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.
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.
January 5, 2017 at 9:01 pm (Anti-Racism, AWL, Europe, immigration, internationalism, labour party, Migrants, nationalism, populism, posted by JD, reformism, Socialist Party, solidarity, unions, Unite the union, workers)
By Ira Berkovic (also published at the Workers Liberty website)
In the debate in the labour movement around “free movement”, which is in fact a debate about immigration, a number of arguments have been made by left-wing advocates of ending free movement – that is, leaving the EU on a basis which abolishes the rights of free movement to the UK that EU citizens currently have, and which UK citizens currently have to other EU states.
This article attempts to respond to some of those arguments, and present a positive case for defending and extending existing freedom of movement.
Argument One: “By ending free movement we can make Britain a giant closed shop”.
See: “Jeremy Corbyn’s Brexit opportunity”, Clive Heemskerk, Socialism Today No. 201, September 2016.
“Standing in the way of control: thoughts on Labour post-Brexit”, Tom Muntzer, The Clarion, 28 November 2016
“Workers need safeguards and strong unions to make migration work”, Len McCluskey, LabourList, 5 November 2016
A closed shop is a workplace in which membership of the recognised union is a condition of employment. It is a gain which grows out of workplace organisation and strength, when a union is strong enough to impose it on the employer.
It was illegalised by Thatcher’s anti-union laws in 1990, and now exists only in a handful of places in a spectral form, where workers are able to establish a culture and a common sense in the workplace whereby choosing not to join the union is universally understood as a very bad idea.
So, what has any of that to do with the debate on immigration?
In what is simultaneously the most fantastical and, in some ways, the most offensively reactionary, “left-wing” argument against free movement, some have suggested that the existing free movement arrangements could be replaced by a form of immigration controls that legally compels bosses who wish to “hire abroad” to operate closed shops, so the foreign workers they recruit must be union members in order to get jobs, or be covered by collective bargaining agreements.
Unite General Secretary Len McCluskey puts it like this: “Any employer wishing to recruit labour abroad can only do so if they are either covered by a proper trade union agreement, or by sectoral collective bargaining.”
The implication is that if employers are legally forced to only hire union workers covered by collective bargaining agreements, there will be no financial incentive for them to hire cheaper, migrant labour.
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.
But in a genuine closed shop, the enforcing body is the trade union. In this version, the British state will apparently become the enforcer. Quite how this is supposed to work in practise (whether, for example, it will involve uniformed border police checking people’s union cards at Calais and Heathrow) is not clear.
And why will the proposed law apply only to international migrants? Why will a Polish worker looking for work in London require a union card, but not an English worker from, say, Blackburn looking for work in London?
And why is it imagined that the existing labour movement, that has not been able to overturn the law banning closed shops in order to force employers to recognise them for domestic labour, will succeed in forcing employers to operate closed shops for migrant labour?
Some advocates of this policy on the revolutionary left justify the approach with reference to the First International, which did indeed set as part of its aim resistance to attempts by employers to “play off” workers from one country against those of another.
But two key differences with the contemporary situation are missed out. Firstly, the disputes to which the First International was responding were ones in which employers who faced strikes in Country A attempted to directly hire workers from Country B, in order to break the strike in Country A. Almost no migrant labour in Britain today is directly recruited abroad, and none of it on the conscious, explicit basis of doing the work of striking workers in Britain.
And secondly, the methods of the First International were solidaristic, linking workers’ organisations across borders to appeal directly to workers not to allow their labour be used to undermine the struggles of their brothers and sisters abroad. This approach has nothing in common with the hostile attitude to migrants and immigration implied by the policies of today’s anti-free-movement left.
There is a nationalist arrogance implied in this politics. The implication is that British workers are unionised, militant, and in an almost permanent state of struggle to defend their conditions – which is why bosses want to use migrant workers, who of course have no trade union consciousness and are little more than scabs, to undermine it.
The reality is quite different. As we know, strikes are at historically low levels and the labour movement has halved in size since its 1979 height. The picture of a militant and combative “native” labour movement having its struggles undermined by bosses shipping in migrant strikebreakers is simply false. In fact, some of the brightest spots in contemporary class struggle in Britain are migrant workers’ struggles, such as the organising by the Independent Workers’ union of Great Britain (IWGB) and United Voices of the World (UVW). As Jason Moyer-Lee of the IWGB puts it, these struggles mean migrant workers often leave their jobs “better than they found them”.
Overturning the law on closed shops, and reintroducing them as a feature of the industrial landscape in this country, is a worthy aspiration. But that will be achieved through organisation and struggle. To demand a state-enforced “closed shop” as a means of “solving” the largely illusory “problem” of migrant labour depressing wages for domestic workers is, at best, bizarre.
It either functions as a demand that migrant workers have adequate trade union consciousness before they move to Britain (again, why demand this of a Pole moving to Britain, but not a Geordie moving to London?), or is simply a dishonest obfuscation. Uneasy with straightforwardly expressing the political core of their demand – that immigration be reduced – the policy is wrapped up in “trade union” verbiage to make it appear like something other than what it is, a demand for boosting one group of workers at the expense of another, in this case on the basis of nationality and immigration status.
It is the very opposite of the politics of class unity and solidarity that the principle of the closed shop is supposed to express.
Argument Two: “We need fair immigration controls”.
See: “My cure for a divided Britain: a programme of managed immigration”, Stephen Kinnock, The Guardian, 19 September 2016
Versions of this argument are used by a range of people in the labour movement, from Blairite and soft-left MPs through to some on the far-left. Read the rest of this entry »
A superb BBC Radio 4 programme today, told the story of how rail worker Asquith Xavier took on the colour bar operated at Euston station by NUR lay officials claiming that all they were doing was operating the ‘closed shop’; Socialist Party members take note:
BBC, 15 July 1966:
A West Indian refused a job at Euston Station will now be employed there after managers overturned a ban on black workers.
Two months ago Asquith Xavier, a train guard from Dominica, was refused a transfer from Marylebone Station to Euston because of his colour.
The new job would have meant a pay increase of around £10 a week for Mr Xavier who started work for British Railways (BR) as a porter 10 years ago.
