Theresa May has announced she's standing down, yet there is still no end in sight for the Brexit debacle. Sally Campbell analyses the European election results and the pressures coming to bear on Corbyn.
Goodbye Theresa. Socialist Review is happy to file you away in the box marked “Tory detritus”. Private Eye’s new issue following May’s announcement that she would be resigning on 7 June features the headline, “Theresa May Memorial Issue: The Prime Minister’s Legacy in Full”, followed by a blank space. But this is far too kind. May’s legacy is the hostile environment for migrants that she championed as home secretary; the Windrush scandal that was a direct result of it; the utter failure to hold anyone to account for the Grenfell Tower fire — or to properly rehouse those who lost their homes. Hers is a legacy of continued austerity and falling living standards, which mean that 75 percent of people working in Britain today don’t expect to retire until they are 75 — up from 60 percent in 2015.
And, of course, May’s legacy is one of complete failure to resolve the Brexit crisis which has swallowed up three years of parliamentary time. The paralysis at the top of society has exposed the complete inability of our political institutions to carry out what is supposed to be their job. And more specifically, the Tories — the party of big business — have found themselves caught in a trap, where most of their supporters want to leave the EU while most of the establishment and business want to stay. May, having picked up the baton when David Cameron dropped it and ran away, had one key task. But she couldn’t overcome those contradictions — and now ten more odious figures are clamouring to take her place.
The final prompt for May to resign was probably the knowledge that the Conservative vote was set to collapse in the European elections that took place on 23 May. The result was even worse than predicted. For the party of government to come fifth in a national election, with just 9 percent, is unprecedented.
The Euro election results only confirm the divisions over Brexit that have characterised the past three years. It wasn’t just the Tories that fared badly: the combined vote of the Tories and Labour added up to less than one quarter of the total. Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour, blamed by many on the right of the party for not taking a “clear” (read: pro-Remain) position on the EU, came third with 14 percent, after Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party (31.6 percent) and the Liberal Democrats (20.3 percent). The Green Party on 12 percent also got in ahead of the Tories — perhaps gaining from the renewed climate movement as well as from Remainers. The election was a kick in the gut to the political establishment, which, unfortunately, currently seems to include Corbyn’s Labour.
Provoking a split
With the Tories’ leadership battle commencing, there is still no clear way forward for the government. Most of the contenders, led by Boris Johnson, are talking big about leaving the EU on 31 October deal or no deal. But parliament has already ruled out no deal, so it seems unlikely that this could happen without triggering either a second referendum or a general election — and provoking a split in the party.
The prospect of negotiating a new deal with the EU is slim — indeed, the European Commission Article 50 Taskforce that negotiated the current deal is being broken up as I write, with prominent members such as Michel Barnier and Sabine Weyand taking new jobs and Jean Claude Juncker restating that he has been “crystal clear” that there will be no new negotiations.
Should a new Tory leader think they can somehow scrap Brexit altogether and just remain in the EU (though pro-Remain Tories have not even bothered to stand so far), then they would quickly find themselves leading the smaller part of a split organisation.
A general election would be very bad for the Tories, given the level of support they mustered on 23 May and, if it were to take place before 31 October, they would likely once again lose much of their vote to Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. According to the Financial Times, there is now a growing number of Tory MPs who are considering backing a second referendum as the only way out of this deadlock.
If this is the case, then it will add to the pressure bearing down on Corbyn from the Labour right. In the days following the election results, there was a swathe of opinion pieces in the press and on Twitter announcing what “Corbyn should” do. Many drew the conclusion that the only response to losing votes to the Lib Dems and the Greens (and, in some cases, their own votes — see Alistair Campbell) is to switch to an enthusiastic pro-Remain position and campaign for a second referendum. And this hasn’t just come from anti-Corbyn figures on the right of the party such as Tom Watson, who have argued this all along, or Corbynites such as Paul Mason, who took this position some time ago, but increasingly from figures on the left such as Ash Sarkar of Novara Media.
Sarkar’s opinion piece in the Guardian pushed a “Remain and reform” position, claiming that Corbyn’s Labour can present a progressive challenge to neoliberalism by fighting to stay in the EU. But she rather undermines her own argument by acknowledging that 78 percent of Labour’s target marginals — the seats they would need to win to get into government — voted Leave. What none of those arguing for a clear Remain/second referendum position even attempt to answer is what happens to Labour voters who want to leave the EU.
Lord Ashcroft’s exit polls tell us something about the class make-up of the votes at the Euro elections. While social class and income can’t be read directly off occupation as categorised in “Social Grades”, there is certainly some correlation. The Brexit Party won the most votes in all categories, only tying with the Lib Dems in the top bracket, AB — at 27 percent each. But the Brexit Party’s highest vote share was among the C2 and DE brackets — skilled and unskilled manual workers, casual workers, those on the lowest grades, pensioners and the unemployed. Labour lost votes to the Brexit Party — some 13 percent of those polled who voted Labour in the 2017 general election switched to Brexit this time.
