With the Brexit countdown ticking, establishment pundits and politicians have been clamouring for ‘moderates’ on all sides of the Commons to put aside their differences and form a government of ‘national unity’ to halt Boris Johnson’s no-deal trainwreck.
But when Jeremy Corbyn came forward with just such a proposal last week, suddenly the ardent Remainers in Parliament developed cold feet.
Corbyn is correct to push for an early end to Johnson’s premiership – and exposing the hypocrisy of right-wing Remainers in the process. But the route to a socialist Labour government cannot run through the backrooms of Westminster.
Caretaker Corbyn government
Last Wednesday, 14 August, Corbyn threw down the gauntlet to the leaders of all the main Remain-backing parties – as well as the anti-Brexit Tory ‘rebels’.
In an open letter, Corbyn said he would table a vote of no confidence in Johnson and the Tories. Should this succeed, he would secure a “strictly time-limited temporary government with the aim of calling a general election”. In such an election, Corbyn states, Labour would commit to a second EU referendum, with the option to Remain on the ballot paper.
I've written to the leaders of other political parties and senior backbenchers from across Parliament to lay out my plan to stop a disastrous No Deal Brexit and let the people decide the future of our country. pic.twitter.com/Jz1MjXCrqk— Jeremy Corbyn (@jeremycorbyn) August 14, 2019
This challenge put the Remain party leaders on the spot. All have joined the deafening chorus of Corbyn-bashing, accusing him of being a ‘closet Brexiteer’. But Corbyn was now seemingly offering everything they have asked for – with the only caveat being that they must support him as temporary PM.
This quickly divided the room. Despite grumbling that a second referendum ought to come before a general election, the Greens, Plaid and SNP begrudgingly got on board.
However, the Liberal Democrats’ new leader, Jo Swinson, flushed with weeks of media hype, dismissed Corbyn’s proposal as “nonsense”. She suggested that only a backbench ‘grandee’, such as Harriet Harman or Ken Clarke, could take on the mantle of PM – that is to say, a safe pair of hands for big business and the establishment.
Swinson was soon followed by the Independent Group for Change (currently polling on zero percent), with leader Anna Soubry insisting she “would not support a government of national unity that is led by Jeremy Corbyn” – even to prevent a no-deal Brexit. This from a party that was founded, in large part, to stop Brexit.
Though they’d prefer one of their own in the driver’s seat (e.g. Harriet Harman or Yvette Cooper), the Blairites in the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) largely either kept silent or backed Corbyn’s plan through gritted teeth. The trigger ballot process underway in constituency Labour parties has no doubt helped keep them in line - on this occasion, at least.
But some of their former colleagues were less cautious. Ian Austin, for example, tweeted that Labour was “poisoned by extremism and racism” and Corbyn was “unfit to lead our country and completely incapable of resolving the Brexit issue”.
These stalwart opponents of Brexit have shown their true colours. For these ladies and gentlemen, it was never really about Brexit. The question of Europe just provided a convenient stick to beat Corbyn with.
These bourgeois politicians have no intention of making Corbyn prime minister - for five weeks or five minutes. But their obstinance started to look absurd when even a handful of Tory MPs stated they’d give Corbyn a hearing, if it meant stopping no deal.
Feeling the mask slip, the establishment press turned on their champion, pressuring Swinson to climb off her high horse and at least consider Corbyn’s proposal.
Swinson found herself suddenly isolated, and was forced to moderate her stance. She clarified that she was “open” to discussions with Corbyn, but that his plan was unrealistic because he wouldn’t be able to command enough cross-party support in parliament.
Why Swinson (with her 14 MPs) thinks she gets to nominate the next prime minister is anyone’s guess.
As leader of the opposition, Corbyn has 248 MPs under his charge. He resoundingly won two leadership elections, and received 40 percent of the public vote in the 2017 general election. It is completely ridiculous to contemplate anyone else heading up a new government if Johnson is booted out.
But such logic is wasted on the establishment and their political representatives - who will happily put aside all convention in order to ensure that their aims and interests are protected.
Nevertheless, no matter how they might squirm, or insist that Corbyn needs to “do the right thing” and step aside for a less “divisive” figure, the conundrum facing Remainer MPs is clear. They can either support the Labour leader’s plan, or admit that backing a Corbyn-led government - with millions of radical workers and youth arrayed behind it - is too high a price for them when it comes to stopping a train-crash Brexit.
Corbyn’s move has therefore exposed the hypocrisy at the heart of establishment politics. But can it succeed?
Beware of false friends
The capitalist press have launched a ceaseless stream of bile at Corbyn from the moment he became Labour leader. But their consensus now is that he has ‘played a blinder’ with this latest turn.
Lefty journalists like Owen Jones have sung Corbyn’s praises and (quite rightly) skewered the Lib Dems for their disgusting hypocrisy. Paul Mason was also positive, though he continued to insist that opposition to Brexit must be a centrepiece of Labour’s platform.
