BREXIT DEBATE at Ruskin House

To reiterate our previous posting, communists seek fundamental change – to our economy, our democracy, our constitution, our relations with other nations, our response to climate change and, above all, change to break the power of the capital. It was good to hear Dave Ward, the General Secretary of the communications and postal union, CWU, express not dissimilar sentiments at the public meeting at Ruskin House last night. The other speaker, Cllr Patsy Cummings, running for the Croydon and Sutton GLA Labour candidate and widely acknowledged as a sound left winger and easily the best candidate on offer, simply declared that “Labour is a remain party”. Dave Ward showed a greater awareness of the difficulty for the Labour Party if they too blatantly abandon the commitment in their 2017 election manifesto to respect and implement the referendum decision to leave. He finessed the position significantly, stressing the need to negotiate ‘credible’ leave arrangements and referring to Jeremy Corbyn’s speech to the TUC this week where he confirmed the sequential strategy comprising

  • Stop a no deal Brexit in October.
  • A general election once this had been accomplished – Tom Watson’s argument for a general election first was dismissed.
  • Negotiations by a Labour government for a ‘credible’ exit from the EU.
  • The Labour negotiated deal to be “put to the people” – presumably a second referendum but there appeared to be some wriggle room here. There was, however, no mention of the nonsensical strategy advocated by Emily Thornberry of campaigning for remain regardless of any deal Labour might reach.
  • A programme of fundamental reform by the Labour government, including trade union freedom and the reintroduction of sectoral bargaining. This presumably (still) includes re-nationalisation of key industries, but the point was not stressed.

 

This strategy requires quite a few dominoes to fall in line and in sequence. As Marx wrote, we make our own history, but not in conditions of our own choosing. The weak spot in the Corbyn-Ward strategy is, first, that Labour could lose the next general election if they try to pass themselves off simply as a “remain party”. A substantial proportion of working class Labour voters, especially in key constituencies for Labour in the North, are Brexiters and, anyway, the LibDems got there first. Second, and even more critical, if we stay in the single market, as Labour favours, we would remain subject to the EU’s Four Freedoms. These comprise free movement within the EU of goods, services, people and capital. While free movement of goods and services can confer economic benefits, the EU referendum was fought by both the official campaigns, often dishonestly, around the issue of the free movement of people. It is, however, the free movement of capital that would undermine any attempt by a future Labour government operating within the single market to curtail the power of capital. This happened in Greece when the government found itself unable to halt the flight of capital following their own referendum in 2015. In consequence, in 2016 34,000 Greeks aged under 40 left the country to look for work. While many of them were no doubt grateful for their “right of free movement “, it’s pretty certain that most of them would have preferred a right to work instead.

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FLOPPY JOHNSON CAN’T GET AN ELECTION!

Not my words, but the tasteless banner headline today in the Scottish edition of the Sun. It’s an interesting contrast with their banner headline in the English edition: Is this the most dangerous chicken in Britain? beside a childish photofit picture of Jeremy Corbyn. How gullible does the Murdock press think we are? Don’t they realise that in the internet age we can spot the contradictions between their English and Scottish editions?

2019 has not been a good year for parliamentary democracy. With Teresa May’s government, shackled by its dependence on the Ulster Unionists following an ill-judged (by her) general election, it wasted the years following the EU Referendum in 2016 failing to negotiate a credible withdrawal agreement that parliament would approve. Now her successor, elected by a few thousand moribund Tory Party members, has been thwarted by the Tories’ own Fixed Term Parliament Act 2011 from calling a general election intended to run the clock down to 31 October. How ironic that this Act was never intended to deprive future prime ministers from calling mid-term general elections, it was passed to shore up an unpopular Tory-Lib Dem coalition while it implemented the austerity programme to pay for the bailout of the banks.

Communists seek fundamental change – to our economy, our democracy, our constitution, our relations with other nations, our response to climate change and, above all, to break the power of the capital. Johnson may very well find a way to wriggle out of the Fixed Term Parliament Act. He might even find a way to free us from the political and economic constraints that the EU imposes on us – but only with the intention of again requiring ordinary working people to pay the price and of seeking to subordinate us to US capital. We need to be rid of him and his loathsome government but not necessarily at a time of his choosing.

