Selling a pig in a poke
Communists cannot support either a ‘remain’ or a ‘leave’ vote, writes Eddie Ford
Keen to get the referendum out of the way as early as possible, David Cameron is still looking for a piece of paper that he can wave at his discontented backbenchers and the rightwing press. He claims to have “ruled nothing out”, but it is almost inconceivable that he will do anything else but lead the campaign to stay in the European Union - which is the agenda of big business, at the end of the day. The question proposed by the Electoral Commission and accepted by Downing Street will most likely be: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?”1
Of course, as this paper has pointed out before, when Cameron first mooted the idea of a “simple” in/out referendum on EU membership, just about the last thing in the world he thought he would be doing in 2016 was actually … holding a referendum. Like everyone else, the CPGB included, Cameron was expecting an indecisive general election result: ie, some sort of hung parliament leaving him still in coalition with the Liberal Democrats. Naturally, there was no chance that the Lib Dems would countenance a referendum - enabling the prime minister to apologetically shrug his shoulders and blame parliamentary arithmetic (or the electorate).
Somewhat disastrously though, he is now stuck with the damned thing - forced to travel to various European capitals to build support for a “new settlement”, recent ports of call being Warsaw and Copenhagen. Ideally he wants to secure some sort of deal by the next EU summit that begins on February 18, but says he is prepared to take longer in order to get the “substance” right. Try not to laugh.
If an agreement is reached by this point, which essentially means convincing central and eastern European member-states that limiting welfare payments to EU migrants will not be discriminatory against their own citizens, various press reports tell us that the cabinet is expected to meet on February 22 or even earlier to formally endorse the government’s position prior to Cameron naming the date of the referendum - June 23 being frequently mentioned.
If you are a betting person, it would be fairly sensible to put your money on a ‘remain’ vote. However, upsets do happen. After all, who on earth would have thought that Jeremy Corbyn would make it on to the leadership ballot - or that Bernie Sanders would resoundingly beat Hillary Clinton in the New Hampshire primary? Putting it mildly, rocky times might lie ahead for the prime minister.
In this context of uncertainty, it is worth noting that the Financial Times recently carried out a survey of the leading 100 companies on the stock exchange, and presented the results under the headline, “Top UK businesses unprepared for Brexit” (February 5). We discover that only four (Easyjet, Persimmon, GKN and Standard Life) had drawn up any contingency plans for a UK withdrawal. One in 10 has not yet taken a position and three companies admitted they had not even discussed the issue at board level. While no FTSE100 company said it wanted Britain to leave the EU, only 18 were prepared unequivocally to state they supported continued EU membership.
This seeming complacency about the referendum is mainly because the companies think that Brexit will never happen. However, in the view of Ian Peters, chief executive of the Chartered Institute of Internal Auditors, it was “dangerous” to ignore the potential impact of a Brexit - all companies would be affected to a “greater or lesser degree”. One thing you can say for sure is that business does not like uncertainty - and it is hard to imagine how Brexit would not deliver a big blow to the confidence of the City and investors in general. Clearly, continued EU membership is in the interests of most of the big companies - if not the smaller ones as well.
Therefore, it is not surprising that Cameron has become a bit frustrated that big business has not yet put its money where its mouth is and unambiguously come out in support of the ‘remain’ campaign. Last month, he urged business leaders to start “speaking out” for Britain’s membership of the EU. Having said that, Downing Street has sent mixed messages about the role it wants businesses to play in the run-up to the referendum - Cameron originally discouraged them from speaking out on the topic, but now has totally reversed his stance.
As for the prospective deal itself, assuming everything does not go belly-up - which seems very unlikely - it has so far met with a hostile reception from the reactionary press and a sizable chunk of the Tory Party. Which is only to be expected, seeing as Cameron is trying to sell a pig in a poke. If anything, committed Eurosceptics have just been further enraged by the paltry nature of the ‘concessions’ won by him in his pseudo-negotiations with fellow EU leaders - they are utterly unconvinced, quite rightly, by the prime minister’s contention that the draft deal will deliver “substantial change”.
The much touted “emergency brake”2 - a mechanism whereby a member-state can suspend or curtail certain in-work benefits if it gets collective approval by the other members - does not really amount to much at all. If you are John Redwood or Bernard Jenkin, it is a “sick joke” and an “insult” to the UK parliament - sentiments shared by many others in the Tory Party, the UK Independence Party and further afield. For instance, Cameron originally demanded that people coming to Britain from the EU should be barred from claiming in-work benefits or social housing for four years - and also be unable to claim child benefit in the UK and then send it back to families in other EU states. But the February 2 draft proposals (or counter-proposals) from Donald Tusk, president of the European Council, talk instead about a “graduated” limitation, to “take account of the growing connection of the worker with the labour market of the host member state” (after being agreed by the EC, of course).
On child benefit, the Tusk plan would not “end the practice of sending child benefit overseas” - just limit the amount that is paid out. Then there is also the question of how long the UK would be allowed to apply its “emergency brake”: but who exactly would judge whether an “emergency” still existed or not? Who gets to apply or release the brake? Then what would happen to migration when it was released? Under the draft proposals, the access to benefits would gradually increase. Additionally, EU migrant workers in the UK who lose their job “through no fault of their own” are entitled to the same benefits as UK citizens - including jobseekers allowance and housing benefit, for six months. Under the current draft plans, it is difficult to see what seriously acts as a disincentive to come to the UK.
