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24 April 2009
Euro elections: Challenging big business and the far-right
In this year's European elections working-class people have a positive alternative to vote for. A new electoral alliance, No2EU-Yes to Democracy, has been launched to oppose the EU's big-business agenda. It will also mount a challenge to the divisive, anti-working class, far-right BNP which has, in the past, benefitted from the protest votes in Euro-elections. HANNAH SELL reports on this important initiative.
NO2EU on the 'Put People First' demo, photo Paul Mattsson
THE NATIONAL UNION of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT) has initiated an electoral alliance for the European elections that will be contesting all of the seats in England, Wales and Scotland in the elections on 4 June. This is a temporary platform for the European elections, entitled No2EU-Yes to Democracy, with initial support from the RMT, Socialist Party, Solidarity-Scotland's Socialist Movement, the Indian Workers' Association, the Communist Party of Britain (CPB), the Morning Star newspaper, and others.
It is the first time since the formation of the Labour Party that a trade union has taken an electoral initiative on an all-Britain scale. The transformation of the Labour Party from a workers' party at base - albeit with a capitalist leadership - into an unalloyed party of big business has left the working class without a mass party for well over a decade. The absence of such a party has been a central factor in holding back the confidence of workers to struggle in defence of their pay and conditions. The fact that the RMT has taken this step, however tentative, is therefore enormously positive.
The programme of No2EU-Yes to Democracy is very limited. Nevertheless, it seeks to oppose the European Union (EU) from a working-class, non-nationalist standpoint. The programme is more limited, for example, than the People's Charter, which is itself very far from being a rounded-out socialist programme. The charter sets out a broad programme for dealing with the current economic crisis and putting 'people first'. Signed by a number of union leaders, MPs and prominent lefts, it aims to collect a million signatures, a faint echo of the People's Charter of the 19th century Chartists. Nonetheless, the fact that No2EU is taking a step towards solving the crisis of working class representation, whereas the People's Charter deliberately avoids the issue, makes the former far more significant.
The candidates for No2EU-Yes to Democracy include leaders of the Lindsey oil refinery construction workers who went on strike in January and of the Visteon car components workers currently blockading their factories. Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT, will be heading the list in London, and a number of RMT regional officers will be standing around the country. Coventry Socialist Party councillor Dave Nellist heads the list in the West Midlands. In the North West, the regional UNISON NEC representative and Socialist Party member, Roger Bannister, is heading the list. In Scotland, Tommy Sheridan is second on the list. Other candidates include car workers fighting job losses, postal workers resisting privatisation, health workers, teachers, fire-fighters and other public-sector workers. This list offers an alternative to the pro-capitalist parties, and its candidate lists are dominated by some of the most combative sections of the working class in Britain today.
There are one or two exceptions, notably Steve Radford, a councillor for the small Liberal Party, which split away from the Liberal Party when it merged with the SDP in 1988. He is on the list in the North West, having been proposed by the CPB. Clearly, the Liberal Party is not a workers' party and, in the past, Radford attacked the Liverpool 47, the Labour councillors, led by Militant supporters, who defied Margaret Thatcher's Tory government from 1983-87. However, all electoral blocs require some compromises. Some, of course, would be unacceptable and would lead to a break of the bloc. This, however, is an acceptable compromise. In the recent, period Steve Radford has taken a radical stand, has come out against the war in Iraq, and has been involved in anti-BNP campaigning. He has also agreed to the programme of the No2EU initiative.
No2EU-Yes to Democracy is partially motivated by an understanding of the urgent need to provide an alternative to the far-right racist British National Party (BNP). There is a real danger that the BNP could capitalise on the anger with New Labour and succeed in winning one or more MEPs in this election. The BNP will never be cut across by bland campaigns pleading with people not to vote for racists. The implication of such campaigns is that workers should vote for the pro-capitalist parties in order to stop the BNP. Only the development of a genuine working-class alternative, combined with a serious campaign against the BNP, will be able to effectively undermine them. This electoral initiative is taking an important step in that direction by offering a left, anti-EU alternative.
