Oppose siren calls
Some on the ‘left’ insist on running with People’s Vote and its call for a second EU referendum. Once again Jack Conrad argues that Marxists ought to condemn referendums. We favour representative democracy and working class political independence
There is a many-headed, highly-coordinated, well-financed campaign designed to secure a second referendum and stop Britain leaving the European Union. Ultimately the whole elaborate operation serves the interests of big capital.
Launched in April 2018 by MPs Chuka Umunna (Labour), Anna Soubry (Tory), Layla Moran (Liberal Democrat)and Caroline Lucas (Green), People’s Vote calls for a referendum on Theresa May’s final deal. On June 23 - the second anniversary of David Cameron’s referendum - People’s Vote marched a purported 100,000 people all the way down Whitehall from Trafalgar Square to Parliament Square. Speakers included Tony Robinson, Gina Millar, Vince Cable, David Lammy, Caroline Lucas and Anna Soubry.
With impeccable timing, just the day before, Airbus issued its anti-Brexit statement. The multinational company, which directly employs 14,000 across 25 sites in Britain, and indirectly employs a further 110,000, threatened to shift the manufacture of aircraft wings to “China, the US or elsewhere in Europe”.1 BMW and Siemens AG quickly followed suit with their own dire warnings. And, speaking for the “business community”, the Confederation of British Industry, Institute of Directors, Engineering Employers Federation, British Chambers of Commerce and Federation of Small Businesses once again joined together to urge the government to avoid a hard Brexit.2
People’s Vote is one of many similar front organisations. Others include Best for Britain, Best for Europe, European Movement UK, In Facts, Open Britain, Our Future Our Choice, Scientists for EU and Wales for Europe. They work closely together under the overall direction of the Grassroots Coordinating Group - Chuka Umunna is the official leader. The campaign boasts offices in Millbank Tower and there are said to be 150 local groups and 500,000 supporters. George Soros’s Open Society Foundation has donated more than £800,000 to such anti-Brexit causes (including £400,000 to Best for Britain, £182,000 to European Movement UK and £35,000 to Scientists for EU).3
We are breathlessly informed by the In Facts website that the “latest leftwing group to join the campaign” is Labour for a People’s Vote. This “grassroots campaign is led by several former Momentum figures, as well as several trade union leaders. It has the support of more than 60 constituency Labour parties.”4 On closer inspection, however, the “former Momentum figures” turns out to be Michael Chessum, a fellow traveller of the social-imperialist Alliance for Workers’ Liberty. The “several trade union leaders” turns out to be TSSA’s Manuel Cortes. The “support of more than 60” CLPs turns out to be “members in 60 CLPs”.5
Showing all the signs of a carefully choreographed PR operation, the ‘remainer’ press has been carrying one such hyped-up story after another - all with the aim of breaking Jeremy Corbyn’s position of ‘studied ambiguity’.
Step one: the ‘Stop backing Brexit’ banner, raised in the crowd at the June 16 Labour Live festival, while Corbyn was speaking. It garnered instant, widespread and generous publicity. Step two: the presence of a “Labour Party” contingent on the June 23 People’s Vote march (it was eagerly reported, along with the ‘Where’s Jeremy Corbyn?’ chants). Step three: a #StopToryBrexit petition was launched in Momentum. It seeks the 4,000 signatures required under Momentum’s constitution to trigger a full membership ballot. By such methods People’s Vote hopes to build an unstoppable tide of opinion in the labour movement. Hence step four: the YouGov poll - sponsored by People’s Vote - of Unite members. The ‘you give us the money and we’ll give you the result’ pollsters reportedly found that “57%” of the union’s 1.4 million members back a referendum vote on the final Brexit deal (34% were said to oppose the idea, while 9% were put down as ‘don’t knows’). Nonsense, yet given headline treatment.