WHY COMMUNISTS SUPPORT BREXIT

Communists have steadfastly supported Brexit, or, more specifically, Lexit, the left alternative to the Tory ambition of turning the UK into the “Singapore of the West”. While we found much of the official Brexit campaign distasteful and dishonest, and while we are concerned about how the official Brexit campaign was financed, our support has not waivered. In part, this is because we can draw support from the Communist Manifesto where Marx and Engels wrote:

Though not in substance, yet in form, the struggle of the proletariat with the bourgeoisie is at first a national struggle. The proletariat of each country must, of course, first of all settle matters with its own bourgeoisie.

While communists do not treat the works of Marx and Engels as holy writ, we do find their overall logic reliable, persuasive and borne out by subsequent history. Their advice here is therefore worth re-examining and can help us navigate the current confused and confusing Brexit debate on the Left.

Written some 170 years ago, the terminology used by Marx and Engels is now a little obscure. The term “proletariat” is no longer in everyday use. While it is still employed (in Marxist economic theory concerning labour value), its meaning in the Communist Manifesto, as Engels made clear in his preface to the 1888 English edition, is simply “workers”, i.e. all those who live by selling their labour and who lack an alternative source of sustenance. Similarly, since Marx and Engels employed the term “bourgeoisie”, it has come to mean the aspirational, salaried middle class. Marx and Engels were not referring to these. They were referring to “capitalists” and what we now sometimes refer to as “the 1%”.

Given these clarifications, what did Marx and Engels mean by the struggle between workers and capitalists being “though not in substance, yet in form….at first a national struggle”? This was their recognition that, even in the first half of the nineteenth century, national economies were inter-connected and the exploitation of workers does not stop at national borders. Thus the struggle between workers and capitalists takes place initially within the context of the nation state and workers are therefore well advised to concentrate first on the struggle for state power before seeking to change supra-national structures.

With these clarifications in mind, how should we apply the advice in the Communist Manifesto to the current Brexit situation? There are undoubtedly risks for workers in Britain in any meaningful form of Brexit. These risks are especially acute for workers in our export manufacturing industries and those employed by our “financial services industry”. As the excellent film The Spider’s Web, recently shown at Ruskin House to unanimous acclaim and now available on U-tube, argued, much of this activity is parasitic and concerned with tax avoidance, but it does,nevertheless, employ many ‘workers’ as defined above. There will, however, be economic gains from curtailing much of this activity, and these gains can be put to good use, once we are outside the EU, promoting more useful employment. Less of a threat is the loss of workers’ rights bestowed by the EU on workers in Britain. The most worthwhile worker rights that still exist are those we won ourselves in domestic struggle. The EU did nothing to protect workers in Greece in 2015 and has done nothing to inhibit the disastrous growth of zero hours contacts and the undermining of trade union rights in the UK. The loss of its ‘protection’ will be of little significance.

Notwithstanding the risks to export industry and City jobs, Brexit can provide an opportunity to “settle matters” with our own bourgeoisie, i.e. the capitalists who own and run our country and their hangers on and spokespersons. The first step must therefore be demand a general election so we can kick out this rotten and corrupt Tory government and give a Corbyn led Labour government the opportunity to negotiate a Brexit that ensures that the interests of workers and their families are prioritised. The Tories, with the assistance of the Lib Dems, made us pay for the 2007-8 financial crisis. They must not be allowed, with the assistance of the Ulster Unionists this time, to make us pay for turning the UK into the “Singapore of the West”.

Bring it on!