Some suggest that the Greens can play that role, particularly in the European elections, as they have two MEPs. However, the Greens are not a workers' party and are not capable of appealing to the section of disillusioned and angry workers who could consider voting for the BNP.
OF COURSE, WHILE No2EU's motivations and candidate lists are, overall, very impressive, when deciding whether to support an electoral initiative it is essential that socialists look not only at who is behind it, but also what programme it is standing on. The programme of No2EU consists of a few demands, centring on issues relating directly to the European Union. These are:
- Reject the Lisbon treaty.
- No to EU directives that privatise our public services.
- Defend and develop manufacturing, agriculture and fishing industries in Britain.
- Repeal anti-trade union European Court of Justice rulings and EU rules exploiting workers.
- No to racism and fascism, yes to international solidarity of working people.
- No to EU militarisation and an EU army.
- Repatriate democratic powers to EU member states.
- Replace unequal EU trade deals with fair trade that benefits developing nations.
- Scrap EU rules designed to stop member states from implementing independent economic policies.
- Keep Britain out of the eurozone.
The EU has not been central in most workers' minds up to the present time. However, recent developments have made it more of an issue, at least amongst those workers who have been directly affected, and perhaps increasingly amongst a wider layer. It was central to the Lindsey construction workers' strike. It was under the EU Posted Workers Directive and subsequent European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings that the Italian-registered company, IREM, was able to employ workers not covered by the union-enforced national construction industry agreements.
No2EU's programme takes up the different aspects of the EU's neo-liberal laws. These laws arise from the support of this government, and all European governments, for neo-liberal anti-working class policies. EU laws provide them with an additional lever with which to drive through their pro-big business programmes. For example, the EU's public spending criteria gave New Labour an excuse to privatise capital projects like new schools and hospitals, by means of private finance initiatives and the disastrous public-private partnership on London Underground, which increase the costs of public services and subsidise corporate profits. The government's plan for the part-privatisation of Royal Mail, the first step to its complete sell-off, is linked to the EU's 2007 Postal Services Directive to introduce a deregulated postal services market.
A neo-liberal charter
THE LISBON TREATY is just the latest in a long line of EU treaties that demand privatisation and other neo-liberal measures. However, it goes further than its predecessors. It is, in reality, the European constitution, repackaged after it was rejected by referendums in France and Netherlands. New Labour promised a referendum on the treaty, but then reneged on that promise after the 2005 general election. The Lisbon treaty has only been put to the vote in one country, Ireland. When a majority of the population rejected it, the response of the leaders of Europe was to demand a new vote, to take place by October 2009, in the hope that the Irish voters would 'get it right this time'. Despite the colossal pressure the Irish ruling class is applying to make sure it gets the result it wants second time around, it is not certain of success.
In all the referendums - France, the Netherlands and Ireland - the establishment argued for a 'yes' vote. In all three countries, the 'no' vote was strongest in working-class areas, reflecting deep-seated anger with Europe's ruling elites, and an understanding that the treaty is a neo-liberal charter.
The treaty lays the basis for further privatisation. It calls for a system in the 'internal market' to ensure 'that competition is not distorted' and calls for uniformity in measures of liberalisation. This is a thinly disguised code for hiving public services off to the private sector, starting with the most profitable.
Lisbon would also further undermine democracy as it gives to the European Commission, an unelected, appointed body, the task of negotiating trade agreements on a global basis. The Commission has a consistent record of proposing privatising public services. The European parliament, the only elected body, has always been little more than a rubber stamp. Under Lisbon it will have a few more rights but will still be able to do no more than act as a check on the Commission.
Individual member states would no longer have the right of veto. If there is a dispute between individual member states and the European Commission it will be the unelected European Court of Justice (ECJ) that will have to make a decision. The ECJ has repeatedly shown in whose interests it judges. For example, in the Laval judgement it concluded that trade union action in Sweden against Laval for employing Latvian workers on €9 an hour, rather than the nationally agreed rate of €16 an hour, had interfered with a company's 'freedom to provide services'. This was a legal precedent for the idea that trade union action is only legal if it does not interfere with the freedoms of big business - in other words the rights of the big corporations trumps the rights of workers every time. It was this, and other similar judgements, that were used against the Lindsey workers. The EU is making it easier for big business to conduct a race to the bottom, where employing workers from countries where labour is cheaper is used as a means to force down wages in countries with higher wages.
