Workers Hammer No. 237
No Brexit reversal — Britain out!
Down with the EU — For a workers Europe!
The June 2016 vote in which a clear majority of the electorate voted for Britain to leave the European Union (EU) was, as we have said, a defeat for the bankers and bosses of Europe. It also dealt a blow to the City of London financiers who have accumulated vast wealth as a major financial centre within the EU. That is why significant elements within the British bourgeois establishment, with the backing of the City, have tried to reverse the vote. Prime Minister Theresa May has pledged to trigger Article 50 of the Lisbon Treaty, thus to begin the exit procedure, by March 2017. As we go to press, Supreme Court judges are deliberating on whether it is even lawful for the government to begin the Brexit process. In effect, the judges are deciding whether the popular vote for Brexit decided anything at all!
If the court rules that new legislation is required, the exit process will be bogged down in Parliament and subject to amendment by MPs, the majority of whom called for a remain vote in the referendum. The handful of Liberal Democrat MPs are trying to make a comeback in areas such as London where a majority voted to remain in the EU. Also in the anti-Brexit camp are the Scottish National Party (SNP) whose aim is to use the vote for remain in Scotland to further their goal of independence from the English-dominated “United Kingdom”, within the EU, itself an oppressor of small nations. But it is the Blairite Labour MPs who are the heavy battalions of the anti-Brexit backlash.
The majority vote for Brexit has chastened the pro-EU parliamentarians. Seven out of ten Labour-held constituencies (and three out of four held by Tories) voted to leave. Now, a new lexicon has been invented to obscure the issue. Brexit has been re-named “hard” Brexit while its opponents claim to be in favour of “soft” Brexit. In effect, “soft” Brexit means Britain should remain in the single European market and retain other aspects of EU membership. The intention is to slow down or stop the exit process, including through a second referendum.
The clearest expression of the aims of the anti-Brexit campaign comes from Tony Blair himself. In November, Blair raised his reptilian head to announce in a New Statesman interview that Brexit could be stopped. Blair reiterated his view in the New European (8 December 2016) saying that people “should have the right to say: what you told us has turned out to be wrong and so we have changed our mind”. Blair’s support for a second vote recalls the fate of previous EU referenda results that were overturned when the vote went the “wrong” way. The Irish electorate voted against the Nice Treaty in 2001 and rejected the Lisbon Treaty in 2008. On both occasions, following “renegotiation” of the terms the voters were cajoled into accepting the treaties in a second vote. This speaks to the truth of what Marxist revolutionary VI Lenin wrote nearly a century ago: “important questions under bourgeois democracy” are decided not by the working masses and the oppressed but “by the stock exchange and the banks” (The Proletarian Revolution and the Renegade Kautsky, 1918).
Blair himself is too reviled to act as the public face of the remain campaign, but he is more than willing to operate behind the scenes. The Independent (22 November 2016) reported: “Richard Branson’s Virgin Group is to help bankroll a campaign set up in secret by Blairite former ministers and advisers to derail Brexit.” The article states that this new cabal, headed by Blair’s former close cabinet ally, Alan Milburn, has allegedly had discussions with former Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg and current Blairite Labour MP Chuka Umunna.
Down with the imperialist EU!
The pro-EU camp has broad support among liberals and the trade union bureaucracy who buy into the lying claims about “social Europe” and European “solidarity”. Such claims are intended to conceal the true nature of this imperialist-dominated cartel. The EU is a vehicle by which the capitalist ruling classes of Europe’s dominant countries, particularly Germany, enrich themselves at the expense of the working classes, including immigrants, while using the single currency as an instrument for turning the screw on the economies of the poorer countries of Eastern and southern Europe. A withdrawal by imperialist Britain, one of the largest economies in the cartel, would significantly weaken and destabilise the EU. It would open up more favourable conditions for struggle by workers and minorities, in Britain and elsewhere in Europe, against their rapacious exploiters. This elementary understanding of the EU was reflected in a statement we issued on 24 June:
“Standing on our consistent record of proletarian, revolutionary and internationalist opposition to the imperialist-dominated European Union (EU), the Spartacist League/Britain welcomes the decisive vote for a British exit. This is a stunning defeat for the City of London, for the bosses and bankers of Europe as a whole as well as for Wall Street and the US imperialist government. The vote to leave is an expression of hostility from the downtrodden and dispossessed not only to the EU but to the smug British ruling establishment, whose devastation of social services and industry has plunged whole sections of the proletariat into penury.”
