Unite: the stakes are too high to indulge Allinson’s vanity project

March 21, 2017 at 6:09 pm (campaigning, elections, Johnny Lewis, labour party, Unite the union, workers)


Above: the threat from Watson’s man Coyne is too serious for “leftist” gestures

By Johnny Lewis

The latest concocted row about an alleged “hard-left plot”, supposedly orchestrated by Momentum and supporters of Len McCluskey, to “seize permanent control of the Labour party” is palpable nonsense, being cynically used by Tom Watson and the right wing candidate in the Unite general secretary election, Gerard Coyne. The claims don’t stand a moment’s scrutiny, but nevertheless the way they’ve been seized upon by Watson, the right of the PLP and most of the media, demonstrates exactly what’s at stake in the current Unite election. And it demonstrates quite decisively why a victory for Len McCluskey is of crucial importance to the serious left, and why Ian Allinson’s left-wing challenge to McCluskey is an irresponsible indulgence.

I was chatting to some friends who are foot soldiers in McCluskey’s re-election campaign and I innocently asked if now Allinson is on the ballot and he’s proved a point will he step down and throw his weight behind McCuskey? I was met with laugher and a look which I can best describe as pity. Not a chance, I was told: he’s out for his fifteen minutes minutes of fame. They also believe Allinson actually thinks he can win (whereas I’d put any statement Allinson may have made about winning down to hyperbole rather than the man being delusional).

Although they were laughing it was clear they are very angry with Allinson as they consider Coyne could take it if he is able to mobilise those who don’t usually vote. To get to these passive members Coyne is relying on social media and will surely see the red tops back him, and if anything will win it for him it will be The Sun. Also, as pointed out in a previous post Coyne will pick up numbers from the old AMICUS section who voted Hicks last time, viewing Coyne as far closer to their craft ethos than McCluskey. Although a Coyne victory is unlikely its very possibility is the context in which Allinson’s candidacy has to be judged and is the source of the anger of McCluskey’s foot soldiers.

While the consequences for Unite of a Coyne victory are not that easy to quantify, the impact on the broader movement is a known quantity. Unite is the buckle which holds the Labour left together: a Coyne victory would see that left unravel. A victorious Coyne would in quick order ensure Unite delegates on Labour’s Executive would vote with the right giving the anti Corbyn forces an inbuilt majority. All this is known to everyone, so why does Allinson continue to press his case?

Given the stakes in this election, the justification for left winger to stand against McCluskey needs to be pretty good. Allinson’s core reasons for standing can only be a combination of a belief that McCluskey has fallen short / sold out the members industrially and therefore needs to be challenged and, secondly, a desire to make propaganda for his vision of socialism through demonstrating an alternative to the supposed industrial shortcomings of McCuskey.

Self-evidently these reasons for standing do not have equal weight: the cornerstone of Allinson’s challenge must necessarily show McCluskey has failed to pursue a militant industrial policy; I don’t think that would be difficult to show – I think it is impossible. Apart from some lacklustre sallies at some of the union’s industrial activity Allinson has nothing to say on this matter. While the industrial ethos of McCluskey’s tenure has been one where the union supports all workers who take industrial action, refuses to repudiate strikes, and has set up a substantial strike fund. Of course it is quite possible to have a different assessment from McCluskey of what is possible but that is a matter of judgement / tactics rather than principle.

On this fundamental issue there is no difference in substance between Allinson and McCluskey, yet the context in which this election takes place means this industrial question is the only conceivable rationale for standing a left candidate. Unable to make any sort of case of ‘McCluskey the sell-out’, his campaign can only turn tactical differences into major concerns and invert the relationship between McCluskey’s industrial record and Allinson’s desire to propagate his socialist views so that the latter dominate.

While my Unite friends tell me that at nomination meetings the SWP and other Allinson supporters have tried to squeeze every ounce out of any real or imagined failure on the union’s part, it is Allinson’s broader socialist musing which dominate the debate – and those musings really are not to be taken seriously. To give one example:

While Allinson is clearly a Corbyn fan he is more ambiguous about the Labour Party he tells us:

‘…if there is a real movement of resistance to Tory policies at grass roots level, “wait for Jeremy” is not good enough when our rights, jobs and services are under attack every day’.

The political literacy of this statement is, to say the least, suspect. To start with the idea that Unite is ‘waiting for Jeremy’ originates from the socialist stricture that unions should not curtail industrial demands to placate an existing Labour Government or, indeed, to maximise the likelihood of a future Labour Government. The idea Unite is being held back from industrial action by the possibility of a Labour Government is palpable nonsense. Perhaps it is a propaganda point to show that Allinson has no illusions in Labour or Corbyn?

Then there is the question of what Allinson calls ‘a real movement of resistance’: now this is instructive because Unite has been at the centre of the People’s Assembly and I think it is doubtful whether that body would have much life without Unite’s support. So Unite under McCluskey has been central to building ‘resistance’ and it seems to me as an outsider it is the cornerstone of McCluskey’s general political approach. In fact Unite has done more to develop political activity outside of the Labour Party than any other union or political organisation. Allinson may well have done this or that aspect of campaigning differently but in the broad sweep of things he can have no serious difference with the present Unite leadership. The final point is his silence on what to do in our failure to date to build such a movement.

While he reckons the best means of defending Corbyn from right wing attacks attacks is to build ‘a real movement’, Allinson has no idea what to do in the absence of such a movement except make propaganda for building one. This of course betrays a passivity towards the Labour Party. While that may be OK for a political organisation it is not OK for a trade union. Whether he likes it or not the battle to support Corbyn and to get a Government that supports unions is taking place inside the Labour Party and among union members – and the crucial job of the left within the unions is explaining to them why they should vote Labour.

Two tragedies

The Unite election encapsulates two tragedies for the left: first that a large number of activists think it is quite permissible to split the left vote on what is to all intents and purposes an indulgence, and second that it is the right whose victory is contingent on mobilising sections of the passive membership. Or perhaps the nub of the left’s problem is that few people outside the ranks of the committed really care.

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Unite: for a critical McCluskey vote

March 18, 2017 at 3:14 pm (elections, Jim D, labour party, reformism, Unite the union, workers)

Image result for picture Len McCluskey Jeremy Corbyn

Serious leftists should vote for Len McCluskey in the Unite general secretary election for which voting begins on 27 March, because it’s a first-past-the-post poll, and without left-wing votes going to McCluskey there is a real risk Gerard Coyne will win.

Coyne is heavily backed by the Labour right wing around Tom Watson and Progress. If he wins, he will swing Unite decisively to the anti-Corbyn camp. That could close down all the openings for Labour revival opened by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership victories.

Vote Coyne to help Watson and Progress get rid of Corbyn: that’s the deal.

In the 2013 general secretary election there was no right-wing candidate. In the 2010 poll the right-wing vote was split between two right-wing candidates. Their combined vote was only 16,000 less than the vote for McCluskey.

A good chunk of the 53,000 votes won in that ballot by supposed “left-winger” Jerry Hicks will have been by no means tightly anchored to the left. Many members who voted Hicks because they saw him as closer to the old AEU strand in Unite, or because they backed his promise to boost the role of retired members, or because they liked his complaint about “the relationship with Labour being put ahead of members’ interests” (Hicks’s words), may be seduced by a well-crafted Coyne campaign.

Coyne probably has a better “machine” behind him than Bayliss or Cartmail did in 2010. The media has already been much more aggressively anti-McCluskey than in previous elections (partly using ammunition which, it has to be said, McCluskey has handed to them on a plate).

If there were no difference between McCluskey and Coyne, then we could dismiss the “splitting the left vote” argument. But there is a real difference.

