Four months since the EU referendum
It is now four months after the referendum result that saw a majority of voters choosing to the leave the European Union.
We publish this detailed article by Clive Heemskerk from the September issue of Socialism Today, the monthly magazine of the Socialist Party explaining our position on the EU, why we supported an exit vote and importantly the sort of programme and policies that the labour and trade union movement should adopt in the current situation.
Corbyn’s Brexit opportunity – by Clive Heemskerk
The EU referendum result was a massive rejection of the capitalist establishment but voting Leave was not a vote for a governmental alternative. Now Jeremy Corbyn has the opportunity to use his Labour leadership re-election campaign to rally both Leave and Remain voters behind a programme for a socialist and internationalist break with the EU bosses’ club, argues Clive Heemskerk.
The main forces of British and international capitalism did everything they could to secure a vote in June’s referendum to keep Britain in the EU. President Obama made a carefully choreographed state visit. The IMF co-ordinated the release of doom-laden reports with the chancellor George Osborne. And then there was the shameful joint campaigning of right-wing Labour Party and trade union leaders with David Cameron and other representatives of big business. A propaganda tsunami of fear was unleashed to try and intimidate the working class to vote in favour of the EU bosses’ club.
But to no avail. Pimco investment company analysts mournfully commented that the vote was “part of a wider, more global, backlash against the establishment, rising inequality and globalisation” (The Guardian, 28 June). The Bank of America said that “Brexit is thus far the biggest electoral riposte to our age of inequality”.
If it is carried through, Brexit will be a debilitating blow to the efforts of the separate national capitalist classes of the EU member states to create a cohesive economic and political bloc. Britain is responsible for 16% of EU gross domestic product (GDP), has a seat on the UN Security Council, and accounts for a quarter of non-US NATO military spending. The EU and its institutions can continue – as the League of Nations, established after the first world war, had become a shell long before it was formally dissolved in 1946. But the aim that the EU could engage as a unified power on equal terms with the other regional global powers, the US, China, Japan, Russia and the emerging economies, would have been severely undermined.
US imperialism in particular favours Britain’s continued membership of the EU. It has not been adverse to periodic disruptive diplomacy to weaken EU unity in particular disputes – in 2003 US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld famously counterposed ‘old’ and ‘new’ Europe to gain backing for the invasion of Iraq. But, especially since the collapse of Stalinism in Russia and Eastern Europe in 1989-91, the EU has become an integral part of the system of international relations which mediate the different interests of the world’s capitalist powers.
Faced with the referendum blow against them the task now as far as the majority of the ruling class is concerned is to try and “walk back” the result, in the words of US secretary of state John Kerry. At worst they hope for a ‘Bino’, a ‘Brexit in name only’. But if it can be accomplished, after a suitable delay and the ground prepared, the goal would be to reverse the result, through a general election or a second referendum.
The need for the capitalist establishment to try and regroup its political representatives around this goal explains the rapid defenestration of Andrea Leadsom’s Tory leadership bid, with her supporters – the Brexiteer ‘true believers’ – complaining of ‘black-ops’ sabotage. But the Labour Party also needed to be straightened out.
Even as the coup against Jeremy Corbyn had barely begun Jonathan Powell, Tony Blair’s former chief of staff and an ex-British diplomat, was demanding the new leader “run in the general election on an explicit promise to negotiate with our partners to salvage our position in Europe rather than to leave it” (The Guardian, 30 June). Despite seeking a compromise with the right and mistakenly abandoning his past EU-exit position for the referendum, Jeremy Corbyn had to go.
In his immediate response on 24 June Corbyn unequivocally accepted the result and, in subsequent statements, correctly identified it as “a vote by the people of left-behind Britain against a political establishment that has failed them” (The Guardian, 8 July). What was needed, he argued, was to “negotiate a new relationship with the EU… that protects jobs, living standards and workers’ rights… an end of EU-enforced liberalisation and privatisation of public services – and for freedom for public enterprise and public investment, now restricted by EU treaties”.
Dealing with the EU, he rightly said, ‘cannot be left in Tory hands’. But the capitalist establishment had already concluded that negotiations ‘cannot be left in Jeremy Corbyn’s hands’. On cue Owen Smith, while claiming to be ‘as socialist as Jeremy’, has made as a key point of differentiation in the leadership campaign his “ambition to reverse the vote to leave” (The Guardian, 28 July) in a second referendum. The battle lines are clear.