As for the broader issue of national sovereignty, Cameron wanted an end to Britain’s obligation to work towards an “ever closer union” - one of the founding principles of the EU - in a “formal, legally binding and irreversible way”, and a strengthening of the EU’s commitments to subsidiarity (the idea that EU decisions should only be taken at an EU level where necessary). But Cameron ended up with the so-called “red card” system, allowing a group of countries making up more than 55% of votes on the council to veto EU legislation. Once again, it is arguable whether the “red card” mechanism will make much or any difference in practice.
Not impressed by Cameron’s ‘renegotiation’ tactics, the Scottish National Party’s Alex Salmond lambasted the prime minister for his “sham negotiation and this sham of a campaign” - especially the suggestion that Brexit could lead to migrant camps like the “jungle” in Calais being set up inside the UK: an example of what Cameron’s Eurosceptic critics dub “project fear”.3 We on the other hand, call it playing the chauvinist card - utterly foul, but very David Cameron. Using slightly more temperate language, former EC president José Manual Barroso described the ‘emergency brake’ as a “creative compromise” that would not actually reduce immigration. He told BBC’s Newsnight that levels of immigration would be dependent on “future labour market conditions” and that people who want to go to Britain, if their “basic rights” are ensured, will still be “willing to go, but, of course, with slightly different conditions”.4
Barroso is right: the idea that workers will give up going to Britain because they might not get any housing benefit or working tax credits for a certain number of years is risible. They will continue to come, and who can blame them? Communists support the right of workers to live and work in any country they want.
Meanwhile, the internal rivalries and splits within the ‘leave’ campaigns provide us with a certain amount of amusement - most notably the bust-up that Labour Leave has had with Vote Leave, an umbrella group which includes business leaders, Tory MPs and Ukip’s only MP, Douglas Carswell.
Kate Hoey, the obnoxious pro-fox hunting MP and Labour Leave co-chair, informed TheSunday Telegraph she did not want to be associated with VL because it was “not actually doing anything at the grassroots”, but rather “appointing all these people with grand titles” - a reference, of course, to the chair of VL and climate-change sceptic, Lord Nigel Lawson. Hoey is now backing Grassroots Out5, which was officially launched on January 23 by Tory MPs Peter Bone and Tom Pursglove as a response to the constant squabbling between VL and ‘Leave.EU’ - the latter regarded by many, accurately or not, as a “Ukip front”. In turn, Nigel Farage - speaking on his regular LBC radio phone-in - said he had tried to get VL and Leave.EU to merge, but called VL a “Tory front” which “refuses to work with anybody”, and announced that Ukip was now officially behind Grassroots Out. As for Leave.EU, it has agreed to merge into GO - both organisations having the financial backing of Arron Banks, an insurance magnate who in October 2014 donated £1 million to Ukip.
Interestingly, Carswell has openly discussed the “difference of strategy” between VL and Leave.EU. The latter, according to him, wants to “focus more on identity and immigration” - whilst the former wants an “optimistic, upbeat, internationalist message”: a ‘progressive’ Brexit, if you like. Yes, immigration was “incredibly important”, but it was also essential to campaign on economic matters and spending priorities - Carswell emphasised the crucial need to appeal to the 87% of people who did not vote Ukip at the last general election. Rather than concentrating on the Ukip or Eurosceptic hard core, he argues, VL should reach out to the “undecideds” who will sway the vote one way or another.
The Electoral Commission has the anti-democratic task of designating the ‘official’ leave and remain campaigns - which will get access to £600,000 in public funds, TV broadcasts and free mailshots. Both VL and GO are claiming that they are the most deserving, of course.
What is genuinely surprising, however, is that the Labour leadership has come out with a ‘remain’ position. Listening to Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell speak at various platforms over the years, you never would have guessed that they would adopt this position on the EU. Obviously, you would expect it from the Blairites and right wing of the party - they have always had this stance. On the other hand, Corbyn in particular has regularly written for the left-nationalist Morning Star - you would have expected them to come out with some version of the ‘socialist leave’ line.
But what is disturbing are those sections of the left that are dancing on a sixpence when it comes to the EU and the coming referendum. Thus a mere two years ago the Labour Representation Committee voted down its previous position on the EU - which was for staying in, fighting for a “socialist Europe”, etc. The LRC rejected this on the grounds that a ‘discussion’ was now needed (ie, LRC leaders were toying with the idea of adopting a ‘socialist leave’ position). It is now more than likely that the LRC will forget all about that decision and simply follow Corbyn - and the Parliamentary Labour Party. Remember, there were threats from the likes of Lord Charlie Falconer when Corbyn first put together his shadow cabinet that they would walk if he came out with a ‘leave’ position - that is, they were under the same impression as all the rest of us.
Whilst the new stance of Corbyn and McDonnell is a definite improvement over the ‘left Ukipism’ peddled by the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain, or Trade Unionists Against the EU (formerly No2EU)6, it is still the case that a vote for continued EU membership is essentially a vote for the status quo, Fortress Europe and ultimately David Cameron himself - the man despicably trying to scare us with images of the Calais “jungle”. This can in no way promotes the interests of proletarian internationalism.
Communists support neither of the alternatives that will be on offer in the referendum: on the one hand, an endorsement of the current undemocratic EU of the bankers or, on the other, a nationalist withdrawal into British isolationism. That is why the CPGB will call for an active boycott.
2. Not to be confused with the same term applied to a quite separate proposal to give countries outside the euro zone an ‘emergency power’ to stop countries within it imposing unwelcome laws on them.