Scotland, Brexit and a general election

Up to 100,000 marched recently in Edinburgh demanding a second independence referendum (Picture: Philip Stott)

A UK general election is, it seems, rapidly approaching. The Brexit disaster – a reflection of the utter incapacity of capitalism to resolve its multiple crises – is creating a nightmare scenario for the bourgeois. And things may get worse. Neither a Boris Johnson (Tory party prime minister) nor a Jeremy Corbyn (opposition Labour Party leader) victory in a probable winter election offers any palatable option from the point of view of big business. Yet they have little choice but to hope for the least bad outcome while preparing for the future. In truth the organs of the ruling class, like the FT, among others, are tearing their hair out at the current political paralysis.

The capitalist class’ political architecture is crumbling. The different wings of the Tories are indulging in hand-to-hand combat over the future of what was once the most successful capitalist party in the world. Further splits and expulsions seem inevitable. Like the Tories, Labour is two parties in one, conducting an unending civil war – a one-sided war in reality – with the Blairites taking every opportunity to attack and undermine Corbyn.

The fear of a Corbyn government is the key factor as to why the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Party remains in-situ. They are being prepared, if needed, to play a role in preventing such a government coming to power or ending it if Corbyn was to be pushed to the left under pressure from the working class to deliver a radical manifesto. These realities, which are discussed openly in the pages of the capitalist press, are a condemnation of the refusal by the Labour left to deal decisively with the Blairites and remove them from the Labour Party.

The very short-lived and spectacularly inept attempts to form a new “centre party” – with the advance guard of the Blairites and pro-remain Tories splitting away to form Change UK – underlines the current political polarisation. We have commented many times that the rise of both left and right populism is a reflection of the crisis of the traditional bourgeois and former social democratic parties. The likely general election will see many of these features play out.

Johnson, who is currently 21 MPs short of a majority – even including the DUP, is working hard to stake his claim to be the “anti-establishment” candidate. While this is clearly absurd, the mistaken concessions by Corbyn towards the EU and the pro-capitalist wing of his party have given Etonian millionaire Johnson the chance to appear to be standing up for those who voted leave in 2016. Included among them are millions of working-class people who could easily be won to a left and socialist programme.

Corbyn made a serious mistake by not moving a motion of no confidence in Johnson in September. Indeed it was his proposal in the first place to offer to lead an interim government, to extend article 50 and then call an election. Instead he backed off and insisted that no deal had to be off the table first – delaying any vote of no confidence until the end of October, at least – and whipped Labour MPs to vote against a motion for a general election. This gave the Tory toff the chance to pose as the only one prepared to go to “the people”, while accusing the opposition of trying to scupper Brexit. Johnson has now “offered” a December 12 general election but this could also be refused, certainly by the Blairite wing of the parliamentary Labour party and even possibly by Corbyn himself.

Corbyn has instead focused on cross-party agreement with the Labour right, the SNP, Lib Dems et al, that no attempt to remove Johnson would be made until no deal was impossibility. But the Blairites, the Remain-supporting Tories and the Lib Dems would die in a ditch rather than allow Corbyn to lead even an interim government prior to a general election. Amber Rudd, the Remain-supporting former Tory cabinet minister, told the Radio Four Today programme that she would rather a no deal Brexit than have Corbyn lead a caretaker government. A recent FT editorial commented “Corbyn’s Labour cannot be trusted to govern”, calling on parliament to find a new ‘credible’ opposition.

The fear of allowing Corbyn to lead even an interim administration reflects the mounting concern that it would give him an advantage in a general election campaign. And, above all, trepidation that a Corbyn government could come under sustained pressure from the working class to carry out a programme against the interests of capitalism. Tony Blair has again desperately intervened to this end to demand a referendum before a general election. “If there is deadlock in Parliament as a result, the right thing is indeed to go back to the people. But I beg of you, please, not by way of a general election.” In the current crisis a concerted effort is being made in Westminster by the Blairites to secure a new referendum before any general election.