There are many legitimate criticisms to be made of McCluskey, and many on the left in Unite felt it was a great pity that he felt it necessary to stand again, for a third term. But McCluskey is right about one thing: Unite’s backing for Corbyn “in 2015… was a decision of our elected lay Executive Council, and in 2016 of our 600-strong Policy Conference, by a vast majority… Gerard Coyne’s campaign is not being driven by concern for Unite and its members’ interests. It is being scripted by the failed plotters in the Parliamentary Labour Party… in their political project to bring back Blairism”.

During his time in office McCluskey can rightly claim credit for the re-organisation of the union’s branch structures (replacing amorphous and often moribund geographical branches by workplace-based ones) and building the union’s Organising and Leverage Department.

He has presided over the development of Unite community branches, targeted at bringing community activists, the unemployed, and students into the trade union movement, and bringing trade union resources to bear in support of their campaigning.

McCluskey backed Corbyn in the 2015 Labour Party leadership contest, and did so again in 2016.

Leftwinger Ian Allinson is standing as “an experienced workplace activist”, “the grassroots socialist candidate”, and “the only candidate who knows first-hand the experiences and frustrations of our members”. By contrast, writes Allinson, Len McCluskey and Gerard Coyne have both been “been paid officials of Unite for many years.” McCluskey stands for “more of the same” and Coyne stands for “turning the clock back”.

Allinson criticises the current Unite leadership for its failure to build a serious campaign against the Tories’ latest anti-union laws, its (alleged) shortcomings in a succession of industrial disputes, and its concessions to the ideology of “partnership” with employers. Allinson also unreservedly defends freedom of movement of labour, cites “increasing the participation and power of workers” as his “number one priority”, and has promised to remain on his current wage (i.e. not take the General Secretary salary of £130,000 a year).

Having Allinson in the race will be a good thing. It will mean that his arguments about Unite’s shortcomings under McCluskey and his alternative ideas about rank-and-file control will reach a much wider audience than just the branches which have nominated him.

That could help open up the debate about what a lay-member-led union would really look like and how it would function in practice — something which does not figure in either McCluskey’s or Coyne’s election material. So far, so good. But there are problems with Allinson’s election platform and campaign.

Allinson claims to be a better supporter of Corbyn than McCluskey. But Allinson is not even a Labour Party member and has made clear that he has no intention of joining. He advocates “extending Unite’s support for Jeremy Corbyn”, including “through Unite’s role in the Labour Party”. What that means is not spelt out. At a minimum, it must include encouraging more Unite members to join the party, which Allinson himself refuses to join.

Given Allinson’s defence of freedom of movement of labour, he ought to be critical of Corbyn (from the left): Corbyn has retreated from demanding access to the Single Market (and the freedom of movement which goes with it) and has backed the Tories’ Brexit Bill. But Allinson is silent about this. In fact, he does not seems to have ever spelt out own position on Brexit. (The group of which Allinson is a member, RS 21, took no position on the EU referendum — it was too divided internally to have done so.)

Allinson campaigns for a million “green jobs” to help protect the environment, as opposed to “costly and destructive vanity projects”. But he includes in those “vanity projects” Hinkley Point (although even George Monbiot sees a role for nuclear power) and HS2 (which could be developed into a much more environmentally friendly project). Allinson’s proposals for greater lay-member-control in Unite certainly provide a basis for discussion. But they lack a focus.

Alongside some specific demands, such as the ill thought-out ritual call for election of officers, there are vague proposals such as “fortnightly e-mail bulletins [from whom, about what?] to all activists, not filtered through officers and committees” and “involving members, officers and staff in a major review of Unite’s structures”. So officers should be by-passed when a fortnightly e-mail is sent out, but participate in a major review of Unite structures? Allinson “opposes the exclusion of Community and retired members from participation in Unite structures”. This smacks far more of Jerry-Hicks-style electioneering than a thought-through analysis of the role of Community and retired members’ branches. (In the 2010 and 2013 General Secretary elections Hicks ran shamelessly opportunist campaigns, to pick up both right and left votes. The most damning statement in Allinson’s election material is surely: “In previous Unite elections, Jerry Hicks, standing on a similar basis to me ….”)

In order to justify his own candidacy, Allinson refers to previous Unite General Secretary elections “when left challengers beat the right.” But 2013 was a straight clash between McCluskey and Hicks (i.e. no right-wing candidate, although Hicks certainly picked up votes from the ex-Amicus right). In 2010 Hicks came second to McCluskey — but only because two right-wing candidates split the right vote. And when Mark Serwotka beat Hugh Lanning to become PCS General Secretary in 2000, which Allinson also cites, it was a straight left-right clash.

Allinson is not always consistent in his critique of McCluskey and Coyne. McCluskey’s defeat and Coyne’s victory would be “a disaster for Unite,” writes Allinson. But he also argues that there is no real difference between them: “Far from my candidacy splitting the left vote, McCluskey and Coyne are splitting the establishment vote.” At the same time, Allinson declares that if he was not standing himself, he would vote for McCluskey: “There will be some members who will support me who would support McCluskey if there were no better option. I would be one of those members myself.”

In fact, the real problem confronting Allinson is a different one. Because there is a worse option (Coyne), members who would otherwise support Allinson, or at least be sympathetic to his ideas, are more likely to vote for McCluskey in a first-past-the-post poll. The shortcomings of Allinson’s campaign, especially in the context of the threat posed by Coyne, outweigh the case for voting for him. Even so, the argument at the core of Allinson’s campaign is the right one: for a member-led union in place of a bureaucracy-led union which pretends to be a member-led one. And that is a message which needs to be pursued beyond the current election campaign.

LINK TO COMPLETE UNITED LEFT EXECUTIVE COMMITTEE AND GENERAL SECRETARY SLATE.

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Second Scottish referendum: why Corbyn was wrong

March 13, 2017 at 3:33 pm (labour party, nationalism, posted by JD, reformism, scotland, SNP)

Image result for picture Jeremy Corbyn Kezia Dugdale
Above: Dugdale and Corbyn

By Dale Street (also published at the Workers Liberty website)

Only a fortnight ago Kezia Dugdale summed up Scottish Labour’s opposition to a second referendum on Scottish independence:

“[At this weekend’s Scottish Labour annual conference] I set out Scottish Labour’s opposition to another independence referendum. Scotland is divided enough already, without yet another attempt to separate our country from the rest of the UK.

The people of Scotland do not want another independence referendum. It’s time for the Nationalists to listen to the voices of ordinary working people. [Given the levels of poverty in Scotland], it would be shameful to spend the next few years talking about independence.”

Although it counted for little more than gesture politics, Scottish Labour underlined its opposition to a second referendum by launching an online petition:

“Sign the pledge against a second independence referendum and join the fight for a stronger Scotland inside a reformed UK, with jobs and opportunities for all.”

But last weekend Jeremy Corbyn visited Glasgow and told the media: “If a referendum is held, then it is absolutely fine, it should be held. I don’t think it’s the job of Westminster or the Labour Party to prevent people holding referenda.”

“A spokesman for Corbyn” and “a source close to Corbyn” tried to minimise the damage.

According to the spokesman: “Jeremy reaffirmed our position today that if the Scottish Parliament votes for a referendum, it would be wrong for Westminster to block it. Labour continues to oppose a further referendum in the Scottish Parliament”.

But Labour has not taken a position that Westminster should agree to a referendum if Holyrood votes for it. And Corbyn’s argument that the Labour Party should not “prevent people from holding referenda” does not fit in with Scottish Labour’s opposition to a second referendum.

According to the “close source”: “Westminster blocking a second referendum would give the SNP exactly what they want – more grievance. Kezia Dugdale is absolutely right to oppose a second referendum at Holyrood and keep the pressure on Nicola Sturgeon to rule one out.”

