Could Corbyn get the keys to No. 10?

‘The next election is due in May 2022. Does Jeremy Corbyn have any chance of becoming Prime Minister before then?’

Politics
Jeremy Corbyn: Does a Corbyn government lie in the near or  medium future? (Chris McAndrew CC BY 3.0)

In the aftermath of last June’s general election, Jeremy Corbyn predicted that he would be Prime Minister by Christmas — or that is what he is reported to have said backstage during his appearance at the Glastonbury festival later that month. The adulation of the crowd, in the aftermath of Labour’s much better than expected election result, must have gone to his head. Corbyn has failed to make good on his prognosis — but is a Corbyn-led government in the near, or indeed medium, future a realistic prospect? It is not only his supporters who are hyping the prospect: Conservative whips are using the fear of it as a powerful threat to attempt to keep their more recalcitrant MPs in line, especially on Brexit. Backbench MPs fear that removing Theresa May as Tory leader could precipitate the end of Conservative rule and an early election. Fear of a far-left Labour government is making some foreign investors have second thoughts about putting their money into the UK.

Such fears are not surprising — a Corbyn-led Labour government would be coming from a very different place than not just the Blair and Brown governments, but any previous Labour administration. The second most powerful figure in such a government would be shadow chancellor John McDonnell who when asked, in a 2006 interview with the Trotskyist Alliance for Workers Liberty, what his greatest influences were stated, “The fundamental Marxist writers of Marx, Lenin and Trotsky, basically.” Other leading Labour figures may have had an understandable affinity for Marx — it is not inconceivable that other senior figures could have said, as McDonnell did, that “one can’t understand capitalism without reading Das Kapital” — but Lenin and Trotsky? The corpus of these men’s work has nothing to offer other than revolutionary, anti-democratic stratagems and highly authoritarian, centralist theories on party organisation — and that is to say nothing of their actions leading directly to the deaths of millions. In the same interview McDonnell went on to state that his support for Labour was pragmatic and most certainly did not stem from a deep allegiance to the party: “The affinity and loyalty of the large section of the labour movement and of the working class [to Labour] . . . you can call it false consciousness or whatever . . . [means that for] very pragmatic reasons it is important to work within [the Labour Party].” There is no reason to believe that McDonnell’s views have moved on since then.

If one then looks at Corbyn’s two closest non-elected advisers — his director of strategy and communications Seumas Milne and his election strategist and trades union link Andrew Murray — one finds two men who have made defending the Soviet Union and its “achievements” their life work. In 2006, Milne wrote in the Guardian, of which he was comment editor: “Communism in the Soviet Union, eastern Europe and elsewhere delivered rapid industrialisation, mass education, job security and huge advances in social and gender equality. It encompassed genuine idealism and commitment . . . Its existence helped to drive up welfare standards in the west, boosted the anticolonial movement and provided a powerful counterweight to western global domination.” These aspirations could probably also sum up Milne’s ambitions for a Corbyn government.

Murray has devoted his life to the Communist Party and only joined Labour in late 2016, yet he played a leading role in Labour’s 2017 election campaign. In the faction fights of his Communist days Murray always aligned, at times assisted by Milne, with the most unambiguously pro-Soviet faction — or rather with those that only became critical of the USSR when it started to reform. In 1999 Murray wrote in his column in the Communist Party’s daily newspaper, the Morning Star:

Next Tuesday is the 120th anniversary of the birth of Josef Stalin. His career is the subject of a vast and ever expanding literature. Read it all and, at the end, you are still left paying your money and taking your choice. A socialist system embracing a third of the world and the defeat of Nazi Germany on the one hand. On the other, all accompanied by harsh measures imposed by a one-party regime. Nevertheless, if you believe that the worst crimes visited on humanity this century, from colonialism to Hiroshima and from concentration camps to mass poverty and unemployment have been caused by imperialism, then [Stalin’s birthday] might at least be a moment to ponder why the authors of those crimes and their hack propagandists abominate the name of Stalin beyond all others. It was, after all, Stalin’s best-known critic, Nikita Khrushchev, who remarked in 1956 that “against imperialists, we are all Stalinists”.

At least we can thankfully be confident that a Corbyn government will not implement its policies “by harsh measures imposed by a one-party regime”. Murray has transferred his support from the Soviet Union to Putin’s Russia and, in his role as chair of the Stop the War Coalition, actively backed Russian aggression against Ukraine. The Stop the War movement is apparently only opposed to some illegal wars.

Corbyn himself wrote a column for the Morning Star until he became Labour leader and still regularly writes for it. He has spoken in support of, or in sympathy with, the IRA, Hamas, Hezbollah, the Castros’ Cuba, and Chavez’s and Maduro’s Venezuela. He has achieved something that many have tried and failed to do — healing the historic rift between important elements on the Left. The factions who now sing in harmony, however, are not Brownites and Blairites, or Labour moderates and Corbynistas, but Trotskyists and Stalinists.

