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Sunday, 24 April 2016

The labour movement and the EU: past, present, future



Unite leader Len McCluskey; Jeremy Corbyn. Pic: The Guardian
In 1975 the vast bulk of the Left - Labour and otherwise - backed leaving the EEC.

Now we have the horrors of the assault on Greek democracy, enforced austerity and Fortress Europe. Yet the majority of the Left, broadly defined, wants to stick with the EU in the forthcoming referendum.

What happened between 1975 and today to explain this extraordinary situation? 

The past

From roughly 1983 onwards, both the Labour Party and the trade unions shifted rightwards. Neil Kinnock succeeded Michael Foot as Labour leader and embarked on the long journey to the right. The Bennite surge of the early 1980s - not the machinations of the party's hard Right and its subsequent split to form the Social Democratic Party - was blamed for the 1983 general election defeat.

The defeat of the great Miners' Strike in 1985 weakened the left and strengthened the right-wing arguments about the impossibility of achieving change through class struggle. Trends already in place - in both the Labour Party and the unions - were accelerated. The 'new realism' of a right-wing union bureaucracy preached moderation and conciliation with the bosses.

This dovetailed with Labour's growing acceptance of Tory policies. Increasingly, Margaret Thatcher was seen as invincible. She would later remark that New Labour was her greatest achievement.

In 1988, then European Commission President Jacques Delors spoke to the TUC Congress. He presented a 'social compromise' model that claimed the Commission was a protector of workers' rights and conditions at the same time as advocating free markets. It was disingenuous, but it had at least a grain of truth and it preyed on the pessimism and passivity of the 'new realists'.

Unions previously hostile to a European capitalist project were largely persuaded. Much of the Labour 'soft left' also made its peace.

Never mind that the mass anti-poll tax movement shattered the myth of Thatcher's invincibility and showed that popular struggle could win. The embrace of 'Europe' continued. Three key things explain this.

Firstly, the 1992 election defeat strengthened Labour's general shift to the right and led to Blairism. Secondly, indsutrial struggle remained at low levels: since 1991 there hasn't been a single year in which official strike figures topped two million days lost. 'Europe' could seem like a modest substitute for winning through trade union struggle.

Thirdly, the civil strife inside the Tory Party - during the Major Years (1990-97) - encouraged the idea that criticism of the EU, as it formally became during those years, was the preserve of the xenophobic Right.

Many left wing Labour figures continued to oppose the EU, from the Maastricht Treaty during John Major's premiership to the thoroughly neoliberal Lisbon Treaty ratified when Gordon Brown was in Number Ten. Tony Benn and Jeremy Corbyn were foremost among them - combining opposition to neoliberal elite co-operation with advocacy of genuine internationalism and unwavering anti-racism.

The present

One thing about the EU referendum debate - in labour movement circles - is that the position people adopt has implications for specific issues and what we do about them.

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), the highly controversial US-EU deal that will enable corporate power enormous sway over public services, is currently the supreme example. We have pro-EU trade unions like Unite limiting themselves to merely trying to get exemption for the NHS. If you're campaigning to stay in the EU, it would be rather contradictory and incovenient to also campaign against TTIP.
 
This would prompt the obvious question: if TTIP is so bad, why don't you want to leave the EU and thus ensure we're not part of it, while also weakening the chances of the deal going through for everyone else? Why not strike a powerful blow against the corporate takeover of public assets?

On social media and in online discussions, I see some socialists and trade unionists people arguing the following sequence of points:

a) the EU is more worker-friendly and amenable than this Tory government
b) the Tories will get even worse after Brexit because power will shift to Boris Johnson, Michael Gove and Iain Duncan Smith
c) we should therefore regard anything on offer from the EU - including TTIP - as less worse than what we will get after Brexit.

This is weak politics and completely demobilising. The only logical conclusion is to keep quiet about TTIP and don't make a fuss: settle for merely trying to make the NHS exempt.

Instead of independent left-wing politics, we end up with trade unions and elements of the left choosing between two right-wing blocs. What they're choosing is basically the status quo option, but actually worse than that because things are moving in a reactionary direction (with TTIP specifically, but the wider EU project too).

These pro-Remain arguments in the labour movement are making it harder to actually campaign and mobilise on a number of issues. There's a serious danger this will continue to be the case after the referendum. The Trade Union Bill is another example: if you believe the EU is a protector of workers' rights, then resources that should be deployed for stopping the Bill instead get diverted into providing a vaguely 'left' gloss for the Remain camp.

The various movements - against austerity, racism, war, climate change etc - will continue to unite people regardless of their views on the EU. But those movements can be politically sharper if we have a clear-eyed view of the ugly reality of the EU, ditch the disabling illusions in it, and mobilise around demands that constitute a real alternative.

The future

How does the EU referendum intersect with the prospects for a Corbyn-led left-wing Labour government in 2020?

There's an odd paradox here. One of the biggest left-wing arguments for leaving the EU is precisely the fact that continued UK membership will prove a major barrier - in 2020 and beyond - to any positive reforms Corbyn wants to introduce. Yet most Corbyn supporters inside the Labour Party and the trade union movement are supporting remaining inside the EU, with the perspective of 'reforming' it.
 
Anyone who doubts that the EU will be a barrier to social change enacted by a future left-wing government should consider the fate of Greece. It's not merely a question of this or that directive, e.g. whether or not the EU makes it impossible to renationalise the rail. Greece shows how the EU simply won't tolerate any challenge to the austerity consensus and the rule of finance capital.

No, the UK won't be different - because we're bigger, or because we're not part of the Eurozone. These things might make some difference to the nature of the confrontation, but there will undoubtedly be a big confrontation between any left-wing government (together with trade unions and protest movements backing it) and the EU.

It's also clear - following Barack Obama's visit to London and Hillary Clinton's latest pro-EU remarks - that continued UK membership of the EU is an integral component of American strategy for this continent. It's one part of the UK continuing to be a subservient American vassal.

