Guest post by Robin Carmody
There’s a long history of Libertarian Rightists being mistaken for Leftists because of the huge culture gap between them and mainstream conservatives. This was especially marked before Thatcherism had done its work, when there was a much greater frowning upon brashness and vulgarity, openly showing that you were capitalist, on the English Right (the ancien régime of Arsenal FC always seemed to embody this, with the at least implicit anti-Semitism built into it, especially in the context of their rivalry with the more raffish Tottenham) and before a deeper generational shift, and the effects of things like the Golden Jubilee and James Blunt, had seamlessly merged pop music and pop culture generally into the Tory Interpretation of History.
The best example of this – at least until now – was Mick Jagger, whose essential Toryism was not widely recognised at the time (other than, famously, by a prescient William Rees-Mogg) because he obviously stood outside the cultural shibboleths of Conservatism as it was then, and also because his Libertarian Right worldview and outlook was at its most – ha ha ha – exiled from mainstream in British history, at a time when the dominant strain of the Tory party accepted the role of the state in certain parts of the economy in a manner wholly unthinkable in earlier and later periods (in retrospect, we can clearly see that the state was easily the best way of strengthening in adversity those very cultural shibboleths, whose final abandonment by mainstream Conservatism in the 2000s helped it back to what may be an indefinite period of power). Ignorant of what it might represent, through their very unfamiliarity with what had become an extremely marginal and fringe position in British life during and after the Second World War, certain idealistic Leftists of the late 1960s – arguably unaware of how good they actually had it – imposed their own views on Jagger, saw him as a symbol of what they themselves believed in, in a way which feels like the ultimate example of Getting the Future Wrong, the single greatest concentration of this misconception being Richard Gott’s rapturous Guardian eulogy to the Stones’ 1969 performance in Hyde Park (“taking place in a Socialist society in the distant future“, indeed!).
As we reflect on Wikileaks’ intervention in the US presidential election blatantly on Trump’s side (will the mistaken typing of “legitimate” for “illegitimate” by an aide to Hillary Clinton’s campaign prove to be the biggest butterfly effect of all time?)*, and on the joyous enthusiasm for its founder by several Trump groupies, can we possibly dispute that Julian Assange is, in every possible way and in every last detail, the same thing all over again, a Libertarian Rightist initially mistaken for a Leftist by those who did not understand the position? Only in this case, of course, with the position being so much more relatively mainstream and having influenced so much more of the wider society than in the 1960s, they had much less excuse.
*Correction, I think: it should be “prove to be the biggest butterfly effect *of recent history*”, because even I don’t think it could be comparable to things like the absence of fog which might have enabled Hitler to be killed in 1939, etc.
By Ann Field
Len McCluskey launched his campaign for re-election as Unite General Secretary at a meeting held in Glasgow last Saturday. Thanks to Mark Lyon, the International Transport Workers Federation full-timer who chaired the meeting, it ended in a fiasco.
In fact, the fiasco had been built into the meeting before it even started.
Since the summer of last year Lyon has dedicated himself to splitting the United Left Scotland (ULS), the Scottish ‘section’ of the national United Left (UL), which functions as a kind of ‘Broad Left’ within Unite.
Stage one of Lyon’s efforts was a meeting held in late August, which he dishonestly presented as a ULS meeting.
Details about the meeting were sent from firstname.lastname@example.org (not the actual ULS e-mail address, but a close imitation). The e-mail was headed “United Left Scotland Meeting” and signed off as “United Left Scotland”.
Lyon did not inform elected ULS co-ordinators of his meeting. Other ULS activists were also left off the e-mail list used to publicise the meeting. But Scottish Unite full-timers certainly attended the meeting in numbers – at the behest of the Scottish Regional Secretary.
Stage two occurred in mid-November, when Lyon sent out an e-mail which proclaimed the existence of the Progressive United Left Scotland (PULS), proclaimed who the PULS candidates would be for the Scottish territorial seats in this year’s Executive Council (EC) elections, and proclaimed himself as elections co-ordinator.
This meant that two PULS candidates would be standing against the two ULS candidates who had been selected at a ULS meeting to contest the Scottish territorial seats. And one of the PULS candidates was not even a UL member.
(In fact, prior to some last-minute juggling by Lyon in his personal selection of the candidates, neither of the PULS candidates he had initially chosen were UL members.)
