By John Pickard
In calling a snap election, Theresa May is seeking a mandate to manage a hard Brexit. It is becoming clear that the Brexit negotiations are not going to be easy, that they are not going to be quick and that, in effect, the Tories are having to reconcile themselves with a ‘hard Brexit’ with all its political, economic and social consequences.
It is practically a ‘given’ that the Tories will do their best to negotiate away any EU legal safeguards that there are on rights at work and working conditions in general. That applies to regulations like the working time directive, health and safety regulations and other legal obligations on employers. Even where these are enshrined in British law, as most of them are (and as a result of the struggles of the labour movement in the past) the Tories may use the pretext of ‘harmonising’ laws to reduce or eliminate them. It is just as certain that the Tories will water down environmental and food safety standards to bring those more into line with the ‘voluntary’ policies of the big food multinationals. There will be no guarantees for the NHS against the predations of international drugs and private health companies.
What cannot be negotiated away, however, are the economic consequences of a hard Brexit and British exclusion from the single market. A big proportion of British exports currently go to the EU and these will come under increasing pressure as tariffs are applied and they are priced out of the market. It is almost comical to see Liam Fox flying the Union Jack in the Philippines – a country that takes less than half of one percent of our exports – while his boss is in Europe opening divorce proceedings with the EU which takes nearly half of our exports. The only ‘positive’ economic gain from Brexit so far has been the decline of the pound – by sixteen per cent against the dollar and eleven per cent against the Euro. This will temporarily boost British exports as they will be cheaper in Europe, but in exchange it has made imports (particularly food) more expensive and added significantly to inflation. Oil, which is priced in dollars, has also increased in price by the equivalent of the devaluation. When the Pound Sterling is at parity with the Euro, this inflationary trend will become even more pronounced.
The pre-eminent position of London as a world financial centre will also be challenged by Paris, Brussels and Frankfurt. Already, big banks and finance houses are opening offices in Europe, to prepare the ground for moving at least a part of their operations out of Britain. The British economy has come to depend to a huge degree on the profits made from finance and services and these will not be immune from being left out in the cold after Brexit.
These dark clouds are looming on the horizon like the mother of all storms about to hit the British economy but they take no account of the squall in which we already find ourselves. The ‘upswing’ in the economy predicted for this year is almost entirely due to borrowing and consumption. There has been no miracle in manufacturing, building or even in the service/finance sector and no resurrection of productive investment. Leading economists have already expressed concern about the fact that ‘unsecured’ debt on credit cards has reached the levels last seen before the 2008 crash. Savings have stagnated. It is not rocket science, of course – this is a direct result of the squeeze in living standards as prices begin to edge up and wages are frozen or driven down.
If it is to be a hard Brexit and the Tories replace access to the single European market with a dash to make the UK a low-tax, low-wage haven for investment, it will inevitably be at the expense of living standards. What we have seen so far in terms of public spending cuts, benefit cuts, restrictions on union rights and wage freezes, etc, will be nothing compared to what the Tories will attempt to put in place as an ‘alternative’ to the EU single market. The net result will be a British economy and a political landscape more like Greece than Western Europe. In Greece, workers have suffered a catastrophic drop of over 40 per cent in living standards and the result has been a succession of general strikes and political upheavals. There is a road to travel before we get to the same crash in living standards as in Greece, but that is the logic of the strategy of the Tories’ hard Brexit.
It is beyond the scope of this article to deal in detail with Scottish and Northern Irish politics, but clearly Scotland and Ireland are on different, parallel, tracks to the rest of the UK. It is more than possible that the SNP will win a clean sweep of all the seats in Scotland. The failure to win its one remaining seat will be no great loss to the Labour Party, since the incumbent was one of the worst representatives of the Blairite wing of the Party. But what the election will mean for the Tories will be an amplification of the problems of Brexit and the border in Ireland and the question of Independence in Scotland. Even a bolstered majority in Westminster will mean a weakened hold on Northern Irish and Scottish politics.
All of these possibilities must have been in Theresa May’s mind when she decided to take the plunge and seek a stronger majority in Parliament. As it is with every major decision of the British ruling class at the present time, however, a snap election is big gamble. The Tories have long since lost their global and historic compass, their capacity to calculate long-term and even to take short steps back, all the better to take bigger strides forward in the longer term. They no longer have any long-term strategy, aims or goals. Every serious decision they make now is a gamble.
