Brexit and Labour - twin crises
Peter Manson reports on last weekend’s CPGB membership meeting
Following the unexpected ‘leave’ vote in the referendum, CPGB comrades met in London on June 26 to discuss the repercussions. The two main items on the agenda of this aggregate meeting - the post-referendum situation and the internal battle in the Labour Party - proved to be apposite in ways we had not anticipated beforehand.
First up was comrade Mike Macnair, who outlined the state of play following the Brexit vote. As he pointed out, in one sense our discussion was premature, since developments were continuing to take place at a furious pace. As this issue of the Weekly Worker is carrying an expanded version of comrade Macnair’s speech (see pp6-7), I will do no more than sum up the themes it contained here.
Comrade Macnair referred to the three immediate consequences triggered by the referendum: the Tory leadership contest; the challenge to Jeremy Corbyn; and the reopening of the question of Scots independence, along with some repercussions in Northern Ireland - in other words, Brexit had posed the possible breaking up of the United Kingdom more clearly. Overall, the result had been a blow for “chauvinist, nationalist reaction”.
Comrade Macnair said that he agreed with the opinion of the CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee, of which he is a member, that it was unlikely a UK withdrawal from the European Union would actually take place - Boris Johnson, or whoever the new Tory leader turns out to be, would attempt to “pull a rabbit out of the hat” and eventually hold a second referendum, in which the June 23 decision would be reversed.
However, he stated that it would not be straightforward for the new leader to flout that decision. Also, there was pressure coming from the EU establishment for the UK to immediately give formal notification of its intended withdrawal, thus initiating the two-year negotiation period under article 50. Some had insisted there could be no informal negotiations - or, alternatively, that such negotiations would automatically set in motion article 50. Comrade Macnair also stated that it would be equally difficult to say that the Brexit vote was invalid because it had been won fraudulently by the lies of the ‘leave’ campaign.
Finally he dealt with the economic consequences - the run on the pound and the fall in stock markets following the vote. It was possible that a British crash might trigger a global recession and it was therefore in the interests of the global bourgeoisie to ensure that such a crash did not happen.
The first speaker from the floor was comrade Moshé Machover, a non-CPGB supporter of the Weekly Worker, who was critical of the paper’s tactics during the referendum campaign. He said that for us the question of how to vote - ie, our recommendation for a boycott - took precedence over the “underlying issue”, which, the comrade stated, was that it was in the interests of the working class for Britain to remain within the EU. Just like globalisation, the EU was “historically progressive”, in that it helps provide the basis for the united action of the international working class. He stated that more should have been made of this factor in the Weekly Worker’s coverage.
In response, I pointed out that the referendum as conceived by David Cameron was not primarily about Britain’s EU membership, but him remaining prime minister by checking the growth of Ukip, outmanoeuvring Ed Miliband and satisfying his Europhobe rightwing - the whole thing had been a farce (I too stated my agreement with the PCC opinion that in all likelihood there would be no Brexit) and this was what we wanted to stress in our coverage.
I also thought that the problems raised by comrade Macnair over continuing EU membership following the referendum could be overcome. The next Tory prime minister would surely claim that, following a new round of negotiations, Britain’s terms of membership had been fundamentally improved and, since the first vote had been so close, it would be improper not to put the ‘new agreement’ to a second referendum.
While Stan Kelsey agreed that it had not been in the interests of “independent working class politics” to vote either ‘remain’ or ‘leave’, other comrades widened the debate. Laurie McIntyre said that it had turned into a “referendum on immigration” and he thought it was a “good thing” that Jeremy Corbyn had acknowledged the need to talk about that question. Phil Kent stated that immigration is viewed as a problem by many workers who believe it forces down wages, but he thought that capitalism had no answers to their discontent.
For her part, Yassamine Mather stated that the immediate economic effects of the vote had been “far worse” than predicted - the Dow Jones had fallen by even more than the FTSE, for instance, and she agreed with comrade Macnair that there was a real danger of a global recession. She also agreed that comrade Machover was right to stress the unity of the European working class.
Bob Paul said that, although he had spoiled his ballot in line with the CPGB recommendation to boycott the vote, he “did have doubts” about the tactic, in view of the statement in the CPGB’s Draft programme that “Communists oppose all programmes and demands for a British withdrawal”.
In response to this, Jack Conrad stated we were opposing both withdrawal and Cameron’s equally reactionary programme attached to continued membership. While he agreed that the ‘leave’ vote had been reactionary, so too would have been a vote for ‘remain’. Referenda themselves are in fact reactionary, he said, in that the question posed is divorced from any overall programme and thus results in the possibility that followers of any particular set of politics are divided among both camps.
Comrade Conrad emphasised that in Cameron’s head the referendum had been about remaining as prime minister rather than the question asked and that a second referendum could be a “successful strategy” from the point of view of the bourgeoisie. However, he was “surprised” not to read more commentaries pointing out that Britain may not actually leave.
Sarah Stewart agreed with previous speakers that the result had been a “blow for xenophobia”, but that was not to say we were wrong to call for a boycott. Meanwhile, Mark Fischer took issue with comrade McIntyre’s view that it was a “good thing” that Corbyn was reconsidering his view on immigration. In reality it was another retreat in the face of this “vote for chauvinism”, and the contention that immigration is a problem.
