Theresa May’s sudden call for a General Election – to be held on June 8th – caught many by surprise.
Having previously said on multiple occasions that she didn’t intend to hold another election, she suddenly changed her mind.
The question is why.
Some have quickly suggested that, aside from seeking to strengthen her mandate and legitimize her position, she may be seeking the opportune moment to destroy what’s left of the Labour Party, with Jeremy Corbyn‘s party doing so badly now in polls.
While the previous General Election – just two years ago – resulted in the decimation of the Liberal Democrats across the UK, this one might (according to analysts) see Labour virtually eliminated from Parliament, leaving the current Tory government even better placed to enact whatever their plans are (and I’ve already speculated on what I think the general nature of those plans – and Brexit – might be).
It’s worth noting that the Fixed Term Parliament is designed to stop Prime Ministers or governments from just calling an election whenever their poll ratings are highly favorable or their opposition’s ratings are extremely low.
There’s a couple of questions.
Firstly, I wonder why Theresa May waited until after triggering Article 50 to call this snap election. Second, wouldn’t it make more sense to complete negotiations with the EU, come back to the British electorate with a prospective deal and then trigger a General Election in which the electorate can choose to support that deal or not?
At that point, the opposition parties can be offering their alternative approaches and the people can decide whether to vote for one of those alternatives or to stick with May’s plan.
Instead, by calling the election now, there are no clear or solid alternative plans to choose from and the picture Theresa May paints is that the electorate either needs to have total, absolute faith in *her* or plunge the country’s future into chaos and uncertainty. In other words, it’s ‘my way or the highway’.
This strangely authoritarian attitude is reinforced by the fact she had said she doesn’t intend to participate in any televised debates.
She knows that this entire election will be dominated by Brexit and she knows that neither Labour or the Lib Dems are very capable right now of having a strong plan – because they’re not involved in the triggering of Article 50 or the negotiations.
They are therefore at a disadvantage and the high ground is all Theresa May’s.
Besides that, the mass media assassination of Jeremy Corbyn is still very much going on and will no doubt continue right through to June 8th, meaning that Corbyn and Labour will be fighting a massive uphill struggle all the way: and any continued arguments Corbyn makes about workers’ rights, social services or anything else will be drowned out by coverage about his ‘lack of charisma’ or about Labour Party in-fighting – even at a time when it is being reported, for example, that Theresa May’s welfare cuts ‘will help push almost one million more children into relative poverty by 2022′.
Some will argue Theresa May is doing the right thing in calling for an election.
Others suspect dishonourable motives. Anne Perkins wrote in The Guardian the day the election was announced; ‘This is no general election, it’s a coup – MPs have a duty to stop Theresa May. She has made a Scottish referendum inevitable, and a border poll in Northern Ireland infinitely more likely. She is resetting politics in a way that will entrench division. We will all rue this day.’
If the idea of an election as a coup seems a little knee-jerk, Theresa May’s own statement seems to evoke the tone of a hostile takeover bid. The Prime Minister’s statement on Tuesday revealed a hostile attitude towards political opposition in general and parliament in particular. ‘This is the right approach, and it is in the national interest. But the other political parties oppose it. At this moment of enormous national significance there should be unity here in Westminster, but instead there is division. The country is coming together, but Westminster is not,’ she said, sounding less like a democratic leader with a respect for parliament, debate and process and more like a President Erdogan who’s become fed up of – even disdainful of – democratic impediments, debate and opposition politicians.
‘They under-estimate our determination to get the job done and I am not prepared to let them endanger the security of millions of working people across the country,’ she says; and it is clear from her full statement that she is talking about the Labour Party, the Lib Dems and the SNP, as well as Liberal Democrats in the House of Lords.
Note that she doesn’t have a problem with the House of Lords as a body – just the fact that there are too many Lib Dems in it right now and she wants to fill it with her own people.
May seems to be adopting the same tone and encouraging the same atmosphere that the right-wing press reveled in during the referendum debates, perceiving perhaps that she can tap into or galvanise those same sections of the electorate (and media) to bolster her position and remove as much opposition from parliament as possible.
The Daily Mail, which last year gave us the infamous ‘Enemies of the People’ headline when the independent judiciary ruled in favor of parliamentary democracy, this time gives us a triumphal ‘CRUSH THE SABOTEURS!’