But the SNP has an infinite supply of “more grievance” anyway. Their entire political life consists of conjuring up “more grievance”. And if Dugdale is right to “keep the pressure” on Sturgeon to rule one out, a second referendum could only be the result of a defeat for Scottish Labour – not something to be described as “absolutely fine”.

Corbyn, his spokesman and the close source all reaffirmed opposition to independence in the event of a second referendum.

But this faded into the background, overshadowed by (not entirely accurate) headlines along the lines of Corbyn: Second independence referendum should be held and Corbyn absolutely fine with a second Scottish referendum.

Corbyn’s opponents within the Labour Party were quick to exploit his statement: “Often asked why I resigned from Shadow Cabinet. Ladies and gentlemen, I give you Jeremy Corbyn. He’s destroying the party that so many need”, tweeted Scotland’s only Labour MP.

For the viscerally anti-Corbyn MSP Jackie Baillie it was too good an opportunity to miss: “This is a misguided and irresponsible comment from Jeremy Corbyn that is an insult to the dedicated work of Scottish Labour MSPs, councillors and thousands of activists who have campaigned against a divisive second referendum”.

Of course, Corbyn’s factional opponents within the Labour Party will attempt to exploit the issue.

And it would be legitimate to argue that Corbyn’s core argument is correct, i.e. Scotland’s right to self-determination means not just the right to independence but also the right to hold a referendum without having to seek Westminster approval.

Even so, Corbyn’s statement was wrong on any number of levels.

Despite the attempted spin of the unnamed spokesman and close source, Corbyn’s layback attitude to the prospect of a possible second independence referendum cannot be reconciled with Scottish Labour policy.

Corbyn’s statement clearly came out of the blue and without advance warning: Corbyn had not described a second referendum as “absolutely fine” when he had spoken at the Scottish Labour conference just a fortnight ago.

Although Corbyn was referring to what position Labour in Westminster might or should adopt towards the demand for a second referendum, his statement read – even without the additional spin by the media – as an endorsement in principle of a second referendum.

The statement confused “people holding referenda” with the SNP’s campaign for a second referendum.

Opinion polls suggest there is no popular support for a second referendum (at least in the short term). The SNP demand for another referendum is the product of its own one-trick-pony nationalist politics, not a reflection of public opinion. The SNP wants to hold a referendum, not “people”.

By appearing to legitimise their demand for a second referendum, the statement played into the hands of the SNP. Sturgeon’s mocking response to Corbyn’s statement was to tweet: “Always a pleasure to have @jeremycorbyn campaigning in Scotland.”

The statement also played into the hands of the Tories, who have already overtaken Labour as the official opposition at Holyrood. It allowed them to present themselves as the only genuine opposition to Scottish independence (which, in turn, is a further gift to the SNP).

Corbyn’s statement was also an extension of what is wrong with his approach to Brexit.

For Corbyn, it seems that once a referendum appears on the political agenda, the specific interests of the labour movement no longer count for anything. Instead, the labour movement should either submit to the result and vote with the Tories (Brexit) or submit to the demand for one and vote with the SNP (Scotland).

Above all, it is not “absolutely fine” if a second referendum were to be held. Irrespective of the result, it would divide Scottish society and weaken the labour movement – in both cases, probably for more than a generation – to an even great degree than the 2014 referendum.

The 2014 referendum was a profoundly divisive event. Previously coexisting national identities were pitted again each other. By elbowing aside class-based politics and voting patterns in favour of national-identity politics, it also resulted in a collapse of electoral support for Labour.

A second referendum would take that process a stage further. In fact, the impact would be far worse than in 2014.

In 2014 the SNP did at least attempt to run a campaign which was based to some degree on economic arguments (however spurious those arguments may have been). But identity politics will be at the core of a second referendum: bad English/British (racist and pro-Brexit) and proud Scot (pro-EU and inclusive).

What was fundamentally wrong with Corbyn’s statement was not so much his off-the-cuff speculation about what position Labour in Westminster might take about a second referendum. It was his failure to understand the poisonous political impact of a second referendum, whatever its result.

Corbyn was wrong. And no-one on the left should feel obliged to defend the indefensible.

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On Brexit, the Labour right are less wrong than Corbyn

March 12, 2017 at 4:33 pm (capitulation, Europe, Jim D, labour party, stalinism)

Image result for picture Jeremy Corbyn EU referendum Brexit

The following open letter was drawn up by Labour right-winger Chucka Umunna, and many (but not all) of the signatories are from the right of the party. It criticises the leadership for failing to fight to stay in the EU single market.

On that point, if nothing else, Umanna and the signatories are correct. Corbyn’s (and Keir Starmer’s) capitulation to May’s hard-Brexit approach has been craven and has led to serious demoralisation amongst Corbyn’s supporters in and around Momentum, especially younger party members unencumbered by the Bennite/Stalinist anti-EU baggage that seems to be the default position of Corbyn, encouraged by his Stalinist advisers.

Open Letter to the Labour Leadership

In his budget statement on Wednesday, the chancellor mentioned Britain’s exit from the European Union – the biggest issue in the government’s in-box – just once. But in reality the budget – with its tax hikes, broken promises and increasing public debt – was dominated by the impact of the government’s decision to withdraw Britain from the European Union.

The government has announced its intention to pull Britain out of the single market, discarding our membership of the largest and most sophisticated trading zone in the world before negotiations have begun. Other nations are not in the EU yet opted to be part of the single market because of the huge benefits it brings. So instead of starting the negotiation by aiming for the best deal we can possibly get by staying in the single market, Theresa May has waved the white flag and thrown in the towel.

Having taken account of the Tory government’s negotiating position on Brexit, the independent Office for Budget Responsibility (OBR) this week spelt out the consequences. While ministers pretend we will get a trade deal that delivers “the exact same benefits” as we have now, the OBR predicts that after Brexit our “trading regime will be less open than before”. While ministers say we will enjoy a resurgence of trade with the rest of the world, the OBR forecasts “a lower trade intensity of UK economic activity” even if new deals are negotiated. This is the reality.

Membership of the single market is the best possible economic option for our country and would allow us to leave the EU without wrecking people’s jobs and livelihoods. It would give us totally free trade with the biggest market on the planet, with neither tariff barriers to trade in goods nor regulatory barriers to trade in services between the UK and the EU – all whilst not being a member of the EU. Any trading arrangement which does not deliver such a level of market access will reduce the flow of trade between Britain and our biggest partner. This will mean higher costs for businesses, fewer jobs, and higher prices in the shops.

Confronted with this threat, the British people – leave voters and remain voters alike – are looking to the Labour party to provide leadership and direction as we go forward. It is crucial that we reject the argument that Brexit must mean a trading arrangement that makes the British people poorer. Instead, Labour must stand unambiguously for a deal that protects peoples’ jobs and livelihoods and enhances their life chances; not a hard Brexit that could take our economy off a cliff whilst making working people worse off. This requires our party to be full-throated in its defence of Britain’s membership of the single market.

The arguments against single market membership illustrate a level of defeatism and a lack of ambition, not worthy of a great country like ours.

Leaving the EU while remaining in the single market respects the will of people. The UK would regain control over agriculture and fisheries policy, justice and home affairs measures, defence and foreign policy.

Yes, there is a desire to reform the way our immigration system works but we do not need to sacrifice our prosperity to achieve greater immigration control. Britain is Europe’s second largest economy, its most significant military power, and one of its two permanent members of the UN security council. It should not be beyond us to conclude a deal that retains our single market membership while reforming the immigration system. Free movement has been shown to be reformable in the past, and so it can be in the future.

It should also not be beyond the ability of a government, with the right negotiation strategy, to secure an agreement that allows us continued influence over European regulations that will continue to affect our country if we stay in the single market. No government should willingly give up the best economic option for our country at this stage without even trying to retain it – but that is the course on which the government has now embarked.