No2EU is an electoral bloc, bringing together different organisations and individuals, around a minimum programme for a specific campaign. As in the nature of any genuine electoral bloc, every supporting organisation works together to build No2EU-Yes to Democracy, but is free to put forward its own programme. Our material in support of No2EU-Yes to Democracy goes much further than the list of demands of the campaign, giving a clear socialist approach.
While No2EU is not yet a mass alternative, it involves sizeable forces, including RMT, a significant and combative national trade union. It is motivated by a working-class reaction against the capitalist EU project. Far from being nationalist, it has 'yes to international solidarity of working people' as one of its demands. What is more, in his public statements, Bob Crow has had a clearly internationalist approach, for example saying that "we want a workers' Europe, not the bosses' EU", on the BBC's Daily Politics show.
This initiative is a huge step forward. It offers an alternative to the majority of trade union leaders who continue to cling to the trouser legs of New Labour. In the Socialist Party we also hope it will be a step towards the development of a new mass left alternative. It offers a challenge to those trade union leaders, some even on the left, who have called for Britain to join the euro currency. They have done so partly because they were under the illusion that, because neo-liberalism had gone much further in Britain than in most other European countries, joining the eurozone would improve the rights of workers in Britain. This was completely incorrect. In reality the EU and the eurozone have been used as a tool by the capitalist classes to accelerate the drive to implement neo-liberal policies, aiming to catch Britain up, or even to overtake it. Where there were individual EU laws that were more progressive than British law, such as the maximum 48-hour working week, the British government simply opted out.
Europe in crisis
No2EU - Yes to Democracy press launch, photo Suzanne Beishon
THE PRO-EURO trade union leaders also believed that a united Europe was going to take off. As has been argued in this magazine, a completely united Europe is utopian under capitalism. When the world economy was booming integration was able to go a long way. The capitalist classes of Europe are driven towards integration in order to create a counterweight to the economic power of the US, and now the growing strength of China and Asia. It is this need to establish an economic, political and even military counterweight to these rival economic blocs that is behind the EU.
Such is the modern scale of production, technique, investment and management that the multinationals and transnationals which dominate world trade plan their operations on a world, never mind a European, scale. This shows the potential for a democratic socialist plan, on a national, European and then a world basis, which would liberate the productive forces from the constraints of capitalism. However, as long as capitalism remains the big corporations cannot more than partially surmount the barrier of the nation state. They are, almost without exception, still based in, and tied to, particular countries.
They are reliant on the market and the political superstructure of their home nation. An intrinsic part of that political superstructure is a national consciousness which the capitalist class exploits in order, for example, to win support for its wars, but which is not, obviously, entirely under its control. At the same time, an international class consciousness also exists amongst the working class and labour movement. This is not static, either, but increases at times of heightened class struggle. In the past, this was shown by the huge international workers' support for the miners' strike in Britain in 1984-85, and has recently been shown by the support amongst Italian trade unionists for the Lindsey strike.
Although EU integration has gone some way, one indication of its limits is shown in the way it is still seen by voters. While this varies from country to country there is nowhere where the European parliament is considered to be anything more than an extremely poor second, in terms of its importance, to national parliaments. According to the EU parliament's own website, 54% of people across the EU say they are not interested in the European elections, while only 34% say they are likely to vote!
Europe, like the rest of the world, is now engulfed in the worst economic crisis since the great depression of the 1930s. Some countries outside the eurozone might hope that joining would ameliorate their economic crisis. The International Monetary Fund, for example, has been suggesting that Hungary, Latvia and other Central and Eastern European states should be allowed to join as 'quasi members'. The European Central Bank, of course, quickly ruled out taking any responsibility for these states.
