Myself and Mr Denham attended an interesting meeting in Coventry the other day, organised at short notice by the Socialist Party and attended by about 20-30 people, which in part dealt with the question of the upcoming Euro elections. Dave Nellist, the speaker at the meeting, is on the “No2EU – Yes to Democracy” slate in the West Midlands, and he spent much of his speech explaining this decision on behalf of himself and his party. He also, obviously, called on the meeting to support the slate in campaigning and at the polls.
It clearly wasn’t a comfortable case for SP comrades in the room to make: I get the sense that they have considerable misgivings about the top-down nature of the slate, its Stalinist political roots and the inevitable focus of its public image on the “No2EU” bit of its programme. The basic planks of Nellist’s case as I understood it were these:
1) There is a big pool of disenfranchised working-class voters at present. In various European countries this ground is contested between the reformed parties of the left (like the Left Party in Germany) and the far right (like the Freedom Party-Alliance for the Future of Austria opposition bloc in Austria). In the UK the BNP is in pole position to appeal to those voters: the left currently has nothing. This bloc at least gives us a chance to stop the BNP from getting MEPs elected.
2) No2EU was called by a major national trade union. This is the first such instance in political memory since the foundation of the Labour Party. As such socialists should intervene in it.
3) The EU is a capitalist entity in its essence. “Socialists” called for a no vote in the original EEC referendum, and there is no reason for that opposition to change.
4) If local campaigns gather some momentum then there may be a possibility to make the project bigger than it is at present.
The discussion and comments carried on along this line, with most people speaking in favour of the slate either pointing to the success of the SP’s intervention in the Lindsay oil strike (which was indeed superb) as an example of injecting progressive politics through engagement, citing the threat of the BNP, or pointing out that the actual manifesto of the slate is not as bad as one might think.
All of these things are good points, but they don’t add up to enough to persuade me to support the slate.
1) It is not true that all socialists now support a position of active opposition to the EU. The fact is that capitalist integration should not be opposed in terms of trying to roll it back to a lost world of powerful nation states. It should be opposed by demanding and building international structures of opposition which are powerful enough to challenge those institutions.
2) The EU is not some unique evil which merits the disproportionate amount of time spent on it by the UK left. Nation states are capitalist. The USA is capitalist. The IMF, World Bank and G20 are capitalist. Every major world economic institution in a capitalist world is capitalist. What needs to be done with all these things is to either place demands on them or to organise worldwide opposition to them in the name of something better, not to buy into the usual political dichotomies which surround debate about them.
3) The BNP issue is a thorny one and the threat of them gaining MEPs is real. However again they are tackled by presenting people with different ideas in which those people can feel a stake, not with a pre-fabricated political slate called “No2EU”. The reality is that most people do not vote in Euro elections, and those that do will not read the manifestos of the groups for whom they are voting. It therefore doesn’t matter particularly how progressive the SP can make the No2EU slate’s programme, because nobody in reality will see it and certainly most of the slate’s voters (such as they will be) will not make their decision to back it on the basis of that programme. The bulk of its exposure will be via the media, and the word that will stick in people’s minds is “No2EU”, not “Yes to Democracy”, which in any case is one of the most insipid slogans I have ever heard.
4) Regarding the RMT, at the risk of sounding flippant, if Bob Crow told you to jump off a tall building, would you do it just because he’s a union leader? I wouldn’t. The fact that a union calls for something doesn’t mean automatically that it’s a politically good thing.
5) This isn’t the same as Lindsay or Staythorpe. Political progressives do not have the forces to engage with enough voters to influence events in the way that the SP did in those disputes.
Sorry comrades, I’m with you on a lot of things but this time round you’ve lost me.
Update 29/3/09: Nellist has just appeared on the BBC Politics Show in a local segment about the Euro-elections and what a plethora of choices “anti-EU” voters have this time around. Again, in the context of a series of brief slots on the Europhobic parties (UKIP and the BNP) and nutters (Libertas) standing in these elections, it didn’t look good. He also spent rather a lot of his short bite of the cherry talking about the net cost of EU membership to the UK taxpayer. This surely proves my point that No2EU will not be able to get out much of a message beyond “No to the EU” in the course of this campaign.