Writing in the current edition of the London Review of Books (6 December 2018), Rory Scothorne comments that, despite Corbyn and McDonnell’s ambitious proposals to transform Britain’s economic structure, constitutional reform is not amongst Labour’s priorities, and the electoral battle-bus “trundles down the same old parliamentary road towards the same old disappointments”. This moment of constitutional breakdown, he argues, demands a constitutional revolution. Instead the Labour Party is constrained by “adjectival manoeuvres”: Hard Brexit, Soft Brexit, Chaotic Brexit, No Deal, Tory and People’s Brexit. As communists, while recognising that they are dialectically related, we tend to give primacy of economic structure over constitutional superstructure, but Scothorne may have a point when he criticises Labour’s historic tendency to stick with existing constitutional structures. Reform not revolution has always been the Labour approach and , even under a Corbyn-led government, this will doubtless continue.

In his extended editorial in the Morning Star on Saturday, Ben Chacko warns against the expected siren calls for Labour to enter a national government when May’s transitional agreement is rejected on Tuesday and the constitutional superstructure begins to wobble. Ben Chacko’s advice, which we can reasonably assume reflects that of the Communist Party’s Political Committee, is sound. The short-term priority for us following Parliament’s rejection of the May deal has to be to agitate for a general election in which we can exert maximum pressure on candidates (especially Labour ones) to ensure that the interests of the working class are given priority as we leave the EU, not the interests of those responsible for eleven years of austerity – the unsavoury gang comprising Big Business, bankers, the 1% and their spokespersons in Parliament, the Tories, Lib Dems and Labour Blairites.

So bring it on!

There is no parliamentary road to socialism

In the light of its concern that not all of the £8m Arron Banks gave to the unofficial Leave.EU campaign came from profits generated in the UK, the Electoral Commission has referred him to the National Crime Agency. This will only provoke hollow laughter from communists.

The Electoral Commission may have dragged their feet over this matter, but they invariably do this when the government itself is threatened. Amongst other examples is their protracted investigations into dodgy election expense returns by Tory candidates who now help prop up May’s wafer thin parliamentary majority. The work at the Electoral Commission is done by civil servants and, however independent they might consider themselves, they are, just like the legal system, part of the machine, share its outlook and priorities and are led by individuals drawn from its elite.

The central issue is not the feebleness of the Electoral Commission, it is the very nature of parliamentary democracy and its tainted offshoot, national referendums. Universal suffrage was originally feared by the capitalist class, but these fears were gradually allayed and, by the time it was finally attained in 1928, the system had learnt how to cope with the threat it posed to capitalism.

  • MPs were no longer to be mere delegates from their local parties – they were independent persons, responsible to the entire electorate, not those who selected them.
  • The mass media was owned by capital and public broadcasting was under the thumb of the government.
  • There was lots of lovely, unaccountable money sloshing about to lobby and buy influence.

Nothing has changed!

What is the solution? Not another auction/referendum on EU membership with Big Business buying the result it prefers. A general election would be by far the best remedy for the deficiencies in the last referendum; but, while we wish Corbyn well and are most impressed with the energy and enthusiasm of his supporters, they should not be misled into thinking that there is a parliamentary road to socialism. Freeing ourselves from the pseudo-democracy offered by the European Parliament and from the restrictions imposed on labour rights and nationalisation by the European Commission would be a step in the right direction, but what is really needed is

  • Root and branch democratic reform (or, more accurately, revolution) in which money, lobbying and a distorted media no longer plays a part and democracy extends into every aspect of our lives, including the workplace.
  • Recognition that the purpose of an MP or councillor is to represent, until recalled, those who selected him or her. It is not a career.

The Morning After

The vote to leave the EU, declared in the early hours of Friday morning, was a result of the fissures in British society. Of itself, it will do nothing to mend them, but it will provide an opportunity to do so – if we seize it.

What are these fissures? First, parliament does not reflect the class structure of the people it claims to represent. Thanks to First Past the Post, tolerance of lobbying by Big Business and private ownership and control of the mass media, Big Business is far better represented in parliament than you or I. Our MPs didn’t vote 52:48 for exit: the vast majority of them wished to stay in the EU. This bias was buttressed by the fact that, as individuals, they are, excluding a significant sprinkling of millionaires, largely drawn from the professional middle class. MPs like the veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who worked as a miner and trade union rep, are a fast dwindling minority. Having first hand experience as a worker and trade unionist, Dennis opposes the free movement of labour and capital within the EU because it damages the former and benefits the latter. As reflected in his autobiography Still Sailing Close to the Wind, there is not a hint of xenophobia in his attitude: it is based on the need for all workers, irrespective of colour and creed, to stand together and not to under-cut each other’s wages. Most MPs who supported Leave are Tories who either reflect the interests of smaller capitalists and landowners or who, like Boris Johnson, are driven by naked personal ambition.