Why the prospect of a Corbyn government is feared is clear. It would be unlike any Labour government we have previously seen. Exiting the European Union would give such a government vastly more room to manoeuvre for precisely the reason that so many French, Italian, Greek and Spanish bankers love the EU — membership means that many socialist policies, however strong a democratic mandate they might have, are impossible, indeed illegal, to implement. Without the EU acting as a brake, a Corbyn government could nationalise, direct state aid, and impose exchange controls without restriction. But how could such a government come about?

Comparisons are often made between the situation now and that in the late 1970s — a governing party with no majority of its own having to rely on the votes of a small party to remain in power. Then it was the Liberals, now it is Northern Ireland’s Democratic Unionists. The passing of the Fixed-term Parliaments Act in 2011 has, however, dramatically changed things — and has made an incumbent government much more secure. This Act was passed by the Conservative-Lib Dem coalition government as an act of expediency to make the two parties more secure in their dealings with each other. It made it much more difficult for either party to walk out of the coalition at a time when the polls looked good for one or other of them (although in practice they never looked good for the Liberal Democrats). The 2017 Conservative manifesto pledged to scrap the Act, and it is only Theresa May’s flopperoo of an election which means that it will remain on the statute books. She can be thankful for the fact that there is no majority to repeal it.

The Act means that the next election is scheduled for Thursday 5 May, 2022. Labour has every chance of winning that election, although who can tell where politics will be in four and a half years? But does Corbyn, who will be almost 73 by then, have a chance of getting the keys to No 10 before that date?

The Fixed-term Parliaments Act hugely reduces the potential for a government to fall. Previously, if a government failed to pass a budget, or even certain core legislation, that would be seen as tantamount to a vote of no-confidence. This is no longer the case. Even if the government failed to pass its key piece of Brexit legislation, the European Union (Withdrawal) Bill, in any form (something that will certainly not happen), this would not on its own bring it down. The only thing that would cause the government to fall is  losing a vote of confidence, with the wording laid out in the Fixed-term Parliaments Act: “That this House has no confidence in Her Majesty’s Government.” In truth, if the Brexit Bill were lost the Tory Remainers who would under those circumstances have defeated it would almost without exception troop through the government lobby the next day to scupper a no-confidence vote. The one thing that unites all Conservative MPs is fear of a Corbyn government.

Without a sudden flurry of Tory MPs dying — something they have proved very reluctant to do of late; the last sitting Conservative MP to die was Eric Forth in 2006 — the parliamentary arithmetic means that there is no chance of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister without a new general election. Taking out the Speaker and his deputies, who do not vote, and ignoring current suspensions from the whip — they can safely be ignored as “naughty” MPs tend to do their very best to reingratiate themselves with the whips — the government can rely on the support of 327 MPs in any confidence vote (316 Conservatives, 10 DUP, and Sylvia Hermon, the independent unionist MP for North Down who is a fierce Remainer but can be relied upon by the Tories in confidence votes because of Corbyn’s sympathies for Sinn Fein). The combined vote of the opposition parties is 312.

This excludes Sinn Fein’s seven MPs who permanently boycott the House of Commons due to Irish republicanism’s rejection of the legitimacy of Westminster rule in Northern Ireland. Sinn Fein could obviously abandon its abstentionism, but this on its own would not be enough to topple the Conservatives — they would still have a parliamentary majority. It would also be a huge wrench for Sinn Fein as it would mean abandoning the final pillar of Irish republican orthodoxy. Additionally, at least seven Labour MPs have privately made clear that they would not be able to support  Labour in a vote of confidence if it had to rely on Sinn Fein votes for a majority.

The same arithmetic also means that Labour could not force an early election rather than just a change of government. An early election would only be called if the government lost a vote of confidence — which will not happen — and a new government does not win a confidence vote within two weeks. The other route for an election — the one followed by Mrs May in 2017, 434 MPs out of 650 voting for an early dissolution — cannot happen without Conservative support. Last summer’s debacle — the Tories were leading in the polls by 20 percentage points or more when the election was called — means there will be zero appetite for an early election, even if there were a new Conservative Prime Minister and the polls were looking ultra-rosy.

Seriously amending the Brexit Bill or Conservative MPs instigating a vote of no-confidence in Theresa May will not precipitate an early election or a Corbyn premiership. There may well be very good reasons for Tory MPs not to do either, but fear of Corbyn becoming Prime Minister is not one of them.

With sex scandals, Priti Patel’s resignation and battles over Brexit the May government has had a disastrous autumn. Strong Brexiteers are Mrs May’s remaining support base within the Parliamentary Conservative Party and they are beginning to despair of her. In the words of one of their number, “It’s like watching someone botch their own suicide bid and not knowing whether the kindest thing to do is to help or hinder them.” May’s position has become much less secure over the autumn. Yet this does not bring a Corbyn administration a single day closer.