Labour should not be receiving taunts from government frontbenchers that the party is “too cowardly” to vote for a general election.
It certainly should not be facing such mockery on the very day it winds up a conference that showcased the party’s huge size, ambitious programme for power and the passion and dedication of its activists.
Jeremy Corbyn is absolutely right that Labour cannot merely be the party of either the 52 per cent who voted Leave in 2016 or the 48 per cent who voted Remain. A government cannot deliver radical change without being supported across that divide.
Labour’s programme will challenge vested interests on so many fronts that a huge mobilisation outside Parliament will be required to see it through, especially since its own parliamentary party is likely to try to frustrate that programme.
So yes, Labour’s pitch to be the party of the 99 per cent, fighting for the interests of the vast majority, however they voted in the EU referendum, is the correct one. It’s a pitch that can pay off, as it did in 2017.
It is not a pitch that sits well with demanding the Prime Minister apologise to the Queen or implying, as shadow Brexit secretary Keir Starmer does over the Attorney-General’s advice to the government, that lawyers should resign if they put forward arguments a judge rules against, a principle that would end the career of every lawyer who has ever lost a case.
Labour’s ostensible reason for having voted against government attempts to dissolve Parliament was to ensure a no-deal Brexit is ruled out. This went down fairly well in the conference hall on Tuesday, though a fired-up party at the close of a conference that featured such inspirational policies would probably have been even happier with an unambiguous demand for an immediate election.
Labour should be acutely aware of how it goes down in the country, however. The election it rejected before Boris Johnson prorogued Parliament was offered for October 14, before the country’s current EU departure date. If opposed to a no-deal Brexit, the party could have taken steps to avoid that once elected.
Its refusal – influenced by wholly unnecessary talks with the Liberal Democrats and by die-hard Remain MPs in its own ranks who are not uniformly enthusiastic about electing a Corbyn government – was always going to be viewed across the country as evidence that Labour is frightened.
Nor is its case for prioritising avoiding a no-deal Brexit over an election coherent. Labour says that most polls suggest a majority do not support no-deal. But this is disingenuous, since there is no majority for any one option. To state that Remain is an acceptable option on the ballot paper of a second referendum but no-deal is not is hardly democratic, when it is Remain rather than no-deal that has been explicitly rejected by the electorate.
These inconsistencies are perhaps the inevitable consequence of the compromises that have shaped Labour’s position. Leaving without a deal is anathema to most Labour members and most trade unions. Those are understandable reasons for Corbyn to oppose it. They are not good reasons to prioritise opposing it over an election most of our movement is keen to fight and win.
Attorney-General Geoffrey Cox’s savage indictment of a “dead” Parliament with no moral authority to sit but too frightened to allow an election will carry weight with many voters because it is not a million miles from the truth. Every time Labour declines a Tory offer to go to the people, it feeds Johnson’s dishonest narrative that he is the champion of a democracy under threat from courts and MPs.
Johnson’s defeat on prorogation was a victory, one that fired up delegates at Labour conference. But today’s obfuscation in Parliament could still turn it into a defeat for the left.
This article appeared in The Morning Star 25th September 2019.