The second fissure in British society is the wealth divide – a divide that is increasing due to the policy of Austerity. Under this policy, which George Osborne grotesquely threatened to intensify if voters dared to vote leave: public services, including health, education and social support are cut back; nothing is done to address the need to house ordinary working people; and income and wealth distribution is further skewed in favour of the wealthy. In the absence of a Labour Party able to explain the situation to them, many working class voters concluded that the EU was the cause of their problems. In that the EU was not doing anything to help address their problems, they were not wrong. The real issue, nevertheless, passed most of them by. If we are to build a better tomorrow, we need democratically controlled public ownership and a strong, democratic presence in the workplace . When the time comes to secure this, the EU would have stood in the way. The EU, under its various treaties, is committed to the free movement of labour. This means workers moving into areas where workers have secured for themselves better terms and conditions and driving them down to the ‘market ‘ rate. As Karl Marx demonstrated, this market rate tends to a minimal one – in the long run a subsistence rate. Opposing the treatment of labour as a commodity is the real case for voting to leave – and the Labour Party failed to make it.

A third fissure in UK society did not, however, contribute to the leave vote but cannot be ignored. The leave vote in the UK and the stay vote in Scotland have brought the break up of the UK closer. The Scots have every right to independence if that is their settled wish, but communists recognise that this could undermine working class solidarity in what is now the UK. The blame for the growth in the SNP and the eclipse of the Labour Party in Scotland can be laid at the door of the Blairites. Whether it is too late to re-assert Scottish Labour’s socialist commitment remains to be seen.

Nothing will, however, be gained if we sit back and await the coronation of Boris Johnson at the Tory Party Conference in the autumn. While a better world will require fundamental changes to our democracy and a communist/socialist government which prioritises the interests of ordinary working people, the immediate aim for Labour MPs and the TUC should be to press for an end to anti-trade union legislation and a strengthening of trade union rights under the legislation that will be needed following withdrawal from the EU. For the rest of us, including Croydon CP, we could do a lot worse than campaign in opposition to the view that it is for the Tory Party Conference to select the next Prime Minister and that it is no time for Labour MPs to try to unseat Jeremy Corbyn.

Branch Meeting on 16 June 2016

The Political Report and Discussion on 16 June dealt with the immediate political consequences of a vote to leave on 23 June – a prospect that seemed likely following an opinion poll earlier that day indicating a 6% lead over stay. The meeting was not fully briefed on the report that an MP (Jo Cox MP, Labour) had been murdered in her Yorkshire constituency earlier that day but expressed its sympathy with her family.

It was agreed that, if the referendum was won by leave, the pressure in Parliament on the present Tory government led by Cameron would be immense. The Tory majority was only 12, and it was difficult to see how, after all the animosities stirred up within their ranks during the campaign, the Tories could come together to form a government. Cameron would not be credible leader of a government required to negotiate with the EU the terms under which we leave; and having threatened to make workers pay for voting leave with more austerity, Osborne would not be a credible Chancellor.

Few at the meeting thought the Tories in Parliament would unite around Boris Johnson. A coalition government ‘in the national interest’ would be the typical response at times of ‘crisis’, but where would they find allies this time? The Lib Dems had paid the price for propping up the previous Tory administration and now had only 8 MPs. Regrettably, the most likely candidates to prop up a coalition government would be the large number of disaffected Labour MPs. Would they be capable of such treachery? The meeting sadly concluded many would.

