Seb Cooke looks at what we can expect if a new election is held in the near future.
The government is weak. The Prime Minister has no authority. The Chancellor – hated by half the Cabinet – has promised ordinary people more economic misery after seven years of pain. Brexit poses an extraordinary challenge to the state and creates added political difficulty. The Tories have a threadbare majority made only slightly more sustainable through a deal with the DUP. All of this comes on the back of an election where the Tories lost seats and were defeated politically by a resurgent left under the banner of Corbynism.
Because of this, many conclude that we should expect the government to collapse and Labour to win an election. This is spoken about with cautious acceptance in much of the media and taken up with glee by sections of the left. Interestingly, some of those who seemed most down-beat on Corbyn’s chances at the start of the last election now appear to be ones asserting that the left is guaranteed power.
The commonality between both of these positions is that they base their analysis on a static picture of how things exist now, based mostly upon polls. They fail to acknowledge the volatility of politics and how big events and movements can dramatically shift things.
The left’s focus should not necessarily be on the prospect of Labour getting into power – which is far from assured – but how the present government might fall and what could happen during another election campaign.
One of the government’s biggest weaknesses is its deal with the DUP, which has been secured with a price tag of £10billion. However, this money is dependent on a deal being reached in the Northern Ireland Assembly between Republicans and Unionists. This has not happened: talks have broken down and the government in Westminster in stepping in. This means that the DUP are propping up the Tories with nothing to show for it, and now the issue of the Irish border and the status of Northern Ireland post-Brexit has exposed an even deeper fault line within the deal.
Eventually the DUP will assess the benefits of the deal and may break it off, if continuing it risks significantly damaging their electability. The more the crisis intensifies for the Tories, the more this relationship is strained. If another election is held in Northern Ireland as a result of the impasse, the DUP might decide the association is too toxic to maintain. Fringe parties of the radical right across Europe are deciding that deals with the political establishment are too damaging (the FDP in Germany and the ‘True Finns’ are a case in point). The DUP may come to the same conclusion and walk out, making it extremely difficult for the Conservative government to carry on.
Divisions within the government over Brexit could also bring down Theresa May. She may be forced to sack a prominent figure such as Boris Johnson, or he may resign if he feels he is being dragged down by the Tories’ Brexit problems or over something such as a £40billion EU “divorce bill”. In that situation, a leadership contest could be triggered and the new leader would face enormous pressure to secure their own mandate in a general election.
Previous Tory Prime Ministers have been brought down by mass popular pressure – by a huge miners’ strike in 1974, and by a mass movement against the poll tax in the early nineties. There is no obvious major strike on the horizon or single mass movement that we can point to, but the material conditions necessary for either to take shape do exist. A strike over pay across the public sector is perhaps the most feasible such scenario; the planned CWU strike could also have created enormous pressure on the government and spread to other groups of workers, as indeed could still be the case if the strike eventually goes ahead. There is, demonstrably, a high level of anger over austerity across the country. It is possible that this anger could be brought onto the streets, initially sparked by something small but becoming more generalised against the government thereafter. An election in such circumstances would be very dangerous for the Tories (and for the ruling class as a whole), but it may be less dangerous than trying to stay in office.
Other possibilities include the Tories losing MPs through resignations due to the steady stream of revelations of sexual harassment and assault, and Labour then winning by-elections, slowly whittling the government’s majority down and increasing the calls for another election. The ousting of scandal-hit Cabinet members such as Damien Green and Michael Fallon may reduce May’s remaining core of loyalists to such an extent that she becomes unable to weather future crises.
It may well be the case that none of these things happen, but it is clear that we are in extraordinary times where the government is in continual political danger. Any of the above scenarios is possible. At the same time, we can’t just wait for one of them to unfold There is a necessity for political activity that makes the government’s downfall more likely.
The last election took place ten years after the onset of the financial crisis, following seven years of severe austerity. The national Labour campaign led by Corbyn brought the big political issues to the fore and won the argument with the Conservatives on a range of issues such as nationalisation and higher taxes for the rich. At the same time, grassroots activity on the ground ballooned as the campaign went on.