— Workers Hammer no 235, Summer 2016
Across Europe, the EU has meant savage attacks on workers, particularly in Greece. On 8 December, Greek trade unions brought the country to a halt in a one-day nationwide strike against yet another round of harsh spending cuts required by the EU. This is the price demanded by the EU for another “bailout” which in fact is a loan that will increase Greece’s already crippling debt to the bloodsucking European banks. The Syriza government, which was elected for its supposed opposition to EU austerity, brushed aside a July 2015 referendum in which voters overwhelmingly rejected EU-dictated austerity and went on to implement steep tax hikes and sweeping cuts to pensions. The capitalist economic crisis has wiped out a quarter of Greece’s economy.
In Britain, the attacks on the lives of working people were carried out not by the EU, but by the British capitalist ruling class. The EU today is dishing out the same medicine to continental Europe as British workers were forced to swallow under Margaret Thatcher in the 1980s and then under Labour governments led by Tony Blair and Gordon Brown. Thatcher’s policies meant sweeping privatisations, severe cuts in public spending and crippling attacks on the trade unions. Thatcher’s monetarism and deregulation of the City of London gave an enormous boost to the financial sector’s dominance of the British economy, to the detriment of manufacturing and the mining industry. The result was devastating for the working people of the former industrial areas of Scotland and Wales, as well as England’s northern and Midlands regions. Since the banking crash of 2007-08, a further round of punishing austerity has been forced on the working class to pay for the government bailout of the banks.
What is desperately needed to defend the working class and all of the oppressed against government austerity is to mobilise the trade unions in class struggle. But instead the leaderships of the trade unions — as well as Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn — have promoted illusions in EU legislation as a means to defend workers’ rights. Such criminal support for the EU capitalist club has left the field wide open for the growth of reactionary anti-EU parties such as UKIP who beat the drums for aggressive anti-immigrant chauvinism. Meanwhile the liberal remain crowd (now aptly dubbed Remoaners) try to paint all opponents of the EU as racist yahoos. The multiethnic and multinational working class had a clear class interest in the outcome of the referendum. In calling for a resounding vote to leave, we wrote:
“Plunging living standards for working people, massive and rising rates of unemployment, cuts in the most basic social benefits for the elderly, the disabled and the poor, engorging the City of London fat cats — this is the face of this union of imperialist profit-gouging.”
— “EU: enemy of workers and immigrants”, Workers Hammer no 234, Spring 2016
We noted at the time of the referendum that anti-immigrant chauvinism was not the sole preserve of the anti-EU racist right. All Labour governments, including old Labour, have introduced anti-immigrant measures and whipped up racist hysteria; under Blair the racist “war on terror” targeting Muslims went into high gear. Notwithstanding the fantasies, promoted by some on the left, of a capitalist Europe of “open borders” or a common “European citizenship”, the EU is racist at its core. While the Schengen Agreement was sold on the promise of passport-free travel within Europe, it was in reality the foundation stone of Fortress Europe from which non-EU immigrants are excluded. Contrary to the liberal pipe-dream of the EU protecting the “free movement” of immigrants, the EU’s overriding concern is the free movement of capital among its member states. Within that framework, the movement of labour is manipulated to facilitate the exploitation of low-wage immigrant labour from Eastern and southern Europe according to the needs of capital.
The working class must be mobilised to oppose all deportations and to demand that everybody who has made it to these shores, no matter where they come from or how they got here, should have the right to stay here — Full citizenship rights for all immigrants! Britain’s “flexible” labour market has drawn a substantial component of immigrants into the working class. The trade unions must organise the unorganised and fight for full union wages and working conditions for all.
Many liberal and leftist apologists for the EU have equated the election of racist demagogue Donald Trump in the US with the vote for Brexit. Commenting on Trump’s victory, our comrades of the Spartacist League/US wrote:
“The election made it clear that there is plenty of anger against the Washington elites, but it is not expressed along class lines. It is high time that some genuine class hatred be mobilized against the politicians of the Republicans and Democrats, whatever their race or sex, and the capitalist rulers they serve.”
— “Democrats Paved the Way for Trump — We Need a Multiracial Revolutionary Workers Party!”, Workers Vanguard no 1100, 18 November 2016
The manifold discontents capitalism breeds can take many expressions — strikes, protests, riots, support for capitalist demagogues. Our task as Marxists is to channel such anger into a class war and the struggle to forge a revolutionary party of the proletariat committed to sweeping away capitalist class rule altogether.