It is the basic responsibility of the Labour party to mount the strongest possible opposition to Theresa May’s government and fight for a Brexit deal that respects the will of the British people but ensures that they will not be made substantially worse off. As the party that has always stood up for working people, we must fight tooth and nail for a future that does not destroy their jobs and livelihoods. Single market membership outside the EU is the way to achieve this and is what Labour should be arguing for.

Signed,

Chuka Umunna, Alison McGovern, Heidi Alexander, Chris Leslie, Kate Green, Ian Murray, Chris Bryant, Tulip Saddiq, Mike Gapes, Stella Creasy, Wes Streeting, Graham Allen, Liz Kendall, Anne Coffey, Mary Creagh, Angela Smith, Rushanara Ali, Ben Bradshaw, Karen Buck, Peter Kyle, Julie Elliot, Luciana Berger, Madeleine Moon, Gareth Thomas, Daniel Zeichner, Thangam Debbonaire, Owen Smith, Margaret Hodge, Seema Malhotra

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The Labour Brexiteers who would deny basic rights to EU citizens

March 3, 2017 at 9:11 pm (apologists and collaborators, Europe, Human rights, Jim D, labour party, populism, Racism)

Kate Hoey and John Mills at Labour Leave launch

Above: Hoey and fellow Labour reactionaries and racists at the launch of Labour Leave

Today’s Times, commenting on the Lords’ amendment to the Brexit Bill, calling on the government to guarantee the rights of EU citizens living in the UK, speaks for a lot of us:

“The spectacle of the unelected House of Lords hindering the business of the elected House of Commons is never a comfortable one. In the case of Wednesday’s amendment to the Brexit Bill, there is the added discomfort of the peers rather having a point.”

But of course, a similar amendment was put in the Commons last month, moved by Labour. Five Labour MPs voted against. We must never forget the names of these xenophobic scumbags: Frank Field, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins, Graham Stringer and Gisela Stuart, Labour MPs who voted against basic rights for EU citizens. http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/politics/brexit-bill-full-list-mps-voted-against-guaranteeing-eu-citizens-rights-article-50-a7570421.html

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‘Straight Left’: from Tankie faction in CP to heart of the Labour Party

March 3, 2017 at 2:06 pm (Andrew Coates, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, stalinism)

By Andrew Coates at Tendance Coatesy

Image result for picture Jeremy Corbyn Seamas Milne
Above:  Corbyn and Milne

“The hatred and contempt with which each side treats the others—as also the bewilderment and distress of the silent majority of Party loyalists—seems now to exceed that in the Labour Party at the height of Bennism. In the Eurocommunist camp, as then on the Labour Left, it is typically expressed in generational terms—‘Why don’t you just die?’ was the shout of one of the new wave ‘pluralists’ when, at a recent aggregate, an old-timer attempted to speak.

Whereas in previous Communist crises, such as those of 1939–40 or 1956, the factory branches remained solid or even increased in strength, while it was the ‘intellectuals’ who were then wracked by doubt, this time it is the industrial comrades who have been ready to put their Party loyalties in question. In their majority they seem to have rallied to the Morning Star. Trade unionists—‘white, male, middle-aged’, as they were recently characterized by the Party’s Industrial Organizer, after a week at the TUC—are no longer honoured in the Party but viewed with social and even sexual disgust.

As in other political formations of the Left, political disagreement has been exacerbated by sociological discomforts which it seems increasingly difficult for a unitary organization to contain, and although the outcome is different in the Communist and the Labour Party, it does not seem fanciful to discern the same fissiparous forces at work: a simultaneous break-up of both class and corporate loyalties.”

Raphael Samuel. The Lost World of British Communism. Part 3. New Left Review I/165, September-October 1987.

This, apparently, is the atmosphere that reigned in the party, the CPGB, that some of Jeremy Corbyn’s key staff, from Seumas Milne to the new deputy director of strategy and communications,  Steve Howell, were involved with  in their – relative – youth.

The faction, “Straight Left” appears to be a common tie,

The leading ideological force in the Straight Left faction was Fergus Nicholson, who had previously worked as the CPGB’s student organiser. According to Michael Mosbacher in Standpoint magazine, the faction was “a hard-line anti-reformist pro-Soviet faction within the Communist Party”. Unlike the leadership, they supported the Soviet invasion of Czechoslovakia  in 1968 and Afghanistan in 1979. They also thought the party should concentrate its work in Trade Unions , and not in social movements such as feminism and environmentalism.

Because the CPGB’s rules banned the formation of factional groups, SL operated in secret. Members of the faction contributed funds to the organisation through significant monthly donations, which helped fund the groups educational gatherings, often referred to as camping weekends. Its meetings were not publicly announced, and writers in their newspaper Straight Left and their theoretical magazine Communist wrote under pseudonyms like Nicholson, whose pen-name was “Harry Steel”. The Straight Left faction also produced anonymous bulletins to try to influence CPGB Congresses usually under the heading “Congress Truth”.

The faction produced a dissident internal pamphlet entitled “The Crisis in Our Communist Party – Cause, Effect and Cure”, which was distributed nationally but not under its name. This was authored (in all likelihood in conjunction with others), by veteran miner and communist Charlie Woods, who was expelled from the CPGB for putting his name to the publication.

The reason for the sudden interest?

After Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigns chief Simon Fletcher quit his role earlier this month, it was branded a victory for Seumas Milne. Fletcher was known to have clashed with Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications on a range of issues, including the EU. Now, in a sign things are moving further in Milne’s favour, Steve Howell has been appointed as deputy director of strategy and communications.

Happily, the pair are unlikely to clash over their political views anytime soon. They are old comrades who were both involved with Straight Left, the monthly journal in the Eighties that became associated with the ‘Stalinist’, pro-Soviet, anti-Eurocommunist faction that eventually split from the Communist Party of Great Britain. Described by Standpoint magazine as ‘a hard-line anti-reformist pro-Soviet faction within the Communist Party’, the Straight Left movement was also where Milne met Andrew Murray, the first chair of the Stop the War campaign who previously called for solidarity with North Korea.

Introducing Corbyn’s new spinner: the Straight Left comrade who is Mandelson’s old communist chum. (Steerpike. Spectator).

This was also immediately noticed on the left, provoking it must be said some jealousy on the part of former members of rival factions within the defunct Communist Party of Great Britain (CPGB).

Bob from Brockley  posted,

Fletcher’s replacement is Steve Howell, brought in from a PR firm in South Wales. Howell has not been politically active for a while, as far as I can see, but does have history: like Milne and Andrew Murray he was active in the Stalinist faction Straight Left. Howell, then based in Sheffield, led its Yorkshire group. Their faction was called “the artists” – most of its key figures were Oxbridge types, in contrast to the salt of the earth workerists who led the main rival tankie faction, the Communist Campaign Group.

At that point in the 1980s, hardcore Stalinists (known as “tankies” for their support for the tanks sent in by the Soviets to crush dissent in its various satellites) were fighting to keep the Communist Party of Great Britain loyal to the memory of Uncle Joe Stalin, who was seen as something of an embarrassment by its Eurocommunist leadership. Straight Left sought to re-orient the party towards operating in the Labour Party and trade union movement.

Some of the denunciations of its tactics by rival Stalinists from the time are amusing, but also a bit sinister now it finally has achieved getting some of its activists into key positions in the Labour Party.

This is from the ultra-tankie Leninist newspaper (forerunner of the Weekly Worker) in 1983:

And this is about Straight Left’s strategy of covertly using the Labour Party rather than Communist Party as the vehicle for promoting Stalinism, a strategy the Leninist denounced as “liquidationism”:

I have no idea if Howell has, like Murray, remained true to his Stalinist roots. (His schoolmate and old comrade in Hendon Young Communists, Peter Mandelson, clearly hasn’t.)