Stage three followed quickly on the heels of stage two. In late November Lyon circulated a splenetic e-mail on the national UL e-mail address list.
Longstanding ULS members were subjected to personalised abuse, the UL National Chair was denounced for a “deeply personal, vicious and unwarranted attack” on Lyon, the ULS was dismissed as an “oppressive and undemocratic body”, critics of PULS were scorned as “a few self-interested individuals”, and the outcome of ULS-PULS ‘negotiations’ was systematically misrepresented.
Ironically, among the spurious criticisms of the ULS most consistently raised by Lyon were his claims that it was undemocratic and suffered from a culture in which abuse and bullying were condoned.
And yet here was Lyon – in the absence of any meetings of PULS members (insofar as it has a membership in any meaningful sense of the word) – proclaiming the existence of a new organisation, announcing the names of its candidates for EC seats, and launching into a prolonged tirade of personal abuse against ULS and UL members.
In December Lyon sent the first of a series of e-mails publicising last Saturday’s meeting. As had been the case in August, Lyon excluded ULS co-ordinators and a layer of ULS activists from the list he used for all e-mails publicising the meeting.
(Lyon has yet to master the art of blind-copying e-mails. Who he deems worthy, and unworthy, of receipt of one of his e-mails is therefore visible to all.)
But what was the status of Saturday’s meeting?
Was it a PULS meeting? One e-mail publicising the meeting had the header “PULS National Slate and Campaign Materials” and was signed off as “PULS”. An eve-of-meeting e-mail also referred to “our PULS meeting tomorrow.”
Was it another sham ULS meeting? Lyon used the email@example.com address for most of his e-mails about the meeting. And in one e-mail Lyon had declared: “PULS is not a replacement for the ULS. It is the ULS.”
Or was it just a personal venture by Mark Lyon, not subject to any kind of accountability to any broader body? One e-mail publicising the meeting was simply signed off by “Mark” and sent from Lyon’s personal e-mail address.
Another question raised about the meeting was Lyon’s statement in one of his e-mails that the meeting would be attended by “the seven Executive Council candidates we [presumably: PULS] are jointly running in the forthcoming election.”
But who were these seven candidates which PULS was “jointly running”? (And jointly with whom?)
Lyon’s problem was that by the time of the meeting the full UL slate for this year’s EC elections had been published on the UL website.
The two candidates on the slate for the Scottish territorial seats are ULS members, not the PULS nominees. And there are six, not five, Unite members from Scotland listed on the slate as standing for various industrial seats.
Saturday’s 80-strong meeting was no larger than the meeting organised by Lyon in August. In fact, it may have been marginally smaller – despite the presence of an additional five Unite full-timers who had not attended the August meeting.
So much for Lyon’s claim in his splenetic e-mail of last November: “I am part of a group of about 150 people in Scotland and growing. … We grow daily in number and strength in our region.”
It was only towards the end of the meeting, when Lyon announced “our” seven Executive Council candidates, that the fiasco-in-waiting finally came to the surface. Fortunately, McCluskey had left the meeting by this point and was spared witnessing the debacle first-hand.
Lyon introduced “our” five Scottish candidates for various industrial seats on the EC. The sixth Scottish candidate – a member of the ULS, and an official UL candidate – was not asked to address the meeting. In fact, Lyon had not even invited him to the meeting.
Lyon then introduced “our” candidates for the Scottish territorial seats. They were the two PULS candidates whom he had personally selected in November – not the ULS members listed on the official UL slate (whom Lyon had likewise not invited to attend the meeting).
When it was pointed out from the floor that Lyon had failed to mention the ULS members standing for the Scottish territorial seats and officially recognised as UL candidates, Lyon curtly responded:
“You’re in the wrong meeting. They are not United Left candidates. We are supporting our candidates who have been democratically agreed. We are the United Left, we created the United Left, we’re not a different group.”
Lyon clearly thinks that he, rather than the UL, can decree who is a UL candidate. He likewise believes that he, rather than the UL, can decide what constitutes the UL. He even thinks that his own individual personal opinions amount to “democratic agreement”.
And his quip that “you’re in the wrong meeting” might have seemed very clever at the time (if only to Lyon himself). But it is a comment he will hopefully come to regret.
The person who, according to Lyon, was “in the wrong meeting” was an official UL candidate for a territorial seat on the EC. If that UL candidate was “in the wrong meeting”, then that tells you everything you need to know about the nature of Lyon’s meeting.