A working class revolt
In his call for a new Labour leader “who represents the pro-Europe mainstream” Jonathon Powell blithely dismisses “warnings that a pro-EU stance would risk losing working-class voters to UKIP… we will lose them anyway unless we run on an anti-EU manifesto”. The Labour right-wing are not concerned about representing the working class but defending the interests of their big business backers.
This aspect of the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership causes problems for those on the left who supported a Remain vote in the referendum. Where do they stand now? Rejecting the result would massively weaken working class support for a Corbyn-led Labour Party and, most importantly, throw away the chance that exists to give direction to the working class revolt which the leave victory represented. Unfortunately, one solution some lefts have adopted to this real risk of ‘losing working-class voters’ is to minimise the class content of the leave vote.
The argument that the referendum was not, at bottom, a working class vote against the establishment, draws on, amongst other analysis, the comprehensive Ashcroft exit poll survey showing that 63% of Labour voters backed Remain, while 58% of Tory voters, and 96% of UKIP voters, supported Leave. This shows that the majority of Leave voters were ‘reactionaries’, the argument goes.
But this is a superficial analysis, even in its psephology. Firstly referendum voters were categorised in the Ashcroft poll by how they had voted in the 2015 general election when Labour, for the third time since 2001, polled less than ten million votes. It provides no information, therefore, on how the 4.2 million voters Labour has lost since 1997 voted on 23 June. They are predominantly working class, as all surveys have shown.
Moreover, the 2015 general election Ashcroft exit survey showed that one in four UKIP voters had ‘usually voted Labour in previous elections’. Additionally, 54% of UKIP supporters opposed further austerity or agreed that ‘austerity was never really needed but was an excuse to cut public services’. Consciousness is more complex than what is expressed in a binary referendum.
There was a higher turnout for the referendum, at 72.2%, than there has been for any general election since 1992, with the number voting compared to 2015 rising by an average of 6.1%. But this national picture conceals a higher than average spike in turnout in many Labour-held areas where Leave was victorious – for example, Stoke plus 12.3%; Middlesbrough 12%; Walsall 11.2%; Swansea 10.6%; Hartlepool 8.7% – suggesting that working class voters were more motivated to come out and vote in the referendum. A University of East Anglia analysis had seven out of ten Labour-held parliamentary constituencies voting Leave.
The Ashcroft survey also showed that Remain voters were a majority only in the AB social group (professionals and managers), by 57% to 43%, while 64% of working class C2DE voters backed Leave. Two-thirds of council and housing association tenants voted Leave, a majority of the unemployed who voted, and two-thirds of those retired on a state pension. Leave voters agreed by 61% to 39% that life will be worse for most children growing up today than it was for their parents, while a (small) majority of Remainers thought it will be better. What is this but a profound alienation from the economic and political relations that dominate British society today?
And not just on the Leave side. The single most important reason for how they voted given by Remain supporters (43%) was that “the risks of voting to leave looked too great when it came to things like the economy, jobs and prices”. The tragedy of the referendum is that this product of Project Fear could have been cut across by the organised labour movement and a lead given to working class voters if Jeremy Corbyn, as he did in 1975, had called for a vote against the capitalist elite and their EU. The trade unions could also have played that role, particularly those on the left, but only the RMT transport workers’ union, working alongside the Socialist Party in the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), the train drivers’ union ASLEF, and the Bakers’ Union (BFAWU), came out for Leave.
But Leave still won and the ruling class are scrambling to deal with the resultant crisis. Jeremy Corbyn should stand firm in his respect for the referendum result and use his Labour leadership re-election campaign to rally both Leave and working class Remain voters behind a socialist and internationalist break with the EU.
What does ‘Brexit means Brexit’ mean?
The new Tory prime minister Theresa May supported a Remain vote in the referendum. Now she repeatedly states that ‘Brexit means Brexit’ but this is a flat tautology, a way to avoid giving a definite position.
Even the fervently pro-EU Liberal Democrat leader Tim Farron has said that he ‘accepts the verdict’ of the June referendum, albeit while arguing for a second ballot on the terms of exit that would include “the option of remaining within the EU” (The Guardian, 27 July). He also makes the point that there can be no definitive view of what Brexit means and that the relationship to be negotiated between Britain and the EU could be on any model “ranging from Norway to North Korea, and all the points in between”.
Although May’s smooth ascension to the leadership temporarily calmed establishment nerves, the Tories are bitterly divided over what the terms of Britain’s relationship with the EU should be. She will not be able to indefinitely avoid saying what her programme is.
Already May has clashed with her new trade secretary, Liam Fox, over whether Britain would remain part of the EU customs union, with its common external tariffs, as distinct from the European Economic Area (EEA), which gives access to the single market but allows separate trade deals, with the US for example.
