The Conservatives’ plans for constitutional change could see them prolong their time in power. But, as Trevor Fisher argues, Labour have a chance to seize the initiative
The first eight weeks of Keir Starmer have been an essay in Fabianism – steady as it goes, the cautious attempt to make progress by tiny steps. Opinion poll ratings have eased ahead of Johnson, who has had a bad May with the Covid crisis. This has justified a careful and minimalist approach, but it is not a strategy for the next four and a half years. There is a crisis coming which will need a democratic shift to a range of problems which the Johnson government cannot resolve.
Yet four and a half years is the perspective Starmer has embraced. When asked by Andrew Marr the day after he won the contest what his aim was, he replied “to win the 2024 election”. It is clear this is not the Tory strategy, clearly set out to go to the country much sooner than December 2024, and puts Labour at risk of being caught short. The assumption Starmer is making is that the Fixed Term Parliament Act (FTPA) remains in place. However, the Tories have a clear manifesto commitment to repeal the FTPA and with an 80-seat majority Johnson can stick or twist as he desires. Labour has to outflank him and repeal of the FTPA is key to doing this.
The FTPA is nothing to do with democracy. It was a stitch up between the Lib Dems and Cameron Tories in 2010 to form a coalition and make sure neither party could pull out and leave the other in the lurch. If readers have a copy of the Guardian from the day before the 2015 election they will find the paper published a letter from me arguing the reasons Labour should repeal the Act if they won the election. Miliband lost and the issue went off the agenda. It is now back.
The Tory ‘plan A’ was not to go to 2024 but to repeal when it suited them and have an election when it suited them. They may however decide to hang on to power and overstay their welcome. This would be dangerous. Both the scale of the crisis post-Covid – with the prospect of a No Deal Brexit looming – and the danger of a rising tide of anger against this arrogant crew are toxic. The key advantage of Repeal is to make it clear that we do not want this government to last five years. Labour wants it OUT. Starmer’s 2024 position, while based on the existing Act, gives the impression Labour is happy to see five years of Boris Johnson.
Other forces may then take the initiative. It is likely we are heading for a recession unseen since the 1930s and possibly worse. The danger of desperate people looking for scapegoats fuelling a rise in xenophobia and racism is clear and avoidable. Cynicism towards the political class has been intensified by Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard’s Castle, while Boris Johnson’s sister also took a long-distance drive to break the lockdown. With a viciously destructive tabloid press still having a major influence on attitudes, it is not sensible to allow Johnson and his backers any elbow room at all.
In the crisis which is coming, Labour will need to have a clear route to demand an election, and that means scrapping the FTPA. Of course Labour by itself cannot repeal the Act – it does not have enough MPs – but putting the issue before the Commons traps the Tories between a rock and a hard place. They either vote for a Labour motion or refuse to vote for their own manifesto commitment. Either way, Labour gains.
The public need to see Labour decisively standing for resolving what happens next democratically, putting the Tories on the spot. At the heart of Labour’s stance has to be a clear statement of principle: that we do not want this government to survive and must remove it by the accepted process of a General Election (preferably decided by parliament – but that is another argument). The first step is to repeal the Fixed Term Parliament Act.