Slow moving car crash
Support for article 50 is a failure of both principle and strategy, writes Tony Greenstein
If Jeremy Corbyn and Seamus Milne had deliberately embarked on the path of political suicide, it is difficult to know what they would have done differently over the past few weeks. Corbyn has managed to lose four members of his shadow cabinet and has had to put up with another 13 voting against his three-line whip, including three whips themselves. Normally someone on the front bench would be sacked for this, but Corbyn cannot do that either, as he is running out of replacements.
What was the great point of principle that was at stake? Voting in the lobbies alongside Theresa May! Apparently the Labour Party must not be seen to vote against Brexit, because a narrow majority of the British people also voted against it. No doubt if a majority of the British people vote for a cull of the first born, Corbyn would be telling us it would be undemocratic to oppose that too. The idiocy of his strategy, even in bourgeois parliamentary terms, is staggering.
And why has Corbyn embarked on what, on the face of it, is a strategy of self-destruction? Because apparently the UK Independence Party will take advantage of a vote against Brexit in the two by-elections coming up. It does not take a genius to work out that, since Ukip is calling the shots over Brexit, if Labour tries to compete with it, then Ukip will win hands down. If Brexit is going to be a disaster for the British working class, then Corbyn is duty-bound to say this and vote against it in parliament, especially after all Labour’s amendments were rejected.
At this moment Corbyn is in an extremely weak position. Although it cannot be predicted when he will go, the chances of him lasting long are not high. Not only because one major union could pull the rug under him at any time or that his poll ratings are dire or that a by-election loss will be difficult to survive. But because his position on Europe, as with the rest of his political strategy, is both incoherent and unsustainable.
If Corbyn and what passes for his advisors had sat down and mapped out a political strategy over Brexit, then it would have been Theresa May who was in difficulties, given that most of the British establishment is opposed to a hard Brexit - or indeed any Brexit. Instead he has managed to engineer a crisis of his own making.
Corbyn was the accidental leader of the Labour Party. He only became leader because no-one thought he would actually win and because Ed Miliband believed that allowing all of Labour’s members a vote would guarantee that the left would never come to power.
When Cameron won an unexpected victory in 2015 on 36% of the vote, the majority of people felt that his victory had no legitimacy. It also caused a political backlash in the Labour Party. If Labour’s right misjudged the chances of Corbyn winning, it also misjudged the mood of the country with their talk of aspiring Waitrose shoppers. The mood music was more that of the Clash than D:Ream. For most people things could only get worse.
The Tories had only achieved a majority on the backs of the collapse of the Liberal Democrat vote. Cameron had no escape route back from his rash promise of a referendum on the European Union. This backlash manifested itself in the doubling of Labour’s membership and the thousands of people who became registered supporters.
Corbyn is the first person to admit that he was not cut out to become leader of the Labour Party. He might have been a serial rebel, but he was also seen as a genuinely nice guy. Unfortunately this had its negative consequences as well. Although his niceness has been spun as straightforward, honest politics, it has also meant that he lacks the killer instinct. This was painfully obvious when he was pitted against David Cameron, the Flashman of British politics, at the dispatch box each week. With Theresa May Corbyn has had an easier task, but still he has not landed any killer blows despite her wooden performance.
But even more serious is Corbyn’s inability to take control of the Labour Party. In the aftermath of his victory last September, he had the golden opportunity to send Iain McNicol, Labour’s treacherous general secretary, packing. This was a man who had not only tried to fix the vote, but had gone out of his way to prevent Corbyn even standing. For a Labour leader not to have any control over his civil service is a fatal mistake. His failure to support the left in the party has meant that the right, although a minority, has managed to keep control of the conference and the national executive committee. Tony Benn’s first lesson of government was to gain control of your civil servants. In failing to understand that, Corbyn failed to understand what political leadership means.
There has also been a complete policy muddle. Corbyn should have made it clear that the railways would be nationalised within the first six months of a Labour victory and that compensation would be capped. Instead there is the absurdity of waiting for 15-year contracts to expire, by which time a Tory government would have reversed his partial renationalisation. He should have come up with a radical programme on housing - immediate return to security of tenure in the private sector, controlled rents and massive council-house building. On utilities there has also been nothing in terms of the huge fuel poverty that people are suffering from. On the national health service the key to financing is a statutory reversal of ‘private finance initiative’ contracts. On all of these issues and more Labour’s message is incoherent. The attack on benefits - from the abolition of council tax benefit to the bedroom tax - has been met with silence.
It should have been obvious, as Al Jazeera’s TV series The lobby has demonstrated, that the ‘anti-Semitism’ crisis was wholly manufactured by the Israeli state, the Labour right and British and other state forces. Its purpose being to destabilise his leadership. His failure to call the bogus anti-Semitism allegations out for what they were demonstrated the limits of his political acumen. His token anti-war stance did not translate into anti-imperialism.
The idea that there had been a sudden outbreak of anti-Semitism the moment Corbyn was elected should have been exposed for what it was. Instead Corbyn, despite himself having initially been accused of consorting with anti-Semites, allowed the right to gain the moral high ground. All this took place just before the local elections, with John Mann’s stage-managed confrontation with Ken Livingstone. Corbyn’s repeated proclamations that he would not tolerate anti-Semitism in the party only gave the impression that there was indeed such a problem.