In fact, if anyone was “in the wrong meeting” – even if he exited it before Lyon’s plea to support non-UL candidates – then it was arguably the United Left’s own candidate in the General Secretary election, i.e. Len McCluskey himself.
The meeting which he used to launch his re-election campaign was one which denied a platform to three Scottish UL candidates, called for a vote for candidates standing against two UL candidates, and refused to call for a vote for a third UL candidate.
Although Lyon made a half-hearted attempt to present the meeting as a UL event, he deliberately withheld information about the meeting from ULS co-ordinators and activists.
And it was a meeting where the disproportionately large number of union full-timers in attendance – including Lyon himself – was at odds with McCluskey’s description of Unite as being primarily about “lay-member radical activism”.
To beat Coyne’s shameless campaign of right-wing anti-migrant populism, McCluskey needs to promote “lay-member radical activism”. But, thanks to Mark Lyon, he could not have chosen a worse event to launch his campaign than last Saturday’s meeting.
Guest post by Robin Carmody
In response to the letter to the Morning Star (a paper which is, ultimately, little more than the Daily Mail with the ending changed; it peddles the same populist Europhobic nationalism, uses the same pejoratives for its opponents and is just as great an apologist for censorship in theory, and quite possibly more so in practice) which I suspect was written wholly if not entirely by David Lindsay, and which has Neil Clark and George Galloway among its signatories, I am reminded again that whether or not people support universal public funding of the whole BBC – and not just those parts of it considered “100% British” by Daily Telegraph letter-writers and “not sufficiently lucrative” by Rupert Murdoch – is, over and over again, a litmus test for their other views.
(In saying this, I am burning out elements of myself; at various points in my life, a significant traditional-conservative streak has surfaced).
Lindsay, it should always be remembered, believes that the BBC should be funded by an increased but voluntary licence fee (interestingly, considering his endorsement by many as an anti-racist icon, Gary Lineker also thinks this) and should not do Radio 1, 1Xtra etc. In other words, he thinks it should become a long-shadows-on-county-grounds heritage broadcaster, and that petty-racist whingers should be conceded all the ground in the world (even more than they have already, which in itself is far too much) and should define what the broadcaster does entirely on their terms, not on the terms of the whole nation. His plan would be a wet dream to those who resent the fact that the music of the post-1980 black Atlantic is funded on their money and they can’t opt out of it.
Clark, similarly, has endlessly moaned and whinged about hip-hop and its tributaries in Mail-esque language, and has attracted people with similar views, one of whom once told me that I was “a cell in the cancer that killed the Left” because I said he should not have moaned about it in such a way, referred to “the Ecclesiastical Court of the Liberal-Left Inquisition” (language that even the most lurid Mail Online commenter would have been hard-pressed to dream up, and note again that he is using identical pejoratives, identical terms of attack) and accused me of “sanctimonious yoof bigotry” – both a dehumanising Mail-esque spelling and a refusal to acknowledge the fact that he might not even be right on those horrible terms, because many of his opponents are now in their forties and do not like current rap-based music at all.
It’s not hard to see the connection between such attitudes and their apparent endorsement – however qualified – of someone who clearly thinks (and many of whose supporters blatantly, unequivocally, unapologetically think – I knew Obama would inspire a backlash but I never dreamt it would be this bad, and I certainly never dreamt that anti-Semitism in the United States, as opposed to anti-Muslim bigotry in Western countries or anti-Semitism in, say, Poland, would be mainstreamed again in this way; I thought the Jewish influence and presence was far too integrated into the mainstream of American culture and society for that) that the people who invented hip-hop, and continue largely to produce it, aren’t really American.
When people de-Anglicise the very concept and the very form of expression – and, by implication, the people – in such a way, their endorsement of those who dispute its American-ness can hardly be considered surprising. It justifies all my previous doubts and warnings as practically nothing else could have.
The ratio of Unite full-timers to Unite members is around one to 5,000. But at a meeting held in Glasgow last Saturday (27th August), falsely called under the name of the United Left Scotland (ULS), the ratio was around one to six.
The dozen or so full-timers who attended the meeting – supposedly convened to rebuild the ULS as a force which “campaigns for a democratic union controlled by the members” – represented a total annual pay packet of over half a million pounds of members’ dues.
