When leftists argue that Labour should have voted with Johnson

Submitted by AWL on 11 September, 2019 - 10:41 Author: Martin Thomas
corbyn johnson

Since the big vote in Parliament on 3 September, most of the left press has made its chief call for Labour to back Boris Johnson’s call for a super-early snap election.

The arguments, or the arguments on the face of it, are odd, at least.

Labour and the other opposition parties do not want to give Johnson an easy get-out from implementing Parliament’s instructions to avoid a no deal Brexit. They want to “hold his feet to the fire”, as they put it, and make him comply with the law.

They don’t want to give him a chance to call a snap election, date it for after 31 October, and then confront the country with an accomplished fact.

They also know that Johnson has lost every Parliamentary vote he’s had since becoming prime minister. He is in a clear minority in the House of Commons. An election is certain soon, and postponing it to thwart Johnson carries no real risk of leaving him in office indefinitely.

Yet Socialist Worker, for example, says:

“We should now be campaigning in a general election to get Boris Johnson and the Tories out.

“But on Monday [9 September] Labour, the Scottish National Party, Liberal Democrats and Plaid Cymru and the Independent Group… refused to back an election... It was the second time they had rejected such an opportunity...

“The Tories are in ever deeper crisis… But still Labour does not want an election. A motion to hold an election did not reach the required two-thirds majority...

“Labour has prioritised halting Brexit over the chance to drive out the Tories… Those who want action over austerity and racism, and many other issues have been told they should wait for months more…”

“Months” is hardly likely. The reason why Johnson wants a super-quick snap election is not some urge to self-harm. It is because that could position him with a clear “no deal Brexit” profile enabling him to scoop up Brexit party votes. By the time the implications of “no deal” become clear — so Johnson reasonably calculates — he could be in office with five years to run before a new election.

SW’s other argument is that the opposition party collaboration against Johnson is promoting the idea of a “national unity” government, a conservative coalition of all the anti-Johnson parties.

The “People’s Vote” campaign is calling for tactical votes in the coming election (vote Lib Dem, Labour, Plaid, SNP, or rebel-Tory, whoever is the best-placed Remain candidate in each constituency). We argue against that.

If the coming election produces a hung parliament, there will be pressure for a coalition government (Labour with some combination of the Lib Dems, Plaid, SNP). We oppose that. We argue for Labour instead to go for a minority government, and, if parliament votes that down, to go for a new general election.

All that is standard. How and why does it rule out cooperation with other parties to block Johnson in Parliament? Since the only way Johnson can be blocked in Parliament is by the opposition parties voting together against him, does that mean that Labour should have been duty-bound to let Johnson get his way, just in order to show that it was independent?

That cooperation does not mean that Labour, the Lib Dems, the SNP, and Plaid will do deals to withdraw candidates in favour of each other in the coming general election. As yet, in fact, there are virtually no voices for such deals.

“Can’t wait” and “oh dear, it might lead to coalition” are SW’s “good reasons” for arguing against Labour thwarting Johnson’s instant-election plan. The “real reason” seems to be something else.

Elsewhere, the same SW article complains:

“Plaid Cymru’s Westminster leader, Liz Saville Roberts, said last week, ‘We need to make sure that we get an extension to Article 50. We have an opportunity to bring down Boris and to bring down Brexit’.”

Aha, exclaims SW. “Note that she said ‘bring down Brexit’. The pro-business politicians who have always wanted to reverse the 2016 referendum now sniff their opportunity”.

The reason why SW wanted Labour to vote with Johnson is that SW wants Brexit. It doesn’t say positively that it favours “no deal”, and in fact its main argument is that socialists should shout about other issues loudly enough to drown out all thought about Brexit.

But it identifies the opposition to Brexit as a matter of “pro-business politicians”. Another SW article arguing that “a radical Labour can win a general election” holds that Labour can win only if it backs Brexit.

Can Labour win? “The answer is yes — but not if Labour becomes a ‘moderate’ party of Remain”. SW implies that backing remain makes you “moderate” (in plain words, right wing), and so to be left wing you must go at least part of the way with Johnson.

SW does not seem to have noticed that now the most active anti-Brexit forces in the Labour Party and in society come from the left. Big business does not like “no deal”, but mostly would be willing to settle for Theresa May’s Brexit deal.

The Socialist Party has much the same argument as SW, with a stereotype SP twist. Back in the day, the SP was known for proposing a 24 hour TUC general strike as the answer to almost every problem. Now we have a milder version.