Obama and Clinton both see the EU (and particularly UK membership of it) as closely linked to Nato. These are the two insitutions that the US administration sees as crucial to there being a Europe that is helpful - and to an extent subservient - to US interests. Both institutions have been expanding; both types of expansion are beneficial to the US.

The US political establishment sees Britain's voice inside the EU as a loyally pro-American one. It therefore fervently supports a Remain vote on 23 June. It makes sense for anyone who wants to weaken US influence - and the US/UK 'special relationship' - to vote Leave in the referendum.

Getting out of the EU certainly doesn't guarantee an independent foreign policy - especially when a hardline neocon like Michael Gove is a prominent pro-Leave Tory - but it opens up greater political space for a future Corbyn-led government.

Leaving the EU will stengthen the prospects for any future Labour government. To see things purely in terms of two current variants of Toryism - one embodied by Cameron and Osborne, the other by Johnson and Gove - is appallingly myopic. There is much more to play for than that.

Now more than ever, it is clear that the EU is an enemy of working class people across the continent and also of millions of people fleeing the capitalist system's many miseries - extreme poverty, war and persecution - outside Europe. Now more than ever, the labour movement has good reason to rally opposition to the EU and advocate Exit.

If we are serious about re-shaping the future in a left-wing direction, this becomes abundantly clear.
 

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The EU referendum and the Left


The EU referendum has generated a lot of debate on the British Left, with a range of perspectives on the EU itself and on whether socialists should advocate a vote to leave it in the 23 June referendum.

I've been a little surprised by the extent to which many left-wingers have rallied behind a Remain position. It seemed to me that two big developments last year - the smashing of Greece's government-level resistance to austerity and the EU's appalling response to the refugee crisis - had created a new understanding, especially among left-wingers, of the reality of the EU today. However, this hasn't generally translated into advocating a Leave stance in the referendum this year.
It's especially notable, too, when you recall that David Cameron's renegotiation deal was entirely reactionary. This might have been expected to push a layer of undecided left-wingers into backing a Leave position. But it evidently didn't do so on any serious scale. 

One reason is that the full force of the official labour movement - TUC, a number of big unions, 90% of the Parliamentary Labour Party and even the left-wing Jeremy Corbyn/John McDonnell leadership - has rallied behind staying in the EU. This has naturally impacted on many grassroots activists and socialists.
Another element is the appeal of the idea that the alternative would somehow be even worse. The spectre of Nigel Farage, Michael Gove and Boris Johnson seemingly intimidates people into (critically) accepting the status quo as a Lesser Evil.

Different stances on the Left
I've perhaps never known an issue - in over 20 years as a socialist activist - where there's been such division between the overwhelming majority of the revolutionary/radical left and the overwhelming majority of the organised reformist left (though I sense that many people with left-wing ideas, but not part of any organisation or party, are unsure about the left Remain position or even reject it outright).

Most independent socialist organisations strongly back a left Leave position, while the considerable ranks of parliamentary left reformism - Labour left, Green left and SNP left - are mostly supporting a Remain position (including some - Corbyn among them - who are privately very sceptical).

In a way it shouldn't be too surprising. It's in the nature of parliamentary reformism to look for... well, parliamentary reformist solutions. And that means looking to the EU - or at least a reformed EU - as a progressive force.
It doesn't seem to matter that the EU is so hopelessly beyond reform, and there are no serious democratic means for reforming it. The illusion still holds. I'd have expected more of the old attitude of Tony Benn, though, among some contemporary left Labour activists.

Benn had a degree of faith in Westminster, but was utterly scornful of Brussels: he grasped the profoundly undemocratic nature of the EU, and understood that it was driven by elite big business and finance interests. Yet there seems to be little of this attitude about, partly no doubt because we currently have a Tory government and the EU is seen (rightly or wrongly) as at least a partial moderating influence on it.
The radical, or anti-capitalist, left has been implacably opposed to the EU and now advocates a Leave vote for obvious reasons. The EU is thoroughly neoliberal and synonymous with austerity; it is undemocratic and, as seen especially in Greece, anti-democratic; and its 'Fortress Europe' policy is vicious, racist and anathema to many of the left's core values.

Our recognition of the limits of parliamentary reformism and our emphasis on mass working class struggle means that reforming the EU holds no appeal for us - especially when regarding the ways in which it is even less accountable and amenable than national governments - and we articulate an entirely different vision of international co-operation and solidarity. It is through action - movements, strikes and left-wing political parties - not elite institutions that change can be effected.

Different strands of the pro-Remain Left
But it would be a mistake to see left-wing pro-Remain opinion as a monolithic bloc. There are in fact 3 distinct, if overlapping, 'left-wing' pro-Remain positions.

The first is that of advocating the EU as currently constituted. This is the dominant position at the level of the broad Left. It involves presenting the EU as a beacon of progressive workers' rights and social protections, together with freedom of movement, while downplaying all the ugly, brutal stuff (inflicting massive cuts on Greece, fences and razor wire, bodies sinking to the bottom of the Aegean and Mediterranean).

The second position is that of the EU reformers - 'yes, the EU may be awful, but let's work on changing it'. Corbyn's public position is a mixture of these two positions - playing up the alleged existing achievements while also clearly pushing for something better.
Nobody who advocates this reform position ever explains the mechanisms they envisage for reform. That's because there aren't any.
The third - and ostensibly most radical - position is one of rejection of the current EU, sober realism about the hopelessness of reforming it... but we should still vote to stay in because the alternative is even worse: really right-wing Tories taking over, success for Ukip, a carnival of racist reaction, and migrants deported.

