It’s beginning to look a lot like election season and up for grabs is that most tempting of political presents: making the born to rule Boris Johnson the shortest-serving Prime Minister of modern times.
On Tuesday evening, MPs voted by 438 to 20 for a general election on the 12th of December – the first time the British public will go to the polls in that month since 1923. The stakes were summed up by the editorial director of the Financial Times earlier this month: “It’s Brexit or Corbyn.”
Addressing his shadow cabinet this morning, Jeremy Corbyn told his party would “launch the most ambitious and radical campaign for real change our country has ever seen.” That looks likely to mean a Green New Deal, a National Education Service, a £10 living wage, zero-hours contracts scrapped, tuition fees scrapped, and rail, mail, water and the national grid bought into public ownership.
Boris Johnson, meanwhile, claims that it’s possible to “get Brexit done” so that we can talk about all the important social issues that Tories love to sort out – the NHS, crime the cost of living. He will say this even as British trade officials have had meetings about the NHS in the context of a post-Brexit trade deal with US big-pharma lobbyists. We have a Home Secretary who smilingly says she wants to "end the free movement of people once and for all" after the horrors of the hostile environment. We have a Chancellor who, two years after Grenfell, wants a “Brexit red-tape challenge”. And a Prime Minister who will say or do anything to get his way. It's clear the direction that they want to take this country.
It will be Labour’s task to call Johnson’s bluff and talk about this social catastrophe now: the poverty, the food banks, the racist Home Office, the failing public services, the emaciated local councils, the bullshit jobs, stagnant wages, hungry children – and to blame them on a decade of Tory rule. Further, they will want to talk about how a hard Brexit will make those things worse.
The Tories, nervous of losing votes to the Brexit Party, are going tack further to the right. Boris Johnson has already shown he’s willing to push the dial on incendiary rhetoric and this will only continue into an election. It’s not going to be pleasant. I mean, can you imagine the shit Dominic Cummings is planning to target at racist dads on Facebook? Will the Labour will provide much of a bulwark against this nasty politics? The recent Labour conference voted to extend freedom of movement, but was swiftly contradicted by shadow Home Secretary Diane Abbott.
That conference also voted for policies on a four day week, the abolition of private schools, and a socialist Green New Deal. It will be interesting to see what comes of out of their meeting to decide on an election manifesto.
More straightforwardly, the Conservative Party manifesto is being written by a lobbyist who has worked for Google, Amazon, Facebook, frackers Caudrilla and gig economy pioneers Deliveroo. Look out for what creative new ways they come up with to immiserate people while making money for their mates.
A Corbyn government would face obstacles to delivering the far-reaching change that it promises. Most of the parliamentary Labour party (PLP) have been shitting themselves at the prospect of an election. This is because they have read the polls and don’t want to lose their jobs. But it has also been impossible to shake the feeling that some of them are also afraid of winning an election with Corbyn at the helm. There are many who have never given up on a glorious return to some kind of insipid David Miliband type. Among the PLP are plenty who are as horrified by the prospect of a socialist Prime Minister as the activist base is enthused. They would oppose anything approaching real change.
It's also possible that a Labour government would need to be propped up by the Lib Dems. Jo Swinson has made no secret of her disdain for Labour in recent months. If she went into coalition with Corbyn at all, it would be through gritted teeth, and only because the only other option would be propping up a Tory government determined to get a hard Brexit through. That would mean she would frame any support for a Labour government as the sensible adult in the room making sure that no childish socialist policies get through. If you thought you hated the Lib Dems for breaking their promises on tuition fees, get ready for when they vote against Corbyn scrapping them!
Despite all of this, there’s the important question of political trajectory, of momentum. There’s always the possibility of stasis: another hung parliament. But in the event of a decisive outcome, one possibility is a government with a mandate for progressive change, albeit based on an uneasy marriage of convenience. The alternative is spending Christmas getting used to the idea of five more years of Tory rule: a victory for a turbo-Thatcherite Brexit project to turn Britain into the Singapore of the north off the back of a campaign bigoted campaign, another victory for world-Trumpianism, and a party of the rich un-punished for a decade of misery and brutal class warfare. We’re on a cliff-edge. The question is whether we drive off it or come back from the brink.