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THERESA MAY was humiliated by MPs this week. Newsrooms and the internet were awash with people asking what “contempt of Parliament” even meant, since the offence is so unusual. And for a government to be declared in contempt of Parliament is unheard of.
We’re in uncharted territory and perhaps that’s why the immediate result of the vote seemed like an anti-climax. If governments lose the confidence of the House of Commons, they fall and, if another government can’t be cobbled together, the House is dissolved and a general election is held.
Three defeats in just over an hour on Tuesday show that the government clearly has lost control of the House. And yet MPs confined their demands to No 10 publishing the legal advice it had received on May’s Brexit deal.
Ministers were not suspended or expelled from the Commons, as MPs previously found in contempt have been. Disappointingly, nobody even suggested confining May to a cell underneath Big Ben, a traditional penalty for contempt.
It’s clear Labour didn’t go for the jugular because it knows it will have a better opportunity to do so very shortly. The Prime Minister submits her deal to Parliament this coming Tuesday. Despite the best efforts of her remaining ministers, EU leaders and a number of business chiefs to resuscitate it, it looks very unlikely to survive the outing.
Parliament rejecting the deal will turn crisis into catastrophe for May. It will also be catastrophe for the Conservative Party, since the friendless May has only lasted till now because none of the Tory factions is strong enough to take over.
This is an opportunity on a scale the left has not seen in decades — a collapsing, divided Tory administration and a Labour opposition led by socialists with a proven popular manifesto for radical change and a detailed programme for government.
Most media coverage presents this as a Brexit crisis. And the contradiction that has brought it to a head is about Brexit. The 2016 referendum handed Parliament the task of delivering a policy — leaving the EU — that a sizeable majority of MPs oppose.
The decision to leave the EU is depicted in the liberal media as an outbreak of collective insanity or national self-harm.
But the vote did not take place in a void. Brexit is not the crisis but one expression of a more general crisis of legitimacy for the British state and the economic model it has built over four decades.
As the Guardian’s Larry Elliott has pointed out, this has everything to do with the bankers’ crash of 2007-8, which exposed the flimsiness of an economy dominated by an out-of-control financial sector and the emptiness of “growth” fuelled not by production but borrowing and speculation in property.
The immediate misery it caused threw longer-term problems into relief, including the long-term decline in wages compared with profits as a share of GDP and the grotesque rise in inequality that resulted.
And because the left — or rather the 2007-8 leadership of the Labour Party — bought into the myth peddled by the right, that public spending was to blame for rising debt and needed to be cut, the crash was followed by Tory and Lib Dem “austerity” — an immense transfer of wealth from working-class people to the richest via pay freezes, attacks on the “social wage” by starving public services and social security of funds, the transfer of public assets to private hands or their exploitation for profit via private-sector involvement in the NHS, the sale of Royal Mail and the rest.
We know the consequences — a million depending on foodbanks, a million more children in poverty, a million people on insecure contracts, a 169 per cent increase in homelessness, lifeline benefits cut for the disabled and terminally ill, a permanent winter crisis at the NHS, wages falling further and further behind inflation and a generation unable to access affordable housing.
All this while a succession of scandals destroyed trust in pillar after pillar of the British Establishment. The idea that the government would not lie to the public was shattered by the Iraq war. The reputation of Parliament was shredded by the expenses scandal, that of the police by the Hillsborough Inquiry and revelations of their brutality at Orgreave and deception of women into sexual relationships by undercover officers.
The phone-hacking scandal discredited much of the media — its flagrant bias against Jeremy Corbyn since he became Labour leader has hardly restored its reputation. The Panama Papers exposed the extent to which the rich don’t play by the rules and don’t contribute to society.
This rotten, bankrupt, indefensible status quo is the context for much more positive developments — Corbyn winning the Labour leadership in 2015 and 2016, Labour’s transformation into a mass party of half a million members, its huge strides forward on an avowedly socialist platform in last year’s general election and, crucially, a wave of militant trade unionism organising young people to fight and win in the most precarious sectors of the economy at big-name employers including McDonald’s, TGI Friday’s, Wetherspoon, Amazon and Uber.
Under Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell, Labour has marched in step with that movement and encouraged it, has been on picket lines and voiced the concerns of the voiceless in Parliament. Its masterly election campaign last year demonstrated the power of the street, the mass meeting and boots on the ground to overcome a Westminster politics of money and media control.
Its continued forward march rests on its ability to maintain that radicalism, to be the mass anti-Establishment party in Britain and to continue to put first and foremost issues that concern ordinary people, as Corbyn did at Prime Minister’s Questions this week when he skewered May over the Tories’ disgraceful treatment of disabled people, only for liberal commentators to carp that he wasn’t focusing on Brexit.
Nothing could put that in jeopardy more than being seen to collude in a parliamentary game that sees the 2016 decision to leave the EU annulled.
Whatever the propaganda from advocates of the so-called People’s Vote, the party’s polling suggests little has changed on the ground in the last two years. A second referendum would risk losing millions of votes in Leave areas, while deepening the divide between Leave and Remain supporters. Being associated with Remain in a second vote would also carry grave risks for trade unions.
Nor should we look to any combination of parliamentary forces that would see Labour enter office without an election. The prospect of the Queen asking Corbyn to form a minority government is vanishingly unlikely — the stream of nonsense we see in our newspapers from ex-spooks shows just how frightened the Establishment is of a Corbyn government.
So is the European Union — hence its offer to May this week, in direct contradiction to its previous statements, that, if the deal goes down, it would be open to extending Article 50 for further negotiations, a lifeline thrown to a drowning PM.
But if May’s likely defeat next week is followed by offers of participation in some form of national government, the labour movement must be alert to the fact that no such government would tolerate the radical reforming programme outlined in Labour’s 2017 manifesto.
It would be designed to trap Corbyn in a framework where he became the champion of the status quo against the Brexit vote and the consequences for Labour are clear from the collapse of social democratic parties across Europe that have become defenders of an unjust economic system.
A Corbyn government will face systematic opposition as it is — the bankers and the big corporations will use every trick in the book to derail a challenge to their power and privileges, from investment strikes to attacks on the pound to legal challenges to every piece of legislation and probably much worse. It is bound to rest on a Parliamentary Labour Party that still includes many die-hard enemies of the leader, whose cynicism and lack of scruple has become clear over a succession of concocted scandals.
Those threats can only be seen off by the mobilisation of a mass movement, spearheaded by a militant industrial labour movement that ensures big business and its lackeys are fighting a war on multiple fronts — in Parliament, in town halls, in workplaces, in communities.
The extraordinary mobilisation of last year’s general election must be repeated and exceeded. Labour has been at its strongest on the campaign trail, and can only deliver if it rides to power on a general election win.
If May’s deal is rejected, the fight is on to force the government into a position where it has to call a general election. Talk of opting for a second referendum if the parliamentary arithmetic isn’t there for a general election ignores the pressure that can be exerted on Parliament from outside — and worse, treats Brexit, rather than the Tories, as the main problem.
After all, the parliamentary arithmetic wasn’t there for a Corbyn-led Labour Party, but we made it happen. The battle for Britain’s future is on.
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