12 October 2018

Shifting Sands

With the final parliamentary debates over our departure from the EU a matter of weeks away, Mark Perryman argues that Labour must discount any likelihood of an early General Election and focus instead on the changed political terrain of post-Brexit Britain.  

Party conferences provided us with three points of view, and three delusions. Depending on which one(s) you share, I’m sorry to disappoint, but there’s not going to be a ‘people’s vote’ aka a second referendum, there is not going to be an early general election, and Boris Johnson is not going to become leader of the Conservative Party.

The last we can dispose of quite quickly. With Conservative MPs voting via a secret ballot for the top two candidates for leader, Johnson is very unlikely to get his long sought-after opportunity. He has little to look forward to, other than Daily Telegraph front page splashes and a fawning fan base amongst the Tory members. As his chances of a leadership bid disappear, those will rapidly lose their impact too. My heart bleeds.

The closely linked delusions of a second referendum and an early general election are more serious. It is foolhardy to rule anything entirely out in politics; Jeremy Corbyn’s election as Labour leader should teach us that. However, the chances of either are extremely remote. Enthusiasts for both have been ignoring the parliamentary arithmetic for far too long. This has prevented the critical thinking about the future that the left urgently needs.

Labour’s apparent backing for a second referendum via Keir Starmer’s barnstorming speech was one of the supposed highlights of Labour’s conference. But this crowd-pleaser for the People’s Vote crowd was actually pretty irrelevant. MPs, whether Lib-Dems, SNP, Plaid, Green, or Labour, can push for it as much as they like, but there won’t be enough of them against a Tory-DUP majority, unless almost 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, the so-called Tory rebels have largely failed to deliver the votes when it mattered, and there’s absolutely no reason to believe they will this time. That’s what will determines the outcome, nothing else.  And given all of this, I’m convinced that there won’t be a second referendum before Brexit Day, 29 March 2019.

Despite the rapturous reception provided by conference delegates when Jeremy Corbyn demanded an early general election, that is highly improbable too. According to the Fixed Terms Parliament Act, the next general election is due on 5 May 2022. There is no plausible reason for it to be earlier, despite many on the Left wishing it would come sooner. A vote for an early election would require those same 30+ pro-Remain Tory MPs willing to not just split their party but to destroy it, by voting with the opposition to bring their own government down. Meanwhile, pro-Leave Tory MPs have what they’ve always wanted, leaving the EU, in their grasp, so they are not likely to pursue this course of action either. The Tory Leavers are more ideologically-driven than the Tory Remainers but most of them simply want out of the EU. Once that’s done, provided the Tories are still in power, they firmly believe they can rewrite the deal however they like. And they’re probably right. So why would they sacrifice their opportunity of a political lifetime just to spite May? If there’s one factor that unites all the Tory parliamentary factions, it’s the absolute necessity of clinging on to power. They’ll sacrifice almost anything to maintain that. And the DUP? Despite their misgivings their worst possible nightmare is giving give any party with a smidgen of a commitment to a United Ireland the opportunity to win power, at Westminster.. A Corbyn-led Labour government would pose this threat, so when it comes down to it no chance there either of forcing this early general election.

Finally, if – and more likely when – May is replaced by yet another Tory leader, that person is going to want to hold on to office for as long as possible and certainly not make the same disastrous mistake as the previous occupant of Number Ten by calling a snap general election.

Thus, although they fire up their various enthusiasts, these twin delusions need to be put to bed as quickly as possible. We need to wise up to reality, and prepare for a general election that will take place three years and a few months after Brexit has already happened. This might not be a popular thought, but it’s the political terrain of the near future.

And nobody really knows what the post-Brexit Britain will look like. It will probably not be the free trade nirvana of a Global Britain that the most fervent Leavers are promising us. Nor will it be the entirely scorched earth economic wasteland ardent Remainers are warning us of. It’ll probably be somewhere in-between, Britain doing what it’s best at: coping. And meanwhile the fabric of our society will slowly but surely be torn to shreds. Labour will seek an agenda for post-Brexit economic revival, as 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, this project is likely to be in much changed political circumstances. When Brexit fails to deliver any kind of boost to either the economy or our hard-pressed public services there will surely be a popular backlash. And a revived, racist, populist right will be waiting in the wings, to take advantage of this. Not a second UKIP, but potentially something much bigger, and nastier than that. It will be a right who are entirely prepared to argue that, although we got out of the EU, it’s not enough. They’ll say: we need to get rid of immigration too, and they can take their Mosques with them.

If you check the polls right now, a party that barely exists, UKIP is at around 5 per cent. Imagine how dangerous they could be if they were entirely functional and fired up by the kind of post-Brexit backlash I am describing. It doesn’t bear thinking about, but we need to, and then confront this very real possibility. This isn’t fascism, even if sections of the left would mistakenly use this kneejerk label. In many ways fascism would be easier to confront and defeat; jackboots and swastikas have thankfully only had deposit-losing support amongst the British electorate. Rather, what threatens us here is a toxic mix of racism, Islamophobia and English nationalism.

