The courts, parliament and Boris Johnson

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Supreme Court president Lady Hale is not the answer to Britain’s lack of democracy

The ruling of the Supreme Court that Boris Johnson acted unlawfully when he prorogued parliament is not without significance, but when the liberal establishment stop hyperventilating with excitement, they may wish to reflect on some of the problems that their noble Lords have presented them with. Those of us who want to see a fundamental transformation of society will have quite different responses to the ruling.

That is not to argue that we don’t relish the spectacle of Johnson being given a bloody nose from whatever quarter and we can concur with the Financial Times (FT) editorial that the ruling “leaves a stain on his character and competence. Faced with such a damning judgement, any premier with a shred of respect for British democracy and the responsibilities of his office would resign.”

There are, however, serious points of qualification that need to be made.

The ruling has enabled Johnson to go into full Trumpian mode on his return to parliament with accusations of treachery, betrayal and sabotage. More tellingly he argued that courts were wrong to pronounce on what was essentially a political matter and he followed that up with the accusation that Labour was running scared of either a vote of no confidence or an election.

He has set out his stall for campaigning on a “People versus the Establishment” slogan in the election. It is hard to imagine that Johnson, the embodiment of privilege, can present himself as anti-establishment, but that is the gamble he is prepared to take. So it could be argued that the intervention of the legislature plays into Johnson’s narrative.

A glance at the front pages of the Daily Mail and Daily Express bears this out. A general election campaign with this narrative as a central theme may even work to Johnson’s advantage. The campaign will be brutal and bloody and present the left with a massive challenge.

There is also the issue of precedence. What is to prevent the Supreme Court intervening in the policy issues that a future Labour government may wish to pursue? It is not hard to imagine a situation where, for example, Labour’s determination to incorporate public schools into the state sector leads not only to predictable howls of outrage from the ruling class, but to a challenge in the courts. And you wouldn’t bet on the Supreme Court upholding Labour’s policy.

It is also worth reminding ourselves that the affirmation of “parliamentary sovereignty” has its limitations. Yes, we welcome and would defend the limited gains of parliamentary democracy, but we also need to acknowledge that some of the most regressive policies have received parliamentary approval. The imposition of austerity, the scandal of the proliferation of food banks and the 14 million living in poverty in the world’s fifth highest economy, racist immigration controls and anti-trade union legislation all have met with parliament’s approval and endorsement.

In passing we can note with wry amusement the contradiction of Johnson’s determination to take back “British sovereignty” from the EU and his simultaneous assault on the parliamentary manifestation of that sovereignty.

It is also crucial to acknowledge that the parliamentary opposition to Johnson is divided. The Lib Dems want to ignore the Brexit referendum result and revoke Article 50. They have also made it clear that they would not accept an interim government in place of the Tories if it were led by Corbyn.

Labour is attempting to argue for a negotiated Brexit that they hope would be a significant improvement on May’s deal or no deal at all, but their proposals involve agreeing to some aspects of the single market that would make it more difficult to implement their own policies of nationalising the post, rail, water and the national grid. This is not to mention the conflict between leavers and remainers among Labour MPs.

We are no clearer as to how precisely the Brexit pantomime is likely to play out, but we can be certain that the parliamentary arithmetic that has led to the current impasse has not changed and can only be changed by a general election. Whatever the supposed tactical considerations Labour has in delaying the election they have already lost the opportunity to take full advantage of the Tory splits and Johnson’s botched Brexit plans.

This is a great pity, because the longer the focus is on parliamentary manoeuvres the less it is on the terrain that is much more favourable to Labour. The only chance that Labour has of winning the coming general election lies in recreating the insurgent atmosphere of the 2017 campaign and taking the fight onto the streets and the workplaces.

And it can be done. When, for example, Jeremy Corbyn spoke to a rally of school students in Islington during the climate strike and then later that day addressed tens of thousands of protesters in Westminster he received a tremendous reception. If the many progressive policies adopted at the recent Labour Party conference (where Corbyn also saw off attacks from his own right wingers) become the cutting edge of rallies and demonstrations that’s where there is the potential for the tide to turn in Labour’s favour.

If Corbyn reaches Downing Street you can guarantee that his policies will be fought tooth and nail by the rich and powerful, who will not hesitate to use every means at their disposal to bring him down, including the very legislature that many are applauding for its judgement on Johnson.

If anyone doubts the scale of the challenge we face, the day after the FT’s editorial denouncing Johnson it carried a full-frontal attack on Corbyn and Labour: “Not to be trusted to govern”. Instead of merely reforming the capitalist economy, Labour “favours instead a full-scale reorganisation of the economy that takes as its guiding star policies that would have been regarded as extreme even in the 1970s.” The FT is particularly exercised about attacks on the pharmaceutical industry and financial services. We have no allies from that quarter.

But Johnson can be beaten. On the issues of climate change, racism and austerity we can launch a counter-offensive through campaigns, demonstrations and workplace actions. It is critical that we realise the scale of this challenge and be prepared to mobilise accordingly.