He was informed about his rejection and the reason for it in a letter from Euston’s local staff committee whose members belong to the National Union of Railwaymen (NUR).
BR does not have to abide by staff committees’ recommendations on appointments but they are very influential.
However, at a news conference on Friday BR spokesman Leslie Leppington said the colour bar at Euston Station had now been ended and Mr Xavier would be given a job.
However, Mr Leppington insisted the ban – rumoured to have been in place for 12 years – had not been a “real” colour bar.
He said it had been instigated by the workers out of a desire to protect their jobs and had never been management policy.
“If we had wanted to impose a real colour bar we would not have done it this way.
“We would have found some excuse to show he was not suitable for the job, wouldn’t we?” Mr Leppington said.
Mr Xavier, 44, is currently off work due to ill health and was not at the news conference.
But afterwards the secretary of the West Indian Standing Conference, Jeff Crawford, said they would be calling for the government to take action.
“We are going to urge the government to conduct a full and independent inquiry into discrimination throughout British Rail – to find out the extent of the problem, the cause and effect and the solution,” Mr Crawford said.
Similar bans to that ended at Euston are reported to be in force at other London stations including Camden and Broad Street.
But under current law the government’s options to curb them are limited.
The Race Relations Act was passed last year but contains only measures to combat racial discrimination in public places such as hotels and pubs (discrimination in the workplace was not illegal until an amendment to the Race Relations Act in 1968 -JD).
This article first appeared in Solidarity and on the Workers Liberty website
One of the best bits of Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour conference speech was his defence of migrants.
“It isn’t migrants that drive down wages; it’s exploitative employers and the politicians who deregulate the labour market and rip up trade union rights.
“It isn’t migrants who put a strain on our NHS; it only keeps going because of the migrant nurses and doctors who come here filling the gaps left by politicians who have failed to invest in training.
“It isn’t migrants that have caused a housing crisis; it’s a Tory government that has failed to build homes.
“Immigration can certainly put extra pressure on services… What did the Tories do? They… demonise migrants for putting pressure on services…
“We will act decisively to end the undercutting of workers’ pay and conditions through the exploitation of migrant labour and agency working… And we will ease the pressure on hard-pressed public services – services that are struggling to absorb Tory austerity cuts, in communities absorbing new populations”.
It should put to shame the Socialist Party, which has presented immigration controls as a sort of working-class “closed shop”, thus feeding the myth that migrant workers, and not the exploitation of migrant workers, drive down wages:
“The socialist and trade union movement from its earliest days”, declares the SP, “has never supported the ‘free movement of goods, services and capital’ – or labour – as a point of principle but instead has always striven for the greatest possible degree of workers’ control, the highest form of which, of course, would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy.
“It is why, for example, the unions have historically fought for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace, a very concrete form of ‘border control’ not supported by the capitalists”.
Were those sentences a bit of bad writing? An aberration? Not at all. The SP has opposed free movement of labour consistently, in many articles, for instance this one by their leader, Peter Taafe, that contains the following:
“The alleged benefits of the ‘free movement of labour’ are in reality a device for the bosses to exploit a vast pool of cheap labour, which can then be used to cut overall wage levels and living standards”.
“The EU’s free movement of labour rules… have helped the bosses to inflict a ‘race to the bottom’ in wages and conditions, rather than stemming from workers’ interests and a raising of living standards across the board”.
Even conventional academic research has shown that any depression of wage levels which follows increased immigration at a time of diminished trade union rights and inadequate solidarity is confined to particular categories of labour, and is much smaller than the wage gain which would result from stronger union rights and greater workers’ unity.
Above: McCluskey and Corbyn, the leaders of the two wings of our movement
By Johnny Lewis
Corbyn’s victory in 2015 and what by all accounts will be a victory by an even larger margin later this month is the second attempt to remake the Labour movement – the first being Blair’s. Both differ from Gaitskell or Bevin – their political ancestors, as they have arisen at a time of fundamental change to the structure of class in the UK and throughout the advanced capitalist world. The essential consequence of this change in the UK has been the unions’ inability to overcome the competition between workers: it is this which informed both Blair and Corbyn’s rise and informs what the Corbyn party should do.
Competition between workers
From the 1870s, for about a century the manual working class formed an overwhelming majority, of the population, and workers’ were concentrated in ever larger workplaces. Both its size and cohesive character determined how the ruling class had to rule, gave rise to the modern unions and the Labour Party – the labour movement which Marxists, socialists and Stalinists engage with. The centre of gravity for this constellation was the unions, and although their economic power ebbed and flowed their potential to struggle against the employer remained a constant threat to capital.
For the last 40 years developments in the accumulation process, primarily through growth in productivity, alterations in the international division of labour and technical advances have reordered work both the type of work workers do and how they work. For the first time in history we have a working class in which manual workers constitute a minority, while large workplaces have declined in number with an attendant rise of SME’s, outsourcing, sub-contractors the ‘gig economy’ and under-employment. Combined, these changes to work have cracked and fractured the cohesive character of the working class. It is no longer possible, as EP Thompson did, to view the working class as one where shared material conditions had enabled them to arrive at an understanding of their social position. Gone then is a working class commonality of shared experiences with a set of common markers and understandings which arose from lifestyles and communities rooted in similar experiences of work. Today we have something approaching the opposite, where it is quite possible to find Thompson’s working class but it does not share a singular experience of class: rather there are many radically different practical experiences amongst workers. This redrawing of class would be of little consequence if it had not triggered the political and ideological fragmentation of class. If anyone needs proof of this, they only need to look at the post-2015 election analysis and the prognosis for 2020: commentators universally consider Labour’s chances of winning as bleak. Not only will they have to win 100 seats, but the voters they need to win back are highly differentiated between North, South, inner city and suburbia, and of course Scotland – all have a different view as to what Labour should represent.
Under the impact of this transformation of class, the unions and the Labour Party entered parallel processes of prolonged change punctuated by more or less acute crisis, this manifests itself as a loss of an authoritative and coherent working class voice to articulate its interests, and it could not be otherwise.
Both class fragmentation and the loss of a working class voice have a single source they are a direct consequence of the labour movement’s failure to control competition between workers. As the Communist Manifesto makes plain `…This organisation of the proletarians into a class, and, consequently into a political party, is continually being upset again by the competition between the workers themselves’.