BBC Radio 4 then, on the basis of this poll ‘result’, sneakily asked Len McCluskey what he would do if Unite’s Brighton policy conference voted for a second referendum. He innocently replied that as a democrat he would abide by the vote. Cue this headline in The Independent: “Len McCluskey will use his ‘influence’ to campaign for new Brexit referendum if Unite members want one”.6 The fact that McCluskey vigorously opposes a second referendum rates hardly a mention. Nor does the likelihood that Labour would, if it adopted the call, stand in danger of losing the bulk of its northern working class vote. But, of course, avoiding Brexit and a much reduced Labour Party is the dream scenario for big capital.
Unsurprisingly, Unite’s delegates overwhelmingly voted for the executive’s fudge: Unite remains “open to the possibility” of another referendum, “depending on political circumstances”. McCluskey, needless to say, wants Unite to continue its backing for the policy of ‘studied ambiguity’ … and that is exactly what it will continue to do.
Clearly no-one on the principled left should have anything to do with People’s Vote. To march alongside the Lib Dems, the Labour hard right, Tory rebels and Green naives on June 23 was to march in the interests of big capital. Ditto, to set up and promote subsidiary organisations, eg, Labour for a People’s Vote, is to act as the junior partner of big capital.
But, of course, that is exactly what the AWL and its Clarion allies and outriders have done. They marched down Whitehall on June 23 and they work hand in glove with People’s Vote. Indeed the AWL is busy promoting a national speaking tour that goes under the title of ‘The left against Brexit’. The Independent helpfully listed the venues and told its readers that the purpose of the tour was to “convince Jeremy Corbyn to block Brexit”.7 Equally sympathetically The Guardian reported the initiative as being the work of a “grassroots group of Jeremy Corbyn supporters and trade unions”.8
However, the list of speakers reveals a hodgepodge of charity-mongers, liberal reformers, Greens, soft lefts, trade union functionaries and do-gooders. Nick Dearden is the “public face” of Global Justice Now and Mohammed Ateek runs the Syrian Solidarity Campaign - it champions the “Syrian revolution”. Caroline Lucas is leader of the Green Party and Maggie Chapman is joint convenor of the Scottish Green Party. Joan Pons Laplana has been shortlisted as an “emerging leader” for the NHS Midlands awards; John Palmer contributes to Red Pepper and Michael Chessum is national organiser of Another Europe is Possible. Ann Pettifor is a Keynesian economist; Mary Kaldor CBE is an academic; Marina Prentoulis lectures in media and politics - she was UK spokesperson for Syriza. TSSA’s Manuel Cortes is a career trade union official and Billy Hayes is former general secretary of the CWU. Zoe Williams and Gary Younge are Guardian journalists. Then there are Labour MEPs Julie Ward, Seb Dance and Lucy Anderson and the Labour MP Catharine West - sacked from the Labour front bench in June 2017, she went on to form the All-Party Group on UK-EU Relations.
Leave aside the AWL’s notorious role in excusing the US-UK wars of intervention in Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya, and its egging on the ‘Anti-Zionism equals anti-Semitism’ witch-hunt in the Labour Party. When it comes to Brexit, the AWL acts as an adjunct of the Labour right.
Take a recent lead article in Solidarity.9 ‘For a workers’ Europe’ freely admits that it shares many of the same arguments as Tony Blair, Peter Mandelson, Chuka Umunna, Chris Leslie and Liz Kendall. When it comes to Britain “staying in the single market”, the Labour right is apparently motivated by “smoother supply chains for industry” (really!). Nonetheless - or so we are told - their “conclusion is right”.
The reasoning employed in ‘For a workers’ Europe’ stands fully in the rotten tradition of bourgeois socialism. Open borders in Europe - benefits the working class. Fewer fences and less barbed wire - benefits the working class. Mass migration - benefits the working class. A second referendum - benefits the working class. Staying in the EU - benefits the working class.
‘For a workers’ Europe’ comes unsigned and is, one presumes, authoritative (the work of either editor Cathy Nugent alone or the entire editorial board: ie, Cathy Nugent plus Michael Elms, Simon Nelson, Gemma Short and Martin Thomas). Either way, we are assured that “public services” cannot “afford a reduction in the number of migrant workers”. Nor apparently can the labour movement. Government statistics supposedly prove it. Solidarity says that some 200,000 people from the EU 27 countries work in health and care services, including around 10% of doctors in England. Without them the NHS would doubtless face a huge crisis (not that the Tory government is proposing the mass expulsion of migrants - indeed it has recently eased restrictions on migrant workers for the NHS).
