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.

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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.

The EU Referendum and TTIP

There is a progressive case for voting to leave the EU at the referendum in June and the Communist Party backs it. It relates to recognising what the EU is really about. The treaties creating the Union are bereft of aims to enhance democracy and promote the interests of working people. They are concerned about granting businesses four Fundamental Freedom, the freedom to:

provide services;

establish new businesses;

move capital; and

move labour

within the Union. Nothing of comparable importance attaches to workers’ rights, nor is there much emphasis on improving democracy across and within the EU. In consequence the European Parliament is toothless and is likely to remain so and there is no pressure on national governments to democratise what remains of their powers or to devolve them to local government. Thus the scandal of media ownership, corrupt representative democracy and the absence of workplace democracy in the UK has continued unchallenged and unabated.

In a thoughtful piece by John Hendy QC The terrible tale of the EU and Trade Union Rights   he describes the limited scope of social measures in EU treaties and what little they do for trade unionists in particular and workers in general. The Community Social Charter for the Rights of Workers adopted in 1989 proclaimed, amongst other things, the right to freedom of association, to negotiate and conclude collective agreements, and a right to resort to collective action including the right to strike. Mrs Thatcher duly called it a “Marxist Charter” (as if!) and, after much bitter opposition, it was afforded no more status than that of a “solemn proclamation”. A Social Charter Action Programme was subsequently adopted which led to modest Directives on workplace safety, work equipment, personal protective equipment , VDUs, manual handling, proof of the employment contract, posted workers, pregnant workers, young workers, and working time. The Maastricht Treaty in 1992, gave greater prominence to what was called the Social Chapter to which the UK Tory government promptly secured an opt-out. Amongst other things the Social Chapter provided for European level collective agreements between the “social partners” to be enforced as EU law. In fact very few such agreements have ever been reached because of resistance by employers. By the time Labour was elected and the UK opted back in again only four Directives had been adopted under the Social Chapter: on European Works Councils, parental leave, part-time work and burden of proof. The Treaties underpinning the EU were tweaked by the Amsterdam Treaty in 1997 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2000. As John Hendy concludes, they gave the illusion of a greater social dimension but little of substance.

This is thin gruel for those of us seeking more power and a better deal for ordinary working people. But we are nevertheless confronted with two problems in voting Out at the forthcoming referendum. The first is the right wing element dominating the Out campaign. A more unsavoury bunch than Nigel Farrage, Ian Duncan-Smith and Boris Johnson would be hard to find, and their appeal to latent racism is difficult to stomach. The second is that a vote to leave the EU would probably lead to the break up of Great Britain if, as seems likely, the Scots and possibly the Welsh voted to stay. It would surely have been much better for the referendum to have required unanimity across England, Scotland and Wales and for the referendum in Northern Ireland to have been about whether to remain an appendage of Great Britain (whatever the result of the other referendums) or to join the Republic.

All, however, is not lost for the progressive Out campaign. There is no need yet to throw our lot in with the Corbyn Labour leadership and accept that the potential loss of jobs means that we must stay in the EU and campaign inside it for reform. As appealing as that that may appear to some, it won’t halt the EU’s continuing secret negotiations with the USA over the Transatlantic Trade and Investment (TTIP). The impact of this could be worse that those predicted if we leave. TTIP will cost at least one million UK jobs, undermine our most treasured public services and lead to a ‘race to the bottom’ in food, environmental and labour standards. For the first time, huge US corporations will be able to sue the UK government over democratically enacted laws. A vote to leave the EU should enable us to escape TTIP, although a Tory government might still try to sign the UK (or just England) up to it. With a barrage of scare stories expected such as the headline in the Observer today (“Brexit would spark decade of ‘economic limbo’ claims top Tory”), perhaps the best response would be a slogan along the lines No Vote for In if it means a vote for TTIP. Let the In Campaign chew on that.