No national interest only class interests

Both John McDonnell and Jeremy Corbyn have allowed themselves to be corralled into the false argument that they are acting in the “national interest” by opposing an immediate vote of no confidence. They have also welcomed the intervention of the Supreme Court that found against Boris Johnson. The workers’ movement has to be clear that there is no such a thing as the “national interest”, only class interests. The bourgeois are using their control of the state machinery, including the courts, to defend their interests – in this case to prevent a hard or a chaotic Brexit. It is incumbent on socialists and Marxists to explain the realities of class rule. And for socialist parliamentarians to openly expose this reality – not to foster illusions in the “independence of the judiciary” – as McDonnell has done.

As was pointed out in the editorial in the Socialist in early October, “The state machine, of which the judiciary and legal system is part, exists ultimately to defend the capitalists’ rule. The unelected judiciary is selected – as are the heads of the army, police and civil service – for their suitability to defend the capitalist status quo by their background, education and outlook. It’s no accident that more than 60% of senior judges in Britain went to public school, while 71% went to Oxbridge. Of the eleven supreme court judges who ruled on prorogation, nine went to Oxbridge.”

Columnist Iain MacWhirter writing in the Herald made a correct point: “Labour MPs and supporters were jubilant after Lady Hale’s ruling but they may not be celebrating when Labour is next in government. They may find courts questioning policies such as nationalisation and the abolition of private schools, Radical parties of the left generally have more to fear from judicial activism than Conservatives. As do nationalists. Look at Catalonia where politicians really are in jail because the Spanish Supreme Court ruled an independence referendum illegal.” If MacWhirter can make that obvious point then why can’t the Labour leadership make it too?

Johnson is not losing support as a result of the onslaught against him by sections of the bourgeois press. A fighting lead from the left and the trade unions would and could undermine his support – he has a lead of around 10-15% in the polls over Corbyn. But to defeat Johnson’s populism would require an unambiguous explanation of the class interests at stake in this struggle and a clear left and socialist programme – including opposition to the EU. Nor should there be any attempts at unity by Corbyn with pro-capitalist MPs and parties.

The lack of a stable governmental alternative for the ruling class points to the possibility of a national government, although this is more likely to arise after a general election, under two conditions. Firstly, a hung parliament where neither Labour or the Tories can form a working majority – and in order to prevent a crash-out Brexit a government of national unity is formed. Secondly, that if a Corbyn-led government came to power and carried out a radical programme, including nationalisations and increased taxes on the rich etc., the ruling class could act to split Labour with the Blairite wing and others moving over to form a national government with other pro-capitalist parties.

While a national government carries big dangers for the ruling class, in that it could leave them without a reserve second eleven untainted by what would be a brutal anti-working-class government, they may be faced with no choice. They key task for the trade unions and the Corbyn left is to mobilise its independent class forces to drive the Tories out and to demand a general election. Linked to this is the need, through mandatory reselection and democratic changes, to cleanse the Labour Party of its capitalist wing in order to create a genuine workers’ party.

Twists and turns of Brexit

Corbyn’s current policy is to negotiate a new deal with the EU and then put it and the option of Remain in a new referendum. But he has also said he would stay neutral in such a campaign, pledging to implement whichever option won. Labour’s official policy is even worse, to actually campaign for Remain in a second referendum, regardless of any deal that Corbyn was able to agree with the EU. This is yet another example of the errors he made in 2016 when, under pressure from the capitalist class and the Blairites, Corbyn campaigned for Remain, despite a long-standing opposition to the neo-liberal EU.

It is not the job of a leader of the workers’ movement to try to save capitalism from its own mess. On the contrary, it has to be to advance an independent working-class policy based on total opposition to big business interests. Jeremy Corbyn as prime minister should certainly demand of the EU a re-opening of negotiations on the basis of opposition to all EU rules – like those on state aid, market liberalisation or the posted workers’ directives – that go against the interests of the working class. Conduct negotiations publicly and in front of the working class to expose the pro-business character of the EU. And appeal to workers’ organisations across Europe on the basis of an international policy in defence of workers’ rights and socialist opposition to the bosses’ Europe.