This last position strikes me as unnecessarily fatalistic. It rests on a quite erroneous assessment of the current balance of political forces that underestimates the significance of Corbyn's rise and the leftwards shift involved, while rather exaggerating the significance of Ukip (a party that has already declined somewhat) and neglecting the depth of the splits and crisis in Tory ranks.
It also ignores the reality that the referendum campaign simply hasn't been dominated by immigration or racist motifs. While the official debate may be shaped by the Right, in its different incarnations, we are not seeing the carnival of reaction some feared. This is particularly so because other political developments - Osborne's budget, steel crisis, Panama Papers - have been awful for the Tories.

Yet the logic of the campaign has pulled growing numbers on the Left into advocating the supposed benefits of the existing EU. This is predictable. It's hardly convincing or persuasive to say "The EU is rubbish and always will be rubbish, but you should vote for it because Farage is horrible".
So we see more and more people talking up the EU as a socially progressive entity. This means evading reality - and it threatens to blunt necessary opposition on particular issues like refugees.


Myths and misconceptions
One thing that hasn't really changed during the campaign is the widespread lack of information about the EU. All sorts of myths persist. Most people on the Left - just like the wider population - know relatively little about the EU's constituent institutions, its history, the wider picture of what the EU does (even on the left, the debate here is remarkably parochial), etc.

One persistent misconception is that the European Parliament has significant power. It doesn't. The unelected Commission and the European Central Bank are more influential.
The parliament is (inevitably for something covering 28 states) extremely remote: my native north-east England elects just 3 of its MEPs, whereas we have 29 MPs in Westminster, and very few people can name their MEPs. Turnout in elections tends to be low because it is so remote and makes so little difference to people's lives.

It is dominated by large political blocs and - unlike in Westminster elections - there is a total separation between electing individual representatives and the formation of a government. In a general election, people know they have a chance to kick out a government. While technically just electing an individual constituency MP, we are also effectively electing a government.

But this doesn't happen at European level - where the Commission, the nearest equivalent to a government, is impervious to what happens in European elections. That is a massive democratic weakness.

The lack of awareness of the reality of the parliament, and more widely how the EU actually functions, is one aspect of the difficulties in actually conducting an informed debate. The more you learn, the more you realise how indefensible the EU is for anyone who is committed to democracy and cares about economic and social justice.

Obama and TTIP
I've already alluded to how the bigger picture - in all sorts of way - is so often ignored in much left-ish discussion of the EU. There is frequently a narrow vision focused on the Johnson/Gove/Duncan Smith axis and the phantom menace of Farage. The referendum comes to be seen as a threat from the Right to make things even worse in British society by exiting the EU.

There are so many problems with that perspective. But let's - by way of illustration - consider Barack Obama's visit to London this week. The US president strongly advocated a Remain vote and specifically indicated that the UK won't be part of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) in the event of Brexit (this is meant to be A Bad Thing that scares us into sticking with the status quo).
Nick Clegg - who you may dimly recall was once Lib Dem leader and deputy prime minister - commented that Brexit will be a bad thing for our 'empire', the Union and the 'special relationship' (with the US). For any socialist, that is surely a succinct list of three very good reasons to vote to leave the EU. Yet there's a substantial layer of socialists who appear to regard such big geopolitical realities as less important than giving Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage a bloody nose.

Despite Obama's warning on TTIP, some on the left are determined to insist that leaving the EU will actually make no difference to whether TTIP - and its corporate raiding of public assets - happens to us. This is simply wrong. Whatever uncertainties there may be about the consequences of Brexit, we know that the UK can't be part of TTIP if outside the EU.
Then we invariably get the suggestion that a post-Cameron Tory leadership would actually negotiate something even worse for us. This is highly speculative and ignores the chronic problems faced by the Tories. In any case, shouldn't such decisions be in the remit of elected national parliaments not the EU? Wouldn't it be better for the activist left - and for the potential of mass campaigning and mobilisation - if such things were brought into the national democratic realm?


Another world is possible
The issue of TTIP illustrates so much of what's going on in the broad left-wing debate about this referendum. It's a reminder of the reality of the EU as a deeply neoliberal institution  - and an elite club for the transnational capitalist class and its politicians - that rides roughshod over any semblance of democracy. It has been made abundantly clear that Brexit will constitute a big setback for TTIP, yet there are layers of this country's left that don't wish to take that opportunity, instead insisting that we must stay in so we can change it.

We need a bigger, bolder vision on the left: one that recognises the EU for what it is, and advocates a Leave stance on that basis, but that also affirms a powerful vision of genuine international, anti-racist and anti-neoliberal solidarity in opposition to the EU and our own government. Should there ever be a Corbyn-led Labour government, the EU will emphatically be a barrier not a friend. No amount of rhetoric about 'reform' will alter that.
The EU is a constraint on the people of Europe ending austerity. It is a constraint (to put it very mildly) on free movement into Europe by the people of the Global South. And it is a constraint on anything democratic and popular that may fall foul of the capitalist class.

For these reasons, we should be getting out of the EU and raising the banner of something better. In a debate dominated by the Right on both 'sides', we sorely need a clear and coherent Left Leave alternative.


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Friday, 15 April 2016

DEBUNKED: 12 left-wing reasons for remaining in the EU

In recent weeks I have encountered a variety of reasons, from fellow socialists, for staying in the European Union and voting Remain in the 23 June referendum. Here I outline the most common reasons and offer my own responses.

1. The EU has given us workers' rights and social protections. Leaving the EU will mean we lose those.

It is overwhelmingly a combination of trade unions and domestic governments (mainly Labour) that have delivered those modest protections. It is through collective working class struggle that we can defend (and extend) them.

Such protections are in any case meagre, and they cannot be revoked by the Tories without a struggle because EU laws are subsequently incorporated into domestic UK law. The EU is overwhelmingly dedicated to the interests of finance and business, not to support for the trade unions.

The Tories can happily push through their draconian attacks in the Trade Union Bill within the framework of the EU. If anything will stop them, it will be trade union resistance. The TUC's preoccupation with campaigning to stay in the EU has actually somewhat demobilised opposition to the Bill.

