What the hell is going on? Notes from Feminist Fightback 1/9/19

What is going on?

Many people are calling Johnson’s  proroguing parliament a coup (this was one of the slogans of the big demonstrations on Saturday #stopthecoup). Boris Johnson’s move is obviously profoundly undemocratic, disingenuously claiming that the outcome of a close-run referendum should override the actions of hundreds of elected representatives, but does that actually make it a coup?

Some of us felt that it was useful to describe the situation in these extreme terms, since there has been a lot of lethargy among the general public but also on the Left about the radical lurch to the Right that we been witnessing over the last few years. Referring to this situation as a coup might finally mean that people are waking up to their responsibility to prevent the formation of an authoritarian regime. It certainly feels like crunch time, the moment to take decisive action, and this is useful in focusing our activism.

Others disagreed. The term ‘coup’ is usually applied to situations when the government is overthrown using military force, and some of us in Feminist Fightback felt that things are bad enough as it is without needing to use alarmist language. It’s politically important to keep a sense of proportion, not least because things might indeed get much worse. Perhaps more importantly, our current constitutional system has not (at least in formal legal terms) necessarily been violated. The fact that the monarch has a formal role in government is an outrage, and the very fact that an unelected prime minister can shut down Parliament reveals the limitations of our existing democratic system.

We all agreed that it was therefore not useful to use arguments like “Britain has the finest democracy in the world, it is founded on the blood of our forefathers and now Boris Johnson has ruined everything blah blah”. Parliament is far from perfect. David Cameron calling a referendum without thinking through any of the implications of its outcome; the resulting deadlock around Brexit; the fact that 25-35% of the population never participates in voting at all and that the current Tory government was elected with only 42% of the 69% of the population that did vote (you do the sums but that’s nowhere near a majority) are all recent examples of its limitations. And let’s not forget that the Prime Minister did not come to power as the result of a general election but on the back of a Tory Party members vote – 0.13% of the population.

That doesn’t mean that we should dismiss people’s desire to ‘defend democracy’ (the main slogan of the demonstrations on Saturday). Nor should we deny that the limited form of bourgeois democracy that we have had until now is significantly better than the more authoritarian regime that Boris Johnson might well succeed in establishing. The right to join a trade union, the right to openly criticise the government, some degree of press freedom, universal suffrage – all of these have only existed for just over 100 years and were hard fought for by radical movements. They may have been neutralised, and inadequate in the first place, but we cannot afford to be complacent about them. On the demonstration on Saturday people were chanting ‘Who’s democracy? Our democracy! Who’s Parliament? Our Parliament!’ and ‘This is what democracy looks like’ – these seem to be more expansive and radical demands than ‘defend democracy’.

What should we do about it?

On the Left there seems to be a generalised agreement that we have only a few days to force Johnson’s government to fall by making the country ungovernable (FF doesn’t have much hope for the legal challenges). This will necessarily involve the building of a mass movement and civil disobedience, but there is so far a lack of clarity and direction about how this should come about. There have been a number of suggestions beyond the demonstrations called by Another Europe is Possible (which are now called to take place at 5:30 PM every single day).

  • Another Europe and Momentum are talking about the need for civil disobedience as part of these demonstrations, and both Westminster and Waterloo Bridge were blocked on Saturday.
  • Labour MP Clive Lewis has said that he will occupy parliament if it is shut down and another 50 have said that they will convene an alternative parliament after its proroguing.
  • Plan C London called an open assembly to discuss the crisis, and there will be another one on Friday 6 September. They want the demonstrations to be used to build this form of participatory direct-democracy.
  • Lots of people are talking about the need for a general strike (although to date this discussion remains quite vague, without any concrete ideas of how we move towards this, beyond a pledge signed by 100 trade union reps calling for direct action and breaking the anti-trade union laws).
  • Some are suggesting that a general strike could be combined with the global climate strike on 20 September.

In Feminist Fightback we agree that there is an immediate and urgent needs to be part of a mass movement that prevents Boris Johnson from getting away with this latest move. Even if he manages to use his bully-boy tactics to get a deal out of the EU, his success would strengthen his hand in any forthcoming elections, embolden him to further austerity and anti-migrant and anti-worker policies, and encourage far right movements in the UK and internationally. No Deal would create an even worse situation –EU migrants being turned into non-citizens overnight and economic crisis and chaos that would most likely aid the growth of fascism. Whatever the outcome with regards to Brexit, we think it’s important to remember that Boris Johnson has no bottom line – he’s not an evil mastermind with a plan, rather he’s a crash-and-burn megalomaniac and this knowledge should inform the Left’s response accordingly.

We also believe that the struggle against Johnson’s power grab needs to foreground free movement for all and migrants’ rights, and the reassertion of internationalism as an essential component of left-wing movements. We were concerned that at the Assembly on Friday a couple of people rejected having slogans such as ‘free movement for all’ on the demonstration on the basis that this would be a ‘side issue’. We disagree. The most immediate effect of a No Deal will be that EU migrants, many of whom have lived in the UK the years, will become ‘illegal’ – what will it mean for hundreds of thousands of people to suddenly have no access to health care, the right to strike etc?

Fortress Europe certainly did discriminate against non-EU migrants, while allowing free movement for EU citizens, but taking away the rights of this latter group is not going to make the situation any fairer. We need a levelling up, demanding free movement for all EU and non-EU citizens. We need to wake people up to the fact that taking away migrants’ rights doesn’t stop people from coming to the UK (especially in the context of the climate emergency), it just makes it easier for bosses to exploit them. We need to unite migrant and UK workers in unions so that we can fight for better pay and conditions together – against our bosses and not against each other.

Free movement has been sadly ignored in much of the debate around Brexit, including by the more neo-liberal supporters of Remain. Perhaps more surprisingly (and depressingly) it has been criticised by some sections of the nationalist Left and kind of ignored and fudged by some sections of the far/anarchist Left. As far as we can see, the only groups loudly advocating the need for free movement in the context of Brexit and the ‘coup’ are Another Europe Is Possible, the Labour Campaign for Free Movement and Labour for a Socialist Europe. But the problem remains that these groups are orientated towards working within the Labour Party. Not everybody in Feminist Fightback is a member/ supporter of the Labour Party, and we all believe that we need to think outside of parliamentary structures in order to effect real change.

We’re not pretending that we have any more answers than the rest of the Left. We also think new possibilities will emerge as the political situation develops, hopefully from a larger movement that will suggest things we never thought of. Thus far we are going to participate in all the demonstrations, especially this one for Free Movement on Wednesday 4th Sept. We will also be participating in the Another Europe Assembly on Monday outside Parliament, and the next Plan C Assembly on Friday, with the view that we need as much opportunity as possible for different organisations to come together to discuss strategy and work out what’s happening. Please send us your thoughts as well.