As it is, the retreats and concessions by the Labour leader have resulted in Boris Johnson currently heading the polls. This is despite the overwhelming opposition of the capitalist elite to Johnson’s reckless – from their point of view – policy on Europe. It’s still possible that a Brexit deal will be agreed between the current UK government and the EU, with both sides forced into concessions to avoid a chaotic Brexit. Even this carries dangers for Johnson as he could be accused of selling out by the European Research Groug [ERG – a Tory Party faction] and the Democratic Unionist Party [Northern Ireland based right wing party, which holds 10 Westminster seats] etc. If there is no deal, then the Tory leader can paint the European establishment and the pro-Remain parties in Britain as an obstacle to the “will of the people.” And use it to galvanise support for the general election campaign in order to “Get Brexit Done”.

If there is not an agreement for a managed deal – or if a deal does not get through parliament – an extension to Brexit beyond October 31 will possibly be achieved, but Johnson will do everything to resist having to “write a letter” requesting one from the EU, as demanded by the “Benn” act. Further clashes with the Courts and even the threat of legal action against the Tory leader if he refuses to ask for the EU for an extension are also possible. All of this will be used by the Tory leadership to bolster support ahead of a general election.

If Corbyn and Labour continue with their unclear position and worse, come out in favour of Remain, then, under these conditions, its possible Johnson could win an election by posing as the only one prepared to deliver Brexit. The current polling evidence points to a Tory minority government or a hung parliament. However, if Jeremy Corbyn was to come off the fence on the EU and fight on a left and socialist manifesto he could win an overall majority.

Corbyn can win with a fighting programme

The general election in any case will not only be fought on Brexit. Austerity, worsening public services, in-work poverty, the NHS, universal credit etc. will also be decisive issues. All the more so if Corbyn makes them central to his campaign, alongside a commitment to fight for a pro-working-class Brexit. As it stands, Labour’s manifesto looks like it will cover many of the pledges contained in the 2017 manifesto. £10 an hour minimum wage, ending universal credit, some limited tax increases on the corporations, abolition of the Tory TU act and renationalisation of Royal Mail and some of the railway operators. In all it is a very mild reformist platform, but it can, as was the case in 2017, galvanise support among workers and young people.

It is quite likely that when the election is called and the campaign begins, support for Corbyn will begin to increase. Some of the turnouts at his rallies recently indicate there remains a strong base of support for him. Nevertheless, the concessions to the right, and to the capitalist class generally which have been the main feature of Corbyn’s leadership, has undermined his support, reflected in the current polling.

We have been alone on the socialist left in Scotland to advocate that Corbyn could defeat Johnson with a fighting programme, including a socialist policy on the EU and Scottish self-determination. We correctly have stood out in advocating a Corbyn-led government on socialist policies. And this approach will become easier during the election campaign, as long as Corbyn fights on a left manifesto.

Scotland

Nevertheless, nowhere are the problems facing Labour more obvious than in Scotland. The May 2019 European election saw Labour lose both their MEPs, dropping to just 9.3% support. They came fifth, behind the Scottish National Party (SNP), Brexit Party, Tories and the Lib Dems. The most recent polling in Scotland for a general election – from early September 2019 – had Labour at 15%, the Tories on 20% and the SNP on 43%. As we have pointed out many times, the ongoing mistakes over the national question by the Labour leadership and a failure to fight austerity has shattered its base of support among the working class and young people. Richard Leonard’s leadership has seen him double down on the mistaken approach of the Labour right. To his credit, at least Corbyn has said Labour government would not block an indyref2 at Westminster.

It’s likely that the SNP will, as a result of Labour’s incapacity and the Tories chaotic mess, win back many of the seats it lost in 2017. They will run the election campaign on two issues: Stop Brexit and a mandate to pursue independence if this is not achieved. At the same time the SNP have made it clear that they would support a Corbyn government as long as they had an agreement on the right to hold a second independence referendum.

Support for independence has increased during the current phase of the Brexit crisis. On average, backing for independence stands at between 49-52% in the last four polls. A no deal Brexit and/or and Johnson victory at a general election would almost certainly lead to a significant increase in that support. As we have analysed repeatedly, backing for independence among the working class is a partial reflection of the desire to escape from austerity and class oppression more generally. Our task is to give that desire a socialist expression through our slogans and programmatic demands. In particular, as the inadequacies of the capitalist class and their state machine are exposed more clearly.

