Boris Johnson suffered a major defeat in parliament on Tuesday evening. Official British politics is in deep crisis, and the Tory party in a state of disintegration.
The government lost by 328 MPs to 301 on a motion to block the path to a no-deal Brexit on 31 October. A total of 21 Tory MPs, led by former austerity-imposing chancellor Philip Hammond, defied Johnson in this key vote. The result means that MPs will have control of the House of Commons agenda on Wednesday. They will introduce legislation to extend the deadline for leaving the EU to January next year.
Such moves solve nothing in the long term. This government needs to go.
Johnson immediately reacted to his defeat by saying that if the bill to extend the deadline was passed then he would push on Wednesday for a vote to hold an early general election. But without Labour’s support, he will not get the two-thirds majority required under the Fixed-term Parliaments Act for the vote to be operable. Jeremy Corbyn replied that Labour wanted an election but would want to see the bill to block a no-deal Brexit passed before an election was called. The bill could be passed on Monday, although Johnson supporters in the House of Lords are stockpiling amendments in order to make it run out of time to be passed. To add to Labour’s dizzying confusion, a group of Labour MPs were set to reintroduce to parliament Theresa May’s repeatedly-defeated Brexit deal.
There needs to be a general election. Labour should embrace this, not fear it. Labour will not be forgiven if its determination to halt a no-deal Brexit means missing this opportunity to have an election and remove the Tory government.
The anger against the Tories was shown on Tuesday evening as thousands of demonstrators marched around central London while MPs debated in parliament. Protesters had gathered in Parliament Square for a rally organised by the People’s Assembly. The event brought together a wide range of people with different politics. Some waved blue EU flags or wore EU berets.
Socialist Worker wants a break from the racist, neoliberal EU. But there are people who have been won to backing it because they think it’s progressive. Tina travelled from Middlesbrough to join the rally and said she feels part of Europe. “I’m married to a Croat,” Tina told Socialist Worker. “My son is half European. In my family we have Norwegian people, Swiss people. I don’t want Brexit to happen.” Tina worries that Brexit has sparked violence in Ireland and that the alternative to the EU is Donald Trump’s US. “Do we really want to tie ourselves to him?” she asked.
Many speakers on the platform took care to say that, whether people voted Leave or Remain in the referendum, we should unite against the Tories. Writer Tariq Ali said, “People who voted to leave are not all racists. Many of them did it for good reasons to give the establishment a kick in the bum. They were fed up of neoliberalism.” He said he was for a general election “the sooner the better”. And a message read from Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said, “The only solution to this crisis is a democratic one. We need a general election now.”
Some trade unionists brought banners, including Camden NEU, Redbridge NEU, London Region UCU, Lambeth Unison and Tower Hamlets Unison. A group of PCS union members on indefinite strike also joined the demo. Elaine from Lambeth Unison told Socialist Worker, “I’m here to support the Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyn. I want a general election. “I didn’t vote in the referendum. I’m not particularly pro-EU and a lot of my friends can’t understand that.”
Richard Burgon MP told the crowd, “The last few days have cast a light on our rigged system. “What we’re seeing is the sheer contempt the elite have for your hard-won democratic rights.” He called for a “socialist government led by Jeremy Corbyn”.
While some at the rally were liberals, the protest also attracted a lot of young, angry people. Some were angry at Johnson’s move to prorogue “their” Parliament while others were furious at the sham that is Britain’s democracy. Thousands marched along Millbank, across Lambeth bridge and back to Parliament chanting, “Fuck the Tories, fuck Boris,” “Boris Johnson – fuck off back to Eton,” and, “When I say Tories, you say liars.” As the march passed St Thomas’ hospital protesters cheered watching health workers and chanted, “Save, save the NHS.”
We need more resistance on the streets and in workplaces to block Johnson’s vision of Brexit and to get the Tories out. Weyman Bennett, co-convenor of Stand Up To Racism, told Socialist Worker, “Boris Johnson is an entitled racist. He is a public schoolboy hellbent on destroying working class lives. “We won’t let him use racism to divide working class people.” Socialist Worker wants the Tories out and would back Corbyn in a general election. But we also need resistance from working class people to push back austerity and racism.
A radical Labour can win a general election
We should welcome a general election as an opportunity to drive out Johnson and the Tories. But could Jeremy Corbyn and Labour win?The answer is yes—but not if Labour becomes a “moderate” party of Remain.
That’s the lesson from the general election in 2017, when Corbyn defied all predictions and denied Theresa May a majority of her own. Labour focused on class issues and the manifesto was its most radical in over a decade. It promised to defend the NHS from privatisation, scrap tuition fees and bring in £10 an hour minimum wage and union rights. The rhetoric was radical, as Corbyn pledged to “overturn the rigged system” that has “protected the interests of the few”. And he led an insurgent campaign, holding big rallies that helped to shift the mood on the ground. Only a radical campaign can win. And Labour also should at least accept the Scottish parliament’s right to decide if it wants another independence referendum.
Johnson has positioned the Tories as the party of a racist Brexit and law and order in a general election. He hopes that he will be able to win back right wing votes from Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party.
The wrong response is for Labour to be the Remain party. At the last election around two thirds of Labour’s voters were people who had backed Remain—but around one third had voted Leave. And Labour did lose five seats to the Tories. All of the constituencies, some of which Labour had held since the 1930s, had voted Leave.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell thinks he can use opposition to Brexit to show that Labour is a “responsible” party of government. He boasts that bankers and bosses are willing to have discussions about the party’s economic policies. It is a fiction and folly to think that big business won’t oppose Labour’s policies if it adopts a Remain position.
Big business is angry with the Tories. It wants to stay within the European Union’s single market, because its neoliberal rules protect profits. Labour has to have a class programme of defending workers’ and migrants’ rights and confronting the bosses.
What happens outside parliament is still important. When people struggle in the streets, workplaces and campuses, they can shift the mood in society to the left. And we need to build bigger fights over austerity, racism and climate change now, not just staking everything on the election.