Competition between workers is a natural consequence of capitalism, meaning that workers and their organisations are always confronted with how to overcome it, and the answer is always the same: organisation. However accumulation shapes what and how workers produce, consequently it shapes the organising tasks workers face. While the accumulation process (eg mass production) prior to the 1970s tended to homogenise class, developments since have generated the opposite. Of course the growth in competition between workers is not simply a product of changes in the accumulation process: rather it has facilitated capital’s victories over labour which have, in their turn, enabled the institutionalisation of competition at the workplace by government and through the legal system.
The unions’ inability to win is due to their inability to organise new types of employment and in most cases to stop the race to the bottom of many traditional workers. This is not because they don’t want to win, they don’t know how to and neither does anyone else – at this moment in time.
For the first time since before the great wave of industrial militancy, which began with the new unionism; unions’ are unable to function as the backbone of the working class as they are unable to defend workers’ economically. The corollary is political activity now dominates over economic struggles a situation entirely contingent on the unions’ inability to end the competition between workers. We are then functioning within the template of a fragmented class / weak labour movement. While this predates the miners’ strike it became part of the movement’s DNA with their defeat.
This is the context in which Corbyn and Blair should be understood as twins of a sort, both owe their ascendency to the competition between workers and both propose a resolution to it – albeit diametrically opposed solutions. For Blair the weakness of the movement and class fragmentation provided the potential to bury the institutions of the labour movement and with it class politics, throwing us back into a reworked liberalism – and he nearly succeeded. Corbyn aspires to offer the opposite, however to do that the movement has to answer the question how can we practically end the competition between workers or to put it another way how can we organise to unite our class?
The primacy of political activity has come to dominate what the movement does and it is also the hallmark of a radical activism which has sprung up since the crisis – all to the good. Now political activism is de rigueur there is also a prevalent view of equivalence between different types of political activity But this is not the case. Campaigning activity, demos, social movements, cannot offer a governmental alternative, if for no other reason than they are not mass movements they fall into the category of pressure or protest groups. Labour movement politics are different in that they focus on their own internal political struggles which have taken us from Blair to Corbyn and the need for a governmental alternative to stem or stop competition between workers. A Labour government including a Blair government, offers limited protection from competition. Blair’s introduction of the minimum wage is an example, while Corbyn’s proposal for mandatory collective bargaining would to all intense and purposes end the competition between workers. There is then a substantial difference between protest and the parliamentary politics of the labour movement, and it is equally wrong to counterpose one to the other as it is to think they are equivalent both are essential elements in any working class strategy.
Although political radicals and the far-left have got Corbyn (after a fashion), they spent the last two decades, particularly since the crash and until Corbyn’s victory, demanding a New Party (NP) and in effect calling for an alternative labour movement: the crassest examples being the Socialist Party (SP) and the SWP.
At bottom they rejected the reality of a fragmented class / weak movement template – a rejection which pushed them away from a class based politics towards a political radicalism. The most direct outcome was to detach them from the movement’s norms and rhythms and most importantly the political struggle by which it began to reform itself. The core justification for a NP was the notion that Labour was unreformable. This was always the propaganda of misdirection as the Blairites’ success was predicated on the support (active and passive) of the unions. However pusillanimous one may wish to paint the union leaders and however guileful the Blairites were, this was a matter of power – and the powerlessness of the unions decimated by relentless numerical decline and the collapse of their economic muscle. Any cursory understanding of the labour movement brings you back to this underlying problem of the weakness of the unions.
Those of us who insisted Blair’s project could be rolled back based our view on two propositions. First the dynamic which had propelled the unions to form the Labour party was, in the face of the anti-union laws (and the collapse of collective bargaining) reasserting itself. Unions need a political party to enable, what the Webbs called ‘legal enactment’ to counteract the decline of collective bargaining and legal constraints on the unions. This need and the Blairites’ unwillingness to countenance it, provided a potential for a fight-back within the party. The second factor was the CLPs. Historically party members have time and again shown an ability to form a left wing and struggle over control of the party. In spite of being hollowed out by wars and marginalised by party ‘reforms’, by 2010 the members were ready for change. Yet experience showed that outside support for the CLPD they were unwilling to organise, nor were the unions individually or collectively (with the partial exception of Unite) willing to push for change within the Party.
There was then a stalemate – which existed since at least 2010 – between a Labour movement, large parts of which wanted or needed to move beyond Blair’s party, and on the other hand the party machine and the MPs. With Miliband’s resignation those in the Party who understood it was essential for an anti-austerity candidate to beat Kendal got Corbyn onto the ballot paper by the skin of their teeth. As soon as he was nominated he became a conduit for those politicised to the left by the crisis and his victory showed in a starker manner than anyone believed possible, the mismatch between Blair’s party machine and the CLPs and associate members.
The significance of the leadership ballot remains, lost on the majority of NP advocates: they focus on the element of luck which saw Corbyn get nominated and on the potential of the Corbynistas. As in any endeavour one needs luck but such an argument obscures the activity of the many activists arguing with MP’s to nominate him and then organising and running his campaign. While focusing on the Corbynistas obscures the fact that the centre of gravity was the constituencies who threw off the dead hand of the party machine and reasserted control over the party – the act of a movement rather than a sect and which would be equally significant even if Corbyn had lost. We have witnessed a readjustment from below – something many Marxist did not believe possible and for sure played no part in – their absence highlighting the absurdity of the politics of the ‘alternative party’.
The rejection of the ‘template’ I have described (ie: of fragmented class / weak movement) also meant the rejection of the terrain and tempo of struggle it necessitated and the boundaries it imposed on the class struggle. These boundaries were replaced with the assertion (liberally peppered with bombast – listen to any SP or SWP speaker) of the alternative made possible by an act of will if only enough effort was expended. However much they asserted themselves it was not possible to break free of the constraints imposed by ‘the state of the class’ – if they could we would be living in a radically different political landscape.