Now the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty have offered their assessment.

Corbyn’s Leader’s Office is dominated by the former Guardian journalist Seumas Milne and by people close to Andrew Murray, chief of staff of the Unite union. Milne’s political formation was in the Stalinist sect “Straight Left”.

Another Straight Lefter was Andrew Murray… Milne, like Murray, is still a Stalinist. Writing for the Guardian, as he has done for many years, he puts his views in urbane double-negative form, but he is still a Stalinist… Operators used to snuggling into the established political and media machines, ideologically imbued with and trained over decades in ‘top-down’ politics, will not serve Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell, and us well in opening up and revitalising the Labour Party” (Solidarity 382, 28 October 2015).

“Stalinist ideas were drilled into swathes of labour movements and the left in decades when activists could see the USSR (or Cuba, China, Albania) as practical examples of the alternative to capitalism. Today we have a more demoralised Stalinists and Stalinoids: while sometimes loud in denunciation of Tory misdeeds, they generally see no further in positive policy than what were only stepping stones for Stalinism in its heyday: economic nationalism, bureaucratic state-directed economic development…

The Article 50 fiasco, and the Labour leaders’ waffle about a “People’s Brexit”, cannot but have been shaped by nationalist anti-EU prejudices in the Stalinist-influenced left. Stalinist bureaucratic manipulation fits with the Blairite heritage: “policy development” means not debate in the rank and file leading up to conference decisions, but formulas handed down by clever people in the Leader’s Office. The office’s response to the Copeland by-election has been to get another “Straight Left” old-timer, Steve Howell, seconded from the PR company he now owns….

Martin Thomas.  The dangers of Stalinism in Labour. Alliance for Workers’ Liberty.

Of particular interest are the claims about the EU, “Fletcher was known to have clashed with Corbyn’s director of strategy and communications on a range of issues, including the EU” and “the Labour leaders’ waffle about a “People’s Brexit”.

This article, published by those Simon Fletcher is said to be close to (aka Socialist Action), which argues against the fantasy that there is a “People’s Brexit”, may help explain his departure.

There is no ‘People’s Brexit’  By Tom O’Leary. Socialist Economic Bulletin. (Published by Ken Livingstone, Simon Fletcher’s former employer)

There is no socialist or even ‘people’s Brexit’. Everyone operating in the UK will still be subject to the laws of the market. The problem will be that the market will suddenly be much smaller and less productive than the EU Single Market the UK has been participating in for the last 25 years. If the Tories continue to get their way, there will also be a stripping away of the workers’ environmental and consumer rights that were instituted under the EU’s ‘Social Chapter’. These have long been a Tory target for abolition in the UK. Post-Brexit, the economy will be operating behind a series of tariff and non-tariff barriers as others protect their markets. All of these will make the economy less competitive and will increase costs.

Of course, the pound could depreciate sharply again to offset these disadvantages, but this would lower living standards and real incomes even further. If currency devaluations alone were the answer then Britain would be an earthly paradise. In 1940 there were 5 US Dollars to the pound. Now there are 1.25. Over the same period the relative size of the UK in the world economy has shrunk dramatically in real terms, to less than one-third its proportion of world GDP, 2.3% now versus 7.3% in 1940.

There is a widespread notion on the right that Brexit will lead to ‘taking back control’ of the economy. Unfortunately, this is also shared by important sections of the left. It is a delusion. The 1930s saw a whole series of countries taking back control, in what might be called an early anti-globalisation movement. Although the authors of these policies are now widely and rightly derided their arguments will actually be very familiar.

It was said that other countries were taking our jobs, they are dumping their output on us causing our industries to fail and that those industries need protecting and government support, or state aid. Once we have done that, then we would be able to trade freely with the whole world. Of course, the more virulent version also included vile invective against foreigners, immigrants, Jews, gay men and others. When the economic policies went spectacularly wrong, the racist invective became policy.

The reason these policies failed spectacularly should be clear. Behind the protective barriers, costs rise, potential markets are closed off (especially as they respond with barriers of their own), industry becomes less not more productive, profits decline and workers are laid off. The economic crisis that ensued was finally resolved only by general rearmament.

Economics aside Milne, it is said,  is equally no friend of the politics of the internationalist supporters of Another Europe is Possible.

And he has this in his file: Seumas Milne: Charlie Hebdo Had it Coming to them.

More detailed background:

WHAT WAS STRAIGHT LEFT? AN INTRODUCTION BY LAWRENCE PARKER

Straight Left’s origins lie in the left pro-Soviet oppositions that emerged in the Communist Party of Great Britain in the 1960s. In this period, a definite ‘party within a party’ emerged, with figures such as Sid French, district secretary of Surrey CPGB, becoming key leaders. The general critique that emerged from this faction was a concern over the CPGB leadership distancing itself from the Soviet Union (such as around the invasion of Czechoslovakia in 1968) and other ‘socialist’ countries; a preference for a more ‘workerist’ identity (for example, the faction would have been happy with the CPGB’s paper remaining as the Daily Worker in 1966) and a concentration on workplaces/trade unions; and a sense that the party was squandering its resources in futile election contests and alienating the left of the Labour Party, with whom it was meant to be developing a close relationship on the British road to socialism (BRS), the CPGB programme. However, a significant part of the faction felt that the BRS was ‘reformist’ and ‘revisionist’ in all its guises from 1951, counter-posing a revolutionary path to the parliamentary road to socialism envisaged in the CPGB’s existing programme.

Read the rest of the article on A Hatful of History.

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March tomorrow for the NHS

March 3, 2017 at 8:43 am (campaigning, health service, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, solidarity, unions)

From Momentum:

A Labour government led by Jeremy Corbyn will re-nationalise and restore our NHS, but it really is up to everyone to make sure there is an NHS left to restore. #OurNHS demo this Saturday marks the start of that movement.

Join the Momentum and Labour bloc:

This Saturday, 4th March
12pm, BMA House, 1 Tavistock Square
London WC1H 9JP

Coaches are coming from across the country. Click here to find out about coaches coming from your area. And if you’re able to help steward on the day or help make placards tomorrow, please email contact@ournhs.info

ournhs.jpg

So bring your friends and family to join Momentum, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and many thousands of others to stand up for our NHS.

Nye Bevan famously said the NHS “will last as long as there are folk left with the faith to fight for it”. Now it’s time to fight.

 

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Looking back at Stoke

February 27, 2017 at 9:04 am (elections, labour party, posted by JD, reformism, UKIP)

A final report (for now) from Our Person in Stoke, Phil Burton-Cartledge (from his blog All That Is Solid):

On Labour’s Victorious Campaign in Stoke

While Copeland was important, the outcome didn’t dangle the possibility of an existential crisis. That exactly what was in play at the Stoke-on-Trent Central by-election. For UKIP and their empty cipher of a leader, a viable future was at stake. Both Nuttall and Nigel Farage had made much of UKIP’s need to become the party of the working class, and Stoke was seen as a test bed for this strategy. For Labour, a loss would have signalled a disastrous disengagement between the party and a core component of its electoral coalition. As the campaign wore on and Nuttall’s person was swamped by a tsunami of lies, Labour’s inability to win under those circumstances would have been nothing less than catastrophic.

It didn’t happen. After an awful year of grievous retreats, the line was held. And about bloody time. It’s the kippers who are now in disarray, and Labour lives to fight another day. The majority fell by a wee amount, and the Tories and UKIP put on small numbers of votes. But on the reduced turn out as per all by-elections, the proportions were roughly the same as the 2015 outing. Apart from the stakes and the media hype, including some truly stupid commentary bigging up UKIP’s prospects, was this a pretty dull by-election with very little to say about the state of national politics? Not in the slightest.