Fox resigned from the Con-Dem government in 2011 after his promotion of US corporate lobbyists arguing for privatisation and deregulation was exposed. Fox supported a Leave vote not because the EU treaties mandate the compulsory tendering of public services above a certain threshold – they do – but because the segment of the capitalist class he represents wanted ‘first bite’ at the contracts ahead of European competitors. That’s what Brexit means to Tories like him.
Another section of the Tory Party oppose the EU on ‘patriotic’ ideological grounds, reflecting the persistence of the nation state as a historically-rooted political and cultural entity as well as an economic one. All capitalist politicians, defending a system based on the exploitation of the majority by a small minority, to some degree rest on nationalism – with racism as its most virulent expression – to maintain a social base for capitalist rule. It is always there in the background as a weapon to try and divide the working class – look at how Jeremy Corbyn was attacked for ‘mumbling the national anthem’. But it must not interfere with the essential interests of the system. The majority of the British capitalist class, for example, want to retain the EU’s free movement of labour which, as part of an EU-wide ‘race to the bottom’ in workers’ wages and conditions, has contributed to their record profits.
So during the referendum the former Tory premier John Major warned Tory Brexit campaigners about their anti-migrant rhetoric, but only to say that in expressing ‘pride in their country’ they should “take care” not to ‘cross the line’ (The Guardian, 13 May). Not every MP, however, is a direct and immediate representative of the wider interests of capitalism and the Tory ‘True Brexiteers’ will use the debates over the terms of a new relationship with the EU to try and reinforce their social base. The organised workers’ movement must take an independent class position on the EU free movement of labour rules that will be raised in the EU negotiations (see box).
With over 450 MPs who supported Remain still in place there is wide scope for a ‘delay to stay’ campaign. One battleground will be whether a parliamentary vote is necessary to trigger Article 50 formally notifying the EU of Britain’s intention to leave, which is already subject to legal action. Tory peer, Lady Wheatcroft, openly states that “insistence on an act of parliament before Article 50 is activated buys time” for conditions to develop to “stage the second referendum many would like to see” (The Guardian, 5 August). The Irish EU referendums which rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001 and the Lisbon Treaty in 2008 were reversed in second referendums, but only after a 16-month gap each time.
If Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour leadership election while standing firm against Owen Smith’s second referendum call he will be in a powerful position to exploit the Tory divisions, give a socialist content to Britain’s Leave vote, and appeal to workers across Europe for a common struggle against the EU bosses’ club.
What does Lexit mean?
The most important ‘Brexit negotiation policy’ Jeremy Corbyn could adopt would be to declare that a government he leads would take whatever decisive socialist measures are necessary in defence of the working class, from a £10 an hour minimum wage and the abolition of zero-hour contracts, to public ownership of the banks and the major companies that dominate the British economy.
This should be accompanied by an enabling declaration that all EU treaty provisions and regulations which go against policies that advance working class interests – like the rules on state aid or the posted workers’ directive – would no longer apply and that any attempts by the EU institutions to legally enforce them would be annulled.
Ultimately the EU is a series of treaties between 28 different capitalist nation states, comprising 80,000 pages of agreements and including 13,000 regulations. But these are enforced, or not, by national governments. The majority of EU regulations, on standardisation, consumer protection, environmental safeguards, workplace rights and so on, are unobjectionable. But some of the EU treaty stipulations and regulations, if they were adhered to, would constitute serious legal obstacles to the implementation of socialist policies by a Corbyn-led government. But why should they be adhered to? And if they were not implemented who could impose them?
The fabled ‘EU bureaucracy’ is much exaggerated. The main legislative and executive EU institutions, the European Commission, the Council of the EU, and the European Parliament, have less than 45,000 staff, compared to 392,000 British civil servants for example. Most pertinently, in assessing the ultimate power they could bring as an enforcing state, none of them have any tanks.
It is true that, during the Greek crisis last summer, there were ‘unattributed briefings’ from EU officials that if the initially defiant anti-austerity stance of the Syriza government of Alexis Tsipras led to a Grexit it would precipitate a ‘state of emergency’. In a country with living-memory experience of a military coup this was a warning of how claims to be defending ‘EU legitimacy’ could be used to justify an internally generated judicial or military intervention against a democratically elected government.
Tsipras, the finance minister Yanis Varoufakis, and the rest of the Syriza leadership, had not popularised a counter sentiment to that – never mind that they left the defence ministry in the hands of the right-wing ANEL (Independent Greeks) party – because, despite critical noises, they had never come out in opposition to EU membership. Varoufakis, unfortunately having learnt nothing from the Syriza government’s abject capitulation to the EU’s austerity dictates, actually toured Britain to argue for a Remain vote in June’s referendum.