2. We need the EU to protect human rights - the Tories will shred our rights otherwise.

The European Court of Human Rights and the European Convention on Human Rights have nothing at all to do with the EU. They are completely unaffected by this referendum.

3. This is a referendum on migration and to vote Leave is effectively to oppose immigration into the UK.

No it isn't. The referendum's outcome will make no direct difference to migration laws and rights. The battles over migrants' rights are already happening and will continue after 23 June, whatever the result, with quite different dividing lines to those we are seeing on the EU referendum.    

While many right-wing Leave supporters are motivated partly by hostility to immigration, left-wing opponents of the EU are implacable anti-racists who stand up for freedom of movement and migrants' rights. And the mainstream pro-EU camp is hardly friendly to migrants’ rights, with David Cameron negotiating away as many such rights as possible to secure a deal with the European Commission before launching the referendum.

Polling has shown that immigration is a major issue influencing how people will vote, but that it's way behind the economy in importance. This is certainly not a referendum on immigration and the debate is not dominated by that issue, as some on the left feared.

4. Brexit will lead to migrants being deported in huge numbers from the UK.

No it won't. No section of the British ruling class, or of the Tory government, wants that. Cheap migrant labour is good news for many employers. For the Tories - for every strand of the Tory Party, whether pro-EU or anti-EU - this economic imperative is combined with the need for racist scapegoating.

Also, such large-scale deportations would be highly contentious and enormously difficult in practice. And they would raise the difficult question of why British emigrants should be allowed to remain in the EU countries they have moved to. In any case, the direction of political travel inside the EU is clearly to start resurrecting border controls, so the EU provides no long-term guarantees of freedom of movement.

5. Brexit will lead to a carnival of racist reaction.

The same was said of the referendum campaign. But it hasn't happened and it clearly isn't going to happen. This referendum is taking place in the context of important political upheavals that are largely beneficial to the left, following the rise of Jeremy Corbyn to Labour's leadership.

News headlines in recent weeks have concerned George Osborne's disastrous budget, Iain Duncan Smith's resignation, the crisis in the steel industry and the toxic fallout from the Panama Papers. The Tories' divisions have - pleasingly - deepened.

There is no need for such miserablism and fatalism on the left, especially given that the most immediate result of a Leave victory in June will likely be the prime minister's resignation (not to mention a defeat for everyone from Barack Obama to the European Central Bank, from the IMF to the bulk of the City of London).

6. The EU is at least some sort of shelter against a Tory government.

No it isn't. And no it won't be. This is the same EU that smashed the Greek left-wing government's attempts to defy austerity.

The Tories are not some uniquely awful right-wing government. There are many right-wing governments in the EU, the 'centre-left' governments are little better, and the EU itself is deeply conservative and has neoliberal commitments embedded deeply in it.

Also, why should we cling to an utterly undemocratic edifice? If a Corbyn-led Labour Party should be elected in 2020 - or earlier, given the Tories' crisis - the EU will be a severe barrier to attempts to deliver positive reforms. We can’t be trapped by the fatalistic short-termism of assuming we face a vicious right-wing government.

7. We may avoid TTIP, but a Tory government led by Eurosceptics would simply negotiate an even worse deal with the US.

Let them try it! Such efforts would be subject to the British parliamentary process - not merely the remote and obscure world of Brussels politics - and therefore also to mass popular opposition. Such big decisions about trade deals - about powerful corporations grabbing, and profiting from, our public assets and services - should be subject to democracy. This is a fundamental principle for the left.

We should also be clear that TTIP is not going to be defeated inside the EU's structures. The European parliament has very weak powers on this, as on everything else. It is a highly secretive matter for the unelected European Commission (whose trade commissioner notoriously declared that she doesn't take her mandate from the people).

8. If Cameron and Osborne are forced out, they will simply be replaced by even worse Tories.

The Tories are split and in crisis. It's getting, if anything, worse for them. This mounting crisis is for a number of reasons, Europe merely one among them. Broadly speaking, this crisis is a boost for the left, the labour movement and the working class.

A defeat for Cameron in the referendum will make things even worse for the Tories - and will scupper any remaining chance (already slim) of Osborne replacing him. Whoever does take over will do so in deeply unfavourable conditions, presiding over a divided party. That will shape their prospects. Bring it on!

9. The EU may be awful, but it can be reformed.

No it can't. It is not democratic and there are no mechanisms for reforming it. It is deeply bureaucratic and has many commitments to neoliberal mantras enshrined in it, via a series of treaties and rulings.

It would, in any case, require genuinely left-wing governments coming to office across the EU - pretty much simultaneously - to make such reform an even slightly viable proposition. There is no indication of this being remotely likely to happen.

10. The EU may be flawed, but it still functions as a forum for much-needed international co-operation on issues from climate change to tackling tax evasion.

No it doesn't. This claim featured in Jeremy Corbyn's speech this week, but there's scant evidence to support it. The EU has had extraordinarily little impact on these particular fields. It has not even slightly restrained capitalism from destroying our climate - any more than it's restrained the super-rich from robbing their national treasuries (and thus the people) by putting their money where it can't be taxed.

It has, however, been a useful forum for strengthening transnational corporations and powerful corporate interests. Brussels is a hive of well-funded corporate lobbying. It's really no surprise that the Confederation of British Industry is so overwhelmingly behind the Remain campaign - or that the IMF this week declared strongly for the UK staying in the EU.

11. The EU may not be working well, but we need it for any prospective international co-operation.

Should we also argue for the maintenance of the IMF, WTO, World Bank and Nato? No serious socialist wants to sustain those institutions. The left wants to dismantle them because they are institutions of the capitalist and ruling class elites.

The same applies to the EU, which was founded and developed to advance business interests, has pushed for neoliberal policies of cuts, deregulation and privatisation for over 20 years and has overseen the barbarism of 'Fortress Europe'.

Real internationalism comes from below. It advances through joint struggles of working class and oppressed people. It doesn't rely - even slightly - on remote and elite institutions. The European Central Bank is one of the EU's institutional bodies. Anyone who thinks it can be a friend of the working class has not been paying attention.