This attempt to ‘jump over’ the fragmented class had the consequence of turning its advocates into the very opposite of what a Marxist organisation should aspire to be. Time and again ideas were overextend to the point of becoming irrational, illustrated by the assertion during the general election that there was little or no difference between Labour and the Tories and, yes, they (eg the SP’s front organisation TUSC) were a serious alternative to Labour. It was noticeable that the organisations supporting this perspective became increasingly illiberal and quixotic; guided by a hugely inflated self-image (the small propaganda group as the Party) chasing an imagined working class, they attempt to make history `under self-selected circumstances’, we have over the last decade or so been witness to a reprise of Third Period Stalinism as farce.
It seems highly unlikely they will reorient to see themselves as a tendency whose main task is one of contributing to the `organisation of the proletarians into a class’, instead they will, in all likelihood, recalibrate their alternative labour movement to run through the Labour Party. We will bear witness to politics as an historical reenactment society preforming the French turn with Corbyn in the role of Blum and the Party’s left as the ILP.
Although Corbyn’s victory has shifted the terrain and tempo of what is possible the fundamental constraints of a fragmented class remain intact. However it is inconceivable we will not see further attempts to `jump over’ the fragmented class not just by some Marxists but also from the influx of radicals buoyed up by Corbyn’s victory. For those who see class as central our question is how we practically organise class and this can only be done by linking existing struggles and anti-Tory campaigns to winning the working class to vote Labour. Read the rest of this entry »
A brilliant denunciation by Andrew Coates:
Socialist Party: For Ending the Free Movement of Labour to the UK
Capitalist pro-EU demonstrators.
The Socialist Party (SP) writes,
The EU referendum result was a massive rejection of the capitalist establishment but voting Leave was not a vote for a governmental alternative. Now Jeremy Corbyn has the opportunity to use his Labour leadership re-election campaign to rally both Leave and Remain voters behind a programme for a socialist and internationalist break with the EU bosses’ club, argues CLIVE HEEMSKERK.
The Party is exultant.
‘Project Fear’ lost (project hysteria about Johnny foreigners won…).
The main forces of British and international capitalism did everything they could to secure a vote in June’s referendum to keep Britain in the EU. President Obama made a carefully choreographed state visit. The IMF co-ordinated the release of doom-laden reports with the chancellor George Osborne.
And then there was the shameful joint campaigning of right-wing Labour Party and trade union leaders with David Cameron and other representatives of big business.
A propaganda tsunami of fear was unleashed to try and intimidate the working class to vote in favour of the EU bosses’ club.
But to no avail. Pimco investment company analysts mournfully commented that the vote was “part of a wider, more global, backlash against the establishment, rising inequality and globalisation” (The Guardian, 28 June).
No mention of, er, Jeremy Corbyn’s position in favour of Remain..
The article is full of a lot of tiresome self-justification, and statistics that minimise the Labour voters’ support for Remain, not to mention that of the overwhelming majority of young people, (“Just two out of five people aged 65 and over backed staying in. In contrast, 75% of voters aged 18 to 24 plumped for Remain). They apparently do not see it as a problem that, as the Mirror put it, “Labour’s heartlands united with Tory shires” to vote Leave.
Accepting the present state of class consciousness – on this basis we could equally claim that the Tory shires were also voting “against the capitalist establishment” – is not a socialist standpoint.
Instead the so-called Lexit camp offered ‘understanding’ about fears about being swamped’ by migrants, and a cart-load of clichés about ‘Brussels’ links to big business, as if Westminster is not bound and foot to Capital.
We can also recall straightforward lies blaming the reform of the Code du Travail in France on the EU and the idea that Brexit would halt the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), when it’s been EU countries, and not the UK that have scuppered it for the moment.
The result was that during the Referendum campaign the Lexiters sided with the ‘sovereigntists’ who imagine that leaving the EU would ‘restore’ power to Parliament, and indeed the Nation.
In other words they stood on the same side as the most reactionary sections of Capital and the bourgeoisie, the Tory Right and the ‘populist’ nationalist-racists of UKIP.
If they are not always as honest as their virulently nationalist French allies, the Parti ouvrier indépendant démocratique (POID), about this, the strategy of the Socialist Party, like the SWP, the Morning Star and Counterfire, ties class politics to national sovereignty and erodes the internationalist basis of a common European left.
Trotskyist POID pro-Brexit Rally in Paris May 2016 backed by the SP, Morning Star, Steve Hedley, Alex Gordon, Lexit campaign, and Co.
It is the task of the left to fight, not adapt to, the carnival of reaction that took place during and is continuing after the Referendum.
But no doubt the Socialist Party would have found class reasons to ‘understand’ those in the Victorian proletariat who celebrated the 1900 ending of the siege of Mafeking and this joyous meeting of toffs and East Enders.
To these high-minded people, all capitalist politicians are to blame for nationalist campaigns that feed on racism (“All capitalist politicians, defending a system based on the exploitation of the majority by a small minority, to some degree rest on nationalism – with racism as its most virulent expression – to maintain a social base for capitalist rule”). It’s never the ideology of others, who have no minds of their own. So they, the capitalist lot, are all to blame…
No doubt from the front page of the Daily Express, UKIP, to…the Liberal Democrats….
The SP would no doubt dislike this UKIP poster.
Instead the Socialist Party has no position on the problem – but is opposed to the free movement of labour.
Or to put it less indirectly: migrant labour and ‘foreigners’.
This is a real sticking point.
In the negotiations that are taking place, the Socialist Party lays down a few ‘principles’, apparently socialist and ‘trade unionist’, on the topic.
The socialist and trade union movement from its earliest days has never supported the ‘free movement of goods, services and capital’ – or labour – as a point of principle but instead has always striven for the greatest possible degree of workers’ control, the highest form of which, of course, would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy.
It is why, for example, the unions have historically fought for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace, a very concrete form of ‘border control’ not supported by the capitalists.
What is their position on the kind of ‘border control’ they do support.
The organised workers’ movement must take an independent class position on the EU free movement of labour rules that will be raised in the EU negotiations (see box).
Here is the negative (Why the Socialist Party opposed the EU.)
What ‘free movement’ exists in the EU is used to allow big business to exploit a cheap supply of labour in a ‘race to the bottom’ in terms of low pay, zero-hour contacts and poor employment conditions.
Well there’s nothing here about pan-European efforts to end this ‘race to the bottom’.
Only a very British exit from the system.
