Britain: EU referendum exposes gaping political fault-lines

New road can open up for labour movement if working class relies on its own forces

Immediately after May’s elections, the EU referendum battle began – along with an overt, brutal power struggle in the Tory party. Cameron’s weak government is on the ropes. An anti-austerity, socialist campaign for Brexit could finish it off. Unfortunately, most Labour MPs and union leaders back the remain camp. It is a huge missed opportunity but has exposed the splits in the political establishment.

The local elections in England, together with those for the Welsh assembly and Scottish parliament, were seen by the bourgeois and the Labour Party right-wing as their best chance yet to finally stop the Corbyn revolution. Through the initiation of a slow ‘coup’ – much like that seen on a grander scale in Brazil – they hoped to dissipate the colossal anti-austerity wave which had borne Jeremy Corbyn into the leadership of the Labour Party, in the first place.

The ground had been prepared assiduously by the Labour right. The ‘Livingstone affair’ was completely contrived, with the thuggish right-wing Labour MP, John Mann, conveniently positioned in front of TV cameras to hurl insults at Ken Livingstone, like “You’re a Nazi apologist”. Unfortunately, Livingstone’s clumsy excursion into history – linking Hitler’s attempted collaboration with some Zionists in the search for a homeland for the Jews – while not completely inaccurate, was ill-judged.

Any mention of Hitler in the context of discussing the fate of Jewish people was bound to be distorted shamelessly by the capitalist media to give the impression that Livingstone and broad sections of the labour movement are anti-Semitic. However, given the historical struggle against fascism and the defence of Jewish victims of Nazism by the left in the labour movement this charge was plainly absurd. The real criticism to be made of Livingstone and others on the left is that they do not have a principled, realistic policy on the Middle East which recognises both the national aspirations of the persecuted Palestinians, as well as the defence of similar rights for the Israeli-Jewish population. They have in the past put forward a Palestinian ‘one-state’ solution.

But they are not the only ones. John Mann, during his ‘salad days’ as chairperson of the National Organisation of Labour Students (NOLS), while hounding the left and particularly Militant (now the Socialist Party), also advocated a single Palestinian state. He proudly sported a keffiyeh (Palestinian scarf) and excluded, in effect, the right of the Israeli-Jewish population to their own state.

In contrast, the Socialist Party and its sister organisation in Israel – which has Palestinians as well as Israelis in its ranks – have consistently advanced the idea of a voluntary, socialist two-state solution, linked to a socialist confederation of the peoples of the region. There is no possibility of solving the problems of either the Palestinian or Israeli populations on the basis of diseased capitalism. A one-state solution – resting exclusively on either the Israeli-Jewish population or the Palestinians – is a formula for the continuation of the bloody strife which has plagued the region and will continue to do so, on the basis of capitalism.

Attacking the left

The campaign against Ken Livingstone also sought to malign the Socialist Party. On the BBC’s Newsnight programme, for instance, rabbi and Baroness Julia Neuberger claimed that the Socialist Party was anti-Semitic, asserting that anti-Semitism within Labour began with “Militant in the past.” Her proof? That she “heard this from personal friends and acquaintances”. Any right to reply to the slanders was denied by the ‘democratic’ Newsnight.

We are not surprised at this behaviour from an increasingly right-wing, anti-left BBC, particularly from this TV programme. Newsnight’s anchor-man, Evan Davis, is supposed to be unbiased, with no axe to grind. Yet, while he worked for the Institute of Fiscal Studies, he helped think up the infamous poll tax, which he then sold to Margaret Thatcher and her government! This provoked the mass movement, led by Militant, which eventually toppled her government.

Unable to attack Jeremy Corbyn directly, in preparation for removing him from the Labour leadership, the right-wing chose first to unleash its fury against those considered to be part of his cohort of supporters, such as Livingstone. And it was the erstwhile left, allegedly set up to defend Corbyn – particularly leaders of the Momentum organisation like John Lansman – who, instead of attacking his opponents, joined in against Livingstone and backed his suspension from the Labour Party. Lansman and Momentum had already shown that they are prepared to capitulate before the right-wing offensive by attacking and witch-hunting rivals to the left of Momentum. Shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell, a former aide of ex-Labour leader Ed Miliband, went further and demanded Livingstone’s permanent expulsion. In contrast, the political correspondent of the bourgeois Independent newspaper, Steve Richards, bluntly stated that Mann had set up Livingstone.

