2019 11 Editorial – the British General Election

An Unpredictable Election

Brexit is still not done and dusted. That much is clear from the pulling of the Brexit bill by Boris Johnson and the calling of a general election for 12 December.  Whichever party wins a clear majority of seats to form a government, and it’s by no means certain that it will be the Tories as opinion polls currently suggest, Brexit will still be the issue to dominate British politics for some time to come.

A general election is needed because parliament became dysfunctional. The minority Tory government was unable to get its Brexit deal through parliament, even though MPs voted for its second reading. This was simply a tactic to allow them to scrutinise the bill over an extended time scale. The mood of most MPs was such that the bill would have been defeated at its third reading. Parliament would have then been back to square one, no further forward.

Voters demand a final resolution. Johnson believes he will get the majority he needs to achieve that. But forecasting the result of this election is no easy task. We are living through the most volatile political period in living memory. The 2017 election was held because Theresa May believed she would win by a clear majority as opinion polls were predicting. She failed and her government became dependent on the support of Northern Ireland’s DUP. Something similar could happen to Boris Johnson.

Egged on by the Svengali-like figure of Dominic Cummings, Johnson’s tactic will be to label the election as a contest between parliament and the people. But the people are as divided as parliament on Brexit. Johnson’s people are those who voted to leave the EU. And their incentive to vote for the Tories in a general election where other non-Brexit issues are publicly aired, may not be as great as it was to vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum. The Tories intend to target Labour marginals that voted to leave the EU. But Leave voters in those seats where austerity has bitten hard may be reluctant to give their support to the Tories.

The general election is taking the place of a second referendum. The Liberal Democrats repeatedly said over many months that they wanted a second referendum before a general election. But when the polls showed that they could win substantially more seats than their current twenty, they demanded a general election. The Liberal Democrats having no policies need the election campaign to focus predominately on Brexit. Their sole aim is to stop Brexit and they are confident they can form a government to achieve it. Liberal Democrat literature hails their leader Jo Swinson as Britain’s next Prime Minister.

Currently the polls show that the Tories are, on average, around ten points ahead of Labour. They also put Johnson well ahead of Corbyn in the popularity stakes. That of course can change if Labour succeeds in turning an election campaign into a contest on domestic social and economic issues. And Corbyn is a good campaigner. The more people see of him, other than the distortions and lies they read about him in the right-wing press, the more they take to him. By repeating ad nauseam the distortions and lies the Tories will seek to exploit Corbyn’s perceived unpopularity. It’s now time for Corbyn to fight back.

Johnson on the other hand could face hostile questioning from voters. It happens to all Prime Ministers. Think Gordon Brown and Theresa May. Johnson will find that Prime Minister’s Questions, where he behaves as if he is back in the Oxford Union debating society, is a different kettle of fish to being on the hustings. There he will face real people, many of whom will be angry having experienced hard times over more than nine years of a Tory government.

A major factor in Labour’s poor showing in the polls is its perceived vacillation over Brexit. It consistently said that it wanted a general election, but not until a no-deal Brexit had been taken off the table. This made Labour an easy target once Johnson urged Labour to support his call for an election. Corbyn was accused of dithering and voters appeared to agree. Labour’s official policy is that a Labour government will renegotiate a better deal to leave the EU and then give voters the option of supporting it or remaining within the European Union.

This is a bad policy. Labour should accept that Brexit is going to happen and prepare thoroughly for it. The policy has come about as a result of the relentless pressure on Corbyn from the remaining Blairites in the party who are determined to stop Brexit from happening and who have no doubt threatened to tear the party apart. Corbyn’s focus has been to hold the party together, hence his acceptance of the policy. It remains to be seen how long this can be sustained.

A reversal of the 2016 vote to leave the EU will dominate the political discourse for years to come. Brexit will be a lingering, festering wound in the body politic. Better to get it over with and move on to normal politics where Labour could have the whip hand over the Tories. Its programme for government, in spite of the Tories misrepresentations on economic policy and the CBI’s distortions over public ownership, is popular with voters. Labour’s focus during the election campaign on the NHS, schools and social care, as well as public ownership, could reap dividends.

Labour is right to insist that workers’ rights and environmental standards must be protected under any Brexit deal reached with a future parliament. A Tory government cannot be trusted to protect and furthermore strengthen workers’ rights. A recently leaked document confirmed that this was the case.  A majority Johnson government will carry out a right-wing economic programme where workers’ rights will be undermined.

However, Labour and the unions shouldn’t have so much confidence that the EU can protect British workers from attacks by a Tory government. The UK is leaving the EU and its support for workers will no longer have any force. The labour movement needs to up its game and defend the right of workers to protect the hard fought gains they still enjoy. And to organise in strength to enhance those rights.

There is a lot to organise and fight for, including preventing factory closures, improving pension rights, and abolishing zero-hour contracts. The increased power of global corporations and the increasing encroachment of the digital economy, where most new jobs are non-unionised, make it a difficult but not impossible task. But with good organisation and a strong determination, real gains can be made. For this to happen however we need a majority Labour government working with a newly strengthened, organised labour force.