As the Westminster government’s own Operation Yellowhammer report into the consequences of a no deal Brexit explained: Vehicles using the Kent channel crossing are likely to be delayed for up to two and a half days, initially, with the ‘flow rate’ only ‘improving’ to 50-70% of present levels after three months. With three quarters of the UK’s imported medicines coming through this route, there will be significant supply disruptions for short shelf-life medicines that cannot be stockpiled. There are also expectations of price rises for fuel and food, including “significant electricity price increases”, and warnings of the impact on companies providing adult social care, including the “closure of services and handing back of contracts [to local councils] which are not part of normal market function”.

The Scottish government have also produced a 30-page report outlining similar concerns; some container goods may also have to be moved through Grangemouth and Greenock Ocean Terminal if there are blockages at Dover. Scotland could be pushed into recession, with a 5 per cent rise in prices, principally food, tipping 130,000 people into poverty. Also mentioned was sectarian conflict spilling over from Northern Ireland following the installation of a hard border between the north and the republic of Ireland.

These scenarios, even if there is an element of exaggeration contained, are likely to produce a sizeable increase in demands for independence if they were to transpire. Our role would of course be to advocate a working class solution; nationalisation and workers’ control of the economy, workers’ control of food, medicine and fuel distribution and so on.

A Catalonia-style confrontation could develop if Johnson won an election and a no deal rupture was carried out while refusing indyref2. This would cause huge problems for the SNP leadership who would be under enormous pressure to lead an extra-parliamentary struggle. Their entire political DNA is of course designed to oppose such methods in favour of ‘constitutional means’.

For these reasons, while putting forward our main slogans Tories Out – Corbyn In on socialist policies, it will be very important to also bring forward demands on the national question to the forefront of our material. For example the demand for an independent socialist Scotland and a second indyref will have to appear more prominently.

This would be done while also explaining in more detail the steps Corbyn would need to take to stand up to the inevitable blackmail and sabotage of the bosses and carry through the necessary measures against capitalist interests, the nationalisation of the major sectors of the economy in particular. Alongside this would need to be demands on a Corbyn government to stand for the right of Scotland to be independent, on the basis of majority support. For an independent socialist Scotland, to form a free and voluntary confederation with a socialist England, Wales and Ireland to end poverty, low pay, austerity and for a living wage for all.

A recent poll found 88% thought parliament was out of touch with the public. 89% felt MPs “ignore the wishes of voters and push their own agendas” on Brexit. This reflects a rage against the capitalist establishment that Johnson is trying to base himself on. But only a mass working class party with socialist policies could provide systemic answers, offering a future to millions whose lives are being destroyed by a profit-driven economic system.

The Blairites have to go, along with any Labour councillor and MSP who votes for cuts and austerity. A Labour manifesto that stands unequivocally on the side of the working class and points to the need to break with capitalism is also vital to win a general election. If Corbyn does not act and continues to seek compromise with the capitalist class inside the Labour Party then a mass working class socialist alternative will still have to be built. Indeed given the role of SNP and Labour councillors and MSPs in carrying out cuts in Scotland it is a pressing need. The mass membership of the trade union movement will have a central role to play in that task.

Conclusion

The bourgeois are mired in uncertainty and increasingly divided over how to deal with the crisis. None of the various options; staying inside the EU, leaving with a Tory deal or a no deal exit offer a way out for the working class. They are all attempts at capitalist solutions, which will fail to offer a route out the crisis. Moreover a new economic downturn now seems likely for global capitalism, which will have profound effects on the consciousness of both the working class and the middle layers of society – as we see already through the movement against climate change.

We base ourselves on the revolutionary class, the working class and its organisations – the trade unions and the building of a mass workers’ party on a socialist programme – to forge a solution to the nightmare of capitalism. This was the central issue in the recent struggle we undertook to defend a Trotskyist international and a revolutionary transitional programme for the CWI.

We are on the eve of historic events, including the likelihood of a national postal workers strike, which itself is an anticipation of mighty class battles that impend in this convulsive situation. Consciousness, which has been held back due to the lack of a fighting socialist leadership in the unions and the limits of Corbyn-style reformism, will undergo seismic changes. It will open up the possibility of building powerful revolutionary socialist parties. It is to that task that we must turn in the forthcoming general election and beyond.

This statement was agreed at a national conference of Socialist Party Scotland (CWI) on Saturday 19 October.  

 

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