12. It is better to be a 'European' - whatever the EU's limits - than a 'Little Englander'.

It's better to be an internationalist - with a truly global perspective and truly global solidarity - than either of them. Our vision should not be limited by the (ever more repressive) borders of Europe, with black and brown bodies from outside Europe drowning – in their thousands – in the sea. 

We can make common cause with American fast food workers and Egyptian revolutionaries, with Palestinian activists and Brazilian pro-democracy demonstrators, regardless of whether their countries are in the EU.

There is nothing inherently progressive about Europeanism. Proud 'Europeanism' is entirely compatible with the most vile forms of racism - and indeed it often is, as much of the European far right articulates the alleged superiority of 'European civilisation' over the predominantly Muslim, supposedly backward and dangerous, Other. International solidarity is in no way aided by the pieties of being proud Europeans.

This is not a vote on whether we want to be ‘part of Europe’. It is a vote on an institution: the European Union. It’s an institution that has done far more harm than good. We should get out of it, both for the sake of the great majority of people here and to weaken the EU as a whole. 


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Thursday, 14 April 2016

Tories in crisis, EU in crisis - vote to Leave


On Thursday 23 June 2016, there will be a referendum on UK membership of the European Union. Millions of voters will have a straightforward In/Out choice. Most polls have indicated a victory for those seeking to remain in the EU, though some have given a tiny lead for leaving the EU.
It is the first such referendum since 1975, when those wishing to retain British membership of what was then called the Common Market - which Britain had joined just two years earlier - won around two thirds of the votes. The Labour left, led by the likes of Tony Benn, was opposed to the Common Market and played a very major role in the Leave campaign. Tory Eurosceptics were fairly marginal, while racist arguments barely registered.

In 2016, the mainstream EU debate is dominated by the Tories and involves two competing right-wing blocs. Labour is almost entirely united in wanting to remain in the EU, a position also supported overwhelmingly by Lib Dems, Greens and the SNP. 

The EU has been through a process of progressive enlargement, now consisting of 28 countries with a combined population of 510 million people. No country has ever left the EU.
If Brexit is the outcome of June's referendum, it will have profound repercussions for the EU as well as deepening the existing crisis of Britain's Tory government. Tory MPs are split down the middle and it is likely David Cameron would be forced to resign as prime minister in the event of a defeat for Remain campaigners.
 
Divided Tories
Cameron made a pre-election promise to hold a referendum by 2017. Since winning the May 2015 general election, he has been obliged to deliver on his promise. He had originally wanted to placate Tory Eurosceptics and stem the rise of hard-right party UKIP. He would rather get the referendum out of the way, hoping to re-unite Tories after a Remain victory - but this is likely to prove wishful thinking, with divisions persisting whatever the referendum result. 

Pressures within the Tory Party obliged Cameron to take the remarkable, and highly risky, step of allowing a free vote, even for cabinet members (giving them permission to campaign on either side in the months before the vote). Several cabinet members are Leave supporters.
Division over the EU has intersected with other tensions to generate an ongoing Tory crisis, highlighted by Iain Duncan Smith's dramatic resignation as work and pensions secretary and the furious speculation about the political future of George Osborne, the beleaguered chancellor of the exchequer.
Cameron renegotiated the terms of UK membership of the EU in early 2016. There was little substance to the deal, but it was wholly reactionary; designed to win over a layer of Eurosceptics, it involved attacks on migrants' rights and benefits. This undoubtedly failed - with around half of Tory MPs backing the Leave position - and it means the nature of British EU membership is even more draconian than before. 

The Tory party is traditionally the loyal party of the British ruling class. But there is a contradiction: the British ruling class is overwhelmingly pro-EU, correctly recognising that it serves the interests of broad swathes of British capitalism, while the Tory Party is profoundly split on the issue. 

A ruling class project
The EU and its forerunners have always been an elite capitalist project, backed by the great majority of the wealthy and powerful. From the 1950s onwards it became apparent that the UK couldn't rely on the old empire - or the Commonwealth after the post-war wave of decolonisation - for trade and business. Closer economic ties within Europe, especially with Germany and France, were deemed good for business.
The dominant idea was that this should be combined with a close trading and business relationship with the US - and of course an exploitative relationship with the 'developing world', especially former colonies. This was considered a crucial element in sustaining British standing in the world.

Since the 1990s the EU has been explicitly committed to the neoliberal doctrines pioneered by Margaret Thatcher in 1980s Britain. The Maastricht Treaty of 1993 enshrined these in EU law, a process continued ever since (including the Lisbon Treaty of 2009). The UK has been in the vanguard of pushing neoliberalism - privatisation, deregulation, cuts - at European level.
Tory divisions over EU integration have continuously flared since the early 1990s. Many Thatcherites perceived the EU as a barrier to full-blooded neoliberal transformation. It epitomised, for them, a soft 'social compromise' model, a view encouraged by EU Commission President Jacques Delors' speech to the TUC in 1988, which was characterised by (largely illusory) promises of social protections.

There have also long been genuine differences of emphasis inside the ruling class over international alliances, reflected in some Tory politicians advocating a looser approach to Europe. Such politicians often emphasise the relationship with the US as an alternative focus, or perhaps stronger links with 'emerging markets' like China.

EU in crisis
This long-running conflict inside the Tory Party is now being played out against the background of a deepening crisis of the EU itself. There are three strands to the crisis.
Firstly there has been a set of tensions resulting from economic crisis, since the Crash of 2008, accentuated by imbalances in the Eurozone. The PIIGS (Portugal, Italy, Ireland, Greece, Spain) - which tend to be characterised as the 'periphery' in contrast to the 'core' (led by Germany) - have suffered especially harshly.

The crisis of the Eurozone has been the basis for deep austerity programmes which have reduced working class living standards. The EU has played an important part in all this, trampling over democracy when necessary.