Labour’s subsequent national ‘inquiry’ into anti-Semitism in the Labour Party was just a prelude to the attacks that were in preparation for the eagerly anticipated ‘disastrous’ election results for Corbyn and Labour. In order to emphasise the expected failure of Labour in these elections, completely exaggerated expectations were raised. In a series of press reports and briefings, to the effect that ‘anything less than a Labour gain of 450 seats would be seen a failure’, the right-wing expected this would be the signal for Corbyn to be forced out.

Government and council cuts

In reality, the results in England indicated little change over previous elections. In Scotland, Labour bombed as expected. However, the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) scored some modest but important successes, emerging as the strongest left-of-Labour force in these elections in Scotland.

Moreover, TUSC did well in England, under the circumstances, with good results in the Liverpool and Bristol mayoral contests (see while Kevin Bennett came within a whisker of retaining his seat in Warrington. Elsewhere in England and Wales, the anti-austerity message of TUSC contrasted favourably with the pusillanimous approach of right-wing Labour councillors who rolled over before the Tories and voted through eye-watering cuts. They acted as little butchers locally to the big butchers in Downing Street: George Osborne and David Cameron.

In a revealing item on the BBC Radio 4 PM programme broadcast the day before the local elections, Labour councillors complained that voters “were blaming Labour councillors and not the Tory government for the cuts”. Along with the election results, this signifies a growing awareness that, while the Tory government is wielding the axe nationally, Labour is increasingly carrying through cuts budgets at local level, backed up by the national Labour party. This is devastating the lives of service workers and users who, for instance in Lambeth and elsewhere, apportion equal blame for library cuts on Labour councillors and the Tories. They clearly expect Labour to oppose the colossal attacks on services and the failure to do so has generated growing anger.

It is this awareness which has led to the growth in support for the clear anti-austerity message of TUSC and its proposal that all councils stand up and implement no-cuts budgets.

The constant refrain of the media and the Labour right – that Corbyn is failing and that he and Labour should be doing a lot better in elections – is completely duplicitous. They consistently advocated that Corbyn should follow the ‘practical’ Blairites, with the message of more of the same: passing on Tory cuts, leading to more austerity. And, given the wall of hostility to Corbyn from an army of biased pro-capitalist reporters, typified by the BBC’s political editor Laura Kuenssberg, the outcome of these elections was to be expected.

Moreover, when it is boiled down, what was the choice on offer? Vicious austerity by the Tories and right-wing Labour councillors presiding over the same government agenda at local level. In other words, there was no fundamental difference between the Tories and their ‘Labour’ agents – the overwhelming right-wing majority of the 7,000 Labour councillors. The only surprise was that Labour did not suffer any bigger electoral setbacks in England.

In Scotland, the Scottish National Party (SNP) experienced a slight drop in support but still ended up with almost 50% of the parliament’s seats. It will now be put to the test by the deepening of the economic crisis. In 2015, the Scottish economy grew 0.4% more slowly than the UK economy as a whole due to the loss of North Sea oil income. This will compel the SNP along the road of a further bout of austerity and will tend to undermine its popularity.

But the Scottish Labour Party, under the disastrous leadership of Kezia Dugdale, has emerged further weakened, with seats lost. While Scottish Labour and, unfortunately, Jeremy Corbyn, refuse to support the right of self-determination of the Scottish people, it will not recover. Incredibly, Dugdale also repeated the mistakes of John Smith in the 1992 general election by putting forward a so-called ‘left’ programme of tax increases! This was perhaps the biggest single factor which led to the defeat of Labour under Neil – no, ‘Baron’ – Kinnock in that election.

In Wales, mass disillusionment – bordering on despair for many workers – at the terrible deindustrialisation, was typified by the crisis in the steel industry and the woeful lack of any lead or political alternative by either the trade union leaders or the smug Welsh Labour leaders. Consequently, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) gained seats in areas once considered Labour heartlands. The corrupt buffoon Neil Hamilton – driven out of Westminster – has even climbed back up the greasy pole via UKIP and the Welsh assembly. This was too much even for UKIP leader Nigel Farage, who frantically sought to distance himself from Hamilton, who claims he comes from Welsh mining stock! Also, Leanne Wood, leader of the nationalist Plaid Cymru (the Party of Wales), won the Rhondda seat from Labour.

