Editorial of the Socialist, issue 929

Establishment EU crisis deepens – fight for a socialist Brexit

Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) activists protesting against water charges in Ireland, August 2015, photo Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)

Anti-Austerity Alliance (AAA) activists protesting against water charges in Ireland, August 2015, photo Socialist Party (CWI Ireland)   (Click to enlarge: opens in new window)

It doesn’t take a political genius to spot that the Tories are at war with each other. In the aftermath of the Brexit vote Theresa May, the most Leave-friendly of the Remainers, was appointed prime minister in an attempt to bring the belligerent sides of the debate within the Tory party together. But this is impossible. The enmity between Remainers and Brexiters is revealed on a daily basis.

When Chancellor Philip Hammond called for a ‘transition arrangement’ for leaving the EU – in reality a ‘soft Brexit’ – many commentators identified within his statement an attack on David Davis, Tory minister for Brexit.

The FT reports Hammond telling the Treasury select committee that there was an “emerging view among businesses, among regulators and among thoughtful politicians” on the need for a transitional arrangement for the exit from the EU in order to provide businesses certainty about their investment prospects. It’s implied that Davis, who told the City of London Corporation in a private meeting that he was “not really interested” in such a deal to smooth Britain’s departure from the EU, is therefore not thoughtful.

The ‘trousergate’ spat between May and sacked education minister Nicky Morgan is not merely about the obscenity of a PM who wears £995 leather trousers while foodbank usage soars. The Brexit battles are a proxy – and sometimes poxy – war over how best the Tories can represent the super-rich 1%, the bankers and the bosses, when their system is in crisis, when they are hated and when they have no solutions to the problems we face.

In May’s Tory conference speech she claimed to be breaking with Cameron’s austerity and to be standing for everyone including the ‘just about managing’ millions of victims of Tory austerity. She mentioned the working class half a dozen times, aiming to tell working class people not to worry and definitely not to organise. But the cuts to the NHS, to social care, the 10% drop in wages since 2008, the housing catastrophe and the slashing of local government services means there is no choice but to do so. The divisions in the Tory party create an advantage – but it requires strong working class organisations to exploit that.

Class warfare

“There’s class warfare, all right, but it’s my class, the rich class, that’s making war, and we’re winning.” That’s how billionaire Warren Buffett saw things in 2006. In the years since, that war has been stepped up as working class people are made to pay, pay and pay again for the world economic crisis. And in that time an enormous accumulation of anger and distrust in the establishment and institutions of capitalism – from the government to the media – has been amassed.

This was expressed in the Brexit vote – against the establishment and the Tory austerity-mongers. They are still reeling from this unexpected strike back by the austerity-weary and angry.

In the referendum campaign, the absence of a major working class voice in the debates was a key factor and meant a rotten choice faced voters, where both official campaigns were dominated by capitalist politicians with nothing to offer working class people. But, as the Socialist Party predicted, the vote came to be seen as an opportunity to strike a blow against the establishment. As Aditya Chakrabortty summed it up: “A multitude of frustrations, pushed through a binary vote.”

It meant that this was a blow with a blunt instrument – but a blow nonetheless. It also meant that millions who would like to see the back of austerity governments voted Remain primarily through revulsion at the racism of the official Leave campaign – Tories Johnson and Gove, as well as Ukip.

The Socialist Party called for a Leave vote in the referendum and fought for an independent, working class political voice to oppose austerity from Westminster and from Brussels. This came up against both the establishment media silence and the failure of the leaders of the labour movement in the trade unions and the Labour Party to fight for a socialist, internationalist and working class voice.

Vehicle for austerity

Ultimately the EU is a capitalist institution, a vehicle of austerity. The majority of big business wants a ‘soft Brexit’ – that is, barely Brexit at all, keeping access to the single market, which means free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. 44% of British exports go to the single market. Big business generally prefers to trade and move around capital freely, and to be able to super-exploit cheap labour.

However, in this post-crisis world, there is no reliable political party for the capitalist class. The majority of the super-rich 1% want to maintain the EU for their own interests and the interests of the capitalist system, but many backbench MPs in the Tory party – the traditional vehicle the capitalists would prefer to rule through – backed Leave. Neither side can solve the problems of the ongoing economic crisis because the solutions lie in a break with crisis-ridden capitalism: taking the wealth off the 1% and introducing democratic socialist planning of the economy.

Everything is weaponised by the pro-capitalist Remainers in the campaign to water down the Brexit result – from the challenge in the High Court, to the daily association of Brexit voters with racism and nationalism. Tory Chancellor Philip Hammond used his Autumn Statement to blame Britain’s economic woes on Brexit rather than the years of pro-capitalist governments who pursued austerity, privatisation and lack of investment with vim.

Within the Labour Party the right wing see the EU as a weapon against Corbyn, and the threat that Labour’s future could be in the service of the working class and impoverished middle class, and not as a second eleven for the capitalist class. Defeated coup candidate Owen Smith championed the call for a second referendum and Corbyn was repeatedly attacked for his lacklustre support for Remain.

Unfortunately since Corbyn’s decisive victory over Smith and the Blairite plotters, it has been the likes of Keir Starmer, shadow Brexit secretary, who has been in the limelight putting a case for the single market in the interests of the 1%.

Corbyn’s Labour has to go on the attack and push for a working class alternative in the move towards Brexit. The EU represents the interests of big business. It has imposed rules that undermine wages and conditions of workers, block socialist measures of nationalisation and enforce austerity, privatisation and cuts in services.

Corbyn’s proposal to organise a European conference in February to discuss a left-wing perspective on the Brexit negotiations is an important opportunity to put forward a clear and positive plan for a solution to the problems working class people face, both here and across Europe.

The EU is fundamentally an agreement between the different national capitalist classes of Europe with the aim of creating the best terrain for the big European multinationals to conduct their drive for profits with the least possible hindrance.

This has been made painfully clear in Greece where, since 2010, unemployment has risen to over half the youth. The EU has again been attacking the Greek government – which has already capitulated on opposing austerity – for wanting to make one-off payments to horrendously impoverished pensioners.

Movement of disobedience

In Ireland an incredible movement of mass civil disobedience has forced the government to retreat on its austerity water charges. But on 27 June it was reported that the European Commission said to withdraw the charges was illegal under EU law. Environment Commissioner Karmenu Vella said: “Ireland adopted its river basin management plans in July 2010… and the Commission considers that the Directive does not provide for a situation whereby it can revert to any previous practice.”

Corbyn’s conference, if it can reach out to those resisting EU austerity such as the Anti Austerity Alliance in Ireland (involving the Socialist Party’s sister organisation there), could be the launch pad for a positive plan for a solution to the problems working class people face. This would mean replacing the EU’s rules with an increase in public spending on health, housing and education, an end to privatisation and protection of workers’ rights, pay and conditions.

But if Labour under Corbyn is to be of use in resistance against the bosses making the working class pay for the capitalist crisis, the fight to kick out the Blairites must be pursued vigorously. At the moment this is not the case. The same goes for a real fight for a workers’ Brexit, which could inspire the hundreds of thousands who have joined Labour to become active, and the millions watching to participate. This means a programme that opposes all the anti-worker directives and privatisation rules that oppose nationalisation of companies and industries, demanding a minimum wage of £10 an hour with no age exemptions and enshrining trade union rights, including collective bargaining. As part of a socialist, internationalist approach this could cut across the fears and divisions that the pro-capitalist Remainers play on.