There was nothing surprising about the turnout by full-timers, including several who had never had any involvement in the ULS: the same full-timers had played the leading role in encouraging selected Unite members in Scotland to attend the meeting.
In addition to the effort put in by full-timers, the meeting had been publicised by an e-mail dishonestly sent out in the name of the ULS.
The e-mail was sent from “firstname.lastname@example.org” (not the actual ULS e-mail address, but a close imitation). It was headed “United Left Scotland Meeting” and signed off as “United Left Scotland” (but without an individual’s name attached).
According to the e-mail: “It is important to say that we have a level of support for this intervention from friends within the National United Left Committee.”
Over a month later, not a single one of these “friends” has yet come forward. Nor have the organisers of the sham ‘ULS’ meeting yet been able to name a single “friend” on the UL National Co-ordinators Committee.
The e-mail claimed that “any left-leaning member of Unite” would be “very welcome” at the meeting. But this was just another lie. Whole swathes of the ULS membership, including all members of its elected Co-ordinators Committee, were not sent the e-mail.
The bogus ‘ULS’ e-mail about the bogus ‘ULS’ meeting was dishonest from beginning to end. It is inconceivable that the Unite full-timers who encouraged attendance at the meeting were unaware of the e-mail.
The meeting was a carefully choreographed affair, with a specially prepared ‘narrative’ of the ULS presented by different attendees for the benefit of those Unite members who had no previous involvement in the ULS.
More than a touch of surrealism was added to the affair by the yawning abyss between the criticisms voiced of the ULS and the actual track record of many of those voicing them.
The ULS, it was claimed, excluded people. It was riven by personality clashes. It was only concerned with winning positions on committees. There was a male-macho culture in its meetings. It failed to convene regular meetings. It failed to support Unite members in dispute. Its meetings did not discuss politics. Its meetings discussed abstract political theory.
True, the last two criticisms are contradictory. But what counted at last Saturday’s meeting was not consistency, and even less so honesty. All that counted was launching a barrage of criticism against the ULS in a sorry attempt to justify the staging of the sham ‘ULS’ meeting. Read the rest of this entry »
A discussion piece by Tim (of What About Classism?):
I’m a left of centre Labour voter, but I am not a hard left ideologue or a communist nor dream of some sort of communist utopia, or anything like that. Far from it, in fact. Like most people who are from working class backgrounds, be they black, Asian or white or whatever other ethnic minority we may come from, I simply want an economy that works for more people, including of course myself, my family and the community I come from. We are told again and again that the UK is the world’s fifth biggest economy, yet there is poverty everywhere, low wage zero hours contract and insecure jobs, the NHS is being underfunded, the North is worse off than the wealthy parts of Southern England, disabled people are being persecuted and the icing on the cake is that austerity is being forced on the poor for the greed and mistakes of an unregulated banking industry, and a political system that now whether nominally left or right has abandoned the economic working class, the economic working class being anyone black, white, Asian, immigrant or anyone else who is poor in this very wealthy country, even when they are in work in many cases.
Democracy hasn’t been abandoned at all, it has merely become the preserve of the very wealthy, the upper class, the upper middle class and the middle class, so about 20% of the population are represented, and often deftly represent themselves very well. The sad fact is that the majority of people are not represented and are not allowed to represent themselves anymore either. We have a ‘freemarket’ economy that benefits more or less the same people who are in power, and the rest of us are excluded from the benefits of a wealthy economy and political enfranchisement.