We would like a specific answer: is the Socialist Party in favour of a “closed shop” controlling entry for European and other migrant workers entry into the UK?
How will this operate ?
Pre or post-entry?
To the whatabouters we ask: will ending freedom of movement from ‘Fortress Europe’ mean that you can make a ‘socialist’ Fortress UK?
Migrant labour deserves an answer on how the Socialist Party wishes to regulate their future.
The anti-Corbyn majority in the Parliamentary Labour Party is losing the battle for the Labour leadership.
The membership – seemingly, in its big majority – wants a Labour Party which will tax the rich, rebuild the NHS, introduce free education and abolish the anti-union laws. The members want to remake Labour as a party that fights for the interests of workers.
The Labour right finds the movement behind Corbyn threatening and they are becoming increasingly desperate. The Labour machine has attempted to rule out thousands of members from voting in the leadership election. Wallasey Constituency and Brighton, Hove and District Labour Parties have been suspended.
Now Tom Watson is attempting a “Trotsky” scare. Watson accuses “the Trotskyists” of “caucusing and factionalising and putting pressure where they can,” and “arm twisting.” In fact, this is a description of Watson’s own, normal, natural behaviour. (As we have documented elsewhere, Watson was a “fixer” for Gordon Brown during the early New Labour years: see here.)
In contrast Workers’ Liberty’s influence has been won through open debate, and by acting as honest activists inside the movement.
The Guardian (10 August) reports Watson demanding Corbyn supports bans on the Socialist Party and on us, the Alliance for Workers’ Liberty (AWL). Watson attempts to adopt a reasonable, matey tone – but he’s not very good at it. He is a hack, someone who wanders around in the background, causing trouble.
Corbyn and the left should certainly defend the right of all socialists to be Party members. The Party should only require that socialists back Labour candidates in elections. The AWL backs Labour in elections.
As Watson knows very well the Socialist Party and the AWL are very different types of organisation. The Socialist Party has spent over two decades denouncing the Labour Party as irredeemably bourgeois. And as Watson also knows the Socialist Party boss, Peter Taaffe, has spent a considerable amount of energy attempting to stop his members joining the Labour Party.
Taaffe’s position is idiotic, as usual. Nevertheless – with the exception of, perhaps, a handful of strays – no Socialist Party member currently has a Labour Party card.
So why all the fuss about the SP? Watson’s target is really Corbyn, but he can’t directly denounce Corbyn. So he picks on the Socialist Party because of its Militant past. Then he pretends the Socialist Party are a threat to the Labour Party. He links the Socialist Party with the AWL because he wants to spread around as much muck as possible. Nothing about this narrative makes sense. But that doesn’t matter given the press and the media are on Watson’s side and don’t care if he makes sense, or not.
The AWL is nothing like the SP, or its forerunner, the Militant. We are not a closed, secretive sect.
The AWL openly debates differences in our paper, Solidarity. Our events are open. Our conference documents, constitution and positions can be found in plain view on our web site. Read them and find out what we do.
And we are consistent advocates of class-struggle socialism. You would not find a clown like Derek Hatton, for example, acting as our spokesperson.
The Socialist Party’s main concern in the Corbyn surge is to recruit a few members, encourage a scandal, and get some headlines. Our main concern is to defeat the Labour right wing and transform the labour movement. By acting as honest militants within the movement – people who are concerned for the movement’s strength and political health – we think we will grow in influence and also membership.
And do you know how big we are? We have 120 full AWL members. Tom Watson knows very well that we are a small group among half a million Labour members. This is the extent of the Trotskyist threat.
And yet, in the end, Tom Watson – despite his intention – has half a point. We are a potential problem for people like Tom Watson. Not because we manipulate behind the scenes – but because our message is becoming increasingly popular in the Party. We are serious Marxists, serious about ideas and consistent about their application.
Watch out, Tom Watson.
By Johnny Lewis
In a previous post I dealt with the argument from ‘Lexit’ (ie left pro-Brexit) campaigners that the chaos an exit from the EU would create for the ruling class would, inevitably, benefit the working class. For ‘Lexit’ people this functions as a Deus ex machina, overcoming the unsolvable problem of their failure to grow as a movement and acts as a substitute for activity within the working class. We now have Brexit and with it chaos in spades, and we will soon see just what a wonderful new dawn it will usher in for socialism and the working class. In the meantime the Brexit triumph has to be painted as a great working class victory: the Socialist Party’s Peter Taaffe has duly obliged in an article published in their paper and on their website. To do this he has to begin with two big – very big – assertions.
The vote “…represents at bottom a predominantly working-class revolt against austerity” and it is “… totally false to draw the utterly pessimistic conclusions… that this result could lead to a ‘carnival of reaction’ in Britain and encourage right-wing forces in Europe and elsewhere”. From these two assertions the rest of Taaffe’s views follow; in fact both of these statements verge on the delusional.
A recent report form the Europe Council on Foreign Relations: The World According To Europe’s Insurgent Parties: Putin, Migration And People Power points to the rise of insurgent parties across Europe some are of the left but mainly of the populist right; they are “sceptical about the EU, resent the United States, and are sympathetic to Russia. Most prefer borders closed, migration low, and trade protected. They all want to return power to the people through direct democracy”.
While some parties on the left such as Podemos want to reform the EU, it is the parties of the populist right who have been emboldened by Brexit. It was Le Pen from Front National, the Northern League from Italy the Austrian FPO and the Dutch PVV who hailed it as a victory for their own anti-immigration and anti-EU stances. This relationship between Brexit and the European populist right has simply escaped Taffe’s notice – or perhaps he regards it as merely incidental in the ever-onward march of socialists towards inevitable victory.
In Britain Ukip has been gaining traction for a number of years. In the 2015 election they gained 3.5m plus votes (12.6% of the electorate) displacing the Lib-Dems as Britain’s third party. Over the last year they have made small but noticeable encroachments into unions’ workplace positions. It is inconceivable that Brexit has not increased their stock and if Johnson et al fail to deliver on controlling the boarders, then for sure Ukip will be there to pick up disillusioned Brexit voters.
