Monday 1 April 2019

The Class Politics of the Indicative Votes

Thinking about politics in general, a useful distinction is made in Alexander Gallas's analysis of Thatcherism by identifying economic order politics and class politics. This analytical separation is useful for thinking about the different orientations of different governments at different times, and in Gallas's hands he is able to consider the accents and emphases of the preparation, war of movement, and consolidation of the Thatcherite project.

This has some use in thinking about the Commons vote on Monday evening. Earlier the Speaker selected four options for the indicative votes. These were a Brexit deal based on a customs union (Ken Clarke's option), customs union + single market access + freedom of movement (the Nick Boles option), a confirmatory referendum (Peter Kyle's option), and revoking Article 50 (in the event of no deal - sponsored by Joanna Cherry). Labour's preference, which was defeated last week, did not make the Speaker's cut. However, unlike Theresa May both Labour and the SNP have shown some flexibility. Labour whipped for the first three alternatives to May's deal, while the SNP - who remain opposed to Brexit and are backing the Cherry motion - reluctantly backed Boles's "Norway option".

In the end, did any of it matter? Clarke's custom union lost 273-276, Boles 261-282, second referendum 280-292, and revoke 191-292. Tighter margins for three of the options than anything May has so far managed but not good enough. If May was to soften her stance and go down the Clarke or Boles route, then we might be get there. Alas, her whip won't be having a word in Boles's shell-like again. Attacking his party for an inability to compromise he resigned the whip on the spot - something the Commons hasn't seen for some years.

If you are of the view that Brexit should be delivered, but no deal and May's deal are completely unacceptable - up to and including the option of a second referendum to stop them - and a general election isn't available, then your options are pretty much limited to the least worst sort, as outlined in the options put to the Commons. In the name of straight talking, honest politics, from the standpoint of economic management all these Brexits put the UK at a disadvantage compared with what it enjoys now as an EU member, but Clarke's option and Boles's Norway are not as damaging. It's not the Year Zero nonsense beloved of the hard Brexiteers, and maintains as much continuity with present arrangements as possible. Lesser evil literally means less evil, after all. Labour's priority of a jobs first Brexit is best delivered in this scenario, provided it is interpreted in a dented shield kind of way and not some fantastical land-of-milk-and-honey idiocy. This is the best way to protect livelihoods and look after the interests of our people.

What about the class politics? In this Labour have played a blinder on two counts. A customs union Brexit goes some way to keeping the PLP together as a coherent voting bloc. Boles and Clarke are species of Brexit, and can be sold as such to the wider public - only the ERG, UKIP, Farage and Kate Hoey are likely to object, and the minutiae is the province of a comparative minority. Crucially, it keeps the majority of Labour leavers on side. Meanwhile, though whipping for a confirmatory referendum increased the chances of Labour's hard remain crew following the customs union line on a quid pro quo basis, this wasn't necessarily the case for Labour leaver MPs. But it does do is helps keep onside those voters who went for Labour in 2017 in part thanks to its softer Brexit stance. There might not ever be a majority for another referendum, as Clarke pointed out in his point of order following the vote, but Labour at least can show it tried. What does this amount to? Labour's bloc is likely emerging intact from this tedious business. It's perhaps worth noting the SNP made a similar calculation, wanting to avoid the exposure of being unreasoning remain ultras when they can contribute to an opportunity of significantly softening Brexit.

The second, more interesting dimension to class politics is if you do it well, you disorganise your opponents in the process. The reason May has clung so desperately to her deal while offering zero concessions and pretending as if the referendum wasn't a close run thing is because she has her own class politics to worry about. Any kind of customs union-based Brexit is anathema to the hard Brexiteers, not least because it undermines their sectional interests and blows up their decadent time wasting fantasies. On the other hand, for all the soft soaping of a hard exit we know it's going to be damaging, and it's the Tories who will pay the political price. Polling is showing an increased fracturing of their voter coalition and their long-term decline is sure to accelerate. Even if they keep it together and avoid a split, there's no new force on the political horizon they can intersect with that can conceivably award them a majority now, never mind after the incompetent shit show of their Brexit.

May now has three options now once her deal fails again. Soften her stance, and risk a split. Go for no deal with all the damage that would cause, or perhaps the only option that could unify her party - a general election. But at this stage the chances of enough Tories voting to dissolve this parliament, and potentially their careers, is something she cannot count on. Watching this all play out on television and social media is painful, but nowhere near the agonies the fates have bestowed on the Tory party.


David Timoney said...

I think you're being rather generous to the SNP there. They supported every motion except the customs union, even though that was the one they knew could pass and they could also expect it to prompt either a Tory split or a general election.

As Ian Blackford's later comments indicate, they are happy to maintain the impasse in order to discredit Westminster.

Jim Denham said...

Labour including Corbyn has whipped and voted now twice for a 2nd referendum and also voted last night for the Free movement Norway plus option.

This shift feels it has hardly been acknowledged by the Lexiteer / "social dumping" people, apart from Embery who's denounced it for doing electoral damage to Labour as working class Leave voters all voted Leave because (he claims) they want an end to free movement.

It presents a real problem for the uncritical Corbyn supporters who have been arguing against free movement on the grounds that Jez has had a brilliant strategy on which shouldn't be critised by the left. They are not necessarily ideological leave supporters but just go along with the leadership. Momentum sort of falls into that category.