In Britain the EU, even before the referendum, has never held the same place in consciousness as it did in Greek society, associated as it was there for a period – but no more – with the rapid modernisation of the country. But fundamentally what the Syriza government lacked was not ‘legal permission’ from the EU institutions to implement socialist policies like capital controls and nationalisation of the banks but a programme, and the will to carry it out, to take decisive measures against capitalism in Greece and appeal to the European working class for support.
A programme for a left exit, in other words, starting on the national terrain, refuses to accept the limits prescribed by the EU. It proposes bold socialist measures to take control of the domestic economy and builds concrete international workers’ solidarity and collaboration. But it relegates to a secondary if not tertiary consideration the observing of EU institutional ‘formalities’ when they impede bilateral international agreements. That is the opportunity which has opened up for a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party after the Brexit vote, if a clear socialist and internationalist position is adopted.
Building a European socialist alliance
The EU institutions would without doubt receive diplomatic support from most of the EU member state national governments in a stand-off with a Corbyn-led government. Some EU officials are approaching the coming negotiations with the intention of ‘punishing Britain’, as ‘an example to others’. But in reality there is no such thing as ‘an EU position’, but the different positions of 28 capitalist nation states and the working class in each of those states. And it is the working class, with no permanent interest in capitalism and its institutions, which has the greatest possibility of reaching a common position across the EU countries if a bold lead is given.
The British referendum result has given an enormous impetus to the developing discontent against the EU in every member state. In response, instead of accepting appeals from capitalist politicians to ‘give Britain a lesson’ to ‘save the EU’, workers in each EU country could be mobilised to demand that their government join the rebellion and defy the pro-market, anti-worker, austerity-driving EU directives and rulings. A Labour Party with a renewed mandate for Jeremy Corbyn, and thoroughly transformed into an anti-austerity socialist workers’ party, could play a pivotal role in building such a movement.
But this raises the need for new vehicles of mass political representation of the working classes of Europe. The Labour Party is part of the Progressive Alliance of Socialists and Democrats group in the European parliament, which is affiliated to the Progressive Alliance (and includes the US Democratic Party). This was set up in 2013 at the initiative of the German Social Democratic Party in a split from the Socialist International, which is chaired by the former PASOK prime minister of Greece, George Papandreou. Neither of these ‘internationals’ represents the working class. The process begun in the 1990s of the transformation of social democratic parties into capitalist formations was not confined to the Labour Party – before the new and still to be consolidated opening created by Jeremy Corbyn’s initial leadership victory – but was the product of an era, following the collapse of Stalinism.
The new left parties that emerged in the 1990s in response to that process have not taken a clear position against the EU but, particularly after the brutal lessons of Greece, a new questioning has developed (see: Left Parties Turning Against Bosses’ Europe, by Danny Byrne).
A bold stand by Jeremy Corbyn against the anti-working class treaties and policies of the EU could electrify the debate across Europe. Why not propose as negotiation ‘red lines’ for a new relationship with the EU the abandonment of the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) talks with the US, the scrapping of the European Fiscal Compact, the write-off of the Eurozone debts, etc? Other demands could also be raised to rally working class support.
It is now eight years since the ‘great recession’ began after the financial crisis of 2007-08 and there has been no sustained and broad recovery for global capitalism. The trend towards zero or even negative interest rates is a sign of the desperation of the central bankers and the strategists of capitalism as they try to stave off an era of deflation and the danger of depression. Eurozone unemployment has remained at over 10% since 2009, 20% for young people.
Shadow chancellor John McDonnell’s £500bn infrastructure investment reflation call for the British economy is actually a relatively modest Keynesian programme, which chimes with the calls from the IMF for fiscal policy, government spending, to ‘do some lifting’. Why not propose as a negotiation demand to tackle unemployment a European-wide programme of public investment, for example in an integrated green energy system, a European super-grid to develop and connect different sources of renewable energy from Danish wind to Greek solar?
The problem for the capitalists is that by representatives of the workers’ movement raising such ideas of state intervention, a programme of public works, etc, workers’ appetite will grow for more fundamental encroachments upon capitalism, like socialist public ownership and international planning. But in this way the Brexit negotiations could be used to push the process of developing independent working class political representation and socialist consciousness on a continental scale, a vital preparation for creating a new, socialist, Europe.
