Jeremy Corbyn says he wants an election – but what would it be about?

The task for the Labour leader in the next few days is to try to bring some coherence to the party’s recent contradictions

Sunday 23 September 2018 08:09
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Labour plan to trigger early election if Theresa May’s Brexit deal is defeated in parliament

Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell say they want a general election. On what platform would they fight it? Pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit? Paying their respects to Militant-run Liverpool council in the 1980s or to the moderate social democracy they sometimes claim to stand for? The overthrow of capitalism or a gradual renationalisation of the railways that may take five years?

The task for Mr Corbyn at Labour’s annual conference in Liverpool, which opens tomorrow, is to try to bring some coherence to the contradictions.

Europe is the most urgent question. When Mr Corbyn and Mr McDonnell are pressed on their support for a referendum to give the British people a final say on Brexit, they say they would rather have a general election.

As we report today, the Labour leadership plans to table a motion of no confidence in the government if the Brexit talks fail, in order to force a general election. But Mr McDonnell yesterday suggested that, if there were an election, Labour would fight it on a pledge to press ahead with Brexit. “We’re accepting that original vote,” the shadow chancellor said in an interview. Labour would negotiate a better deal, he said, “that will meet people’s objectives”.

We have to say that we are not convinced, either that Labour could force an election or that a Labour negotiation would lead to a better outcome than the present talks. The Independent believes that it would be easier to mobilise a majority in the House of Commons for a new referendum than it would be for a new election.

However, let us take the Labour leadership at its word. If it wants to fight an election, let us have some clarity about the kind of Labour government for which it would be asking us to vote. Labour did well in the election last year on a hurriedly compiled manifesto that was surprisingly popular, but which was not subjected to deep scrutiny because most people assumed Theresa May would win easily.

Let Mr Corbyn start with what Dawn Butler, shadow equalities minister, said today. She praised the Militant-led Liverpool council in the 1980s for “standing up to Thatcher” and said it was “better to break the law than break the poor”.

Does she know so little of her party’s history? Does she not know that the Militant Tendency broke the law and betrayed the poor, not least the council’s own employees, when it was reduced to “hiring taxis to scuttle round a city handing out redundancy notices to its own workers”, in Neil Kinnock’s words?

For those voters who were pleasantly surprised by the mild social democratic tone of Labour’s 2017 manifesto, would Mr Corbyn care to reassure them that a Labour government would not be run by ministers trying to immiserate the workers in order to sharpen their class consciousness?

Mr McDonnell did a reasonable job this morning of making renationalising the railways sound like a pragmatic adjustment of the public-private mix rather than the dramatic seizure of the commanding heights of the economy.

But there is a contradiction at the heart of Corbyn-McDonnellism. With one breath they condemn the “centrist” or “moderate” social democracy they claim has failed all over Europe and extol the popularity of radical socialist solutions. And in the next they assail the extremism of Theresa May’s government and pose as the Swedish-style pragmatic alternative.

We look forward to greater clarity and coherence in the next few days.

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