It is not only the neck of the new Tory leadership Ukip will be breathing down: it is also the Labour Party’s. After the 2015 election Ukip declared the gaol of replacing Labour in the North. Having come second in some 120 seats they are now well on the way to building up a constituency infrastructure as the prerequisite to a stable and ongoing challenge to Labour. It is self-evident that the referendum has further consolidated and extended Ukip’s working class base.
Just as the with reactionary consequences in Europe, the consequence of the Brexit victory boosting Ukip and the right in general is not on Taaffe’s radar – indeed how could it be when he considers Brexit a great triumph for socialism.
One thing Taaffe is right about is Brexit’s working class base: there were far greater numbers of workers voting to leave than stay. While there was just two percentage points in it among C1’s there was nearly 50% more voting to leave among C’s and DE’s (according to the Ashcroft poll). The same poll also showed a stark division in social attitudes between Leave and Remain, with 39% of leavers, more than twice the number of remain voters, viewing themselves `either as “English not British” or “more English than British”. By large majorities’ Levers, as opposite to Remainers, did not see multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation or immigration as forces for good. This divide chimes in with one of the findings of Labour’s Future, that social conservatives were deserting Labour to such an extent that it is “now largely a party of progressive, social liberals who value universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice. It is losing connection with large parts of the voter population who are either pragmatists in their voting habits or social conservatives who value family, work, fairness and their country.”
So Brexit voters clearly fall into the category of those deserting Labour.
One would think as a general rule socialist would err on the side of social liberals rather than the socially conservative – but such a presumption cuts no ice with Taaffe who is unequivocal; Remain workers were “… cynically exploited by the Tory ‘remainers’ and their supporters”. The Brexiteers are a different matter: `”Traditional Labour areas and regions [who] voted heavily against the government…Even where remain won a majority there was an unmistakable working-class determination to show ‘them’ – the Tories and the remain elite – that ‘enough is enough'”.
Such a black-and-white division is in fact essential to the ‘analysis’ put forward by Taaffe and the Socialist Party (SP) as it enables them to conjure up Brexit workers, and their struggle against the “elite”, as a tablou, the backdrop illustrating the correctness of the SP stance on the EU.
Taaffe is able to assert this division exists because while Remain are seen as dupes, Brexiteers are somehow ideologically free agents, pushing a spontaneously arrived-at class positon. While for sure Lexit had no say in the leave campaign, the ideas and views that Brexit-voting workers listened to and absorbed were those of the Brexit campaign. The key – the main and often the only – message workers picked up from Brexit was stopping immigration which merged with their own independently arrived-at view.
The élan Brexit achieved was due entirely to Johnson and Gove saying to workers what they wanted to hear: leave the EU and we will stop immigration. 80% of leave voters said immigration was bad, 35% of Labour Leave voters cited the need for border controls (as opposed to 27% of Tories) as the main reason for voting Leave.
As I believe is universally acknowledged, without the ‘carrot’ of curtailing immigration we would still be in the EU. This is not to say austerity did not play its role in the Brexit vote, but for many (probably most) pro-Brexit workers, it was immigrants who were the scapegoat for the destitution they’re experiencing under capitalism. Yet austerity also played an important role for Remain workers in similar social circumstances, the difference being they did not blame ‘foreigners’
Absenting himself from tiresome facts, Taaffe has conjured up an ideologically- free imaginary movement arising from the Leave campaign – implicitly and/or ‘unconsciously’ socialist (or at least, ‘progressive’) in character. But the harsh reality is Leave voters were tied hand and foot to the racist-right Brexit campaign, and how could it be anything else? Taffe tells us in a half-hearted concession to this point “…it is true that the racist …UKIP was for leave, as was the Tory capitalist brutalist duo of Johnson and Gove, with an emphasis on scapegoating immigrants. Some workers were no doubt seduced by the anti-immigrant message of these reactionary forces”: if this means anything it is an attempt to say the SP (and perhaps the rest of the Lexit campaign) were in competition with the two main right wing Leave campaigns, putting the anti-EU case to the workers. Outside of the SP self-deusionary propaganda circles the reality was that Johnson and Gove were the Leave campaign with Farage providing their more forthright, openly racist, flank.
While the SP and Lexit supporters continue to deny the character of the Leave campaign and refuse to countenance its reactionary consequences in the real world, the rest of us are confronted with just that. While the bill in jobs and terms and conditions has still to be presented, we have already seen that Brexit has lowered the racist bar, back to where we were in the late ‘60’s, with a racist surge of verbal abuse and in some cases physical attacks taking place across the county. Brexit has not just brought overt racism back onto the streets: it has placed immigration at the centre of the political stage. It is this rather than class upon which the political axis now turns: if an election was held today even a Labour party united behind Corbyn would struggle as the question of border controls is now the centre of the political discourse.
Anyone who spoke to workers during the campaign will know how immigration was the alpha and omega of any discussion: the lack of understanding and the repeating of misinformation existed on a breath-taking scale. Whatever else socialist and in particular trade unionists do we need to engage with Brexit workers and our starting point is not to call them racist bastards’ or suggestthat we should all hold hands, celebrate our diversity and be nice to one another. Rather it is to explain why the immigrant is the wrong target. Nonsense like Taaffe’s delusional (indeed, self-delusional) article will not help us do that.
On 24 June, as the Brexit referendum result hit the school where I work, both students and teachers were aghast. The idea that this was a “working-class revolt” inflicting “a massive reverse” on the rich and powerful had no takers in a school whose catchment area is among the 5% poorest in the country.
Some students told me “I have dual nationality, Slovak and British [or whatever it might be], so I’ll be all right. But…” And they’d sigh. Yet some on the left are jubilant.
The Socialist Party claims “the fundamental character of the exit vote… was a working class revolt” causing “the anger and despair of Britain’s elite” and probably “the collapse of the Tory party”.
The Socialist Workers Party (SWP) is less fantastical, acknowledging that “the Left Leave campaign we were part of had only a marginal effect”. But somehow, it claimed, “the rich and the powerful… have suffered a massive reverse” – through the bit of the “Leave” campaign which had a not-at-all-marginal effect, the right-wing bit. (One survey before the referendum found that active “Leave” campaigners were broadly 60% Tory, 40% Ukip. Odd leaders for a “working-class revolt” against the “rich and powerful”).