Corbyn completely played into the hands of his political enemies and it was embarrassing at the Jewish Labour Movement debate with Owen Smith last summer, when asked what he admired about Israel, for him to declare that he admired Israel’s “spirit and verve”, given his long work with the Palestine solidarity movement. Perhaps he had forgotten that Israel is a settler colonial state, in which Israel’s Palestinian citizens are a barely tolerated guest minority. Half of their villages are unrecognised and, despite the 10-fold population increase since 1948, they have not been able to found a single new town. Perhaps he had forgotten about the routine torture, the press censorship, the attacks on Palestine Knesset members, the institutionalised under-funding of the Arab sector - all this within Israel itself, leaving aside the military occupation of the West Bank.
It reminds me of Harold McMillan’s response when asked what he most feared: “Events, dear boy, events.” That might be Corbyn’s political epitaph.
Except that the European Union referendum was already on the political horizon. It did not take a genius to work out that the narrow victory for Brexit was a triumph for the right, not the left. The decision to support triggering article 50 and to accept the inevitability of Brexit is unforgivable. The result of pulling out of the single market will be a serious decline in working class living standards. If May chooses to make Britain a tax haven then, with far less tax revenue, not only will there not be enough resources to fund an expansion of the welfare state, but a Labour government would be a rerun of previous austerity governments, only much worse.
Access to the single market, both for manufacturing and financial services, is crucial. London faces the prospect of losing its role as the world’s leading financial sector to New York, Frankfurt and Paris. Companies which are located in Britain because of tariff-free access to Europe will simply move. The fact that a narrow majority of people were fooled into voting against their own interests, for good reasons, by nationalist bile is not a reason to accept the decision. Parties exist to change people’s minds, not to pander to their prejudices.
Those who thought that Lexit was a nice phrase will find out that hitching your wagon to Nigel Farage can only lead to disaster. That that is the position of Britain’s two far-left parties, the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party, demonstrates how out of touch modern-day Trotskyism is. It should have been obvious from the rash of racist attacks in the wake of the Brexit vote that the political mood was not for an independent, socialist Britain, but a retrograde and nationalist little England (and Wales).
The idea that an independent British capitalist state is preferable to European capitalism is nothing more than an attempt to march backwards into history. Marx and Engels described this best in the Communist manifesto, when they wrote that feudal socialism was
half lamentation, half lampoon; half an echo of the past, half menace of the future; at times, by its bitter, witty and incisive criticism, striking the bourgeoisie to the very heart’s core; but always ludicrous in its effect, through total incapacity to comprehend the march of modern history.
A beautifully poetic description of the belief that there is a nationalist road to socialism. National or nationalist socialism is not exactly a road paved with glory, be it in Germany or Israel.
The attempt to unify Europe economically and politically, which is the proclaimed goal of the European Union, cannot succeed under capitalism. That should be obvious. But the attempt to try and attain that goal is progressive. For socialists to oppose it is backward and reactionary. The attempt to form a single currency is progressive, but, without economic, fiscal and thus political union, it is doomed, as the recent crises have shown.
The debate around leaving the EU was never going to be about anything else other than the wonders of having an independent British capitalism. Theresa May’s humiliating itinerary, from Trump to Erdogan and Netanyahu, shows how absurd this belief is that Britain can go it alone. As Dean Acheson, Harry S Truman’s secretary of state, said in the wake of the Suez crisis, Great Britain had lost an empire and was yet to find a role. That seems to be its destiny.
Socialism has not been advanced one iota by Brexit (or ‘Lexit’). Unfortunately Tony Benn was wedded to the idea that parliament could regain its sovereignty. It was an illusion then and it still is today.
What should be the position of Corbyn? He should be implacably opposed to withdrawal from the single market and the ending of free movement of workers, as it will have a devastating effect on the welfare state, or what is left of it. Socialism is not best served by advocating policies that lead to a recession. As George Osborne pointed out, May has chosen immigration over the economy.
Freedom of movement of workers is not an argument that Labour should avoid. It is therefore disappointing that Corbyn seems to be conceding on this principle too. There is no mileage in competing with Farage or May on immigration, as Miliband found out at the last election. We should be saying loud and clear that the industrial wastelands of the Midlands and the north were not caused by immigration, but the free-market ‘principles’ of Thatcher. It was not immigration that closed the mines and the shipyards, but Tory economic policies. The same policies that Ukip represents.
Unless you subscribe to the view that only when things get worse will revolution be around the corner, socialists have a duty to oppose withdrawal from Europe. There is no doubt that the election of Donald Trump heralds a change in US strategy towards Europe. Trump’s welcome for Brexit makes it clear that he favours the break-up of the European Union, because it will enable the US to gain privileged access on its terms to the European market. American capitalism sees the EU as a cartel that needs to be broken open.
The wiser members of the Labour left, including Diane Abbott with her diplomatic illness, can see this. Corbyn thinks that he will gain something by trying to compete with the Tories and Ukip on the terms of our exit from the EU. It is an utter delusion. What Labour should be doing is pointing out that the referendum campaign was won on the basis of a lie that can never be delivered. Our ‘bonus’ from Brexit - £300 million for the NHS per week - turned to dust the minute the result was announced. With a base of 48%, it is clear that a principled stance in opposition to Brexit can very soon, if not already, be a majority position in the country. Corbyn could have won respect for a clear stance on this and not left it to the Labour right. It is a failure of leadership of immense proportions.
The European Union came about because the capitalist leaders of Germany and France wished to create the economic, political and social conditions that would prevent a recurrence of world war. At first this was via the Iron and Steel Community and the 1951 Treaty of Paris, which morphed into the European Common Market via the 1957 Treaty of Rome and then the European Union with the 1992 Treaty of Maastricht, when Euroscepticism first began to poison the British body politic.
Corbyn has been heavily influenced by the petty nationalism of the Communist Party of Britain’s British road to socialism (now Britain’s road to socialism), as represented by Seamus Milne. There is still time for him to change course, but, I suspect, not very much.