Funding for pensions and benefits likewise depends on migrants: after all, migrants from the 10 “new” EU states “pay about 12% more (£5 billion) in taxes that they get in benefits and services”. Other migrants from the EU “pay in 64% more than they get out (£25 billion).” In other words EU migrants coming to Britain are a vital source of exploitable labour-power and tax revenue.
If Britain gains from net migration, logically, that should mean that Poland, Romania, Bulgaria, etc, lose out. After all, for every Polish nurse who makes the wrenching move to Britain, there is one less nurse available for Poland’s health system. The narrow focus on British interests certainly belies the AWL’s claim to stand for “global solidarity”.
Painting migration as being for the benefit of the working class is also to overlook the salient fact that an influx of people coming from other countries - many of them desperate for any kind of employment, hence willing to work for longer hours and for less pay - increases competition amongst workers and tends therefore to drive down the price of labour-power. Yet, fully in the spirit bourgeois socialism, the AWL denies the laws of supply and demand when it comes to the labour market: “Researchers at LSE and elsewhere” conclude, it says, that “increased migration has tended more to raise pay rates.” In fact, “Countries with high migration are generally more dynamic … than those with low migration.”
A classic case of arse-about-face reasoning. Dynamic countries - ie, countries with a high rate of capital accumulation - will have a high demand for labour. Under those circumstances workers find themselves in a good position to bargain for increased wages and better conditions. Wages tend to go up. However, capitalists respond to any threat to their profits by introducing labour-saving machinery … and by importing labour.
Note, over the last decade net migration has been running at around 250,000 per year10 and simultaneously, of course, the British economy has been noticeably undynamic. Around 1% GDP growth year on year. No less to the point, real wages have stagnated or fallen. And there has not just been a “small downward pressure in the lowest wage bands”, as reassuringly argued by the AWL. No, the wages of virtually every section of the working class have stagnated or fallen. And in October 2017 the Resolution Foundation predicted that the “average pay packet in Britain in five years’ time will still be more than £20 lower than it was before the start of the financial crisis”.11 In point of fact, over the last 10 years we have seen “the biggest squeeze on wages since the end of the Napoleonic wars”.12 This has not been due to the introduction of new technology. Productivity growth rates have been extraordinarily weak. Basically it appears to have been flatlining. Indeed what seems to have happened is that capitalists have substituted cheap labour for machinery. Eg, once there used to be drive-in car washers, but now the job is done by gangs of poorly paid workers.
In the short term, a growth of anti-migrant sentiments of the type that produced the Brexit result in 2016 is almost inevitable. And branding such sentiments as a manifestation of ingrained racism or being the result of poor educational attainment is smug, easy … and politically useless. In fact, in the absence of a viable left alternative to capitalist rule, what we see is a deflected form of the class struggle.
No, Marxists consider open borders - and not only within Europe - as objectively progressive not because we wish to boost capital accumulation in Britain, or increase the government’s tax revenues. Open borders allow workers from different countries to mix, overcome national parochialisms, organise together in strong trade unions and eventually come to recognise the common interest in the fight for global communism.
It is highly unlikely that there will be a second referendum. Theresa May will not go for it … though she would be exceedingly glad if Jeremy Corbyn fell into that trap. But imagine for one moment that People’s Vote succeeds, what would the result be? Solidarity loyally peddles the story that there is a 68%-19% majority of Labour voters wanting a second referendum. We are told in the exact same dumb spirit that there is a 50%-34% majority of the “whole electorate” who would support a referendum before any deal can go ahead.13 By fielding the ‘right’ question, you can, of course, always be guaranteed to get their desired result.
