By Ian Richardson
The General Election on 8 June is a classic ‘cut-and-run’ election, called on the back of mounting evidence of the economic squeeze that is already beginning to result from Brexit and the fact that the false promises about Brexit are unravelling, including that Britain could dictate the terms it chose for a Brexit deal. This means the Tories are at a high water mark, which will now recede. Theresa May knows this and has gone for a snap election before things start to run downhill.
The first impact of Brexit – the sharp fall in the pound – is now working through into rising inflation. In the context where wages continue to be held down and austerity policies are reducing the social wage, this is squeezing living standards and spending power. The latest sign of the consequence was seen in the largest fall in retail sales for seven years in the first quarter of this year. Such indicators are likely to pile up. The Tories will keep claiming all is well as GDP growth is on track, but they will be increasingly unable to sidestep or gloss over the impact on living standards. And this will soon start spreading to jobs.
As the Brexit process deepens it will become increasingly apparent that the Tories’ proposal is to heap the damage to trade and investment arising from Brexit on to the backs of workers and the poor. Even deeper austerity, lower wages, privatisations and cuts to public services are all on the agenda to shift the costs of this self-inflicted crisis away from profits and onto ordinary working people. Their aim is not to improve prosperity for all, just to find a way to boost profits.
Two things are needed to oppose the Tories: a fight for a ‘soft Brexit’ i.e. staying in the Single Market; and an unrelenting opposition to austerity.
This is what Labour under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership stands for: rejecting May’s ‘hard Brexit’ and Labour’s campaign slogan ‘For the many, not the few’ precisely means rejecting austerity.
The Lib Dems are trying to claim that they are the party that can protect people from Brexit, but they do not oppose austerity; in fact, together with the Tories in the last coalition government, they are responsible for it. The Lib Dems oppose a ‘hard Brexit’, but they would support attacking working class living standards whether in or out. The false notion of a ‘progressive alliance’ with the Lib Dems should be exposed.
On the other hand Labour can win over Lib Dem voters, whose main support comes from better-paid workers, and should make no bones about attempting to do so. Labour’s stance for a ‘soft Brexit’ will obviously be crucial, as these voters – and many that are toying with abandoning Labour for the Lib Dems – are deeply opposed to Brexit because of both its economic and social consequences. Most Labour supporters voted ‘remain’. If Labour does not pitch to win all these voters and those voting for the Lib Dems for similar reasons, worse if Labour is seen as a party that ‘embraces Brexit’, then the natural anti-Tory majority in British politics will be split.
The fact that Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour opposes austerity, racism and wars; stands for investment-led growth, equality irrespective of ethnic background, gender, religion or sexuality and does not choke over saying the words ‘homosexual acts are not a sin’ adds to its potential appeal to those thinking of voting Lib Dem as well as its own established base.
Labour’s election slogan ‘For the many, not the few’ is excellent; it expresses Labour’s appeal is to all workers from the moderately well off to those on low incomes and the poor. As Labour puts flesh on these bones, with policies that correspond to boosting the well being and prospects of all working people, then it can start to seize back ground from the Tories. The initial tranche of policies launched before the election was called – on free primary school meals, a £10 minimum wage, action for small business and defending the pensions triple lock – were a good beginning. The pledge to cancel tuition fees is even better. If these are built on some to include policies that make an economic difference for the population across the board, then this is a solid campaigning foundation.
But the crucial question is Brexit. Objectively this is the single most important issue in British politics and is unavoidable; in politics whoever sets the agenda on the most important question will win. Labour has to take up the Tories on the consequences of their ‘hard Brexit’, defending the interests of the overwhelming majority of people whose standard of living will fall as a result of Brexit. As living standards is actually the most important issue for all workers, whether low, middle or higher-paid, and has the biggest impact on how they eventually vote, shifting the Brexit agenda onto the impact on living standards and jobs is crucial to begin to take control of the debate.
Labour can set the political agenda by opposing a ‘hard Brexit’, which would crush living standards, be a bonfire of workers’ rights and rip up environmental protections. May’s embrace of Trump also very likely means more British support for US wars. Racism will be ratcheted up further, as a distraction from deepening the longest ever decline in real incomes.
In recent days both Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have refused to rule out a ‘second referendum’ on Brexit. In fact this would be the first referendum on the reality of Brexit, rather than the fairy tales of the referendum campaign. They were right to do so. As reality works its way through, a referendum on the terms may be the one of the few mechanisms to defend the population from a devastating economic attack. It will probably be one of the few levers to defend Labour’s current ‘red lines’ on living standards, environmental protection and workers’ rights.
The opinion polls mean that Labour has an enormous challenge ahead. The Labour right has never accepted the democratic decisions to elect Corbyn and are once again busy plotting against him rather than fighting the Tories. They hope and expect he will fail badly and can be immediately ousted post-election.
Well-meaning liberal commentators like Jon Snow are wrong to suggest this election is a direct consequence of the police investigation into Tory election fraud in 2015. In the extraordinary event that any Tories or even Tory MPs are charged, on current polling the Tories would win every one of those seats in by-elections. The Tories have called the election because all their assertions about people’s lives improving with Brexit are unravelling.
Whatever the outcome of the election, the Corbyn leadership should be defended. All the likely alternatives from the centre or right would at best be anti-austerity in name only, would be viciously anti-immigrant and would support US wars. This would be disastrous and their polling would rapidly track the French Socialists and Dutch Labour Party into single digits. The Corbyn leadership remains the best hope for the Labour Party, and the best hope to resolve the current crisis in the interests of the majority.