They gambled on the question of Scottish independence and only won a narrow victory – and a temporary one at that, because that issue is still very much alive. They gambled and lost on the question of the EU, although it is also clear that a number of the medium and even large capitalists have the delusion that the economy will benefit from leaving the EU. Now they are gambling again on this election. What is effectively a split in the ruling class over Brexit will at some point lead to a split in its political representatives, the Tory Party. May is hoping for a big majority so that she can use this to whip the two wings of her own party into line, but even if she was to succeed in the short term, she cannot erase the fundamentals of the growing rifts in the Conservative Party.
May is calculating that with Labour well adrift in the opinion polls – some put the Tories 17-21 per cent ahead – she will strengthen her majority in Parliament, not only to keep Labour quiet, to cow the trade unions and any other opposition, but to keep Tory ‘Remainers’ quiet. John Major referred to the Brexiteers of his day as “bastards” as they continually sniped at his leadership. Now the boot is on the other foot. One of the aims of her snap election is to allow May to crush her own snipers, except in this case, they are not the Brexiteers but the more sober and deep-rooted part of her own party who can see the potential damage to business by a hard Brexit. One thing is clear, this will be no ‘gentlemanly’ contest. The campaign will be crude and brutal, with the gutter press stopping at nothing to tarnish Labour and Corbyn especially. The Daily Mail headline “Crush the Saboteurs” give a small foretaste of what is to come.
But even if an increased Tory majority looks the most likely from today’s polls, it is not a foregone conclusion. One pollster, ICM’s Martin Boon, told The Guardian that he thought the result “is going to be a foregone conclusion.” But as they did in 2015, the pollsters may yet eat their words, because the fundamental feature of politics today is its volatility. Ted Grant used to always say that we live in a period of “sharp turns and sudden changes” but it was nothing then to what we have now. Even in the short period from April 18th to June 8th, many things can change dramatically. Last year, the polls that were indicating ‘Remain’ to win the EU referendum were firm for a long period of time, before they changed quite suddenly in early Spring. The Scottish referendum opinion polls changed even more dramatically and suddenly. It is almost possible to put a precise date on it – around August 10-12th – only weeks before the voting, when there was a sudden plunge in support for the ‘No’ campaign and a surge of support for ‘Yes’.
In the coming general election campaign, the Daily Mail, The Sun and the Express will continue to pour out their bile against Corbyn and the Labour Party. But let us not forget what happened in Corbyn’s second leadership election. It almost got the point where the smears became “expected” and some commentators even blushed at the how blatant they were. The more Corbyn was vilified, the more his support went up. In an election campaign, while the gutter press will stay in the gutter, the BBC and other media will be obliged to give more air time to Labour and its leaders. It is well established that many of the policies espoused by Corbyn – on opposition to austerity, on re-nationalising rail, etc – are popular among the electorate. It is highly likely, therefore, that the gap in the opinion polls will narrow between now and June. Whether that narrowing will be enough to stop a Tory victory is another matter. What we do know, however, is that there is a huge potential for change. The consciousness of policies, leaders and parties may change dramatically even in the short time between now and June 8th.
For active members of the Labour Party, campaigning and working hard for a Labour victory, the next seven weeks will be an opportunity for energetic discussion and debate about where the Party is going. Marxists would argue, of course, for Corbyn and the Labour leaders to put forward a clear set of policies in the interests of working class people. Even Ed Miliband, on the few occasions he accidentally mentioned class issues (“them and us” – a fairly tame comment) saw a temporary spike in his popularity. We would explain that the root and branch transformation of society is the only means of guaranteeing living standards and security.
Corbyn is not going to put forward a programme to take into public ownership the commanding heights of the economy and the socialist transformation of society, but we must argue for real and concrete measures to benefit working people. We must turn concrete Transitional Demands into arguments for solid benefits for workers. If Corbyn were to combine concrete policies to benefit workers with a barn-storming series of rallies and mass meetings – as in his two leadership campaigns – he could mobilise massive support in the Party and make a difference in the polls.
Corbyn’s ‘ten points’ are vague at best, but in discussions with Labour Party members and supporters over the next seven weeks we must put flesh on the bones. We would argue, for example, not just for a ‘secure’ NHS, whatever that means, but for the re-nationalisation of the whole service, for the cancellation of the ‘internal market’ and all privatization contracts, for the cancellation of PFI debts and for the nationalization of drugs and other suppliers to the NHS.
In our discussions, we would also raise many other political issues, like automatic reselection of MPs, the role of the right wing and so on. The election campaign is an opportunity for discussion, debate and analysis on a huge scale and we must use the opportunity given.
