Flip-flopping over in or out
Neither Corbyn’s current stance, nor his former position is in workers’ interests, argues Peter Manson
On March 6 The Sunday Telegraph revealed that all of Jeremy Corbyn’s previous comments on the European Union that were, or could be construed as, Eurosceptic have been removed from his personal website. The paper states that among the comments deleted - including some that date back many years - are: “The project has always been to create a huge free-market Europe, with ever-limiting powers for national parliaments and an increasingly powerful common foreign and security policy.”
It could be argued that this is just a statement of fact and it does not necessarily follow that we should therefore demand a British withdrawal. How about - particularly from a reformist point of view - working to transform the existing “project” into something else? Nevertheless the implication is clear. The same could be said about the following comments, also removed: “There is a strong socialist argument against the Lisbon treaty and the economic consequences that flow from it.” And:
What is also explicit in both the Maastricht treaty and the Lisbon treaty is the imposition of a market economy on Europe, a control on borrowing made by any member-state’s government and serious control on the political choices open to any one member-state.
The official explanation for the deletions was given by a Labour spokesperson: “The website has been updated: it now contains things Jeremy has written since he has been leader of the Labour Party. That was Jeremy’s website when he was a backbench MP. We are now converting it to reflect his work as leader, and afterwards other material will be archived.”
Perhaps it will, but the suspicion remains that Corbyn has authorised the removal of postings he considers embarrassing, now that he is party leader. As Conservative MP Julian Knight commented, “If he wasn’t leader, he would almost certainly be speaking out for the UK to leave.” In fact up to a week ago the more stupid sections of the media were speculating that Corbyn could still adopt a publicly declared ‘leave’ position.
As a left Labourite, Corbyn’s position had been similar to what can be read virtually every day in the Morning Star: the EU is, and always will be, a staunchly capitalist institution dominated by big business and banking interests, and therefore it is in the interest of the working class to demand a British withdrawal.
Of course, there are two obvious flaws in this argument. Firstly, why is the EU beyond reform? If the overwhelming majority across Europe, particularly the working class, insisted on fundamental change within Europe, then, at the very least, the EU institutions would be forced to make concessions, irrespective of what the current rules (on free trade, decision-making and vetoes, for example) state. Surely rules can be changed? Secondly, isn’t the UK state also staunchly capitalist, and also dominated by big business and banking interests? In that case, shouldn’t the left campaign for a withdrawal from Britain too?
However, leaving aside those obvious flaws, the Morning Star-type argument has long been prevalent within the Labour left and you would very much expect both Corbyn and his number two, shadow chancellor John McDonnell, to hold such views. But right now, as we all know, they are under enormous pressure. The left is in a tiny minority within the Parliamentary Labour Party they lead, and the PLP majority favours a position in line with the interests of British capital: continued UK membership of the EU.
What is more, since the announcement of the referendum date, the question of EU membership is clearly a pressing issue that cannot be skirted over. True, the Tories have allowed all their MPs to take up and campaign for either a ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ position, but the difference is that the majority of Conservative MPs are on the same side as their leader on the question: for continued EU membership. But how could Corbyn and McDonnell claim to be leading a party in which they are among a tiny minority of its elected parliamentary representatives on this key and immediate question?
But the enthusiasm for what is now the official Labour line, adopted after Corbyn’s victory in September 2015, has not been apparent. Even so, the Star comments: “There is a vacuum at the heart of the EU referendum debate where the Labour Party should be” (March 7). Although it has to be said that the Star editorial does not mention the previous day’s revelations in The Sunday Telegraph.
In fact both positions - the ‘stay’ held by the Labour Party and the ‘leave’ of most of the Labour and non-Labour left - miss the point. As noted above, the choice is between two bourgeois formations: the current EU, with its range of anti-democratic institutions and practices; and the United Kingdom under its anti-democratic constitutional monarchy.
A better choice was the one posed by comrade McDonnell himself at the February 20 special general meeting of the Labour Representation Committee: on the one hand, there is the current “capitalist club”; and, on the other, the prospect of “a workers’ Europe, a social Europe”. However, for him, “Labour should now be working with socialist and social democratic parties across Europe” to achieve the latter.
It goes without saying that such a choice will not be offered to the electorate on June 23. Nor is it the aim, I suspect, of the type of “socialist and social democratic parties across Europe” McDonnell is thinking about. The Parti Socialiste under François Hollande? The Sozialdemokratische Partei Deutschlands under Sigmar Gabriel? Syriza under Alexis Tsipras (or does he mean the Pasok of Fofi Gennimata)?
No, European co-thinkers of the traditional Labour Party are just as committed to the “capitalist club” as the rightwing parties - and in actual fact, before us on referendum day will be a choice between two reactionary, rightwing agendas: a Europe of big business and the bankers or the little-Britain nationalism of the Eurosceptics. That is why the CPGB is recommending a campaigning, active boycott of the poll - not, as some have chosen to dub it, ‘abstention’.
We do indeed need a “workers’ Europe, a social Europe”. But that will not be delivered from on high by social democracy. In every country across the continent what is needed is a fighting working class united under the leadership of a proletarian internationalist party. We should use the opportunity of the referendum campaign to propagate and highlight this aim, along with our vision of a Europe of the working class.