“Left unions should demand it sets the date for a mass demonstration as the first step to getting the Tories out and the coming to power of a Corbyn-led government with a socialist programme”.

Exactly what the demonstration will demand — that Corbyn adopts the SP’s programme? what? — is unclear. But it’s clear that the demonstration desired by the SP will not be to block Johnson bouncing through “hard Brexit”.

The SP wants Labour to negotiate a good hard Brexit. “Having negotiated such a deal it would not be wrong to put it to a confirmatory vote but Corbyn should be energetically arguing in favour of that deal, rather than the alternative of continuing as part of the pro-capitalist EU”. In the SP’s desired future, we can be part of a walled-off capitalist Britain instead, with lots of nationalisations but fewer migrant workers.

Socialist Appeal is not for Brexit. It says that Corbyn should be “explaining that, on a capitalist basis, neither being in or out of the EU will solve anything for working people”.

Well, no, not as such. They won’t. But what should a Labour government do? Declare Britain neither in nor out of the EU? Or too engrossed in high thoughts to know one way or another?

Rather like SW, Socialist Appeal proposes that we deal with the Brexit crisis by resolutely not thinking about the issue. All that matters is getting Johnson out. It digs up a phrase often used by its predecessor, Militant, in the 1960s and 70s, to explain evasions or inaction on immediate issues. Such immediate issues would soon fade into insignificance — “when the masses begin to move”.

And again today: “This is what we must be looking towards. We must not be distracted by anything else. All of the frenzy and fluster over this-or-that tactical minutiae will soon be forgotten when the masses begin to move.”

The dog that barks nowhere in the columns of SW, the SP paper The Socialist, or Socialist Appeal, is the attack on democracy in Johnson’s tactics.

SW has carried an article on “a better democracy”. But the article in fact says nothing about what better democracy SW proposes. Its purpose is only to contend that today’s parliamentary democracy is so poor that it is not worth defending. The argument combines oddly with agitation centred on the call for an election within exactly the terms of exactly that parliamentary democracy.

An argument that could be made in favour of the SW/ SP/ SApp approach is that Solidarity has exaggerated by talking about a “coup” or describing Johnson as a “poundshop Mussolini”.

Johnson is not a fascist. His proroguing Parliament is not the equivalent of the military seizure of power in Chile in 1973. To educate ourselves about fascism, Marxists rely heavily on Trotsky’s writings about early-1930s Germany. There, a street-fighting fascist movement was heading for power in a country with a fairly wide bourgeois democracy and a very strong labour movement.

The Stalinists called every one of the successive conservative administrations in the years before Hitler’s seizure of power “fascist”. They drew the conclusion that it would matter little if Hitler replaced those conservatives.

Trotsky insisted that Hitler’s seizure of power would mean the complete wiping-out of the labour movement (which it did, within months), and all the pre-Hitler regimes, however bad, were radically different in the fact that they allowed the labour movement still to exist.

That is an important lesson. It did not mean that Trotsky preached indifference to political shifts before Hitler. He denounced the move by the Centre Party [middle-of-road Christian Democrat] chancellor Heinrich Brüning to rule by decree from 1930. (Parliament still existed, but could block the decrees only by explicitly voting down Brüning). When in 1932 Brüning was replaced by the more right-wing Franz von Papen, Trotsky described the move as “the Hindenburg-Papen coup” (Hindenburg was the president).

If we look outside Germany, there have been many bloodless right-wing coups, and many Mussolini-type attempts, even successful ones, which shift the axis of politics without installing outright fascism.

Take Hungary, for example. Today Hungary still has elections, parliament, legal trade unions. But Viktor Orban has drastically degraded its democracy.

In 1919 Hungary had a Soviet Republic for four months. After its downfall, the right-winger Miklós Horthy took over (as “Regent”: Hungary became a kingdom without a king). The Horthy regime gradually squeezed out all space for legal trade-union and political-opposition activity, and allied with the Nazis in World War 2.

It established itself, in the first place, after the Soviet Republic, by a very bloody White Terror.

Yet the Hungarian Social Democrats — who led the unions, had a real working-class base, and had been part of the Soviet government — had ministers in the first Horthy government, and negotiated a “pact” with Horthy’s later prime minister István Bethlen.

There are many other examples of “intermediate” developments.

An assault on democracy may be less than a bloodbath, or full-blown fascism — or even much less than those — and still need to be indicted as a “coup” or “poundshop Mussolini” work.

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