In discussing perspectives, we can only outline the broadest and most general developments. The myriad of individual and accidental factors that will come to bear and affect the outcomes may even create a political trajectory in a completely different direction to the one anticipated. But from where we stand now there is no reason we can see to change the general perspective that Marxists have outlined for the Tory Party and the Labour Party and labour movement.
What would a Labour defeat mean?
What must concern Labour Party members is what would happen to the Labour Party if the pollsters are right and May wins a bigger majority. A big defeat for Labour will almost certainly lead to a change in leadership so the key question then would be, who would replace Corbyn? It is ironic that among those MPs most likely to lose their seats there are a large number of right-wingers and dedicated opponents of Corbyn. Indeed, some of them declined to stand in the election. Expecting that their lucrative parliamentary careers were coming to an end anyway, they have obviously calculated that they might as well look for employment elsewhere in the seven weeks of paid leave they have left.
Even with substantial losses, the Labour Party would remain in essence as it is now – a divided party with its ‘tops’ reflecting the pressures and interests of capitalism and with its ‘base’ reflecting the fears and aspirations of working people. We would still be left with most parliamentarians on the right of the party and with the rank and file overwhelmingly on the left. Under such circumstances, the right will not make the same mistake they made in 2015 when they were (at first) tolerant of Corbyn’s place on the ballot for a leadership contest. At that time, they really thought that their candidate would win and, moreover, with a victory against a left candidate, that they would win with a strong mandate.
They would not want to make the same mistake, but on the other hand, they could not very easily foist an openly right-wing candidate on the Party. Not only has the Party membership been shown in two election campaigns to be overwhelmingly on the left, but the membership will be even more energized and radicalized by the election campaign. £200,000 was raised, by over 9400 members, in the first 24 hours of the campaign. During and after the election, there will be no tolerance shown to those candidates and sitting Labour MPs who are openly disloyal and are openly sabotaging Labour’s campaign. There will be howls of anger and upheavals in CLPs up and down the country if the right try to foist a right-wing leadership on the Party. It is far more likely, therefore, that they will try to build support for a leader nominally on the ‘left’, but one who they feel they could pressurize and manipulate. Some party members and even some lefts might be dispirited or demoralized by a Tory victory. But that will soon give way to anger and deep resentment against the right wing who have consistently sabotaged the leadership of Corbyn. Moreover, that anger will grow, against a backdrop of austerity, cuts and gloomy economic forecasts.
Before the announcement of the election, there has been something of a lull in activity in Momentum groups and in the Labour Party. The hot lava of the leadership election campaigns, with its mass rallies and it enthusiasm and energy had cooled considerably. The big majority of the new Labour Party members who joined to support Corbyn failed to attend Labour Party meetings and there was even a decline in Labour membership. A large number of these members will be re-activated and re-energized and after the election, Momentum groups will also spring back to life.
Within the Labour Party branches and Momentum groups there are many, many genuine activists who are looking for a way forward. It is among these people that Marxist ideas will find an echo and among these that book clubs and discussion groups should be organized to find a way forward for the Labour Party and the working class. The longer-term perspective for the Labour Party is still that it will go through a split or a series of splits as the right wing is vomited out and the rank and file reflect the growing anger and disenchantment of the working class. At a local level, re-selection of councilors will provoke local disputes and upheavals. Even with the apparatus of the Labour Party behind them, the right wing cannot hold back the tide of anger that will engulf active workers, trade unionists and Labour Party members.
There have been many on the left in the Labour Party, especially some lefts around Momentum and the LRC, who have looked on Jeremy Corbyn as a ‘once in a lifetime’ chance of a left government. Many of these are in despair already about the possibilities of a Labour defeat, and a large one at that. They will be utterly demoralized by a Labour defeat and even more by Corbyn being replaced by a leader more to his right. Their reaction stems precisely from the fact that they do not have a perspective and cannot see the general line of direction of change within society. Having a perspective is like having an outline map and a compass in a strange land. We may not know every minor dip and turn in the road, but we know roughly where we are going. It is not the job of Marxists to despair or bemoan developments outside our control. We have to discuss, analyse, understand and plan for the future.
Whatever the precise outcome of this election, it does not alter the fundamental trajectory of British society towards revolutionary events. Ted Grant used to always use the expression, “events, events, events”, in the context of explaining that it is experience that will determine and shape the consciousness of the working class. He was absolutely correct. We live in unprecedented times and we do only that which we can do: work, live and fight alongside workers, but all the while discussing and arguing with them. By that means we seek to build a movement with the necessary understanding, clarity and determination to offer a genuine way forward for the class.