If we restrict ourselves, mistakenly, to narrow party-political self-interest, it is conceivable that both Labour and the Tories could stand to benefit in the post-Brexit landscape. In some seats the populist right would split the Tory vote, allowing Labour to gain much-needed marginals. In others, however, it splits Labour’s vote, meaning that Labour would fail to regain a seat it lost to the Tories in 2017, or would lose others it had somehow managed to keep.

However, this is short-termism of the worst possible variety. 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 urgently needs to get ready to face down this challenge by articulating a different sense of community, nation and the world than the one that the populist right will seek to establish. It needs to do this as part of exposing the causes of, and solutions to, the genuine grievances working-class communities faced before Brexit and will still face after it. This is what Labour needs to be preparing for, with localised, community campaigning of a kind the party has too infrequently done in the past. But thanks to the huge surge of membership and enthusiasm, it now has the potential to initiate this kind of activity on an unprecedented scale.

All of this will be more significant than the much-discussed centrist party of some media commentators’ dreams. Few Labour MPs want to end their parliamentary careers by trying to form a new party and failing; it is far more tempting for the most embittered to swap Westminster for jobs that will pay them handsomely. And for those who stay with Labour there’s the opportunity to hold the balance of power, and real influence, should they form either a minority government or govern with a wafer-thin majority. A handful of possible reselection contests won’t change this threat to Corbynism’s radical Labour agenda, but a combination of bridge-building within the PLP and a party membership confident in policies that win us the next General Election just might.

But first Labour has to win. As well as the changed, post-Brexit political terrain, we can also be fairly certain that Theresa May won’t be leading the Tories by 2022. Any leader other than May will be a far more formidable opponent. It would be hard to be less. The same errors won’t be made again, either. The Lib-Dems face the same possible leap forward; finding a more effective leader than Farron or Cable shouldn’t be too hard a task, even for them. Meanwhile, if the Tories can force them through, the proposed boundary changes will favour their own candidates more than any other party’s. Similarly, obstacles to voter registration will appear, and they will roll out the entirely unnecessary requirement to carry ID in order to vote.

All of this will depress turnout in precisely the areas and demographics Labour most needs to win. There are 66 target seats that with a swing of just 3.6 per cent go to Labour. The party then forms a government baked by an outright parliamentary majority. Targeting in this way isn’t a foolproof plan, but it’s the best we’ve got. Though we shouldn’t forget that a mere 0.98 per cent swing the other way, to the Tories, delivers to them 19 Labour seats with a majority of under 1000. Even this far from 2022, it’s fairly obvious the next general election is going to be very tight, with the result pretty much determined by Labour’s targets and defences. Nothing else really matters.

One complication is likely to be Scotland. Scotland’s politics is much ignored by the English left  I use the term advisedly – yet 18 of the 66 Labour targets are in Scotland and they are all currently held by the SNP. 4 of the 19 defences are also there, and they all had the SNP in second place in 2017. Scotland is crucial to a Labour victory, but in every case it’s a battle with a broadly social-democratic party, not the Tories. If Labour fails to win an overall majority, the SNP will vote to support the vast majority of the Bills put forward, either in coalition with or backing a Labour minority government. Currently Labour is making next to no headway in Scotland, a distant third to the SNP and the Scots Tories in the polls. Its MSPs are in the process of an almighty bust-up that makes the Westminster PLP look united in comparison. Fortunately, the Scottish Parliamentary elections take place in 2021, a year before the general election. What if Scottish Labour fails to make gains by then? The priority then should be to win Tory-held English seats and leave the SNP to their own devices.

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 agree with has no appeal for hundreds of thousands of members who’ve joined Labour overflowing with enthusiasm and commitment. Campaigning for a party I don’t believe in is the closest thing to anathema I can imagine. It is an entirely negative tactic. Tactical campaigning is the precise opposite; making a positive contribution to Labour victories in those 66 target seats while standing down all activity in those seats where we’re certain to come a distant second, third or worse.

In my neck of the woods, East Sussex, our 2022 electoral battleground will be the streets of Hastings, Crawley and East Worthing.  Hastngs where Amber Rudd hung in in 2017  by just 346 votes, Crawley is number 45 on the list of 66. Worthing is just outside the 66, but it is within the possibility of a Labour gain. If they win Hastings, Labour is already doing better than in 2017; if they win Crawley, Labour is well on the way to being the largest party; if they win East Worthing, Labour has a majority and is preparing to form a government.

Such results won’t just be about winning though; they will be historic, because 2022 will resemble 1945 and 1979 for its significance. This will be a general election that establishes a new consensus, like Attlee and the post-war settlement, like Thatcher and its replacement with neoliberalism. Corbyn threatens to break with that neoliberalism we’ve been forced to endure ever since.

This autumn, what has fired up Labour more than anything else has been the mapping of the politics that will come in its place.  And just like Crawley and Worthing, it is places such as Thurrock, Telford, Mansfield, Corby, Walsall, Stevenage and the like, where this historic break will be made. Not in Westminster or thinktanks, but in those towns, on their streets. We live in frightening times right now, but a period of belief and expectation too, an era when taking part really can make a difference. The sands are shifting but there are waves to make. It is our turn now to make some history. Personally, I can’t wait.

Mark Perryman is the editor of The Corbyn Effect. His new book Corbynism from Below will be published by Lawrence and Wishart in September 2019.