I’m not a ‘Corbynista’ either, but I notice, as many people have, that the ‘unbiased and completely impartial’ media, and the political establishment have been going at him day by day. Why is this? Many on the right make jokes about him, saying he will never be PM and actually saying they hope he stays as Labour party leader as he will never get elected. As well as this, many Labour MPs are desperately trying to oust him, saying rather strangely that he will divide the party if he doesn’t go, yet by attacking him and putting pressure on him they are threatening to almost destroy the party if they don’t get their way. It is another problem with democracy that MPs, far from being public servants, are primarily carving out lucrative careers for themselves by selling themselves to the highest bidder, or the neoliberal ideology that dominates now. Most of the new Labour party ordinary members support Jeremy Corbyn, whereas many of the MPs don’t. But the members of the party voted for him. For once in a long time, many people feel that a change is coming. It is obvious also to many of us that the system which has institutionalised economic injustice at its heart, is the preferred one for many wealthy people, regardless of the hardship and poverty this creates for millions of people. That many of us who struggle either in unemployment or low paid dead end jobs are sick of this should come as no surprise. The democracy of the wealthy and privileged is now used to deprive those who are already poor of their democratic rights, in a supposed democratic nation. That is about the bottom line. Read the rest of this entry »
Guest post by Bill Sharpe
Arguing against the renewal of Trident must have seemed so simple, an easy win for the Corbyn Labour leadership, swords into ploughshares and we all walk off arm in arm into a Trident free sunset – maybe singing the Red Flag. That may well have been how the Corbynistas saw it playing out, yet right from the outset when they started this particular hare running, the reality was very different. The parliamentary timetable was always against Labour having any real say, it was always going to engulf the Party, and particularly the PLP which was not going to be helpful as the key unions (GMB and Unite) were always going to be for renewal. Everything points to a fudge at the next Labour Party conference and with it inevitable demoralisation among the Corbynistas. My union, the GMB, will be quite happy with this, as we have thousands of members whose jobs depend upon Trident.
The one thing that may change this is how Unite votes on the matter at its forthcoming Policy Conference. Although Unite’s defence workers are fully behind renewal, the conference has a number of anti-Trident resolutions on the agenda and if it were to vote against renewal it would once again change the balance of power within the Labour Party.
Unite is generally seen as the most influential left wing union and socialists will view Unite’s forthcoming debate primarily in political terms – a left vs right `shoot out’: on one side the defence industry workers who are seen (probably rightly) as pro – imperialist, right wing, reactionary etc etc; on the other side the union’s lefts who want to scrap Trident, end austerity and are Corbyn supporters – also probably true. Such a view is to miss the point. The Unite debate will not be a political but an economic, a trade union, matter – or at least I for one would hope so.
Unite Policy Conference delegates have three possible choices: they can vote for `unconditional support’ for renewal, `scrapping only’ if suitable alternative work can be found or `scrapping regardless’ of whether alternative work can be found. For sure, the `scrapping only’ positon will bring together a big majority within the union leaving `unconditional support’ the minority position. There is however a fatal flaw in the ‘scrapping only’ standpoint.
When the Berlin wall fell the defence industry went into free fall with many thousands of jobs lost. In response the unions undertook a number of studies looking at alternative work; some were very imaginative but none were viable. What employer was going to pay top dollar to some of the most highly skilled workers in the county (after space technology putting together a Trident submarine is the second most complex technical exercise humanity undertakes) concentrated in one of the most inaccessible places in the county to build white goods or wind turbines? The alternative work plans were seemingly consigned to the dustbin of history. However some 25 years later variants of these plans were resurrected, finding their way onto Corbyn’s election campaign website as part of his pitch to scrap Trident.
While intellectually lazy and/or self-deluded socialists have tacked onto the end of their anti- Trident arguments the demand for alternative work, so resolving (to their own satisfaction) the problem of mass redundancies and the devastation of Barrow and surrounding areas, workers in the industry have looked into the matter and are telling us there is no such thing as alternative work. Consequently ‘scrapping only’ is in effect a vote for renewal – a position I for one hope the Unite conference will adopt. However many on the left, including it would seem, many in Unite, stand on the ‘regardless’ position.
The problem with the ‘regardless’ position is when the rhetoric and caveats are removed such resolutions are calling on the union to support the sacking of several thousands of their fellow members. For a union to vote for a `scrap anyway’ resolution would be a fundamental violation of its core functions: the defence and enhancement of terms and conditions and the aspiration to organise the entire working class regardless of their political views.
This issue illustrates in a very stark manner the underlying and enduring difference between general class interests, which translate into political interests – in this case the scrapping of Trident – and specific sectional interests which are unions’ economic concerns and in this instance mean keeping Trident.
In saying unions should support ‘scrapping only’ I am not saying a union is always right: such a view would suppress any critical judgement of unions and deny any right to independence of thought by socialists when dealing with unions: it would mean (at best) becoming a more realistic variant of the unions’ house journal the Morning Star. I am, however, saying socialists should recognise that a union must pursue its members’ interests, even when these come into conflict with broader socialist views.
For socialists who wish to be critical of unions there are two possible approaches: one can be characterised as `politicising unions’, which starts from recognition of the division between the political and economic as a given and as far possible attempts to mitigate the sectional and where possible merge the sectional into a more general class interest. This is done within the unions themselves around industrial matters, but more importantly engaging with and helping develop a socialist political culture within the unions.