The leave vote was a shattering blow to the capitalist establishment, in Britain, Europe and globally, a blow administered by the working class even if it was delivered through the distorting prism of a referendum vote. It has created new opportunities for the working class to put its stamp on society, in Britain and across the EU, which the movement around Jeremy Corbyn’s re-election campaign must seize. But the first step is a clear programme for a socialist and internationalist break with the EU bosses’ club.
The single market and free movement
Big business in Britain wants to remain within the single European market even if the referendum result cannot be reversed. The single market was established in 1993 following negotiations inaugurated by the 1986 Single European Act, an EU treaty signed by the then Tory prime minister Margaret Thatcher. If Britain does formally leave the EU it could still be in the single market by retaining membership of the European Economic Area (EEA), comprising the EU member states plus Norway, Iceland and Liechtenstein.
The left-wing journalist Paul Mason, an advisor to Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership team, is unfortunately arguing for this ‘Norwegian model’. “The only question the leaders of British parties have to answer”, he has written, is “will you strive to keep Britain inside the EEA or not?” (The Guardian, 28 June). But why should the workers’ movement be committed to the EU single market?
The single market is based on the so-called ‘four freedoms’, the free movement of goods, services, capital and labour, and is policed by the European Commission, which takes infringements of market rules before the European Court of Justice (ECJ). This is the framework underpinning the neo-liberal, pro-austerity and anti-worker character of the EU directives and rulings.
It is behind the public contract procurement regulations, the European Postal Services Act (used to justify the privatisation of Royal Mail), and the anti-union rulings by the ECJ in the notorious Viking and Laval cases, putting business ‘rights of establishment’ ahead of workers’ right to strike. The EU posted workers’ directive, which does not recognise collective agreements between unions and employers, was at the heart of the 2009 Lindsey oil refinery construction workers’ dispute.
The Socialist Party opposes the EU because its laws and institutions, while they ultimately could not stop a determined workers’ government supported by a mass movement from carrying out socialist policies, are another hurdle to overcome, including in many day-to-day struggles. We oppose the EU, including the single market, in order to defend working class interests in those struggles and to take forward the fight for socialism, in Britain and Europe.
In contrast, there are capitalist politicians who argue for withdrawal from the single market and its free movement provisions on nationalist and racist grounds, playing on the theme of ‘out of control’ immigration. They do so the better to try and divide and weaken the working class.
The Ashcroft exit poll asked voters to select what the single most important reason was for why they voted in the referendum as they did. Not unexpectedly, given that by backing Remain the Labour Party and trade union leaders had allowed the Tory Brexiters and UKIP a clear run to define what Leave meant, 33% of Leave voters chose immigration.
But interestingly nearly half (49%) selected instead “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK” as the biggest single reason why they voted Leave. What is this, in the context of how the referendum debate was framed, but an expression of alienation and powerlessness in the face of remote and uncontrollable forces? The task is to find a way to turn the anger at this feeling in the workplaces and communities that working class people do indeed ‘have no control’ against the pressures bearing down on them, into a positive programme.
The socialist and trade union movement from its earliest days has never supported the ‘free movement of goods, services and capital’ – or labour – as a point of principle but instead has always striven for the greatest possible degree of workers’ control, the highest form of which, of course, would be a democratic socialist society with a planned economy. It is why, for example, the unions have historically fought for the closed shop, whereby only union members can be employed in a particular workplace, a very concrete form of ‘border control’ not supported by the capitalists.
The closed shop was banned in Britain by the Tories in the 1990 Employment Act. It is surely significant that the Labour Party, despite opposition from left-wing MPs, abandoned its support for the closed shop in 1989 citing, in the words of the then shadow Employment Secretary – one Tony Blair! – the need to “bring our law into line with Europe… in the run up to the single European market”.
Repealing the 1990 Act and the other anti-union laws, banning zero-hour contracts, lifting the restrictions on secondary action or sympathy strikes, trade union control of agencies, enforcing collective agreements negotiated in sectors to all workers in those industries – all this, which would completely blow away the single market rules, could unite workers and really restore an element of control in the workplace.
This would need to be combined with a programme to bring control back to local communities over public services and amenities. The ‘big nine’ house-building companies, for example, hold enough land to start building 600,000 new homes immediately and have a cash pile of over £1bn. They should be nationalised and their land banks handed over to local councils to build homes, regardless of what the EU treaties and single market rules say about state aid or competitive tendering.
Such an approach to the Brexit negotiations would no doubt unite Boris Johnson, UKIP, Theresa May and Owen Smith in opposition. But it would give a clear socialist content to the Leave vote and attract massive working class support, in Britain and in Europe.