However, while some governments might hope that the eurozone would provide them with a refuge, the countries inside are trapped in a prison. The Irish economy is in freefall, expected to contract by 7% this year. No readjustment through currency devaluation is possible so long as Ireland remains within the eurozone. Italy's exchange rate, to give another example, taking into account inflation, is estimated to be one third higher than required by the terrible economic position facing the country. This economic crisis could shatter the eurozone, if the poorest states have no choice but to escape from its prison. Another possibility is that the richest countries, particularly Germany, which is reluctant to bail out the poorest nations, could refuse to pay in to ensure the continuation of the euro.
Even if the eurozone survives this crisis intact, an escalation of the already increased national tensions between the different member states of the EU is inevitable. As we warned, there will be a recoil from the capitalists' attempts to create a united Europe with all the dangers of increased nationalism that this will bring.
No2EU-Yes to Democracy has a vital role to play in offering an alternative to nationalism. In one sense, it is more developed than many of the anti-EU or Common Market (formed in 1957, the precursor to the EU, set up in 1993) campaigns of the past because, far from blocking with the capitalist anti-EU parties, it is an attempt to provide a left alternative to them. It is not a coincidence that most of the same organisations that dismiss No2EU as nationalist also made the fundamental mistake of opposing the Lindsey oil construction workers' action, an all-out unofficial strike which won a tremendous victory, on the completely false grounds that it was nationalist.
Splits at the top
IT IS UTTERLY utopian to suggest, as Labour MP John Cruddas has recently done, that it is now possible, as a result of the economic crisis, to reforge the EU as a social democratic project. Cruddas argues that "the mandate of the European Central Bank must be broadened to include social objectives and the prevention of unemployment". He goes on to suggest that, if this takes place, the chances of Britain joining the euro would increase.
The ruling classes of Europe are divided on what path EU institutions should take in the next period. Just as New Labour's increased state intervention has been, as the Financial Times put it, "not to bury capitalism but to rescue it", so will any changed policy by the bodies of the EU be tailored to the needs of big business. At this stage, however, the EU is acting as the last defender of crude neo-liberalism. For example, EU finance ministers are demanding massive public spending cuts from a whole number of countries including Britain, which has been given six months to come up with plans to cut £35 billion to meet the Stability and Growth Pact finance rules.
They hope that by forcing through the Lisbon treaty they will be able to guarantee the continuation of untrammelled neo-liberalism. This is nonsense, of course, and they are already being forced to alter their approach in the face of reality. The European Commission treaty, article 87, for example, prohibits state aid. Yet European governments have pledged at least €1,873 billion to bail out their financial sectors, including €360 billion by the French government, €500 billion in Germany and €515 billion in Britain. Faced with a devastating economic crisis the various national ruling classes brushed aside the EU rules, treating them for what they are, words written on a piece of paper. The EU rules then had to be adapted to the actions of individual governments. Whereas the European Commission objected to the nationalisation of Northern Rock, it has since accepted a whole number of full and partial nationalisations, including Bradford and Bingley in Britain and the Anglo Irish Bank in Ireland. This is justified on the ground that these are emergency measures, but it gives an indication of how far the neo-liberal norms are breaking down in the face of crisis.
This in itself shows the limits of the power of the EU. Governments are happy to submit to its rulings as unbreakable when it suits them to do so but are also prepared to ignore them when they do not suit the interests of capitalism in their country. Some of the supporters of No2EU-Yes to Democracy do not always fully recognise this and suggest that it is EU diktats that are responsible for neo-liberal measures. This goes too far. In fact, of course, New Labour has been the most neo-liberal in a host of neo-liberal governments, and has introduced EU diktats with enthusiasm, because it has suited its purposes to do so. But it has been equally prepared to brush them aside in defence of the banking system.
No model democracy
THERE IS ALSO a danger that, while correctly attacking the lack of democracy in the EU, some supporters of the campaign can fall into giving the impression that the UK parliament is the alternative. A constitutional monarchy with an unelected second chamber, Britain is no model of democracy. Neither the House of Lords nor the monarchy is just a harmless tradition - like morris dancing or playing conkers. Just witness the way that Peter Mandelson recently sent the bill to part-privatise Royal Mail to the House of Lords for its first reading, rather than the House of Commons as is customary, in the hope of giving it an easy passage. The monarchy still has formal power to dismiss a prime minister and the government. This was last used in 1975, not in Britain but in Australia, when Sir John Kerr, the Governor-General appointed by the Queen, dismissed the Labour government. Although the monarchy today has far less social weight than it did in 1975, in the future, a desperate ruling class would be prepared to use its reserve powers.
