On this morning’s Today programme, John McDonnell was once again arguing Labour’s case that a General Election was one way in which the electorate could make a decision on a Brexit deal – an option that Labour clearly prefers to another referendum on any deal that Theresa May might conclude.
There are, however, both theoretical and practical reasons why this is not the case; it seems to me that the support for a general election is far more about internal Labour politics than about the issue at hand.
At a theoretical level, a General Election is clearly never going to be about a single issue – least of all when both main political parties are split down the middle on that issue. In a post on the LSE Policy and Politics blog, Yossi Nehushtan of Keele University clearly articulates the three fundamental problems of using a general election to resolve the issue: that a general election on a single topic is anti-democratic (and I’d go further an argue that it is for the electorate, not politicians, to decide the basis on which electors cast their votes); that it is far from clear what that single topic would be; and that the nature of the UK election system, with its use of the first-past-the-post, is a very bad mechanism for deciding a single issue (and, again, I’d go further and, recalling my undergraduate political sociology studies of nearly four decades ago, refer readers to Condorcet’s Paradox which demonstrates the inherent irrationality of binary choices on complex issues)
At a practical level, this seems to me to be a debate about a referendum that the Labour leadership desperately wants to avoid, for what are essentially factional reasons. Labour’s rationale for keeping the general election option on the table appears to be based on two arguments; that the time is not yet right for such a decision, and the line that we are increasingly hearing that it would be anti-democratic to second-guess the result of the first referendum. Both of these are nonsense. On the first argument, there is almost no time left; we are told that the outline deal will be with us in weeks – and if it is rejected by Parliament, what then? Either the Government concedes that we are headed for a no-deal Brexit – which as things stand is the default option – or it rescinds its notification under Article 50. Where is the Parliamentary majority for any of these options? And if we did have a general election, would that result in a Parliament that was any more capable of taking these decisions? After all, it didn’t in 2017.
On the second issue, things have clearly moved on. Opinion is changing, and of course we now have a far clearer idea of what the options on the table are likely to be. And, crucially, the Government’s political position was determined, not by that 2016 referendum, but by Theresa May’s speech to the Tory Party conference in October 2016, in which she set out a position whose entire rationale was to keep the Tory Party together. It is the ideological gridlock within that Party that has brought us to the position we are now in, where there has been no effective negotiation at all; and where the nearest thing we have had to a negotiating position, the Chequers agreement of July this year, was discredited – condemned by both the Tory Party Brexiters and the EU – before the ink was dry. More time has now elapsed since the first referendum than between the 2015 and 2017 General Elections; does that mean that the latter was democratically illegitimate?
The position within the Labour Party is that, on any indication, its members want a second vote. Constituency after Constituency is passing motions calling for a debate at the Labour Party conference. A poll of Trade Unionists in the largest Unions – Unite, Unison and the GMB – shows a two-thirds majority favours a second vote. But, for all its protestations of being a member-led party, the Labour leadership appears to be doing everything in its power to stop such a vote taking place.
Why? I think the answers are founded in the Labour leadership’s conception of how political parties should operate, and, I think, a fear of what such a vote would mean for the Corbynists’ hegemony.
One of the things that I believe frightens the Corbynists is that the People’s Vote campaign is genuinely cross-party; and I believe that it gains much of its energy and effectiveness from that. As I argue in my book The Theory and Practice of Corbynism the Corbynists operate something very much like a Leninist model of party structure, in which a vanguard party leads and educates a mass membership. It is a model that does not tolerate rivalry and does not accept that “capitalist, parliamentarist and non-revolutionary groupings have anything legitimate to bring to the debate. Cross-party campaigns damage the hegemony of the vanguard, and insofar as grass-roots members take part in them, represent a breach of party discipline. As I point out in the book, the phrase “rank and file” is military in origin; it represents rows of people who act in accordance with an instruction, which is how the ideologues of Corbynism see their mass membership.
In other words, preserving party discipline actually matters far more, on this model, than the jobs and (especially) businesses that Brexit will destroy, the collapse in living standards of the many that Brexit will bring, the further sinking into poverty and alienation of those places that voted Brexit out of anger at economic and social failures that had nothing to do with the EU.
And at a more practical level, pressing for a referendum represents a personal challenge to a leadership that has a long history of Euroscepticism. So for all these reasons, calling for a general election represents a diversionary tactic – a way of apparently calling for change while the fundamental issue – the most important facing the United Kingdom today – is conveniently avoided; the paradox of an avowedly left-wing Labour leadership lending its tacit support to a project founded in the nationalistic Right and which would embed austerity for generations is not addressed.
In other words, it allows the Labour leadership to continue to occupy its ideological comfort zone, in the sure knowledge that a General Election – under the terms of the Fixed Parliament Act, which requires two votes of no-confidence and a vote by a two-to-one majority to dissolve Parliament early – is vanishingly unlikely to happen. It’s not a strategy; it’s a technique of the purest avoidance.
And it remains the case that, whatever one thinks of referendums (and I am deeply suspicious of them, as devices that have traditionally been used to undermine representative democracy, rather than as part of it), given the political paralysis around the Brexit issue and the need to deal with the toxicity and intolerance that has affected political discourse since 2016, another referendum – a People’s Vote – looks like the only way to resolve the Brexit issue. And Labour’s leadership needs to wake up that, and quickly.