A powerful article by Helen Pidd and Jessica Murray in the Guardian on 29 May told the story of Brian Dennis, a former steel worker, trade unionist and Labour Party councillor who has lost patience with the government and with the Labour Party for not fighting for his and the thousands of other jobs that have gone in the North East of England and elsewhere over the past decade. When the owners of the SSI plant in Redcar announced they were pulling out in September 2015, Dennis was at Labour Party conference:
“He asked for the microphone. ‘The government must step in and act to protect us, our families and our community. All of us steelworkers on Teesside are facing the end of our industry and a very bleak future. Only the government can save us now.’
“His plea roused the conference hall to its feet but fell on deaf ears in Westminster. The government blamed EU rules on state aid for preventing it bailing out SSI and two weeks later the receiver announced there was no realistic prospect of finding a buyer.
“The blast furnace was turned off and the coke ovens were extinguished, left to cool down from 1,100C in the salty North Sea breeze. Two thousand direct jobs went and, with them, 170 years of steelmaking on Teesside.”
In the Euro elections last month, he voted for the Brexit Party. Is Labour to abandon such people to racist Trump-wannabe Nigel Farage? With British Steel in Scunthorpe currently facing a similar fate, the argument must be that Labour and the unions should lead a fight to save jobs and for nationalisation and to do this they will have to challenge the EU, not campaign for it as if it is some kind of saviour of workers’ rights.
And this is an important reminder to look outside the Westminster bubble. Labour figures such as Diane Abbott and John McDonnell who have now backed a second referendum are presumably making their calculations on the basis that Labour lost more votes to the pro-Remain Lib Dems and Greens (39 percent total) than they did to Brexit Party. They seem to have decided to restrict themselves to fighting for a bigger share of the 48 percent who voted Remain in 2016. As I write Corbyn has not yet publically endorsed this policy shift, but is expected to do so.
But this Euro election took place after two years of passivity from the Labour leadership. The fantastic campaign for the 2017 general election was founded on a manifesto that felt radical after two decades of Blairism. It was built through mass rallies around the country which took Corbyn’s support to a new level and cowed the Labour right, who had been trying to undermine him ever since his election as leader two years before. It popularised the idea of taxing the rich, ending austerity, re-nationalising transport — and the level of support for such policies was huge.
It was this momentum — an insurgent, grassroots campaign — that against all the odds won Labour 40 percent of the vote, just 2.4 percentage points behind the Tories, who had to rely on the bigots of the DUP to secure the thinnest of majorities (much good that it’s done them). The fact that the two main parties’ combined vote was 82.4 percent flew in the face of the general trend across Europe of the centre ground collapsing. Two years on we’ve seen exactly that.
But Labour needn’t have lost all those votes — the Euro election became all about Brexit firstly because of the Tories’ monumental bungling of the process and secondly because Labour has not given the lead outside of parliament that it could have. Corbyn inspires people when he is campaigning against austerity and racism, when he is offering a real alternative vision. And that simply hasn’t happened to the degree that it should have. This is also why, of the options available, a general election is the best one — it can be an opportunity to kick the Tories while they’re down. But only if Corbyn’s Labour rises to the occasion as it did in 2017.
Corbyn has been pulled into responding to the parliamentary manoeuvrings of his enemies — and this is where he’s at his weakest. If he concedes on the second referendum he will make himself even more of a prisoner of the Labour right. If there is another referendum and he campaigns to Remain he shouldn’t think the likes of Watson will thank him and then leave him alone. If Remain wins the Labour right will assert its authority even more broadly in policy terms — as one commentator put it, we’ll have Corbyn without Corbynism. And of course, if Leave wins again, Corbyn will be blamed.
The real power that can break the political deadlock is outside parliament. It’s in the streets, in the workplaces, in our communities. As the school students have reminded us on their climate strikes — there are bigger questions than Britain’s membership of the EU. And the phenomenal actions by the students and by Extinction Rebellion have breathed new life into politics in Britain. We need this energy in the workers’ movement too.
Greta Thunberg has put out a call for a general climate strike this September. She wants the adults to come out and support the students. This is a fantastic opportunity for every trade unionist, every parent, every worker to think about what we can do collectively to make this strike real. And September will also see the Tory party conference take place in Manchester — in the heart of the region where activists from Stand Up to Racism successfully wrecked fascist Tommy Robinson’s campaign to become an MEP. This will be another place where protests can come together — anyone who is against climate chaos, against racist scapegoating, against Tory austerity, can come out to shout down the Tories.