Two right-wing EU campaigns

Within days of the elections taking place, battle was joined over the EU referendum on 23 June. But such is the cacophony generated among the official ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’ campaigns – much heat and noise but very little light – that so far it has been a complete turnoff for the majority of people in Britain. Jeremy Corbyn and Labour are missing a golden opportunity to bring down Cameron’s hated government by advocating a leave vote and campaigning separately for a working-class socialist alternative, as Corbyn did in the 1975 referendum on continued membership of the European Economic Community (Common Market).

This government is weak, with a small majority in parliament. With splits in Tory ranks, it could be brought down at any time. The Financial Times estimated that Cameron has been forced into 20 u-turns since last year’s general election! The latest has come with the acceptance of an amendment to the Queen’s Speech – backed by right-wing eurosceptics – against the threat to the NHS from the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP). Corbyn proposed to vote for this amendment and the government backed down.

In effect, Cameron recognised that, without Labour voters, he would most probably face defeat on 23 June. This is why he has appeared together with Blairites like David Miliband, supported by New Labour figures, like Ed Balls. Jeremy Corbyn and his shadow chancellor, John McDonnell, have said they will not share platforms with Cameron and the Tories. But they have done the next best thing from Cameron’s point of view by backing his call to remain, thereby strengthening the vicious neoliberal EU.

The most striking feature of the official campaigns is that they are both right and wrong! Right in their criticisms of the case of their opponents. Wrong in the alternatives they put forward. The EU is not, as the remain side claims, a progressive project, which has and will continue to have a beneficial effect for working people. There is not an atom of progressiveness in this bosses’ club. Nor is the leave camp correct in arguing that Britain will become a kind of economic nirvana if it is freed from the constraints of ‘Brussels’. In or out of the EU, the working class will face all of the same problems arising from a crisis-ridden capitalist system.

A capitalist project

From its inception, the EU was an attempt to create a common or single market, designed to further the interests of the European capitalist classes at the expense of the working class. It facilitates the super-exploitation of workers. It is also a reflection of the outmoded character of capitalism, founded as it is on private ownership of the factories, workshops, offices – the means of production – but hemmed in by the nation state.

The giant firms and monopolies which dominate the commanding heights of the economy are forced to organise production on a continental and world scale. The national market, even a continent’s, is too small for their massive production runs. They seek to adapt political state forms in accordance with this. Hence, the historically doomed attempts by the bourgeois to create a capitalist united states of Europe. Boris Johnson, Tory former London mayor, referred to this in his usual crude, blustering fashion when he invoked the figures of Napoleon and Hitler who sought, for quite different reasons, to ‘organise’ Europe from the top under their domination. Undoubtedly, this was one expression of the need to unify production on a continental scale, which became particularly pressing in the 20th century but is impossible for capitalism to achieve.

Indeed, one of the reasons for both the first and second world wars was the ‘revolt’ of the hemmed-in productive forces against the nation state and the attempt of different imperialist camps to organise production under their sway through conquest and war. The blood and slaughter underlined the impossibility of achieving this on the basis of an outmoded system of capitalism. But, no sooner had the second world war finished, attempts were made once more to bring Europe together in a new ‘union’, resulting eventually in the setting up of the EU, later accompanied by a new currency, the euro. This was presented as a means of avoiding ‘once and for all’ the prospects of war in the continent. But this was the unity of criminals chained together in a cart, who nevertheless strike blows against one another in order to enhance their own national position.

The remain camp has played on this memory of terrible and devastating war to warn ridiculously, through an orchestrated ‘project fear’ campaign, of a new third world war unless the unity of Europe – that is, of the bosses – is maintained. Yet the EU did not prevent war on its doorstep in the Balkans in the 1990s with at least a quarter-of-a-million victims. Nor did it stop the Iraq invasion and occupation in 2003 or the current bloody conflicts in the Middle East.

Despite all the attempts to unify Europe – including during the most favourable economic and social position for capitalism, with the boom that followed the collapse of Stalinism in 1989/90, the introduction of the euro in 1999, etc – they have not been able to carry the project through to a conclusion. A common currency has never lasted without a political and economic union.

In opposition to those who argued that the introduction of the euro meant that the European continent would now be unified, we predicted that it would begin to fall apart under the blows of a new economic crisis. This is what happened with the onset of the crisis of 2007-08. Greece and southern Europe, in particular, have staggered from one crisis to another, hovering on the brink of a voluntary or forced exit from the single currency zone.

