Britain is headed to the polls on 12 December in an election that will determine not just the fate of Brexit but the future of Labour’s radical shift to the left under Jeremy Corbyn.

Corbyn, a lifelong socialist, launched his campaign by saying it was, “a once in a generation chance to transform our country to take on the vested interests holding people back”.

Labour has promised to set up a “national transformation fund” by borrowing $750 billion to fund schools, hospitals, council houses and a green transformation fund for energy and transport. It supports widespread nationalisation including of Royal Mail, water, the railways and the energy grid.

Tory Prime Minister Boris Johnson wants the election to be a referendum on Brexit, promising to “get Brexit done”. British politics has become increasingly polarised around the issue after two years of negotiations with the EU and protracted parliamentary brawling.             

The Liberal Democrats have seen their support grow by positioning themselves as the most pro-Remain party, while the Brexit Party has also attracted support through demanding a more dramatic break with the EU.

Johnson, who became Prime Minister after former Tory leader Theresa May failed to get her Brexit deal through parliament, had threatened the EU will a chaotic “no deal Brexit”. But he has now managed to both strike a Brexit deal of his own and convince the hardline Brexiteers on the right of the Tories to back it.

Johnson poses as defending democracy and the popular vote to leave the EU in the 2016 referendum—against opposition from parliament and the political elite. His firm stance in favour of Brexit has seen the Tories rise in the polls.

The Tories have also been strengthened by Brexit Party leader Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand candidates against them in Tory seats.

Labour and Brexit

By contrast Labour’s position on Brexit is muddled and unclear. Its promises to negotiate a new Brexit deal if it wins government and then hold another referendum, in which remaining in the EU and overturning Brexit would be an option. It cannot even say whether it would campaign for Brexit or Remain if this referendum happened.

There has been pressure on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn to back remaining in the EU from many party members who see Brexit as encouraging racism and British nationalism. But the key reason for Labour’s muddled position is the insurgency against Corbyn by right-wing Labour MPs. Most Labour MPs back remaining in the EU because they support big business and its desire to remain part of the European market.

Corbyn was elected Labour leader due to popular support from party members, but his socialist policies remain deeply loathed by the bulk of Labour MPs.

Corbyn stared down a motion to support Remain at Labour’s Conference in September. But he has conceded to the Labour right’s demands, supporting a softer Brexit where the UK would remain in a customs union with the EU and seek full access to the European market.

He has also watered down his support for free movement of people within the EU, in a concession to Tory scaremongering about immigration.

The Tories have a comfortable lead in the polls. But Corbyn came from behind in the last election in 2017 too, surging during the campaign by 11 per cent. This was thanks to Labour’s most left-wing manifesto in a generation. Corbyn toured the country speaking at mass rallies, creating wide enthusiasm about the prospect of radical change.

Years of Tory austerity since 2010 have created enormous bitterness. They have cut 1.1 million jobs in the public sector and imposed pay freezes cutting paramedics’ pay by $11,000 and teachers’ by $8000. Council budgets have been cut by 20 per cent. Funding for schools, the elderly and the disabled have all been slashed. The number of children in poverty has risen by half a million.

Corbyn’s chances depend on creating a strong class feeling of opposition to the Tories and excitement about Labour’s program for change. Compromises on its radical program or choosing to run a conventional stage-managed campaign will make this more difficult.

A defeat for Labour would almost certainly spell the end of Corbyn’s leadership, and take Labour veering back to the right. But were Labour to win, this would only be the first step in fighting to deliver change.

The super-rich are already talking of taking their money out of the country if Labour wins, and big business would fight Corbyn’s efforts to seize any of their wealth.

The power to resist such sabotage does not lie in parliament—but with mass protests and workers’ struggle outside it.

By James Supple

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