Ben Williams was another who stressed the international repercussions of the Brexit vote, pointing to an edition of Der Spiegel written entirely in English, which conveyed the message, ‘Please don’t go’. Despite the mixed signals coming from the EU about when to trigger article 50 and whether there could be negotiations beforehand, a “full-scale divorce is still a long way off”, he said. For his part, Vernon Price wondered if we were witnessing a “complete realignment of British politics” - perhaps there was now room for a new party along the lines of the Social Democratic Party of the 1980s.
Comrade Conrad replied to this by saying he was convinced the Labour right was not about to walk out - “They want ‘their’ party back,” he said. It was the same with the Tories - there would be no split. We are talking about people who are in politics for career purposes, after all. He agreed with comrades that the vote had demonstrated a “disconnect” with mainstream politics, but that did not mean there would be a new centre party. Comrade Rex Dunn - like comrade Machover a guest at the aggregate - wondered whether the CPGB was perhaps being a little complacent about the move to the right, He thought that Ukip could be the big winner to emerge out of the current turmoil.
Speaking of comrade Machover, he came in back to stress that he was not actually criticising the Weekly Worker’s voting recommendations, but its “lack of coverage” of the main underlying issue concerning European working class unity.
Responding to the debate, comrade Macnair agreed that it would have been good to carry more about the positive alternative, but he emphasised that we urged a boycott because we thought - and still think - that Brexit was “a lie”. However, whether or not the UK withdraws, we still need a common working class fightback across the continent.
He reiterated that the establishment had received a “populist kick in the teeth”, and so far the alternative on offer took the less than perfect form of Bernie Sanders or Podemos - there was an “astonishing lack of vision” on the left and the result will embolden anti-migrant populism. In or out of the EU, we must stand firm against the agenda of the Blairites and for principled working class politics.
Labour and the left
In introducing the following session on the Labour Party, comrade Conrad noted the timing of the current coup attempt. Corbyn was expected to deliver the Labour and youth vote for a ‘remain’, so the right’s plan had been to keep quiet until after the referendum. However, once the referendum result was in it was just as inevitable that the attacks on Corbyn would be begin again - only this time with the aim of forcing him out.
The right now believes it has to act before conference, when a rule change could be passed giving the incumbent leader the automatic right to stand in any new election. At the moment this right is hotly contested and it could eventually be decided by the courts. Either way, we are entering the territory of the unknown - the right’s move could turn out to be suicidal
The current moves against Corbyn should be seen as another string to the right’s bow - to be added to the campaign against Labour ‘anti-Semitism’! Comrade Conrad pointed out that there had been no statement from Corbyn or John McDonnell on this - in that sense he agreed with the right that Corbyn was showing ‘no leadership’ by failing to take a stand against the numerous false allegations, made solely in order to undermine him.
Our position - in contrast to the likes of the Labour Representation Committee - has been one of critical support for Corbyn, and the need for such criticism has increased more and more. For instance, what position will the LRC now adopt on immigration, in view of the forthcoming retreat by Corbyn?
Next to speak was comrade Mather, who agreed that Corbyn had revealed a lack of leadership - in fact the right saw his conciliationism as a weakness to be exploited. She assumed that the Labour right, knowing that Corbyn may well win with a bigger majority in a new election, had decided on a “legal solution” - keeping him off the ballot with the help of the courts. She found it very hard to understand this, however - surely it would lead to the destruction of the Labour Party?
Comrade Stewart pointed out that this was surely “too transparent a coup”, and I agreed with this, stating that the right had no real grounds for seeking his removal - he was obviously not guilty of any misdemeanour and allegations about his lack of leadership qualities had been made when he first stood for the top post, yet he was still elected.
In reply, comrade Macnair stated that things had now changed - the right had calculated that, even if Corbyn was on the ballot this time around, he would still lose, while comrade Fischer pointed out that the right was quite prepared to see thousands of members depart - it actually preferred a hollowed-out membership structure, which allowed it to keep control.
Comrade Price raised another criticism of the Weekly Worker, in that it was not providing the coverage of Momentum he had been hoping for. Comrade Kelsey pointed to the absence of any democratic structure in Momentum, whose politics too were “going nowhere”. However, in his reply to the debate, Jack Conrad agreed with comrade Price’s criticism - some comrades were failing to supply the Weekly Worker with the necessary reports of the events they were attending.
He ended by repeating his earlier assertion that the left in general was just not bold enough - and right now boldness is exactly what we need.
The aggregate ended with comrade Mather launching our annual fundraising drive, the Summer Offensive. In less than two months before the end of our Communist University summer school we are aiming to raise £30,000, which would be used to support the Weekly Worker and the other political projects we were involved in. Our planned website improvements would make a real difference, she added.
Our culture is one of self-reliance, emphasised comrade Mather - we do not go with a begging bowl to all sorts of dubious organisations, as others on the left have done. This was something she had learned in Iran, as part of that country’s revolutionary movement against consecutive reactionary regimes.
The collection at the end raised £94 to get the SO started, but, more importantly, the individual SO fundraising pledges from those present amounted to £8,450.