The SP, the SWP, and the anaemic Lexit/ Left Leave campaign have all responded by demanding an immediate general election and predicting a left Labour Corbyn victory in that election.
In fact, this moment of high dismay for the left has quickly been seized on by the Labour right to launch the motion of no confidence in Jeremy Corbyn they hadn’t dared to push until now. They could see things moving their way when, even before referendum day, left-wingers like Paul Mason, cowed by the Brexit surge, had started arguing for Labour to propose blocks on immigration from Europe.
Jeremy Corbyn’s and John McDonnell’s statements since the result have been sadly weak, and most of the left has been pushed back into a defensive stance against the attempted Labour-right coup.
The very rapid online support for Corbyn suggests we can beat the coup. But the direction of movement, for now, is not from Corbyn surge to a super-surge pushing the Tories out, but in the other direction.
“Cameron out” is no left-wing slogan when it is actually happening, and he is due to be replaced by a more right-wing Tory! The Tories will now proceed with more right-wing business. Possibly some pro-EU Tories will choose to fade out of politics, but they won’t launch a party split now, which would be on a hiding to nothing.
There will be Tory tensions over the terms of Brexit, but those are for the years to come, not the next few weeks. And they will be over adjustments and calibrations, easier to manage than the sharp in/out conflict over the EU which has divided the Tory party for 20 years.
There is little prospect of a general election. Why ever would the new right-wing Tory leadership respond to the democratic mandate they now claim, not by pressing ahead, but by nervously provoking a vote of no confidence?
Maybe Gove and Johnson will overreach themselves, and the left can rally and quickly turn things round. But not if the left tells itself that things are already going the right way!
The core argument of the Brexit left is that any disruption that causes dismay among the majority of the ruling class must automatically be good for the working class.
It was most exuberantly expressed in an article by former SWP leader John Rees on his Counterfire website on 15 June. The SWP, Lexit, and SP commentaries are only toned-down versions of Rees’s argument.
The tactical rule, so Rees argued, must be: “if we want to start dismantling the actually existing centres of power and so weaken the real and currently operative engines of exploitation and oppression that means opposing the main enemy: the ruling class currently embedded in the EU”.
Gove, Johnson, and Farage are ugly? “Sometimes your ugliest enemy isn’t your most powerful enemy”. The rule must be to set ourselves against the “most powerful enemy”. “Only someone entirely wedded to the linear school of historical analysis could fail to see an opportunity for the left in this situation. Minds uncomfortable with contradiction always have difficulty with social crises, of course”.
But if a more-reactionary minority of the ruling class can construct populist support to prevail over the majority, it does not thereby cease to be more reactionary. Revolutionary political crises inevitably come with some chaos and disorder, but the converse does not follow: that chaos and disorder bring revolution. Read Naomi Klein’s book on The Shock Doctrine, which chronicles many cases in recent decades where episodes of social chaos have been used by the right to push through devastating policies which they could not have implemented in calmer times. Rees’s argument, and the SWP’s and the SP’s, that “crisis” of any sort must be good, reflects their demoralisation. Having lost, or half-lost, their belief in the possibility of a real social-revolutionary crisis, they cast around for “crises” of any sort as substitutes.
The referendum result has brought disarray in the ruling class, but, as Bank of England governor Mark Carney says, they “are well prepared for this”. The 1992 Swiss referendum vote not to join the European Economic Area, the 1994 Norwegian referendum vote not to join the EU, and the 2005 French vote to reject the draft EU constitution (by a bigger majority than the narrow Swiss and Norwegian votes) all caused disarray: but no ruling-class collapse, no left-wing surge. The disarray in the working class caused by a political event in which Gove, Johnson, and Farage have managed to draw a sizeable chunk of the class behind them is not so easily managed.
Donald Trump has drawn in plebeian support to beat the Republican establishment. He might even win the presidential election. That will be a setback, not a great opportunity, for the working class and the left.
The clerical hierarchy in Iran channelled mass plebeian support in 1979 to defeat the pro-US majority of the Iranian ruling class. The result was terror against the working class, not socialist advance. There are dozens of other examples in history of the folly of Rees’s scheme.
Even the examples he himself cites about advances for the right being opportunities to “to start dismantling the actually existing centres of power” show nothing of the sort.
“No-one assumes that the English Defence League is as powerful an enemy as the Tory government, though both must be opposed. The same applies here: the mainstream ruling class block is the main enemy”. But no-one on the left argues that we should ally with the EDL to cause chaos for the Tories, or that, if only we could think as non-linearly as John Rees, an EDL triumph would really be a working-class victory!
“We need to seize the opportunity a crisis gives us (as we did when we formed the Stop the War Coalition the week after 9/11, when it would have been so easy to just say ‘the right will benefit’)”. But the right did benefit! The Islamist right gained prestige by showing its power, and the US right gained by getting its mandate to make war in Afghanistan and Iraq. That the left was able to organise some big (though unsuccessful) demonstrations against that right-wing surge doesn’t change the overall picture.
And the analogue to forming the Stop the War Coalition then – leaving aside the considerable arguments about how that campaign was run – would be to form a “Stop the Anti-Migrant-Drive Coalition” now, not to celebrate Brexit.
The Socialist Party and SWP statements discuss a matter which does not bother Rees in his dialectical constructions: the character of the working-class element in the vote for Brexit.
They insist at length that it was not all racist, and not all pro-Ukip. That is surely true. Little of the feeling against East European migrant workers is based on racial stereotypes. Many people of relatively recent immigrant background have been persuaded that the gates should be closed against new migrants: they are often very aware of the awkwardness of the argument, but have been convinced that migration is now just “too much”. To think of the numbers of jobs, or houses, or hospital beds, as fixed quantities, and respond by saying that the limited numbers must be kept for those already in Britain, is narrow-minded and false, but not racist.
Some people with no hostility to migrants were drawn in by the demagogic argument that Brexit would allow “us” to make “our own laws” or to “take control”. (The Brexiters were tactfully silent about which laws originating from the EU they objected to. In fact they are such laws as those implementing EU protections on working hours and agency workers, and even those were not “imposed”, but voted through by the Blair-Brown Labour government – rather reluctantly, but voted through – after Tory obstruction).