To begin to undertake such a task one has to recognise the existence of the political / economic division. But in this period of union decline the dominant approach of leftists and would-be Marxists is to be seemingly unaware or indifferent to the division. There are clear parallels here with 3rd period Stalinism. In this approach the left is continually attempting to turn the union into a political rather than an economic entity, they view it as a form of political party and continually demand its programme appropriate to a party – political unionism. Such an approach can only succeed by either superseding or suppressing the union’s economic function of defending member’s terms and conditions.
A ‘scrap anyway’ positon illustrates this point in a very blunt manner, as it inescapably means supporting the loss of many thousands of jobs (an unfortunate by-product of the greater good) and with it supressing the unions function of defending members jobs.
The ‘union as a political party’ approach is also how the best trades unionists tend to perceive (and reject) what socialists are about: it needs little imagination to work through the political lessons defence delegates will take away from Unite Trident debate as they listen to their `left wing’ bothers and sisters explaining why they should lose their jobs.
The Unite Trident debate holds within it two possible ways socialists can approach unions: if their conference can get beyond a debate about ‘scrapping regardless’, which is to recognise they cannot support non-renewal. They will then be in a position to play a pivotal role in taking the alternative work debate forward. At present the demand for alternative work is merely a rhetorical prop for socialists, with no real content – based on present realities it can go nowhere. Unite has the ability to demand that labour links alternative work for the defence industry into a broader call for a rebalancing of the economy which should have centre stage in Labour’s 2020 manifesto.
The ability to move the alternative work debate on is made possible by the space opened up by Corbyn’s victory: it should be seen as part and parcel of the potential which now exists for the refounding of a labour movement. Although in many respects this will be very different from 1900s, now as then, socialists have a choice: either they engage with this or cut themselves of from it: posturing and empty sloganising will inevitably fail, but pursuing the politicisation of the unions (as opposed to the left’s agenda of “political unionism”) may just offer a way through the dilemma.
By Pat Corcoran
The Unite report of its recent conference for members in the defence sector is at: http://www.unitetheunion.org/news/unpatriotic-government-policy-putting-defence-jobs-at-risk/ McCluskey says that his speech is not a nationalist rant. Which is the roundabout way of saying: it is a bit of a nationalist rant.
The book of conference motions for the 2016 Unite policy conference has just been published. There are 13 pages of motions about Trident renewal, ranging from full support to outright opposition. Most motions take the latter position. Unsurprisingly, the motion from the Aerospace and Shipbuilding National Industrial Sector Committee (NISC) does not. What that motion calls for is for Rule 2 to be upheld. Rule 2 of the Unite Rulebook is a commitment to protect members’ jobs and communities. As the motion puts it: “We are not a political party, we are a trade union.”
In fairness, Unite does face a genuine dilemma: Around 7,000 people in Barrow-in-Furness work for BAE Systems Maritime, with up to 10,000 more working for its suppliers. The firm is currently building seven nuclear-powered Astute-class submarines and planning the Successor programme to replace the aging Vanguard-class submarines, which carry nuclear missiles, ensuring jobs for 30 years. The industry is responsible for around one in ten jobs in the area and if the supply chain is taken into account it’s probably nearer one in five.
In addition, Unite has a long established tradition of respecting the wishes of its directly effected sectors when it comes to key industrial issues.
McCluskey and the overwhelming majority of the Unite EC would genuinely like to see nuclear disarmament, but they face a real dilemma: surely the first duty of a trade union is to defend the jobs of its members? The Aerospace and Shipbuilding NISC has a point about Unite not being a political party.
There is only one way to resolve this dilemma: Unite must commission an expert report into how to replace Trident-related jobs and put serious resources (ie financial resources) into coming up with a detailed, practical alternative jobs plan, just as the Lucas Aerospace shop stewards did in the 1970’s. Corbyn could also be offered support for abolishing Trident so long as assurances are forthcoming regarding a future Labour government safeguarding jobs. Sadly, there is no sign at the moment that McCluskey and the United Left majority on the EC are minded to adopt such a strategy.
By Johnny Lewis
(Johnny Lewis is the nom de plume of a leading UK trade unionist)
Those on the left wishing to leave the EU need to be able to answer two questions: whether Brexit will benefit unions and workers in any practical sense, and whether the “left exit” campaign will help develop workers’ consciousness and the left politically. When leaving is put in such sharp terms the idea of a left wing exit rapidly falls apart, particularly around the consequence for unions.