Appearing to present the British parliament as democratic is one of the possible potential pitfalls of the position of the campaign that victorious candidates would only nominally hold their seats and would not sit in the European parliament. A discussion on how to proceed on this would be made by a national convention of the forces involved in the campaign, if candidates are elected. However, the Socialist Party argued against the current position, putting the case that, while no capitalist parliament is genuinely democratic, it is better for workers' representatives to sit in them both in order to use them as a platform from which they can gain publicity for their programme, and also to take whatever measures are possible to defend the interests of the working class. The possibilities for the latter are extremely limited in the European parliament, which can largely do no more than act as a check on the European Commission, and has no right to propose legislation. Nonetheless, even there, left MEPs have occasionally been able to have some effect. For example, an MEP from the Socialist Party in the Netherlands - a broad left reformist party - in 2007 was able to successfully move an amendment which blocked the requirement that all local and regional public transport be put out to tender to the private sector.
One of the main reasons for the campaign's position is the fact that the European parliament is accurately seen as a gravy train - MEPs will be earning nearly £80,000 a year after the June elections. Therefore, No2EU has rightly made it clear that no successful candidate will make any financial gain as a result. This points to the most effective means to deal with the issue, that is, to make it clear that anyone elected would only take a worker's wage, as Dave Nellist, Terry Fields and Pat Wall did when they were Labour MPs and supporters of the Militant Tendency (now the Socialist Party), in the 1980s. Instead of the bloated parliamentary salaries, they accepted the wage of a skilled worker in their constituencies, donating the rest to the workers' movement. Their expenses and accounts were circulated to local Labour Party and trade union bodies for scrutiny.
However, while we argued against the campaign's position to only nominally take any seats, nonetheless, as long as it is explained well, it will be understood by many workers. Bob Crow has responded to questions on the issue by asking 'can anyone name five MEPs?' This hits the spot because, in as far as most workers think about the European parliament at all, they consider it an irrelevant gravy train. Dave Nellist has responded by explaining about the convention the campaign would hold to discuss the way forward, but adding that, when he was an MP, while assiduously attending to his constituents' interests, he spent most of his time campaigning outside of Westminster, speaking at 1,500 public meetings, and that he would do the same if elected as an MEP, concentrating on building a movement in Britain and in Europe against the EU's neo-liberal agenda. He has added that at least when he went to Westminster there was the possibility of moving bills, but that this does not exist in the European parliament.
A first step
ELECTORAL PROSPECTS FOR the European elections are very difficult to predict. No2EU has been launched late in the day, and has limited financial resources. However, regardless of the number of votes it receives, it is a very important break in the situation. A certain comparison can be drawn with the launch in 2004 of the WASG (Electoral Alternative for Work and Social Justice) in Germany, which came initially from a layer of middle-ranking trade union officials and protests against attacks on living standards and workers' rights.
It was not initially clear how far the WASG would develop, however it was absolutely correct for Sozialistische Alternative (SAV - CWI Germany) to enthusiastically work to maximise the its potential. The WASG led to the setting up of Die Linke (The Left party) which received four million votes in the 2005 general election. The development of Die Linke has not been straightforward, with the leadership moving to the right and leading members of SAV excluded from membership. Nonetheless, it is a step towards independent representation for the working class in Germany.
In Britain we do not yet have a new mass left party - or a significant step towards one such as exists in Germany, France and Greece. However, we are faced with an important beginning. We have the leadership of a militant trade union that is prepared to take the responsibility for initiating the development of a political voice for working people - at least in the European elections - that will oppose all the capitalist parties and provide an alternative to the far-right, racist BNP . They will undoubtedly face attack from the capitalist media for daring to stand up. Marxists and socialists have a duty to offer every assistance in ensuring the campaign is a success.