A December election is Labour’s least-worst option | Owen Jones

Corbyn should tell Boris Johnson he can have a vote when his woeful deal is suspended

Labour must agree to a December election – and in exchange it should get the government to abandon its Brexit deal. Anything else will be a huge political error. Boris Johnson’s current offer – more time to debate his woeful deal in an attempt to triumphantly ram it through parliament before an election – is clearly unacceptable.

It is, in part, an attempt to deflect from his failed commitment to “die in a ditch” if Britain did not leave the EU by the end of the month. More significantly, it reflects an attempt to bridge his own internal split: between the old Vote Leave crew – headed by Dominic Cummings – who are gunning for a general election, and ministers and MPs, who fear it may not pan out too well, with the Tories vulnerable in Scotland, the south-west and English commuter constituencies.

It is reminiscent of April 2017, when advisers such as Nick Timothy pushed for Theresa May to call an election, while politicians such as Cabinet Office minister Ben Gummer were deeply sceptical. In the end, Gummer lost the argument – and his Ipswich seat.

Labour’s internal debate on this question is not settled. Jeremy Corbyn’s instinct is always to back an election because, as his supporters and critics alike agree, the Labour leader thrives in campaigning mode. In September, he was persuaded – alongside other opposition leaders – to vote against an early election until no deal was taken off the table. But they all failed to predict Boris Johnson capitulating to the EU’s red lines and tossing the DUP into the Irish Sea.

The Tories have been waging an asymmetric election campaign from the bully pulpit of government ever since, and will continue to do so until parliament is dissolved and election broadcasting rules kick in, ensuring fair access to the opposition.

The main reason the Labour leadership is currently “dithering” over an election is that its MPs overwhelmingly oppose one. Among those opposed, there are several factions, with separate (but often overlapping) justifications for refusing an election right now.

Some Labour MPs are pushing for a referendum before any election takes place. To put it politely, this is a fantasy. As even dedicated People’s Vote campaigners concede, the numbers in this parliament simply are not there – and even if they were, Johnson would first need to be replaced by a government of national unity, which was always a non-starter. The only hope for a second referendum is for an election to return a Labour-led government, which would then implement its policy for a referendum after gaining a democratic mandate for it.

Another faction consists of Labour MPs representing leave seats who fear a “people versus parliament” election. This isn’t true of all MPs in leave constituencies: Jon Cruddas, Lisa Nandy, Stephanie Peacock and Gloria De Piero (who is standing down, but her would-be successor Natalie Fleet has the same position) are among those lobbying for an election, believing that it is untenable to keep turning one down.

As one put it to me, why will political conditions improve for their colleagues if the party continues to hold out against an inevitable election? May’s hopes of a Tory tide sweeping across working-class communities in the north and Midlands were bitterly disappointed: now a far more privileged establishment candidate has succeeded her, and it is by no means clear why Labour leave voters would defect en masse to the Etonian Tories.

Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan.
Lisa Nandy, the Labour MP for Wigan. Photograph: Jonathan Hordle/Rex Features

Next there are those who believe that further delay may lead to the disintegration of Johnson’s fragile parliamentary coalition for a deal – which stretches from the hard Tory right to soft-left Labour leavers – because the contradictory promises made to each group will unravel. But surely this will be more likely to happen under the intense scrutiny of an election campaign.

And then there are others whose strategy can be reduced to the hope that something better will come up. But that is not a strategy, and that “something” is likely to be Johnson eventually ramming through his deal.

The mantra that unites all these Labour factions is the proclamation that we cannot even countenance an election until “no deal is ruled out” – which the leadership is also parroting. But it is impossible to actually do this unless article 50 is revoked – not very likely at the moment – or Johnson’s government is removed.

Many Labour MPs are fretting about campaigning in the cold and the dark of winter. But what are the alternatives? January and February are colder than the two months ahead, and although it will begin to get lighter, the sun will set in Manchester on Valentine’s Day at a quarter past five.

Finally, there are those Labour MPs who simply want Corbyn out. They believe the life is draining away from his project, they hope that something will come up to displace him, and they fear – just as last time – that an election campaign will consolidate his support inside the party, and maybe even put him in No 10, an outcome they do not regard as likely but dread nonetheless.

This is why the Labour leadership must call the bluff of the parliamentary Labour party – and the whips’ office – and impose a three-line whip to back an election. Labour MPs overwhelmingly opposed May’s gambit in 2017, and yet in the end few rebelled. Even if a substantial number vote for delay this time round, there will be enough MPs voting with the whip to get an early election over the line.

For those who believe this is a suicide mission, consider this. Dire as Labour’s polling currently is, the Tories were much further ahead in 2017 than they are now. May was far more popular than Johnson: indeed, her approval ratings exceeded those of Margaret Thatcher and Tony Blair at their zenith. In an election, Labour’s commitment to let the people decide will have the opportunity to cut through – as it becomes clear that this is the only opportunity that remainers have to realise their hopes.

An unquestionably popular domestic agenda – from tax justice to public ownership – will be front and centre again. Corbyn’s campaigning energy can finally be released. Labour’s mass membership can mobilise. Johnson’s one-sided election campaign will end as broadcasting rules cut in, which was a prerequisite to Corbyn’s personal ratings dramatically improving last time. An uptick in political interest means effective pro-Labour social media content can go viral once again. Johnson’s dire Brexit deal can finally be properly scrutinised and unpicked.

Might it all go wrong, might Johnson triumph? Yes. But that very real danger will only increase the longer an election is delayed. The only precedent for Labour’s polling dramatically improving is an election campaign. It would be naive not to concede that this recommendation is not fraught with risks; but the alternative has far more. If Labour does not embrace this election – and come out swinging, full of enthusiasm, mobilising its supporters to go into an existential battle – it is likely to regret it.

• Owen Jones is a Guardian columnist


Owen Jones

The GuardianTramp

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