And some people were swayed by the same sort of argument as the left Brexiters: that, whatever about migrants, whatever about laws, any protest against the status quo, the “elite”, must be good. Very few of those will have been swayed by the left; but in any case, this argument, the most “left-wing” of the Brexit arguments, not really left-wing at all. Going for an incoherent kick against “the elite” is a substitute for and a diversion from real class-struggle mobilisation, not an example of it. The feeling may not be racist or pro-Ukip, but it is such that can be, and has been, channelled by racist, by Ukip, and by Tories.
(Rees claims that Ukip support fell during the referendum campaign. The poll figures bounced up and down a lot, but Ukip’s percentage rose from an average of 14% in polls between mid-March and mid-April to an average of 16% between late April and early June. The Tories’ lead over Labour rose from tiny between mid-March and late April – an average of 1.7% – to an average of 4% between late April and early June. No “collapse of the Conservative Party” there!)
The whole train of thought here, despite or maybe because of the manifest anxious desire of the SP and SWP to show themselves in tune with what they reckon to be working-class feeling, is patronising and manipulative, an example of what Marxists call “middle-class workerism”.
That many older workers in depressed areas of low migration voted “Leave” does not mean that the whole working class, or even a majority, voted “Leave”. That many people in the worst-off sections of the working class voted “Leave” does not make “Leave” a more authentically working-class response than the “Remain” stance of younger, more educated (and often more educated precisely because younger), big-city, working-class people.
Socialists will best serve our class brothers and sisters who voted “Leave” by arguing with them – not caricaturing them, not dismissing them, but treating them as intelligent women and men who have gone off course, as people do, but can and should be convinced by reason. When they are convinced, class-conscious and socialistic elements in their thinking, now suppressed and overwhelmed by the Brexit demagogy, will come to the fore.
The SP and the SWP, by contrast, seem to have given up on convincing workers. They look, awe-struck, at the Brexit surge with its “anti-elite” overtones, and scrabble to suggest ways in which that surge, as it is, can be managed, manipulated, redirected, so as to channel into their desired outcome of a general election and a Corbyn victory. Their approach is similar to a common caricature of the Trotskyist transitional-demands approach (one promoted both by opponents of the approach and some who consider themselves supporters of it): that transitional demands are those which appear “realistic”, not-specially-socialist, not-specially-radical, but lend themselves to mobilisations which can, in a way unknown to the workers involved, slide into socialist revolution. In the SP’s and the SWP’s constructions, Brexit has become a sort of fake “transitional demand” by which the dialectically-attuned can manoeuvre the working class into desired channels.
As Frederick Engels explained: “Where it is a question of a complete transformation of the social organization, the masses themselves must also be in it, must themselves already have grasped what is at stake, what they are going in for with body and soul. [And] in order that the masses may understand what is to be done, long, persistent work is required…”
What is to be done now is to conserve and extend workers’ unity, between workers in Britain of all origins and between British and European workers; to defend migrant rights and the worker rights which have entered British law under pressure from the EU; to fight to redirect the social anger expressed in Brexit votes towards social solidarity, taxing the rich, and social ownership of the banks and industry; and to stand up for socialism. None of that can be done if the left falls for the fantasy that the Brexit vote is already taking things our way.
Above: Norbert Hofer came within a few thousand votes of winning
Wake up you idiots!
Norbert Hofer of the far-right Freedom Party (FPO) has come terrifying close to winning the Austrian presidential election. The FRO is still on track to finish first in the next Austrian parliamentary election, due within the next two years.
The FPO has Nazi origins and like the French Front National and right wing populist parties that are coming to the fore throughout Europe, it is viciously anti-immigrant, with a particular hostility towards Muslims. In Hungary, Poland, Finland and Switzerland these parties are already participating in national governments. They are all, of course, anti-EU. Marine La Pen’s Front National could well win next year’s French presidential elections.
How long would it be before these new and resurgent right wing movements tear the EU apart?
Which poses a question for you people on the British left who advocate what you call “Lexit” or “Exit Left” – the Communist Party/Morning Star, the SWP and its spin-off Counterfire, plus the Socialist Party tagging along, together with the RMT union:
Do you really want the break-up of the EU at the hands of these forces? Do you really think anything progressive could possibly come of such an outcome?
Presumably, as self-proclaimed internationalists, you do not merely favour the UK pulling out: you must, logically, favour the break-up of the EU in its entirety.
Have you given any serious thought to what this would mean?
The freedom for workers to move across Europe would be lost. ‘Foreign’ workers in each country from other ex-EU states would face increased hostility and racism.
Any possibility of a humane and fair resolution of the migrant crisis would be completely ruled out, as each European country competed with each other to increase border controls and deport migrants even more ruthlessly than they mare doing now.
There would be a big reduction in the productive capacities of the separate states, cut of from broader economic arenas.
Governments and employers in each state would be weaker in capitalist world-market competition, and would thus be pushed towards crude cost-cutting. In the same way that small capitalist businesses, more fragile in competition, use cruder cost-cutting than bigger employers. The limited, but real, workers’ right brought in by the EU would be swept aside.
There would be more slumps and depression, in the same way that the raising of economic barriers between states in the 1930s exacerbated the slump then.
Inevitably, economic tensions between the different nations competing elbow-to-elbow in Europe’s narrow cockpit would lead to increased tensions and, eventually, war – as happened in Europe for centuries and twice in the last century.
Austria’s close-run presidential vote reveals people are disappointed with the mainstream parties and don’t feel represented any longer, while the refugee crisis, the euro crisis, Islamist terror attacks and dissatisfaction with the EU have also caused a shift to the right in Austria and throughout Europe. But the answer is to put forward internationalist, pro-working class, anti-austerity policies across Europe, not to attempt to jump on the nationalist, racist anti-EU bandwagon of the far-right.
In the weeks that followed Hitler’s seizure of power in February 1933 the German Communist Party (KPD) and the Communist International clung rigidly to their view that the Nazi triumph would be brief and that it would be a case of “after Hitler – our turn”: is that what you #Lexit people really expect to happen after the far-right succeeds in breaking up the EU? If so, you are not just politically illiterate: you are criminally irresponsible.