The euro has not yet completely collapsed only because the European capitalists and institutions continue to kick the can down the road, postponing the day of reckoning through a series of patchwork and temporary solutions. It has, however, come perilously close, as the mass of the working class in southern Europe increasingly identify the euro with poverty and suffering, a European-wide vehicle for austerity. Following the latest general strike, the views of Greek workers hostile to the euro were summed up by an Athens taxi driver: “What I am hearing every day is that until we leave the euro, until we return to the drachma, until we have a currency that is not so strong, things will never be right… There will be an explosion and Grexit and the drachma will come back”. (Guardian, 11 May)

No lesser evil

The EU is, as the left-wing writer Paul Mason points out in the Guardian, “the most hospitable ecosystem in the developed world for rentier monopoly corporations, tax-dodging elites and organised crime. It has an executive so powerful it could crush the left-wing government of Greece; a legislature so weak that it cannot effectively determine laws or control its own civil service. A judiciary that, in the Laval and Viking judgments, subordinated workers’ right to strike to an employer’s right to do business freely”.

He demolishes the idea of the EU as progressive: “Its central bank is committed, by treaty, to favour deflation and stagnation over growth. State aid to stricken industries is prohibited. The austerity we deride in Britain as a political choice [a phrase of Corbyn and McDonnell in the Labour leadership contest – PT] is… written into the EU treaty as a non-negotiable obligation. So are the economic principles of the Thatcher era. A Corbyn-led Labour government would have to implement its manifesto in defiance of EU law”. So far, so good.

This is in accordance with the Socialist Party’s opposition, together with big swathes of the working class, to the EU as a bosses’ club. But what then is the alternative? After such a devastating refutation of the EU, Paul Mason comes to the following conclusion: “That’s the principled left-wing case for Brexit. Now here’s the practical reason to ignore it. In two words: Boris Johnson”. (Guardian, 17 May) The mountain has truly laboured and produced a flea! Why should Johnson automatically gain from a vote to leave? Cameron’s removal could precipitate a general election and the possibility of a Labour victory.

Paul Mason is guilty of the same kind of ‘lesser evilism’ which held back the labour movement in the past and continues to do so today, in the US, for instance. In the late 19th century, the trade union leaders called on workers not to break from the Liberal Party, which was undermining workers’ rights and conditions, because this could lead to the election of the ‘wicked’ Tories! The Tories and the Liberals were the different sides of the same capitalist coin. Fortunately, Keir Hardie and other pioneers ignored this advice and eventually went on to establish a Labour Party, an expression of working-class independence.

There is no fundamental class difference between Cameron and Johnson, who is only a louder and more buffoonish version of the prime minister. What is to stop the labour movement from fighting against both, linking up with workers in other countries and advocating a class and socialist alternative? At one stage, the Liberal Party was perceived by trade unionists – particularly by many trade union leaders – as more progressive than the Tories. In opposition to this, the pioneers of socialism advocated the formation of an organisation of the working class independent of all bourgeois forces.

That battle was won with the formation of the Labour Party, a big class step forward, even though in its first period it did not embrace a socialist programme. Totally rejected was a meaningless Dutch auction to extract ‘progressive’ morsels from one side or another. A spirit of class distrust in all bourgeois forces was encouraged and that is what we must do today.

The labour movement, including its initial political expression in the form of the Labour Party, would never have emerged as a distinct and separate class force if those pioneers had not implacably opposed capitalism and its parties, in all their manifestations. Yet, such an approach is completely absent today at the summits of the labour movement, unfortunately even by some claiming to stand on the left. Politically, they do not think twice about opposing the bosses’ measures at home, but imagine that they can do the opposite when it comes to the EU. In effect they tail-end different groups of bosses and their political representatives.

Cameron’s crisis

Cameron’s electoral gerrymandering – effectively eliminating from the electoral rolls an estimated 800,000 mainly young people (mostly pro-Labour) – now has the potential to blow up in his face because young people are repelled by the racism and narrow nationalism of UKIP and the majority of the leave camp. They are, according to the polls, more inclined to vote to remain. This has triggered a frantic effort by government agencies to sign up young people to vote.

However, there is no guarantee that they will turn out in the election. This means that the outcome is uncertain, with only weeks to go. All the polls indicate a narrow gap between remain and leave. If that happens, a rerun of the referendum – the ‘neverendum’ – cannot be ruled out, as has already been indicated by Nigel Farage.