But the positive reviews weren’t confined to those on the left. Ordinarily hostile papers, like the Observer and Financial Times also gave Corbyn props. Writing in the latter, Robert Shrimsley said Corbyn’s move “was the obvious move and the smart one from a party political stance…for a man who has been open that stopping Brexit is not his priority this is a well-calculated gambit.”
Even the Spectator (formerly edited by Boris Johnson) celebrated Corbyn’s “unusually smart politics”.
Coming from these people, such praise is cause for concern. The reason these establishment commentators are suddenly so effusive towards the Labour leader, after all, is because his recent proposal is one that plays by their rules. It is a tactic based on parliamentary maneuvering, rather than mobilisation of the masses.
This is the reason he is now suddenly receiving applause and acclaim from the mainstream media. He’s now acting like a ‘clever statesman’ – one who is willing to compromise – rather than as the head of a powerful social movement for change.
Who’s driving whom?
The question must be asked: in such a ‘caretaker government’ scenario, who is in the driving seat? Who is using whom?
In Corbyn’s proposal, he emphasises that his temporary government would enact no policies. This is, in effect, a reassurance to the ruling class that such a Corbyn-led government would pose no threat to them. It is an act of self-emasculation - one that would make the Labour leader a prisoner to capitalist interests.
In any case, the only way such a government could be formed is with the support of breakaway Tories, Lib Dems, and ‘Independents’ - all capitalist parties through-and-through. And many of these MPs have made it clear that they cannot countenance the idea of a Corbyn PM, even if only on a temporary basis.
Such a government - even if it could be cobbled together - would therefore be seen by workers and youth for what it is: a technocratic coalition of the establishment and big business.
Moreover, the promise of a second referendum is a concession to the same right-wing Remainers who just last week were dragging him through the mud. These aren’t the people whose confidence Corbyn needs to win an election.
Time and again it has been proved that Brexit is toxic ground for Labour. Time and again, Labour has only made gains by emphasising class issues. This is what proved so effective in the 2017 general election and the Peterborough by-election.
Yesterday, in a speech at Corby, Corbyn went on the offensive. He called Johnson “Britain’s Trump” and a “phoney outsider funded by the hedge funds and bankers committed to protecting the vested interests of the richest and the elites while posing as anti-establishment”.
He sidelined Brexit, placing the focus on policies with the potential to unite workers on a class basis, promising Labour would “take the radical steps necessary to protect the environment and provide hope, decent jobs and secure homes”.
It was a strong speech, filled with fighting talk. And lo and behold, Corbyn was immediately attacked in the press for being ‘divisive’ again!
For example, Simon Jenkins criticised Corbyn in the Guardian for being too “tribal”, complaining that “the Labour leader should have presented himself as the voice of majoritarian sanity… he should be reaching out to all Johnson’s opponents, talking, cajoling, compromising, fashioning the lowest common denominator of consensus.”
Because nothing inspires hope and confidence in voters like the lowest common denominator!
A dangerous game
Corbyn is right to demand a general election. But he is also playing a dangerous game. Should this latest gambit succeed, he will be the titular head of a technocratic government, one with no democratic mandate, leading a coalition involving all stripes of the political establishment.
Acting like a respectable statesman may win accolades from the capitalist press. But it risks demoralising Corbyn’s supporters - those who back him precisely because he is not part of the establishment.
The promise of a second referendum (with Remain on the ballot paper), meanwhile, will push Brexit even further to the forefront, making it the defining question of the next general election. This will only emphasise the divide between Leavers and Remainers, undoing the hard work Corbyn and Labour have correctly done to stress the real division in society: that between the many and the few.
Furthermore, the promise of a second referendum will be a gift to Boris Johnson. He will demagogically flay Corbyn and the ‘Remoaner coalition’ for their ‘anti-democratic’ coup against the ‘will of the people’. This is a dream scenario for the hard Brexiteers in a general election.
Rather than pledging a second EU referendum - which will only widen the wounds in society, distract from the class issues, and boost Boris - Labour should be committing to fight for a socialist Britain as part of a socialist Europe. Inside or outside of the EU, there is no future for the working class under capitalism.
General election now!
The route to power for Labour must not lie along this road of Westminster chess-playing, triangulating, and horsetrading.
A general election must be secured using the same forces that will win this election for Labour: through the mass mobilisation of the Corbyn movement, with its hundreds and thousands of activists and supporters, around a programme of radical left-wing demands.
Workers and youth must be mobilised and organised - on the streets and in the trade unions - for a mass national campaign of protests, door-knocking, and strikes until this feeble Tory government (with its majority of one) crumbles.
All of Labour’s recent successes have been based on this strategy of grassroots mobilisation and bold class-based demands. It is what has allowed Corbyn to consistently defy the expectations of his critics, winning two leadership elections and turning around the 2017 snap election along the way.
The Corbyn movement has accomplished the seemingly impossible more than once. A Labour victory will not be won through parliamentary gymnastics. It will be conquered on the streets - on the basis of mass mobilisation and clear socialist policies.