By Alan Simpson
Parliament ended its pre-Christmas session with pantomime exchanges over whether Jeremy Corbyn had said “Stupid woman” or “Stupid people”. I don’t know why he hadn’t just said “plonkers”. For this is what parliament had reduced itself to.
Sitting at the edge of the most catastrophic precipice of my lifetime, I can’t avoid an acceptance that Labour has played its own part in this pantomime. Brexit is so much more of a threat than just ‘slap your thigh’ humour. Theresa May’s antics about denying a parliamentary vote play into the scenario I have warned about for some time.
May knows her ‘deal’ is a disaster. She knows it will not get through parliament. She knows there is no answer to the Irish border question. (At least, none that wouldn’t make the Irish Sea the border, causing the DUP to pull the plug on the whole rotten show she calls ‘government’.)
For all her huffing and puffing, May knows too that as parliament worked its way through the array of unacceptable options a People’s Vote would become inevitable. That’s why she is pushing everything towards a ‘deadline’ choice between her Deal and No Deal.
The Tory Right would love this. Actually, they would just love any No Deal, ‘over the precipice’, option. The 3,500 British troops put on standby for this possibility will not be to deliver emergency food supplies, but to control the civil unrest that would follow.
Liz Truss’ recent meetings with ultra-right groups in the USA outline their strategy. In the chaos following a No Deal exit, US free-traders would ride in with offers of chlorinated chicken, growth hormone meat and genetically modified everything… in exchange for an abandonment of environmental and health standards. Theresa May is willing to flirt with this in the hope it makes her own ‘disaster option’ acceptable.
In response, Labour has fallen into the trap of playing student politics.
A motion of no confidence in the Prime Minister was always going to be laughed off the stage. A motion of no confidence in the government was not going to fare much better. There are too many MPs who still think they can steal the show for this to work. The key battleground was/is Article 50.
Parliament does not have to allow the Prime Minister to hold a gun to the public’s head. If she can delay the (informed) choice, parliament can stop the clock. Article 50 can be suspended so that genuine scrutiny (and informed choice) can take place. This is what ‘good government’ comes down to.
The EU would not object to a suspension of Article 50. They are no happier about a disorderly Brexit than the vast majority of British businesses and institutions. All recognise the chaos that would follow. Labour’s problem is that suspending Article 50 would put a ‘People’s Vote’ centre-stage in the options that remain.
I would love a general election on any grounds. But Labour has been using this to avoid embracing its conference decision to go for a Second Referendum. The tragedy is that it is beginning to make the Left look like the Old Right, and the Right look plausibly ‘Left’.
The argument that 170 Labour seats voted ‘Leave’ (and 50 or more of the marginals we need to win did too) has – at best – paralysed Labour thinking. At worst, it has led Labour into dancing to UKIP’s tune of prejudice and division.
Jeremy Corbyn rescued Labour in the last election by embracing a politics of hope. The party machine said it was doomed and stood back to enjoy the debacle that never came. Brexit, however, already had done. Corbyn and McDonnell were never allowed to run their Remain and Reform agenda. This is still exactly the agenda that marginal seats (and Labour ones) hunger for.
Suspending Article 50 – the deadline date – is the key to Labour re-engaging with serious politics. Looming over everything is the threat of climate breakdown. It already intrudes on everyday politics in the form of extreme weather events – carrying risks of flood, fires and famine. In Britain we can see it in the 30-50% fall in this year’s staple crop yields. Internationally it is just the same.
The answers to these problems will not be found in changing the terms of abuse across the parliamentary chamber. They will be found in a fundamental shift in the nature of politics and economics. An economics that lives within planetary boundaries (and which redistributes ‘inclusively’) is the only sustainable option we have. This is now what the Left must argue for.
If ‘climate emergency’ is not allowed to occupy the centre of the parliamentary stage, Extinction Rebellion will make sure it occupies MPs’ offices, their public meetings and everyone’s town centres. Much as I love them, however, Extinction Rebellion are a ‘wake up’ call, not a formulated answer. This is the space Labour has to reach into and offer.
In the end, I don’t mind if MPs wake up in the morning only to discover that they are still the Ugly Sisters. In existential terms, what matters is whether Cinderella (the planet) gets to the ball. Suspending Article 50 May be the key to doing so.
Only by embracing a second Referendum, widening the Brexit debate, and addressing what real solidarity and sustainability is going to require, can Labour occupy this space. It is a space that goes well beyond pantomime politics… and Labour doesn’t have much time to reconnect with it.
• Alan Simpson was Labour MP for Nottingham South from 1992 to 2010, and is now an environmental adviser to John McDonnell
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