As we saw in Copeland, the Corbyn factor combined with the insecurity factor to the detriment of our chances. Did the same happen in Stoke Central? Yes, but with mixed results. During my moments on the doors, the Labour leader only came up the once. It was an old bloke just getting into his motor, and he was voting UKIP. This wasn’t because he hated immigrants or thought Labour was a pile of crap, it was a protest: he didn’t think Jeremy was any good. And nothing, not the NHS, not Nuttall’s lies were going to dissuade him. Having asked around quite a few comrades who worked intensively on the campaign, they found similar sentiments among too many older, white working class voters. These Jez sceptics were either voting for the kippers or abstaining. And yet this was balanced out by the very enthusiastic response he got in other quarters. In Penkhull and bits of Hartshill where there are more middle class and professional residents, and down in Shelton with its large student and Asian populations, Jeremy was a real motivator. When out with Gareth Snell around Shelton, one comrade tells me of how cars would suddenly stop to speak with him and have obligatory selfies taken. 2,500 new electors registered for the by-election, mostly in the student areas, and I would wager that an increased turn out here made up for the decline in the traditional support.

The additional Jeremy factor was evident in the campaign itself. UKIP have talked up its own support on the ground and the people working for it. The party even turned out regular paid-for coach loads from London to bus people in (I wonder if they will appear on their electoral returns?) But truly, the Labour effort was colossal and they were utterly swamped. Yes, plenty of old hands were about doing their bit. However, new members turned out in large numbers as well. For dozens, probably hundreds, The Potteries was their first taste of campaigning. Any analysis skipping the positive consequences of the 2015-16 Corbyn surge is one indifferent to the truth.

The actual campaign was impressive. Huge numbers ensured the entire constituency was covered multiple times. The party could have perhaps dispensed with a direct mail as there were folks enough to deliver them by hand. The strategy was spot on, too. The NHS, Brexit, and more, better jobs for Stoke were heavily featured. Gareth’s Plan for the Potteries with his first few months mapped out was exactly the sort of thing our campaign needed to see. Labour did put out one tabloid, The Potter’s Wheel, which craftily billed itself as the no spin guide to the by-election, and it spent its time doing over UKIP and Nuttall. It’s not often a party leaflet makes me laugh, but as negative campaigning goes its pun-tastic tones were the best way of doing it. The only criticism I would have, and this was evident in Copeland too, was the initial stand-offish approach taken toward the national media. Prioritising local radio, papers and telly is fine, but making it look as though candidates are hiding from reporters is not a good look. Remember, folks everywhere are more likely to follow national news and papers than the local equivalents.

What did annoy me was the constant barrage of claims on the right and the left that Stoke Central CLP had selected a “poor candidate”. Never mind the fact Gareth has a campaigning record that would be the envy of hyperactive Trots, never mind Labour Party people. Forget that his tenure as leader of Newcastle-under-Lyme Borough Council saw a no cuts budget (unless you want to get precious about perks for senior management), and increased funding for domestic and sexual violence services and preparing the council to uprate its lowest pay scales to the proper national living wage. Not one member of our national media did their job and properly investigated his record. Instead they lazily alighted upon tweets written a life time ago, including some apparently abusive criticisms of Jeremy that, in context, were crafted as warnings of being taken out of context. Irony. This occasioned a media carpet bombing of Gareth and should act as a warning for aspirant candidates to take the time and carefully clean up their social media now. And so Fleet Street dubbed our comrade rubbish on the basis of a string of 140 character missives. What a pathetic state of affairs. Ask anyone who knows anything about the Labour Party in North Staffordshire and they will tell you about his energy, his formidable organisational ability, his capacious memory for the minutiae of rules and procedure – a plus should he find himself facing an opponent across the dispatch box – and the fact he is Labour to the marrow. Gareth is among the best of us, as the rest of the Labour Party will see in due course.

The take homes from this then are the differential impacts Jeremy can have, and future by-election and local elections’ strategy need to bear this in mind. A campaign should have a small number of, easy-to-remember messages with the promise to do something about insecurity at their heart, and should avoid going into siege mode with the media. Yes, they will trash the party, it’s what they do. But resisting engagement is not a good look. There are other observations to be made about the UKIP, Tory and LibDem campaigns that have wider significance beyond Stoke, but they will have to wait.

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Jackie Walker to tour Scotland despite efforts of “well financed agents” of Israel to “silence” her

February 18, 2017 at 12:12 pm (anti-semitism, conspiracy theories, israel, labour party, palestine, reactionay "anti-imperialism", scotland, stalinism, zionism)


Above: a typical Jackie Walker performance

By Dale Street

Jackie Walker, currently still suspended and under investigation by the Labour Party in connection with allegations of anti-Semitic conduct, will be doing a speaking tour of Scotland in March. The speaking tour has been organised by the Scottish Palestine Solidarity Campaign (SPSC).

The SPSC’s main claims to fame are:
– Commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day with readings from Perdition (to demonstrate that the Holocaust was a joint Nazi-Zionist endeavour), with the added attraction of Ken Livingstone’s intellectual guru Lenni Brenner as the special guest speaker.
– Commemorating Holocaust Memorial Day the following year by hosting Azzam Tamimi (who thinks that Israeli Jews should “go back to Germany” (sic), and has also advocated: “The US, the Zionist father through adoption, [should] grant [the Jews] one out of its more than fifty states.” (sic)).
– Campaigning, with an unsurprising lack of success, in defence of Paul Donnachie

The leaflet advertising the speaking tour (Palestine, Free Speech, and Israel’s ‘Black-ops’) states:

“Jackie Walker is a high-profile target of false, evidence-free accusations of antisemitism that we have become all too familiar with. They are now seen to be part of the ‘black-ops’ organised by the Israeli Embassy and its well-financed agents in every mainstream political party. Jackie joins those supporters of Palestinian rights who have been attacked for challenging Zionist political ideas.

“She dared to criticise the official Holocaust Memorial Day organisation set up by Tony Blair as not dealing sufficiently with all genocides. HMD blanked, and a Tory Minister then attacked, Auschwitz survivor Hajo Meyer when he spoke at meetings across Scotland and compared the current Israeli dehumanisation of Palestinians with the vile racism he suffered as a Jewish kid in 1930s Germany. …

“We have the right to challenge any political idea in the public domain, but pro-Israel voices seek to exempt the racist ideology of Zionism from criticism and smear opponents as ‘antisemitic’.”

The fact that the SPSC thinks that the allegations against Jackie Walker are “evidence-free” does much to explain their lack of success with the ‘Paul Donnachie is Innocent’ campaign.

And isn’t it a bit odd that it’s always the Israeli agents who are the “well-financed” ones? Hmmm, sounds familiar!

As for Holocaust Memorial Day being an initiative of Tony Bliar – well, say no more!

Is Jackie Walker’s speaking tour going to prove to be a boost for the defence, or a boost for the prosecution?

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Notes on Brexit from a trade union and working class perspective

February 16, 2017 at 8:02 pm (class, Europe, Johnny Lewis, labour party, left, nationalism, populism, Socialist Party, solidarity, stalinism, unions, Unite the union, workers)

Protesters block the main gate to the Wilton Chemical Complex on Teesside in support of a mass walkout by energy workers in Lincolnshire

Above: Reactionary Socialism in action

By Johnny Lewis

Labour and Brexit
For Labour the 2015 election may well prove as significant as the Liberals’ 1924 defeat which signified their eclipse by Labour. Certainly this fate was signalled by the psephologists post ’15 analysis of Labour’s 2020 prospects. They concluded Labour needed to win 100 seats and, more importantly meld together a number of very different political constituencies.  While this predates both Corbyn and the referendum all three spring from the same fountainhead of a profound change to class, one that has equally impacted on the unions as on Labour.