Secondly, there is the destruction of Greece's left-wing government. The capitulation of the Syriza-led administration to the dictates of European capitalism - with the EU in the vanguard of the attacks on the Greek people and their elected government - represented the defeat of an important attempt to break from austerity.

This created a crisis of legitimacy for the EU, leading to disgust at its anti-democratic savagery from many people across the continent. It exposed any rhetoric about 'a family of nations', or ideas about the EU being socially progressive, as a sick joke. The reality of the EU was laid bare.

Thirdly, there is the refugee crisis. The EU's racist 'Fortress Europe' policy has led to thousands of desperate people drowning in the Mediterranean in recent years. Fences are now going up in parts of Europe, as countries squabble over how many (or how few) refugees they are willing to offer sanctuary to. Strains between nations have intensified and racist populism has increasingly been deployed by EU governments.

Vicious authoritarianism is the new normal. There is a ramping up of domestic repression at the same time as efforts to keep refugees out of Europe, despite the fact that a confederation of over 500 million people could certainly absorb the numbers seeking refuge.

Brexit threat
The threat of Brexit is now another problem for the EU. The withdrawal of such a major nation state will significantly weaken the whole project.
The dominant pro-EU elements in the British political elite and ruling class are engaged in Project Fear to avert that outcome. In this, they are strongly supported by European elites and indeed also the US administration - Barack Obama has warned that Brexit would damage the US-European relationship, which is to some extent mediated through the UK.
For Cameron and his allies, EU membership remains a vital element in sustaining the UK's economic, political and military standing in the world. It is similar in this respect to Nato membership, Trident renewal, participation in air strikes on Syria and the unity of the British state (as opposed to Scottish independence). All of these things are, in their eyes, aspects of British prestige and global standing. It was no surprise, for example, when a list of former armed forces chiefs signed a letter urging voters to choose to remain in the EU.

Much of the opposition to the European Union comes from the political Right – both from one half of the Tory Party and from the Tories-in-exile found in Ukip. But - as should be obvious from the sketch of the political context above - there are also sound reasons for the left to advocate leaving (and consequently weakening) the EU.
The EU is a profoundly undemocratic set of institutions dominated by an unelected Commission, with a very weak and remote parliament. It has for over two decades been central to the pushing of neoliberal policies across the continent and, since 2008, has spearheaded often devastating cuts. The EU and its constituent governments are key drivers of racist scapegoating.

For these reasons, socialists should vote to leave the EU on 23 June.
 
A time of flux
The Labour Party continues to be dominated by pro-EU thinking, despite the leftwards shift represented by Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership (and Corbyn’s own reservations on this issue), though there is little enthusiasm for meekly echoing Tory arguments and allying with Cameron. This has made it impossible to build a mass, broad-based campaign for a leave vote, on a left-wing basis, but it is still essential to communicate the facts and arguments.
At the time of writing, there is a mounting – and seemingly intractable – crisis for the Tories. George Osborne’s budget was a disaster and was swiftly followed by Iain Duncan Smith’s resignation from the cabinet and a major climbdown on cuts to disability benefits.

The tide of public opinion has turned against austerity and the government’s proposals for forced academy conversion have generated a fierce backlash from teachers, parents and others. The crisis in the steel industry, with 40,000 jobs at risk, damaged the Tories and the Panama Papers’ revelations have hit the prime minister personally.

The Tories are in trouble – and it will get worse for them if the referendum delivers a vote to leave the EU. Labour, led by Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell, is now providing real opposition on many issues, while protest movements challenge the Tories on the streets and the junior doctors’ strikes threaten to herald a revival of collective workplace resistance to government attacks.

The referendum takes place in a time of extraordinary flux in both British and European politics.


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Sunday, 20 March 2016

Tories in a mess - we can bring this government down

I write this at the end of an awful week for the Tories: their worst week, by some distance, since they formed a majority government as a result of last May's general election.

It bears comparison to the 'omnishambles' budget of 2012, when a tax cut for the richest was widely contrasted with regressive changes for millions of ordinary people, leading to a drop in the Tories' poll position that they didn't reverse until autumn 2014. As on that occasion, chancellor George Osborne is at the heart of things.

The fall of Iain Duncan Smith

Iain Duncan Smith's resignation from the cabinet was the stand-out development of the week and the biggest piece of fallout (so far) from a badly mis-judged budget. Of course he hasn't suddenly discovered a conscience after nearly six years as a Work and Pensions Secretary making vicious cuts to social security.

But his resignation does reflect genuine tensions among the Tories over how far they can go in making cuts. Many cabinet ministers resent how far they are pushed by the Treasury to make cuts in their own departments, while nonetheless agreeing with the larger austerity project. This resignation came as a surprise, but it was perhaps just a matter of time before a cabinet minister stood down as a result of these tensions.
 
One interpretation of the resignation is that Duncan Smith has entirely cynically, and cleverly, stood down so he can damage the 'Remain' campaign in the EU referendum. This is to credit him with too much control over events.
 
No: he is stumbling around, as are others, and (while the referendum is part of the backdrop) this is primarily about tensions over the cuts. Remember, too, that this is a party with only a tiny Commons majority, split deeply over the EU, operating a time when the popular legitimacy of austerity is falling.

The resignation's impact has been amplified by the manner of Duncan Smith's departure. He clearly wanted to inflict damage on Osborne as he made for the exit, with a resignation letter that was polite and flattering in places but quietly devastating in others. There are echoes of Geoffrey Howe's resignation speech which triggered the downfall of Margaret Thatcher as prime minister in 1990. On that occasion it emerged that a 'dead sheep' could be savaging after all. It now seems a 'quiet man' can cause more damage than anyone had imagined.

The immediate trigger for the resignation was the cuts to disability benefits announced in the budget - or perhaps it was the widespread political and public backlash to them which swiftly followed. Less widely reported than Duncan Smith's resignation, but also significant, was the revelation on Friday that the Treasury would not in fact proceed with these cuts.
 