Unions can only progress member’s interests in two ways: industrially and through legislation. As unions’ industrial power has declined so the importance of pro-union legislation has increased. Seen as a totality such legislation creates a floor below which unions and workers’ rights cannot fall. With one major exception (TU recognition) all such post 1980 legislation originates from the EU.
It is the case our floor of rights is weaker than many other European counties, a cumulative effect of the way European laws have been introduced in the UK – the Posted Workers Directive being a case in point. This has often been cited as an example of legislation which divides workers: in reality the Directive gives member states latitude to determine what constitutes the minimum rate of pay. The Blair Government set the rate at the minimum wage creating a two tier workforce while in Ireland they linked the Posted workers rate to the ‘going rate’ set by collective bargaining. While we may blame many things on the EU the vast majority of problems unions have with EU legislation is a consequence of how successive UK governments have enacted EU legislation.
However weak the present floor of rights may be, post-exit the Tory Government would have the ideal conditions in which to set about dismantling our present laws, further eroding unions’ abilities to defend members and further worsening workers’ terms and conditions. The consequence of this pulling apart of the floor would also fire the starting gun for a European wide race to the bottom as E.U. countries were forced to compete with the rock bottom wages of UK workers. What possible benefit can unions and workers derive from such a development? On this fundamental level of workers’ rights those who wish to leave do not have a leg to stand and so tend to keep quiet on this pivotal matter, unlike the populist right.
The major argument put forward by the exit camp which directly purports to have workers interest at heart comes from UKIP. They argue foreign labour has reduced wage rates, hence ending immigration will resolve low pay. Such demagogy shifts the blame for the decline in wages from the employer and government to ‘the foreigner’ it also writes out any role for unions in bidding up wages.
We can see from the floor of rights question to the populist rights use of the decline in wages there are no trade union based reasons for exit, unless someone wished to contend the floor of rights was irrelevant or believed the Tories will leave it intact. As for those wishing for a left exit, it is inconceivable that could blame migrants for low wages.
Unable to put forward any trade union based rationale for exit those advocating Brexit can only do so from a political perspective. While it’s quite permissible to claim their political reasons for exit ‘trump’ the trade union reasons for remaining, for sure such arguments better be extremely compelling: I’d submit that while the arguments they put forward may be many things, ‘compelling’ is not one of them.
The left’s political arguments for exit are not straightforward as they do so from a number of different political standpoints. Here I consider the arguments advocated by many of the far-left.
Until the late 60’s all of today’s far-left supported what was the Common Market / EEC: but by the 1975 referendum most had shifted their position to a no vote. This about face arose from a desire to relate to the massed ranks of the virulent anti – EEC Labour Party/ CP and trade union left.
Today this rationale has long been forgotten morphing into something far more esoteric. Their argument for exit has two main components the first part holds the EU is an emerging imperialist power and therefore needs to be resisted the second puts forward the view that an exit would precipitate a crisis in the UK and within the EU, making it easier for workers to struggle against austerity.
The ‘imperialist’ argument is bound up with a view of a world divided into two camps the imperialist and anti-imperialists, included in this latter group is Russia, indeed Russia is viewed as the bulwark, the vanguard in the struggle against imperialism. This understanding of imperialism is a continuation of the way Stalinism divided the world between those who supported the ‘Soviet’ block and the imperialist west. This left advocacy of this reworked Stalinist world view removes any critical assessment of what a state or movement’s attitude is towards national self-determination or towards a counties working class and its labour movement, substituting a criteria which backs sates and movements based on their opposition to the west. On a global scale this has seen them back Russian’s imperialist aims in Crimea and support for the butcher Assad.
As a general understanding of imperialism it is deeply flawed, set within an EU context it is risible, once its Marxian flourishes are removed we are left with a prosaic point which boils down to wanting to leave the EU because its capitalist. It should be added that this fatuous view seems to be the cornerstone of all on the left who wish to exit. One may legitimately ask given the EU is constituted by 28 capitalist states who, by and large, pursue neo liberal polices, many of whom, the UK included, are real not proto imperialist powers what else could this institution be other than capitalist?