Opposition in Britain to the imperialist EU was heaviest in the poorest areas of the country where de-industrialisation has hit hardest. Guardian journalist Aditya Chakrabortty observed (13 December 2016) that the referendum result reflected: “A multitude of frustrations, pushed through a binary vote.” This illustrates an innate problem with referenda: the motive for opposition cannot be expressed and therefore different class and social standpoints can be lumped together. The massive dissatisfaction that fuelled support for Brexit includes chauvinist hostility to immigrants that will boost support for UKIP. On the other hand, disaffected Labour voters helped catapult Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour Party. Corbyn is known as an avowed socialist, an anti-racist, a supporter of trade union rights and an opponent of NATO and imperialist militarism.
Class divide in the Labour Party
Corbyn does not claim to be a revolutionary. Rather he comes from the tradition of Labour “lefts” like his late mentor, Tony Benn. This “gradualist” tradition rejects socialist revolution and promotes the illusion that the way to advance the cause of the workers and oppressed is through winning a parliamentary majority and introducing changes through legislation. Nonetheless Corbyn’s current politics, particularly his opposition to the US-led NATO alliance, put him outside the bounds of what is acceptable to the British ruling class in a prime minister. As Marxists we stand with Corbyn against the open lackeys of British imperialism on the Blairite right. As we wrote last issue: “We are for driving out the Blairite wing, leaving Corbyn in charge of a ‘parliamentary socialist’ Labour Party based on the trade unions. A split with the right wing would constitute a step towards the political independence of the working class” (Workers Hammer no 236, Autumn 2016).
Far from driving out the Blairite wing, the priority for the Labour “lefts” is securing a majority in parliament and thus they are committed to maintaining unity with the right wing. As we have noted, although he refused to work together with the Tories, Corbyn campaigned to remain in the EU, betraying the interests of the working class and belying his claim that under his leadership Labour would speak for the working people. Immediately following the referendum, the Blairites attempted to oust Corbyn as leader. They claimed that he did not do enough to ensure a remain victory and wielded the referendum outcome to force Corbyn into a second leadership contest in the space of a year. The Blairites’ candidate, a nonentity named Owen Smith, waved the banner of a second referendum in challenging Corbyn. In the upshot Corbyn routed the Blairites and their hapless sacrificial goat with an even more resounding victory than the year before, while the Labour Party has more than tripled in size over the past 18 months.
While Corbyn’s re-election made it clear to his right-wing opponents that they cannot simply depose him, the Blairites are as committed as ever to destroying Corbyn. Even as the Labour Party annual conference in Liverpool in September acknowledged the membership’s overwhelming vote of confidence in Corbyn, deputy leader Tom Watson made a provocative speech enthusing over NATO and lauding the record of the Labour governments under Blair and Gordon Brown.
Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell made a point of accepting the referendum outcome and have vowed not to oppose triggering Article 50 in Parliament. McDonnell recently stated: “Labour accepts the referendum result as the voice of the majority and we must embrace the enormous opportunities to reshape our country that Brexit has opened for us.” He continued, “In that way we can speak again to those who were left behind and offer a positive, ambitious vision instead of leaving the field open to divisive Trump-style politics” (Guardian, 18 November 2016). Shadow Brexit secretary “Sir” Keir Starmer, a Blairite fellow-traveller and an advocate of “soft” Brexit, was said to be “absolutely furious” over McDonnell’s remarks.
McDonnell’s statement was a slap in the face both to those who seek to reverse the Brexit vote and to those who hope to compete with the Tories and UKIP on the terrain of anti-immigrant chauvinism. Corbyn has attacked the Tories for fanning “the flames of fear over immigration”, while his ally Diane Abbott denounced those who seek to turn Labour into “UKIP-lite”, a scarcely veiled attack on the likes of Tom Watson, who has long pushed for Labour to take a more aggressive anti-immigrant stance. There are plenty more like Watson who have seized on UKIP’s prominence and the election of Donald Trump in the US to trumpet an ever more blatant racism. Blairite MP Stephen Kinnock now calls for “managed immigration”, and Andy Burnham, the “soft left” who lost to Corbyn in the 2015 leadership election, now rails against the left’s “fear of being labeled as pandering” and warns that Labour’s “failure” to confront the immigration “debate” threatens “the cohesion of our communities and the safety of our streets” (businessinsider.com, 8 December 2016).
“Broad church” v proletarian vanguard
After Corbyn’s successful leadership campaign in 2015 we observed:
“The traditional Labour Party that Corbyn seeks to reconstitute prided itself on being a ‘broad church’, meaning that it had room for a wide spectrum of political currents and opinions. In practice this meant that the right wing predominated, while the left bowed to it for the sake of unity. In today’s terms, reconstituting the ‘broad church’ means Corbyn’s supporters will co-exist side by side with the Blairites including Tony Blair himself, who many regard as a war criminal over Iraq.”