A U-turn in just 48 hours is remarkable, influenced no doubt by polling which suggested massive public opposition. It created an impression that the budget was swiftly unravelling, and made Osborne look weak and unable to impose his will. Another under-reported development this week was the House of Lords rejecting three major planks of the Tory Trade Union Bill  - a setback for the draconian anti-union attacks.

A wider crisis 

Overall the budget has proved relatively unpopular. This isn't simply due to the content of the budget itself. It is in large part due to the role of the official Opposition in putting across the kind of strong opposition unknown during the Miliband years. In particular it was significant that Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn and shadow chancellor John McDonnell targeted the cuts affecting disabled people, making these cuts a central issue of contention.

This instance of excellent judgement by Corbyn and McDonnell is one reason why it has been a very good week for Labour - and particularly the Labour left - not merely a bad week for the Tories. Another reason is the series of three opinion polls - between 12 March and 17 March - which all showed Labour making gains of up to 4% (compared to the pollsters' previous surveys) and the Tories dropping by up to 4%. One poll - by YouGov - even put Labour one point ahead of the Tories. While polls should be treated with caution, this is significant progress compared with the entire period since Corbyn's election as leader last September.

It looks like three factors lie behind the Tories' polling woes. One is the deep splits over the EU, with roughly half of Tory MPs on each side of the referendum debate. A divided party doesn't look strong to voters.
 
Secondly, there's the repeated recent warnings about the state of the economy. Osborne's reputation for good economic management (hard to believe on the left, but this is a common public perception) has taken some serious knocks.
 
Finally, there is evidence that the public mood is shifting against cuts - a process that may prove to be accelerated by this week's budget. Polling has found that on three separate measures - whether cuts are considered necessary, whether they're good for the economy, and fairness - support has fallen over the last few months.

It's getting worse for the Tories
 
This is therefore serious for the Tories, and not some passing turbulence. As Jon Lansman, a leading light in Labour left grouping Momentum, puts it: 'Three things are increasingly likely: Osborne's dead in the water, Cameron's next, and there'll only be one leadership election this year.'
 
Corbyn was astute in responding to Duncan Smith's resignation by calling for Osborne to go. Lansman's last point, too, is crucial: there has been much excitable media chatter about (all too real) divisions inside the Parliamentary Labour Party, but the focus is now shifting to the splits among the Tories.

Osborne has long been regarded as the frontrunner to succeed Cameron as Tory leader. The Tory establishment is now panicking as it looks like their favourite son is extremely fallible. The speculation about when Cameron will go, who will stand for leader and who will subsequently win a leadership election all adds to the sense of the Tories as divided, squabbling and incoherent. This is tied up with the divisions over the EU referendum.
 
Polls on the EU referendum are volatile, but it does look genuinely possible that it will lead to Brexit. That would deepen the Tory crisis still further and it's hard to see Cameron surviving it as party leader and prime minister.
 
More pessimistic elements of the left had predicted a 'carnival of reaction' in the run up to the 23 June referendum, fearing a debate entirely dominated by racist scapegoating. Instead we are getting an unravelling Tory party. The Tories will continue to be weak and divided for the next 3 months; after that, whatever the referendum outcome, the tensions will hardly be resolved.
 
The other stand-out element of the budget was the announcement of 'forced academies', with all schools expected to become academies in the next few years. I have already responded to this - Stop the Tory assault on our schools - and will merely add that it has triggered an almighty backlash. Two separate online petitions condemning the announcement have already reached 100,000 names, or are very close to doing so. NUT associations nationwide have called protests for this Wednesday.
 
Labour and the movements
 
All of this is a disaster for the Blairite vultures seeking to destabilise Corbyn's leadership. The Tory crisis, Labour's polling bounce, the fall in support for cuts, the anti-academies backlash - all this strengthens the left (around Corbyn and McDonnell) relative to the right inside the Labour Party. They are still hoping for poor Labour results in May's elections, as an excuse to launch an attack on the leadership, but that is looking less and less likely.
 
Corbyn and McDonnell have, as noted, played an important part in the events of this week. Corbyn's leadership victory was on the back of a popular upsurge and fuelled by protest movements. He continues to take strength from popular support way beyond the largely hostile PLP - from Labour members and from activists in the wider movements (as seen in the big turnouts for the recent JC4PM tour). Sustaining this momentum is crucial to exploit the weaknesses on the Tory side, and to further marginalise the Labour Right.
 
It is significant that party leaders have aligned themselves closely with the wider anti-Tory opposition: for example, Corbyn will speak at NUT Conference on Friday, while McDonnell has recently been pictured on junior doctors' picket lines and addressing disabled anti-cuts protesters. The moderate shadow education secretary Lucy Powell will speak at Wednesday's NUT rally in London.   
 
So, we are certainly not spectators to all this. Tens of thousands marched against Trident replacement just three weeks ago. This weekend there was another big turnout, this time for a 'refugees welcome here' demonstration. The junior doctors are already pledged to further strikes and there is talk of escalation. The People's Assembly's March for Health, Homes, Jobs and Education on 16 April is a focal point for anti-cuts campaigners.
 
Through mass mobilisations and solidarity with the junior doctors' strikes - the most important union struggle for years - aligned with a combative, left-wing Labour leadership, we can drive the Tories deeper into crisis and raise the possibility of this government's collapse.

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Wednesday, 16 March 2016

Academies: stop the Tory assault on our schools


In one sense it is a shock that George Osborne has used his budget to announce plans for turning every state school into an academy. This wasn't part of the predictions. But in another sense it is to be expected: this has been the direction of travel for a long time. Labour introduced the academies programme and the Tories -  first in coalition, now with a Commons majority - have accelerated academy conversion.
Control of what happens in schools has never been more centralised than it is in 2016. That's after years of academy conversions, a process that is supposed to be about local autonomy - cutting bureaucracy and putting teachers in charge of schools.