Curiously, when asked in parliament whether she would denounce The Daily Mail’s distasteful headline, the Prime Minister shrugged it off and said “we have a free press in this country”. Note that this is the same Theresa May who previously authorised the arrest and detainment of journalists and whisteblowers under the ‘Terrorism Act’.
While my earlier comparison to Erdogan might seem a little far-fetched, I’m going to double-down on that comparison here for the sake of illustrating a point. I am NOT saying that Erdogan or Mrs May are the same or that the situation in Turkey is comparable to the situation in the UK. But the kind of language used by the right-wing press, particularly the Daily Mail (‘Enemies of the People’, ‘Crush the Saboteurs’), is entirely in-line with the kind of language displayed by pro-Erdogan, pro-AKP media in Turkey in their coordinated quest to alter the Turkish constitution and political system and to change the very nature of Turkish society.
Moreover, some of the same media – and politicians – who, this week, might’ve been pouring scorn on the scanty 51% that Erdogan scored on the ‘yes’ vote for the constitutional referendum in Turkey are the same media that labels as ‘saboteurs’ or ‘enemies of the people’ anyone who questions the equally scanty 52% of Brits who voted yes to leaving the EU.
I already laid out, when Article 50 was triggered, why I think Mrs May and her government are so attached to “the will of the people” and to blocking any interference in her government’s specific vision of Brexit (whatever that vision is).
Theresa May has in fact been labelled – albeit in tongue-in-cheek fashion – as something of a ‘tyrant’ a few times before.
But there’s a serious dimension to this characterisation as well. After all, Theresa May isn’t some nice old lady who popped up to take care of Brexit, but is, among other things, the mother of the draconian Snoopers’ Charter, which was built under her patronage and finally brought through under her Brexit government (and opposed fully by the EU for its violation of civil liberties).
In 2013 she also introduced legislation to allow ‘Secret Courts’ in which the state can prosecute citizens without allowing them to know the charge, see the evidence or even take part in the hearing. She has – and has had, even prior to becoming Prime Minister – many critics and opponents within parliament: including former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg, who, during the Tory/Lib-Dem coalition government, repeatedly clashed with Mrs May over, for example, her authorising the detention of journalists.
She is regarded, in short, as being a pretty ruthless sort of politician.
On the surface of it, this election might seem like a fair idea. After all, with so much professed division in the country, why not give the electorate the chance to confirm their support for the Brexit government or, as it may be, switch their support to the Lib Dems or to Labour or elsewhere, either of which would drastically alter the course or tone of the Brexit?
But in waiting for an opportune moment in which the government’s poll lead is so uncommonly high (and in which the opposition parties are poorly prepared for an election) May is looking to consolidate the Tory government’s hold on power and neutralise or weaken all opposition – Labour, Lib Dems, SNP – for the next five years, giving her government maximum control of parliament for that time period.
In effect, it could create a one-party parliament.
What’s important to realise – and it’s the reason I’m concerned about what may happen here – is that this has implications beyond just Brexit and the EU.
This would effect not just the Brexit negotiations and the type of departure from the EU we end up with, but could effect all kind of other things, from workers’ rights, the NHS and the general post-Brexit agenda to the future of Scotland, a return to Direct Rule in Northern Ireland, practical implementation of Theresa May’s Snoopers’ Charter, or even British action in Syria or in regard to Russia.
That last point is especially significant, given the current tensions – and the actor and pretend Foreign Secretary, Boris Johnson, on Tuesday already suggested in parliament that the British government would be virtually duty-bound to join the United States if President Trump decided to go to war in Syria.
In this highly uncertain time we’re in – in which anything could happen, both internationally, geo-politically and domestically – it would be the worst time to have a parliament lacking opposition figures or democratic checks and balances. As an example, I always like to cite the fact that Ed Miliband and his Labour Party in 2013 were what stopped Western military intervention for regime-change in Syria. That kind of democratic intervention in policy often doesn’t happen, of course – but do we want a situation where it can’t happen at all?
That could be where we’re headed, if we’re not careful.
On the other hand, in theory, this could backfire on her – that is, if Labour under Jeremy Corbyn can stage an upset or the Lib Dems can effectively galvanise the Remain vote – but most projections suggest the Conservatives will be set for a resounding victory, which is the only reason why the PM has called for it.