As I have argued in a previous post the unprecedented changes to class are profoundly changing the labour movement, and it is not a question of if, but when and how, this leads to some form of fundamental realignment. Whether, in the end this is piece-meal in character or takes the form of a sharp break, the prelude to such a change will be Labour’s electoral decline.

Since at least 2010 this should have determined the left‘s strategy; to form a  tendency within the Labour movement primarily working in the Party to roll back New Labour’s uncoupling of the unions from the Party and their abandonment of social democracy for social liberalism. A strategy which only made sense by turning the Party outwards to win back its working class base.

Such a view is one among many and the left cannot be measured by its failure to take up this particular approach but it can on its inability to adopt any strategy to reform Labour, a failing compounded by the hapless Corbyn and his entourage. Brexit has now amplified our shortcomings and seems set to bring to a head the crisis within the movement.

Unlike Trump or Le Penn’s programmes Brexit was not a programme for government yet the inescapable logic of the exit process makes it just that. Injected into the body politic as this virus spreads it is radically transforming the host and its weakest part is Labour. Labour is no longer facing a passive indifference from sections of its core electoral base, rather they are now mobilised around Brexit and the Party is in a life and death struggle with the forces Brexit unleashed. How Labour defines itself against the Brexit process will play no small part in determining its future.

To date the only impact of Brexit on Labour has been to function as an accelerant on the divisions between its membership (Remain voters) and its working class electoral base (Leave voters). The likely consequence of this is to speed Labour’s electoral decline and further push the Party back in the direction mapped out by New Labour: that of social liberalism, now cast as identity politics.

The casting of Labour as a party of social liberalism can only happen through a focus on pushing back against the rise of social conservatism. All to the good that the Party takes on conservatism, but when this is seen to be its primary role it cannot but become part of the process of moving the body politic to one where the primary cleavage is defined as one of social liberalism against conservatism. The consequence is to move the party further away from class and the ability to speak to those workers smitten with reactionary socialism.

Reactionary Socialism
Surely it is now clear that Brexit is the English version of a phenomenon sweeping the west, where large numbers of workers, including trade unionists are moving from passive political indifference to an active engagement with, what is commonly known as the populist right.

In all cases its core support comes from the least well educated, and those impoverished by industrial decline typified by Logan County West Virginia. The site of the battle of Blair Mountain, a struggle to unionise the mines and the biggest armed insurrection since the civil war – Democrat to its core – now belongs to Trump.

The stage of development and pace of this process is different between countries so in France the Front National has built up its working class base over decades, while Trump’s rapid accent was made possible by winning over sections of core democratic voters; some 48% of US trade unionist voted Trump. In the UK this tendency has been galvanised by Leave and is still being formed around the Brexit process.

Regardless of each country’s stage of development the tune is the same; a direct appeal to workers on the grounds of the betrayal by their traditional parties, nationalism and its corollary xenophobia, hostility to supra national institutions, conservative social policies and elements of economic social policies usually associated with the left, wrapped in an imagined past. This is a form of reactionary socialism.

This is not the first time workers have been mobilised behind a reactionary programme, the phenomenon was first noted by Marx when remnants of feudal society tapped into workers’ anti-capitalist sentiment attempting to mobilise them against the consolidation of bourgeois political power and regress development of the productive process.

Today’s reactionary socialism is not peddling a regressive form of capitalism such as autarky(although this might come) rather we are witnessing neo-liberalism’s attempt to restructure itself on national rather than super national institutions, uncoupling the state institutions from  social liberalism, and realigning them with a social conservativism. To push through the latter it attacks bourgeois democracy by shifting power away from the legislature to the executive exemplified by Trump and seen in the UK by the attempts to stop Parliament holding a Brexit vote. Linked to this are attacks on the independence of the judiciary, again the benchmark is Trump but the Mail’s retro Stalinist headline “Enemies of the People” points in the same direction.

Apart from the policy specifics what makes this international movement different from previous incarnations is the manner in which it threatens the fabric of these countries Labour movements

The electoral success of the populists is unthinkable without mobilising large sections of the workers. Nowhere is this more apparent than the workers role in securing a Brexit victory.

Brexit and the working class
The most remarkable aspect of the Leave campaign was how its working class base drove it making border controls its beating heart and effectively turning it into a single issue campaign. The fact it makes little to no economic sense, or for the more enlightened among the Leave leadership it was anathema, to win they needed the working class vote which stood behind the demand.

Brexit is however more than border controls. As with other populist demands it is a modern day Janus; on the one hand it looks to the past with its socially reactionary programme but also to a future of repositioning British capital to its post EU incarnation. It envisages a future where the state becomes an enabler for multi-nationals through a low tax low welfare economy or as UKIP’s Douglas Carswell put it `Singapore on Steroids’.

The lynchpin holding these elements together is workers support for immigration controls. The shadow it casts over the Brexit process obscures all else, at least at this stage of the process.  However workers mobilised behind this banner are signing up to become the foot soldiers in the repositioning of Neo-Liberalism. They are the battering ram to eviscerate democratic institutions, and what remains of social legislation. The irony is their future in this Brexit Arcadia is prefigured in the present by the flexibility of the deregulated ‘gig’ economy; the as and when work ethic of the migrant labourer.

This is the terrain socialist and trade unionists have to fight on if they wish to engage with workers, mapping an alternative which counterposes workers’ rights to Singapore on Steroids. Such an approach will in the short term be swept away by the Brexit tide, an inevitable consequence of the time lag between the expectations raised by Brexit and its consequences.

However those wishing to engage with the Brexit worker are doing so largely from within a social liberal / conservative discourse and will surely miss their mark.  At least they, unlike Lexit supporters have something to say about Brexit other than viewing it as a victory.

The Lexit Delusion
As part of Marx struggle against feudal socialism he polemicized against those socialist whose watch word can be summarised as “my enemy’s enemy is my friend”:  this included elements among the Chartists who supported aristocratic Tories who, like them, were against the factory owners.  As an organised tendency these supporters of reactionary anti-capitalism were known as `True Socialists’. Today our world is replete with their offspring from Putin lovers, Jew-haters through to the Lexiteers: often, but not always, one and the same.

The starting point for Lexit was the True Socialist dictum of a defeat for Remain being a defeat for the ruling class – my enemy’s enemy is my friend. Once ingested it enabled a view of the world which ignored the reactionary premise of Leave, ignored the reactionary character of the campaign’s leadership, ignored that its core working class support was concerned with stopping immigration, and ignored the consequences of Brexit for the Labour Party. Perhaps most delusional was their belief they had a voice in the campaign. It is then hardly surprising that they are unable to grasp that Brexit was the catalyst for the rise of reactionary socialism.

A central pillar of this denial is to view the Leave voters as sticking two fingers up to our rulers, in reality this is a collective act of wish fulfilment of transposing and imposing their formula my enemy’s enemy onto the workers. Of course this does have a point but the point is banal. If you sees class conflict as central to how society functions you also accepts that workers often take reactionary positions. The fact Brexit has mass working class support does not make it less reactionary. Trump and La Pen peddle the same programme as Brexit and rest on a similar working class base, but apart from our hard core Putin lovers, on what possible basis could one support such people?  In the end the only purpose of `class struggle by stealth’ is as a piece of self-deception.

This cul de sac finds our `true socialist’ tied to the coattails of a hard Brexit and however surreptitiously need to distance themselves from Corbyn’s attempts to cling to the single market, until the consequence of Brexit has beaten them over the head enough times to knock some sense into them they have nothing to say to workers.

Of course the majority will march against Trump seeing no contradiction with Lexit, as they too become corralled within the social liberal / conservative discourse.