The meeting also discussed the possibility of a snap general election. The Acting Secretary reminded the meeting that, under the Fixed-Term Parliaments Act 2011, a two thirds majority of MPs have to pass a motion calling for an early general election or pass a motion of no confidence and no alternative government was formed within 14 days. The meeting agreed that these were not insuperable obstacles, but could be used to enable a patched up government to cling on.

The meeting agreed that the outcome of a snap general election would be unpredictable. While the meeting felt that Corbyn would now make an attractive candidate for Prime Minister (the result of the Tooting by-election was unknown, but the signs were good [subsequently confirmed – big win for Labour] but he could be damaged by being on the losing side in the EU referendum debate and his own Parliamentary Labour Party might try to remove him before or after an election. He would, in any event, face a hostile media, who would stress the need for a ”safe pair of hands” at such a “critical time”. Strengthening the rights of trade unions had been the appropriate response to concerns about immigration, but having remained silent on the anti-union implications of the European Court of Justice verdicts on the Laval and Viking cases , it would be harder for Corbyn and the Labour Party to argue for stronger trade unions following a decision to leave.

The implications of an emboldened extreme right following a Leave vote was discussed, together with the possibility of the ultimate establishment response to any ‘crisis’ which threatened capitalism: the curtailment or suspension of parliamentary democracy and the imposition of military rule. While this might seem far-fetched, the frequency with which it had been resorted to in South America stood as a warning. The other possibility that the meeting was disinclined to dismiss was the imposition of a second referendum to reverse a first decision unacceptable to capital. It was noted that this had already happened on three occasions in the EU (by Denmark and Ireland twice) following the ‘wrong’ decision first time.

Other matters dealt with at the meeting included notice of the Croydon TUC public meeting on education on 28 June at Ruskin House and the forthcoming industrial action by the NUT.

Report on Croydon TUC’s Referendum Debate

The EU Referendum Debate hosted by Croydon TUC at Ruskin House yesterday (9 June) was a well attended event whose tone and content was very different to anything we are hearing on the BBC or reading in the mass media. None of the invited speakers and hardly anyone speaking from the floor raised the racist and anti-immigrant arguments discussed obsessively in the ‘official’ campaigns; and little heat was generated about the specious “facts” seen as pivotal in the ‘official’ debate. Indeed, there was wide agreement that the debate reported by the BBC in the mass media was little more than a row between two wings of the Tory Party and those hangers on foolish enough to be sucked/suckered into their squalid debate.

The case to stay in was put by Mark Serwotka, the much respected and admired General Secretary of the civil servants union PCS, speaking in a personal capacity. The leave case was put by Eddie Dempsey, a young and dynamic member of the Executive Committee of the rail union RMT which is a long standing opponent of the EU (and its predecessors the EC and the EEC). The third speaker was Steve Freeman from Republican Socialists group who argued for abstention in order to deny credibility to either of the ‘official’ campaigns.

There was a remarkable degree of consensus expressed and acknowledged by all three speakers. All agreed that the EU was based on:

  1. the free movement of capital and labour – a right wing, neo-liberal concept that benefitted the former but did little or nothing for the latter; and
  2. suppressed democracy and trade union rights – this being a deliberate strategy from the foundation of the EEC to ensure that workers were not in a position to overturn (1).

The different conclusions reached by the three speakers turned on their views on the immediate consequences of a vote to leave. For Eddie Dempsey it would sweep away both the Tories and the legal obstacle to public ownership that the EU provided. The Tories would split and an opportunity to build towards a socialist future would open up. Mark Serwotka feared that if we left the EU we would face continued Tory rule and a government set on making workers pay for the resulting economic uncertainty. For Steve Freeman, the immediate prospects were bleak whatever the outcome of the referendum: the real need was to unite the European working class and whether or not we were in the EU was irrelevant.

There was unanimous agreement that the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) currently being negotiated in secret by the European Commission and the US would be disastrous for the UK, but the speakers disagreed on whether leaving the EU would enable the UK to escape it. Again, these differing conclusions arose from the speakers’ different views on what government would come out on top following a vote to leave. A right wing government would, according to Mark Serwotka, drag us in; but for others it was undeniable that, in the short term at least, exit would enable us to escape TTIP.