Yet we see heavy interference from the Department for Education in all matters relating to curriculum and assessment. Recently we even had Nick Gibb, schools minister, intervening directly in a controversy over when year 2 children can, and cannot, use exclamation marks! Ofsted is used as a tool of compliance in schools; high-stakes testing, performance management and performance related pay all play their part, too, in enforcing narrow, rigid orthodoxies.

The whole academies programme has always had scope for allowing private business into the public sphere of schooling, enabling them to profit from education. This is wrong in principle and, if the government is allowed to pursue forced academisation, we will no doubt see numerous examples of unscrupulous characters profiting from the further carving up of our schools system.

It also doesn’t work on the government’s own declared terms of raising standards. There is damning evidence that academies are in fact more likely to remain stuck in Ofsted's 'inadequate' category, for example. But this has never been about improving schools or raising standards. It is a highly political attack on state education and many of the values and practices that have long been embedded in it, as well as a means of opening up public services to those seeking private profit.

The Tories have tried cajoling schools into converting for years. They have tried threats and bribery. Much of this effort has paid off, but many headteachers, governors and school staff have remained resistant - often supported by parents who simply want a good school for their children and don't (quite reasonably) see how the chimera of being an academy will make the slightest possible difference.

Insisting that every school becomes an academy can only make things worse. Increased central control is combined with the illusion of autonomy, more competition between schools, and greater fragmentation. The government trumpets multi-academy chains as a way for schools to work together. What's wrong with a local education authority? Other policies and trends - like league tables, the continuance of Ofsted and competition over school admissions - cut directly against the co-operative ethos and discourage schools from supporting each other.

What's needed, instead, is quite simple. We need a good local school for every child, with schools working together co-operatively, publicly accountable, and supported constructively by all possible means. There are examples of local authorities, or other networks of (non-academy) schools, that illustrate how schools can share successful practices, co-operate, and learn from each other. It doesn’t help, however, that local government has been devastated by cuts for the several years. We need increased funding for local education authorities so they can properly support schools.

To resist - and stop - the Tories' fresh assault we will need organisation, unity and dedication. Previously they have got away with it largely because there has been no nationally co-ordinated programme of academy conversion. The Tories are taking a risk here, triggering potential for a generalised response. The teaching unions need to work together to make that potential a reality.

Labour has consistently been weak on this issue. That hasn't changed substantially since Jeremy Corbyn's leadership election victory: Lucy Powell, shadow education secretary, has had little to say about anything at all, including academies. Thankfully Labour's initial response to the latest development is one of clear opposition, but the party will need sustained pressure to make it a priority, and to join with unions and campaign groups in building real opposition.

The key to success for teaching unions will be combining cross-union cooperation with building a broader coalition involving parents and the wider community. This is not simply, or even primarily, an issue affecting teachers, but one with an impact on the education which current and future generations have access to. The stakes are high - the fight is on. 
 
This is cross-posted at Counterfire.


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Trotsky vs Baldwin: is 'gradualness' the British way?

The suffragettes: one of those inconvenient truths for Baldwin
Here's my brief introduction to Counterfire's re-posting of a classic Trotsky article from 1925:

Leon Trotsky was one of the leaders of the Russian Revolution in 1917 and, for several years afterwards, a leading figure in the socialist government of Russia's new workers' state. He was also a prominent voice in the international communist movement that mushroomed after 1917, writing about a wide range of international topics.

Analysis and action went together: he commented on major political developments with a view to influencing socialists in the countries he was writing about, hoping to influence the strategy and tactics they would pursue.

Britain had been shaken by strike waves and demonstrations after the end of World War One. In 1919 the country came closer to a revolutionary situation than at any other time in the 20th century. There was a period of fluctuating, sometimes dramatic, class struggle until the defeat of the General Strike in 1926.

This was part of a wider European upsurge that involved a number of countries, most significantly Germany, experiencing revolutionary upheavals. This wider upsurge was also the context for the growth of Communist Parties and for intense debates in the labour movement, which involved large reformist parties (like Britain's Labour Party) as well as the newer Communist Parties. In Britain the Communist Party was launched in 1920 and played a dynamic role in working class movements for the next several years, though it didn't have more than a few thousand activists.

Trotksy's published writings on Britain in the 1920s include the 1925 article re-published below. He begins by mocking the then Tory prime minister, Stanley Baldwin, who was a huge figure in interwar British politics, and responds to Baldwin's dismissal of socialist ideas. Baldwin had returned to 10 Downing Street after the collapse of the first ever (but short-lived) Labour government in the previous year. At the time of Baldwin's speech - to which Trotsky was responding - there was consequently a fair amount of confidence and bounce in Tory ranks, but also an anxiety that stemmed both from several years of working class resistance and the spectre of communism emanating from Russia.

Trotsky moves on to the substance of his article. This is partly to do with the nature of how modern capitalist societies develop, and especially the way that wars and economic crises are engendered by them. But it also concerns something much more hopeful: if capitalism makes war and crisis inevitable, it also makes resistance - and indeed revolution - inevitable. And Britain - for all its fabled 'gradualness' - is not immune to that.

Trotsky documents how Britain's history is not the story of peaceful, gradual progress that Baldwin espoused, but a history of war, conquest, conflict and class struggle. He is especially scathing about the acutely violent record of British colonialism. He also notes how the English Revolution of the 1640s had been a vital motor of historical progress in Britain, a fact obscured by Tory fantasies of timelessness and social peace.

Trotsky goes on to sketch a radical, and truly bracing, alternative popular history of the 19th and early 20th centuries, which highlights the impact of wider international changes (especially the French Revolution) and the role of popular movements and workers' struggles. In this historical framework, Trotsky reasserts Marx's central idea that history is driven forward by class struggle and that hope lies in the self-emancipation of the working class. This, he shows us, is as relevant to supposedly 'gradual' and 'peaceful' Britain as to anywhere.


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