— “Corbyn landslide, Blairite backlash”, Workers Hammer no 232, Autumn 2015
How true this is was demonstrated when Corbyn and his closest allies deliberately absented themselves from Parliament in order to avoid voting on a motion by the SNP calling for further investigation into Blair’s role in the Iraq war in the wake of the Chilcot inquiry. This too was a betrayal of Corbyn’s working-class base, who revile Blair for his support for the US in the Iraq war. Moreover, on the principled question of opposition to the EU, the Corbyn wing of the Labour Party — including Momentum — encompasses elements who are openly pro-EU, as well as those who oppose it.
Now, notorious former Blair spin doctor Alastair Campbell invokes the tradition of Labour as a “broad church” to appeal for financial backing to the Blairite Labour First grouping, which seeks to smash the Corbynite left and in particular Momentum. In recent months the bourgeois press has been awash with rumours of splits in Momentum, with the organisation’s leader Jon Lansman pitted against the Alliance for Workers Liberty (AWL). We oppose witch hunts against the left in Momentum, including the AWL, as we do in the Labour Party. However, the AWL’s political positions — from support to the remain camp in the Brexit referendum to their refusal to oppose British imperialism’s years-long occupation of Iraq — qualify them for unity with the Blairites.
The working class needs a new kind of party. A Leninist party consists of only the most advanced, conscious layers of the working class and oppressed, organised on the basis of principles and a programme which represents the historic interests of the proletariat in its fight for socialist revolution. Such a party would fight all manifestations of oppression: racism, discrimination against women and all forms of chauvinism.
For Scotland’s right to independence!
The EU referendum and its aftermath have exposed not only the class divide in British society, but also the national fault lines within the so-called United Kingdom. A majority in Northern Ireland voted to remain in the EU. The oppressed Catholic minority fears that Brexit will mean a return of the “hard border” with southern Ireland, a staunch EU member state. The dominant Protestant community, which is overwhelmingly UK-loyal, also voted to remain.
In Scotland, the 62 per cent vote to remain reflects the dominance of the bourgeois Scottish nationalists. These junior imperialists in waiting have become hegemonic in what was a historic Labour stronghold as a result of years of degradation of Scotland under Thatcher, and the continuation of Thatcherism by Blairite Labour governments in Westminster. Labour was almost wiped out in Scotland following the 2014 independence referendum, in which then Labour leaders joined the Tories at the forefront of the chauvinist campaign to keep Scotland in the “United Kingdom”. Today’s Labour leader in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, is an arch-Blairite as was her predecessor, former MP Jim Murphy who (deservedly) lost his seat in the last election.
Corbyn is seeking to revive Labour’s working-class base in Scotland in opposition to the bourgeois SNP. However in the Brexit referendum, Corbyn placed himself in the same camp as the SNP, as well as the Blairites and Tories, which meant he offered no alternative to the substantial minority of Scottish working-class voters who supported Brexit.
Corbyn has made overtures to working-class supporters of Scottish independence, saying: “They were driven away by disillusionment, deindustrialisation, a lack of investment and a sense of anger at the way their communities have been treated” (Herald Scotland, 9 October 2016). Yet this statement does not address the national oppression of Scotland, much less acknowledge its right to independence. “Labour is neither unionist nor nationalist”, declared Scottish Labour deputy leader Alex Rowley who is a Corbyn supporter. He added: “What Labour must do now is set out its vision of a post-Brexit Scotland which will include home rule within a confederal United Kingdom, building for the future on the socialist ideals of equality, fairness and justice” (bbc.co.uk, 14 November 2016).
To accept the “United Kingdom” is to bow to Westminster rule. Marxists oppose the whole constitutional set-up known as the United Kingdom, based on the monarchy, the House of Lords and the established (Protestant) churches, and incorporating the sectarian Orange statelet in Northern Ireland. In opposition to English domination, we uphold the democratic right of the oppressed Scottish nation to self-determination, ie to form an independent state. We stand in the tradition of Lenin’s Bolsheviks, who fought for equality of all nations; the right of nations to self-determination; the unity of the workers of all nations.
Our purpose is to forge a multiethnic and multinational revolutionary workers party, dedicated to the overthrow of British capitalist rule and the establishment of workers republics. Under working-class rule, the historic national oppression of Ireland, Scotland and Wales can be equitably redressed. Our perspective is for an Irish workers republic within a voluntary federation of workers republics in these isles. A vigorous struggle against the EU remains integral to the fight to forge revolutionary workers parties in Britain, Ireland and continental Europe, sections of a reforged Trotskyist Fourth International, to lead the proletariat to victory and open the road to a Socialist United States of Europe.