If leave does triumph, this would represent a massive defeat for the Tory government, as even John McDonnell conceded: “[He] added that the only positive from Brexit, if Britain votes that way on June 23, would be that it would probably bring down David Cameron as prime minister”! (Daily Mirror, 18 May) John does not seem to have absorbed the full implications of these words. If leave wins, it is curtains for Cameron. His departure would, in turn, deepen the massive split laid bare within the Tory party, particularly from the lasting damage resulting from the mutual insults hurled between former ‘friends’ during the referendum campaign.

It would put in the shade the split in the 1990s, on the same issue, between the then Tory prime minister, John Major, and his opponents, who he dubbed the ‘bastards’. This is, as Tory MP Jacob Rees-Mogg indicated, potentially the biggest split in the Tories’ ranks since the Corn Laws in the mid-19th century. Then, the Tories were more representative of the landed aristocracy. They usually set their faces against reform of the Corn Laws, which kept agricultural prices artificially higher, thus favouring the landowners. The rising bourgeois in the Liberal Party reflected the demands of their class and, at the same time, leaned on the working class to support cheaper food. One wing of the Tory party, the Peelites, swung to support the ending of the Corn Laws and, as a result, split the Tories’ ranks, keeping them out of government for most of the next 30 years.

Right-wing Labour manoeuvres

In the light of this, Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have made a serious mistake in supporting the remain position. In addition, it is diametrically opposed to their previously expressed opposition to the capitalist EU – in Corbyn’s case, alongside Tony Benn and Militant in the referendum of 1975. This has been done as a means of warding off the attacks from the right-wing in the continuing, unresolved civil war within the Labour Party. But the right will not be mollified by Corbyn’s concessions to them over the EU referendum. They will press for further retreats on policy until Corbyn is either defeated and accepts their pro-capitalist agenda, or he defeats the right-wing by swinging to the left.

It is true that the objective situation – the continuing capitalist crisis which will be worsened by a new global economic crisis – has undermined the basis of the Labour right. Their confidence has been shaken and they have fading hopes of an early victory. Some of them, like Andy Burnham, Luciano Berger and others, are seeking ‘new challenges’ in the plans for ‘metro mayors’ in city-regions, which they hope will allow them to build a power base. The right remain unreconciled to the Corbyn leadership, particularly to the anti-austerity and potentially socialist forces which he has unleashed.

The election of Sadiq Khan as the mayor of London – with a larger vote than the previous mayors, Livingstone and Johnson – has given him and the forces of the right a new power base which can be used against the left. Already, Khan has appealed to Corbyn to ‘establish a big tent’ – an idea taken straight from the manual of Tony Blair and his supporters. He backed this up with a call to learn from Blair to be ‘open to everyone’; including the 140 billionaires in London he courted during his campaign. This is a clear attempt to prepare the basis for a return of the Blairites at a certain stage. It cannot be ruled out that, depending upon the outcome of the referendum, Corbyn will face a leadership challenge. Moreover, because of defections from the original 35 MPs who nominated him for the leadership, he does not have the requisite number ready to support him in any new leadership election.

The pressures from the capitalists and the Labour right are remorseless and, unfortunately, the counter-pressures from Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are not politically and organisationally sufficient to defeat this ceaseless opposition, backed up by the weight of the media. In truth, the Labour right are bourgeois ‘entrists’ who will never be satisfied until they defeat Corbyn and everything he stands for, or Corbyn retreats so much that his original supporters inside the party and the workers outside are disheartened and fall away.

Many important issues are in the balance. The central fact which workers must keep to the fore is that victory is only assured if we rely on our own forces and organisations to challenge effectively the attacks on working people. A new road can then open up for the labour movement. No pacts or agreements with false ‘friends of labour’, i.e. those organisations that are anti-EU but firmly pro-capitalist. For a socialist Britain, in a Europe of working people. That is the watchword of the labour movement in this battle.

Special financial appeal to all readers of

Support building alternative socialist media provides a unique analysis and perspective of world events. also plays a crucial role in building the struggle for socialism across all continents. Capitalism has failed! Assist us to build the fight-back and prepare for the stormy period of class struggles ahead.
Please make a donation to help us reach more readers and to widen our socialist campaigning work across the world.

Donate via Paypal

Liked this article? We need your support to improve our work. Please become a Patron! and support our work
Become a patron at Patreon!

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.


May 2016