So if the imperialism rationale fails to run, what of the second element in their argument the idea that leaving the EU will destabilise capitalism? This idea represents the politics of my enemy’s enemy is my friend and is more akin – in its consequences on unions and workers, to anarchism or nihilism than trade unionism, or socialism, let alone a Marxian standpoint.
Although it is impossible to say what level of destabilisation exit will have on capital we can say with certainty it will have a detrimental impact on unions and the working class. Moreover the impact of a serious downturn caused by exit is likely to have precisely the opposite effect to what its left advocates believe will happen. Rather than helping the fight against austerity, attacks on unions and workers will be intensified while the labour movement will be divided and unable to respond as a direct consequence of the political chaos exit will sow within its ranks. In truth such chaos will not be down to the left’s intervention, rather an exit victory will build an insurgent populist right and it is that which the movement, particularly the Labour Party will have to contend with.
Across Europe and North America globalisation is causing a rising level of hopelessness among large sections of the working classes who are being galvanised into activity by the demagogy and programme of the populist right. The common denominator across all these movements, and what roots them in workers consciousness is the appeal to their respective nationalism.
The referendum should then not be seen solely as being about in or out it is also an episode in the formation of this right-wing. Not least because the working class base of the exit campaign are not concerned with which model of capital accumulation best suits the UK, or for that matter the decline in workers’ rights rather the referendum is a lightning rod for hitting back against the causes of their social malaise, whether it is about politicians not listening, their growing impoverishment, or their belief that exit will reverse Britain’s decline not least by stopping immigration. In voting for exit these workers will not have been influenced by the incoherent arguments of the left rather they will cast their vote bound hand and foot to the reactionary leaders of the out campaign.
Once the impact of destabilisation on the working class is grasped and the wider political impact on working class politics is comprehended it is very far from the case that our enemies’ enemy, in this instance UKIP, is our friend, or maybe I fail to see the big picture because I fail to understand the dialectic.
The above is not to endorse the EU as it is today – far from it: those who advocate leaving are right when they speak about its undemocratic nature. In fact those on the left within the unions not only largely agree about the limits of the EU but also know what to do about its shortcomings; our problem is we have not done it.
Organising industrially and politically is our answer, it is our answer to the limitations of the Posted Workers Directive it is our antidote to blaming foreign workers and on a pan European level it is our answer to the present limitations of the EU. For those of us who wish to remain we need to use the existing European wide union and political institutions and networks to campaign not only to democratise the EU but also to fight for our Europe a social Europe. Our starting point however is to ensure we stay in.
By Robert Greenwood:
If, when I go to Hell, I do not wake up in the VIP buttery at Wimbledon Lawn Tennis Club, I will come to post-mortem consciousness sitting on a waterless toilet in a prayer tent at the Glastonbury Pop Music Festival. John Harris, the floppy-haired pseud who used to be on Newsnight Review and who now writes drivel for the Guardian, has written some drivel for the Guardian about how “political” Glastonbury is:
Read the last paragraph for an abstract of the rest: N.B.: Older readers may be forgiven for thinking that this was written by the late Michael Wharton, “Peter Simple” of the Daily Telegraph’s “Way of the World” column.
” I went out into the crowd and chatted to Francesca Scanlon, an 18-year-old sixth former from Whitley Bay. This was not just her first Glastonbury but her first festival. “I think it’s brilliant,” she said, before telling me she had seen the Vaccines, the Courteeners and Florence + the Machine. But then she talked about the festival’s political aspect. “You get a real kind of leftwing, liberal feeling here,” she said. “It’s really free. Where I’m from isn’t like that: it’s quite right wing.” What came next underlined what old-school socialists would call fellowship: the feeling of being among like minds, and taking inspiration from them. “I feel at home,” she said.”
But if where Miss Scanlon comes from is “quite right wing,” how can she feel “at home” at Glastonbury if, at Glastonbury, she gets “a real kind of leftwing, liberal feeling?” Surely where she is “from” is “home”, and “home” is where she is “from?” Also, the buffoon Harris describes exactly what is, and always was, wrong about “old-school socialists” and what they would call “fellowship”: “[T]he feeling of being among like minds, and taking inspiration from them.” “Like minds” do not “inspire.” Only challenging and contrary minds inspire. Whoever had a mind like Marx or Engels? Who has a mind like an 18-year old sixth-former? John Harris, of course
“At good old Glastonbury the new politics finds a home by John Harris…”