Socialist \ social liberal defence of free movement
It would seem most supporters of free movement start from the basis of upholding the socialist principle of internationalism. Yet this seemingly most of radical position rests largely on social liberalism, a mix of a moral imperative, rights and equality for migrant workers overlaid by a socialist gloss of workers’ solidarity and internationalism. See for example Allinson (Unite GS candidate) or the recent defence of free movement by Ira Berkovic posted on Shiraz Socialist.

Such appeals sit within the liberal – conservative discourse and invite rejection by the workers leaving the socialists with nothing more to say, and the way open for the populists to further consolidate their hold over such workers.

This defence betrays a division between a socialist and trade union approach, in big picture terms it separates out a socialist principal from workers immediate interest whether perceived or real.

Although such socialists like to view support of free movement going back to earliest times our movement’s history is far more chequered, and the liberal / Socialist approach (as with the broader social liberalism) has its origin in the struggles for equality in the early post-war period ’45-’79. Obscured in those struggles was the issue of competition between workers

Workers’ competition and free movement
Competition between workers can take many forms; between individuals, groups, or categories of worker  struggling to maintain or obtain an occupational position at the expense of others or a willingness to undercut the wage rates to obtain or maintain work at the expense of others. This competition is the worker’s natural state under capitalism as are the divisions it engenders between workers.

Workers struggle to overcome such competition is the driving force in the formation of unions and with it the starting point in the formation of class and therefore class power. It is also the starting point for working class socialism. There is however always an alternative which poses a reactionary resolution to worker competition. In periods of economic prosperity and or a strong labour movement it lies largely dormant, today we see the consequences of living with a weak and fractured labour movement.

Older workers will have direct experience of such divisions played out along gender and race lines. I can recall a job where the better paid plumbing work was given to white workers, who defended the practice on the grounds their jobs were more complex and “`N’s  are just not up to it.” Of course there are parallel examples of how women were excluded from the workforce, often backed up by law.

This example is drawn from a period of powerful unions, full employment and state welfare which had largely removed the reserve army of labour as a factor in a workers life and gave a particular shape to the struggles against these forms of worker competition.

Pushed by an emerging constituency of women and black workers it was the unions– often against the wishes of members and local union officials who came to the fore to fight discrimination. From the early ‘70s they were joined by the state and the two can be viewed as working in tandem to `civilise the workplace’ for women and black workers. State sponsorship led to a growing judicial floor of rights which defined our understanding of such practices. The workers who perpetrated these practices were increasingly marginalised seen as backward, bigots, racists’ sexist etc (all usually true) as the ethos of equality and rights came to dominate the workplace.

Today worker competition takes on a very different complexion; the economic model Thatcher built and continued under Blair reshaped the workforce, deregulated the labour market, and has largely removed the state social security system and social infrastructure. In our civilised workplaces where employers stuff workers mouths  with rights and equality we find for most workers job security has gone, work has intensified, workers are fragmented, unions are weak and competition between them takes many forms such as; in multinationals the employer threatens to relocate, the struggle between core (often unionised) and periphery workers, workers who take wage cuts to save their job from being undercut by a cheaper competitor, all are underpinned by a reanimated Reserve Army of the underemployed.

It is this markertising economy which EU migrants have been sucked into, and have become one factor in the competition between workers. More importantly they have become one of, if not the central way difference between workers is understood, and consequently one of the key ways worker competition is comprehended.

Our present throws a different perspective on the early post war struggles for workplace equality; in retrospect we can see discriminatory practices were a form of competition between workers. The bigotry of whatever type, while all too real was a hook one group was able to hang their hat on to rationalise their advantage over another, illustrated today by the inadequacy of the concept of race to categorise hostility towards E Europeans

Such reactionary solutions not only exist when workers are in direct competition with each over jobs and has a real basis in fact it also functions as the background noise in the workplace where divisions are understood through different forms of prejudice. In the latter case the worker comes to understand difference through breathing in the prevalent common sense prejudices of the day creating an unholy feedback loop where the prejudice explains difference and the difference reinforces the common sense prejudices.

Those defending free movement have, to all intense and purposes transposed the understanding of workers’ call for the end of free movement solely as a form of prejudice (it is) which they challenge by raising equality and the rights of others failing to comprehend it is a major plank in the reactionary (and completely illusory) solution to the problem of competition between workers. A different approach to this question starts from a trade union perspective.

A trade union perspective
In reality ‘rights’ are a secondary issue in any worker employer relation, as prior to them is the economic relation. If capital did not need migrant labour and if migrants did not need the work then there would be no relation around which rights could be discussed. From a trade union perspective the starting point for viewing migrant labour is necessarily the economic and it should also be the starting point for socialists. From this perspective it is another element in the struggle to mitigate competition between workers.

Yet it is precisely this point the liberal / socialist approach wishes to obscure through a non-recognition of the impact of migrant labour on labour markets. Berkovic touches on this matter in relation to the Socialist Party (SP) idea of the state-imposed closed shop and McCluskey’s call for sectoral bargaining. He says;

“The demand relies on two assumptions: one, that migrant labour necessarily has a depressing effect on the pay, terms, and conditions of domestic workers. And two that employers deliberately and directly hire migrant workers in order to drive down their costs, because migrant workers will work for less.”

Regardless of the rights or wrongs of the SP’s or McCluskey’s views, Berkovic’s position does not hold up: far better to say some migrant labour depress wage rates as they are willing to work for less, and where employers can use migrants to drive down wages they will.

If one looks at aggregates of migrants impact on wage rates the evidence shows a somewhat neutral picture but that does not help with the specifics where wages have been depressed or the local labour market has been radically reshaped by an influx of foreign Labour. This is not a universal experience but it is a wide spread one among lower paid workers the cohort who voted Leave, to deny this or believe it is press hysteria leaves you unable to speak to these workers. It also puts their concerns beyond the pale because either they are dupes of the press or racists or both. It is akin to denying that in some parts of the country the health service has not been overwhelmed by the influx of migrant Labour, in both cases you cannot pose a solution if you refuse to accept that any problem exists.

A trade union approach recognises the issue but rejects the reactionary solution of border controls. Instead, we attempt to tackle the issue as with any other industrial matter – or  wage inequality which can only be undertaken in two ways: industrially where workers bid up wages and terms and conditions, for example in the recent strike at Fawley where Italian contract Labour took strike action to obtain parity and won; or through governmental action and developing policies for a future Labour government to enact. In this instance labour can increase the minimum wage (a point made by Berkovic) and change  labour legislation to alter the terms on which labour can be hired for example to regulate how agency labour can be used. Such demands are of course not specific to migrant labour they are general demands to improve the material well-being of workers. An effect of implementing such demands will, reduce or the flow of foreign labour. A conclusion which gives socialist radicals’ apoplexy as it is seen to be capitulating to the tide of reaction they need to consider where not supporting such demands places them in relation to the working class.

This change to labour legislation is my understanding of the origins of McCluskey’s proposal (even though he has now clearly overreached himself and taken this proposal to a ridiculous extreme), specifically out of a problem posed by the Posted Workers Directive. Originally wages, terms and conditions were derogated to individual member states; Blair chose the minimum wage rather than applying the going rate set by sectoral collective bargaining, which a number of other member states chose to do. This had two generalised consequences firstly in some workplaces peripheral workers have been replaced by Posted Workers on a lower rate; second the substitution of Posted workers for English workers sometimes at a lower rates. The demand was for government to shift the rate to the going rate which would also mean the employer of Posted Workers would also have to engage with unions around sector-wide collective bargaining.

It is clear that Labour’s present policies on workers rights are far from fully formed. However it can only be by proposing policies that curtail labour flexibility that we can build working class opposition to border controls and  begin to speak to workers about the issue – a hearing I am sure will get easier as Brexit unfolds and its consequences become apparent.

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