’s message on other issues, too.
Moreover, for a long time now, pretty much since the 2017 general election, Labour’s routine agitation has been whittled down so that the high-profile, “headline” message has been nothing more radical than a complaint about reduced spending on the police.
In the 2017 general election campaign, Labour was able to rally people who might otherwise not have voted, and turn round the polls, quickly. Part of that was that Labour’s manifesto focused round pledges to tax the rich, reverse social cuts, and abolish university fees — all themes on which activists had been agitating and demonstrating heavily since 2010 at least, and on which a ready and quick reception was available.
Johnson is now making anti-cuts promises, though specious ones. Labour’s prospective manifesto now is more elaborate. Rightly so. But it calls for large efforts to explain it and convince people — in a short time, and more or less from a standing start.
The “Leader’s Office” evidently still operates in a model of politics where “campaigning for a policy” is doing a slick operation from Westminster offices to put it out to mass media, rather than a process of discussion in the movement, education of activists, and “radiation” of the ideas in workplaces, campuses, and neighbourhoods.
The left-wing writer Alan Sillitoe, too young to vote in 1945, recalled being lent a copy of the socialist novel The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists soon after and being told it was “the book which won the 1945 election for Labour”.
Whatever the exaggeration there, it’s a fact that election was won on the back of millions of conversations, leaflets, newspapers read, books studied over the previous years.
That culture of working-class political education has been thinned out drastically in recent times, and we need a crash programme to recreate an equivalent.
Labour for a Socialist Europe will campaign to help local Labour Parties and individual activists to get the literature and the networking they need to get across a clear socialist argument and a clear Remain message.