There were a number of useful contributions from the floor, including one from Comrade Peter Latham of this branch who drew attention to the Lexit  or Left Leave Campaign.

At the end of the evening, the Chair, Jon Morgan, called for a show of hands on the voting intentions of those present. This was pretty evenly divided. The call to abstain didn’t, however, receive any significant support.

Note of Branch Meeting on 19 May 2016

The principal item on the agenda of the branch meeting on Thursday, 19 May, was a discussion and debate on the forthcoming EU Referendum.

The official campaigns and how they are being reported in the mass media were criticised. The misuse of public money and resources by the government in promoting the case for staying in came in for particularly severe criticism. Specious economic “facts” – actually forecasts by the same neo-classical and neo-liberal economists who had failed to predict, or even understand, the causes of the 2007-8 financial crisis – were uninformative and counter-productive. It was agreed by the meeting that the decision whether to stay or leave turned on the effect this would have on the growth in solidarity, consciousness and ability to act of the working class, both nationally and internationally. This could not be assessed in a binary way,  rubbishing all counter-arguments without consideration and emphasising immediate effects. What was required was a dialectical approach which took into account the origins and continuing development of the EEC/EU and how its democratic structures and recognition of trade union rights had developed. Such analysis pointed to exit.

The meeting agreed on the importance of national self-determination. While this pointed to exit, the Scottish and Irish dimensions were complicating factors. The potential for exit to encourage Scottish independence, resulting in the fracture of the working class on the UK mainland, had to be factored in, as had the effect of re-introducing a de-facto border between Northern Ireland and the Republic. These considerations deserved debate, not partisan dismissal.

The meeting welcomed the decision by Croydon TUC to hold a public debate at Ruskin House on Thursday, 9 June to be introduced by Mark Serwotka (Stay) and Eddie Dempsey (Leave). The meeting commended the branch’s officers for encouraging Croydon TUC to take this initiative.

Branch Meeting in April: debate on EU Referendum

The Croydon Branch met at Ruskin House at 7 pm on Thursday, 21 April, our usual third Thursday of the month. The Political Discussion this month centred on the EU Referendum.

Disappointment was expressed at the poor quality of the coverage of the debate in the mass media. This was partly due to the Government’s “project fear” strategy”. This employed the argument that the decision should be based on “facts”, much like its Gradgrindian policy for education. Yet the Government‘s official pamphlet failed the provide any “facts” on Exit despite the cost to taxpayers of £9.3 million, just opinion. The subsequent Treasury report purporting to show, as a ‘fact’, that every household would be £4,500 worse off by 2030 was equally specious. Yet the official Exit campaign could offer little response that was not xenophobic or racist.

In the view of the meeting, the political issues that needed to discussed were

  • The balance of class interests in the UK and the EU and whether these would be improved by Exit.
  • The lack of democracy in the EU.
  • Whether the UK by exiting could ameliorate the consequences of likely future EU collapse, whether triggered by the instability of its external and internal borders or by the inevitable collapse of the Euro.
  • Whether leaving would enable the UK to block TTIP – this question was subsequently answered in the affirmative by Cameron when he persuaded President Obama to say that the UK would ”go to the back of the Queue” (SIC) in any trade negotiations with the USA after we left. TTIP is the only pending negotiation!
  • How best to show solidarity with the workers in the EU, especially those in Greece currently subject to fierce attack and likely soon to endure worse.
  • The consequences of the UK as a whole voting to leave but Scotland voting to stay. Would the breakup of the UK be too high a price for workers in the UK to pay?

Fortunately, branch members on Croydon TUC have succeeded in persuading Croydon TUC to hold a debate in May where these issues will be raised and discussed. Watch this website for more details when known.

The other date to note is the Croydon May Day march on Saturday 30 April. Assemble at noon outside Marks & Spencer, North End for speeches and then a march to Ruskin House led by a pipe band. Comrades were encouraged to attend and help staff the Party stall at Ruskin House afterwards.