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Editorial Only class politics can defeat Boris Johnson

TWO events this week have clarified the political challenges facing Britain’s labour movement. Yesterday, the Commons defeated a motion to disallow a No Deal Brexit. Today, Boris Johnson emerged as an apparently unbeatable frontrunner in the Conservative leadership ballot.

There are always dangers in predicting the future. But there are even bigger dangers in failing to prepare for the obvious. Johnson has so far made only two commitments. One is to cut tax on the rich. The other is to deliver Brexit either through a modified version of May’s European Union deal or simply by leaving with no deal. 

This is the challenge. In some form or other, Britain is highly likely to be outside the EU before the end of the year under a government that will continue with the worst of the EU’s existing neoliberal rules and then negotiate trade treaties with the United States that will make them worse and open Britain to still further privatisation. 

It would do so under a prime minister who has gone out of his way to court US President Donald Trump, who has shown indifference to de-industrialisation and poverty and who has called for tax reductions at a time when new commitments on climate change will mean up to £50 billion a year coming out of existing budgets. 

These positions will no doubt play extremely well with Conservative Party members voting in Tunbridge Wells. The big question is whether they will play well in the coming general election. 

Here the trade union movement and the left has to make a decision. Is it to remain stuck in an increasingly sterile and immobilising debate for and against the EU? Or is it to shift the ground to the kind of withdrawal from the EU that must be secured to protect working people and to advance a progressive agenda that can beat the Tories?

Johnson currently stands ready to pose as the hero of Brexit, recapture the Brexit Party vote and deliver a Conservative government with an overall majority. This is why Tory MPs voted for him.

Only one thing can stop Johnson. It is to expose his class politics – and pose an alternative.   

In large measure this already exists. Labour’s programme for the last election called for a re-expansion of the public sector, for public ownership of basic utilities and for the use of government power to tilt the balance in favour of the many rather than the few.

Since then, Corbyn’s Coventry speech has spelt out the commitment to reverse de-industrialisation using a State Investment Bank and public procurement to transform local economies.

Corbyn has also made clear the kind of EU withdrawal needed to achieve these key class objectives. It must involve alignment to the EU single market – but not membership of it. 

Britain should adhere to the same health, environmental and labour standards as the EU (if not improve on them). But it must not be bound by the single market competition rules that ban any significant state aid, any form of comprehensive public ownership or any active use of public procurement. 

May’s deal does not provide these freedoms. Why should it? It was negotiated by Conservatives largely to protect the interests of the City of London.  

But, within May’s deal, only the Withdrawal Agreement is legally fixed. The accompanying Declaration, which includes single market compliance, remains to be fully negotiated. The question is, who is to do it? Johnson or Corbyn?

If Johnson is to be defeated, this is the battleground that must be opened up now. Only class politics can defeat Johnson in Labour’s working-class heartlands. The dangers of not preparing are too serious to be contemplated.

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