Bailing out Theresa May?

Andrew Burgin writes: During the BBC TV election coverage of the local council elections Barry Gardiner said to the Tory sitting next to him in the studio : ‘we are in there trying to bail you guys out’. Gardiner was referring to the ongoing negotiations between Labour and the Tory government over the terms of Brexit.

In the local elections The Tories lost over 1300 seats and Labour lost 82. The big winners were the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party winning 703 and 194 respectively.
Both Theresa May and the Labour leadership believe that the main lesson from this result is that the British public want Brexit delivered asap. Both the Liberal Democrats and the Green Party think the results point to a desire for a second referendum.

It is difficult to draw such definite conclusions from these elections unless they are located within the wider political situation. As is usual for local elections turnout was poor. I haven’t the overall figures but, for example, turnout in North Somerset was 35% falling in some wards in Weston Super-Mare to 18%. In some areas such the central Brighton wards turnout was much higher with the Greens taking the seats.

One remarkable aspect of the election was the tens of thousands of spoilt ballot papers with Brexit scrawled across them, in Basildon there were 800 of these. Whereas these elections should have been about devastating local authority cuts and austerity the question of Brexit was a strong undercurrent.

UKIP, despite picking up some seats in Sunderland and winning over 20,000 votes in the North of Tyne mayoral election, was largely wiped out in these elections. It would be reckless to conclude from this that the danger from the far-right is ebbing. The Brexit baton has now been passed to the new Brexit Party in alliance with the hard right in the Tory Party.

Although in the local elections the Tory party was forced to contest the elections in order to preserve thousands of council seats this will not be the case in the European elections on May 23rd. At those elections much of the Tory activist base will campaign for Nigel Farage and the Brexit Party. The Tories face a collapse in their vote and the Labour leadership, having little enthusiasm for elections that it doesn’t think should be happening in the first place, will struggle.

It is this dismal prospect for both parties that is driving the ongoing Brexit talks between May and Corbyn. What neither seem to realise is that an agreement between them will not resolve the political difficulties they face. If an agreement is made which includes the Labour demand for a customs union then it is Theresa May who becomes the Ramsey Macdonald figure. She will be a reviled figure in her own party as Macdonald was in his.

If Corbyn makes a deal [of any sort] he will alienate both remainers and leavers in the Labour Party. Such a deal may not even get parliamentary approval and will accelerate the general political crisis.

It is neither possible nor desirable for Labour to ‘bail out’ Theresa May. The Labour leadership may try and convince itself that it is acting in the so-called ‘national interest’ but it is only laying the ground for a hard right Tory government led by Boris Johnson. The negotiations are worthless because May is prime minister in name only. Leading figures in her party are calling for her immediate resignation. Labour diminishes itself by continuing the talks and only strengthens the right inside and outside the Tory Party.

The European elections like local elections have a history of poor and declining turnout. This time though turnout may be higher. Nigel Farage has learnt a lot from Trump. Around the country he has been holding a series of Trump style mass rallies. It is worth having a look at the videos of these to see the enthusiasm he is generating amongst thousands of Brexiteers. His new Brexit party, formed only a few weeks ago, claims to have a membership close to 100,000 already.

It is difficult extrapolate the outcome of a general election from these local election results. Some are explaining the results as a return to status quo politics with the governing party being punished and the opposition in local government returning in part to the Liberal Democrat Party which is recovering from its post-coalition slump. However the sense I have is that this is the calm before the storm. The political crisis around Brexit has split both major parties and there the political crisis cannot be resolved by May and Corbyn agreeing a deal. The best strategy for Labour would be to break from these talks and fight against any Tory Brexit.

I will be voting Labour in the European elections as neither the Lib-Democrats nor the Green Party offer a way forward. Labour has some fantastic European Parliamentary candidates such as Laura Parker, Julie Ward and many others. For Labour to compete successfully in the European elections it would have to have developed a positive manifesto for Europe with the defence of free movement at its heart. We must begin to talk about the importance of political and economic integration of Europe on a socialist basis and explain how such will begin to resolve some of the deep inequalities in our society.

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