In Battersea, this movement helped to upend a Tory majority of 8000. Across the country, similar things were happening, and many of those Tory MPs who did survive came incredibly close to losing. As a result, there are scores of new marginal seats – many of which, it has been claimed, would have gone over to Labour had the campaign lasted another week.
In these instances, people began to feel they had real power that hitherto had been denied to them by a stale political system. In the final weeks of the election, as a Corbyn government suddenly became a tangible hope and May looked in real danger, activity swelled, not just through ground campaigns but in huge rallies and in the general level of political discussion and debate in society at large. Socialists found themselves in a situation where ideas that a few years ago seemed marginal had become mainstream.
Since then, the basis for throwing out the Tories has only increased. The starting point of a general election campaign now would be a deeper crisis for the government – with the lessons of the previous campaign still at the forefront of people’s minds.
There would not only be a strong desire to get rid of the Tories and change society; more people would believe they actually had the power to do so. No constituency would be completely free from this dynamic, not even ones with huge Tory majorities.
And unlike at the last election, where this process took time to gather pace, there would now be the probability that things could take off very quickly as memories of June 2017 kicked in. Across the country, sizeable minorities would quickly be drawn into an active struggle to win over a majority to back Corbyn.
At the same time, there would be an even bigger charge to register people to vote as a means of redrawing the political map in the left’s favour. Calculations would be done in which the size of a Tory MP’s majority would be viewed alongside the number of non-registered voters, with this forming the basis of registration drives targeting the people who feel most disenfranchised. What this would mean, in reality, would be large groups of people taking an anti-Tory argument out into much wider layers of society.
The crisis within society in all of its facets – healthcare services, low pay, education, climate change, foreign policy etc. – would be brought to the fore again but in a sharper way than before. These issues would be discussed in workplaces, football matches, outside school gates and so on. Of course, this happens already, but it would accelerate in the midst of an election campaign. People’s confidence to make the case for left-wing politics and shift the argument would increase.
The rallies we witnessed previously, such as the enormous gathering in Gateshead or Corbyn’s appearance at Glastonbury, could also recur – much bigger, angrier and louder than in June. The reasons for ordinary people to mobilise around Corbynism are stronger today. Through these collective mobilisations, the general combativeness of the working class as a whole is raised.
We can rightly criticise aspects of Corbyn’s political platform, but it is unlikely that he or his Shadow Cabinet would lurch significantly rightwards in another campaign. Though socialists can and should make arguments to the left of Corbyn around issues such as Trident or Palestine, we would still need to throw ourselves into the movement to sweep away the Conservatives and replace them with a Corbyn government.
A general election would also pose a threat to the Labour right and to Labour councils that are pushing through devastating cuts and privatisations. A movement from below – fighting around the politics of Corbynism – could ultimately depose them.
Various political forces would fight for leadership of this movement – socialists must be organised to exploit the growth of the left, build extra-parliamentary struggle and advance our position in all areas of discussion, such as on Trident, asylum justice, anti-racism and so on. Of course, thiscan also be done right now, and pressure should be put on Corbyn to mobilise ordinary people against the Tories. However, it is undeniable that this opportunity would present itself to a greater degree in an election. There would exist the possibility to mobilise fargreater numbers over issues like education and healthcare. If a strike were to happen in this heightened political atmosphere, it would take on a completely different character.
It is for this reason that the Conservatives most fear the prospect of another general election in the near future. Not only do they fear a Corbyn government; they know that the anger in society is hardening and could manifest itself in a ways that threatens them and the class they represent. They hope to steady the ship andblunt Corbyn’s radical edge in the meantime (this is also the strategy of the Labour right).
Many Tories like to talk about Britain as being a country predisposed to moderation and gradual change. The truth is much different, and deep down they know it. The working class in Britain is just as capable of revolting against the ruling class as anywhere else. They are terrified that it could happen today.