Yet despite the AWL’s implied claim that public opinion is swinging against Brexit, there are good reasons to view that contention with some considerable scepticism. David Cameron’s 2016 referendum campaign began the year with a 53%-47% ‘remain’ opinion poll lead. However, he ended up with a 51.89%-48.1% ‘leave’ vote where it counts: in the ballot box. And, frankly, in terms of where we are today, there is no compelling reason to believe that a second referendum would go the way of the ‘remainers’. Polls show that the gap between those who think the UK took the ‘wrong’ decision and those who think it was ‘right’ to be incredibly narrow. On February 27 2018, YouGov reported 44% opting for ‘right’ and 45% for ‘wrong’. On June 26, four months later, the same pollsters reported 46% opting for ‘wrong’, while those opting for ‘right’ had nudged down to 43%.14 Given Theresa May’s tenuous hold over her cabinet, Boris Johnson’s “Fuck business” outburst, Jacob Rees-Mogg’s “insolence” and David Davis’s abject failure to progress negotiations with the EU 27, such a result is unsurprising, but it is hardly decisive.
Of course, as we have repeatedly stated, our objection to a second EU referendum is exactly the same as our objection to the first. And it has nothing to do with opinion polls. Referendums are by their very nature undemocratic. They bypass representative institutions and serve, in general, to fool enough of the people, enough of the time. And yet referendums have the great virtue of appearing to be the epitome of democracy. That is exactly why Harold Wilson, Tony Blair and David Cameron used them, when it came to dealing with controversial constitutional issues. Complex questions are simplified, drained of nuance, reduced to a binary choice that cuts across previous class solidarities and therefore produces radically false alignments. Hence, one half of the working class finds itself siding with Boris Johnson, Nigel Farage and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The other half with Chuka Umunna, Tony Blair and Vince Cable.
Theory and history
It is surely in the nature of things that human beings will have disagreements. Assuming that there is a straightforwardly ‘right thing to do’, it is rarely obvious what it is. Very frequently, there is not only a choice to be made between option 1 or 2, but from options 1 to 7 and within these, 1 (a) (i), 1 (a) (ii), 1 (b) … and so on. To reach a decision, then, it is necessary to reduce the range of options. That is, of course, why British governments have a vast civil service producing green papers, white papers and bills, and why there are three parliamentary readings, a committee stage, numerous amendments and hours of debate before a final vote. The ruling class knows that such a drawn-out process is vital: ‘act in haste; repent at leisure’. For the same reasons, before the Blair ascendency, Labour Party rules recognised: (1) the right of CLPs to introduce amendments to proposed motions, (2) compositing procedures, and (3) even then, discussion at conference before the vote was taken. Without such basic democratic rights being restored (and radically extended), the probability is that what we will get is yet more manipulation, backroom fixes, demagoguery and the reliance on a personality cult around this or that leader.
We did not conclude that referendums were undemocratic, fraudulent, and a means of mass deception because of sour grapes over the result of the 2016 Brexit vote. We called for an active boycott of Cameron’s referendum. His objective was not to give power to the mass of the people. On the contrary, he calculated on outflanking Ukip, wrong-footing Labour, satisfying his Europhobes … and hanging on as prime minister. There was no reason for the authentic left to give him any support whatsoever.
Our objections to referendums are principled and long-standing. We opposed the Bonapartist operation in relation to the ‘Vote for the crook, not for the fascist’ presidential election in France in 2002. Before that we urged an active boycott of Tony Blair’s 1997 referendum in Scotland.15 Then the 1998 Good Friday referendum in Ireland, and the Scottish independence referendum of 2014. All offered a bogus choice.
Not that this position is a CPGB novelty. Victor Hugo condemned referendums as a means to “smother men’s minds”.16 In the same democratic vein, George Sand (Amantine Lucile Aurore Dupin), damned them as “an infamous snare”.17 And by the turn of the 20th century Labour politicians were more or less uniformly opposed to referendums. In 1911 Ramsay MacDonald, to be Labour’s first prime minister, dismissed referendums as “a clumsy and ineffective weapon, which the reaction can always use more effectively than democracy, because it, being the power to say ‘no’, is far more useful to the few than the many”.18 The background to such forthright positions unmistakably lies with the resistible rise of Louis Bonaparte (directly elected as French president for 1848-52 and then elevated to emperor over the years 1852-70). His 1851 anti-parliamentary coup was endorsed by a rapidly called referendum, followed by a second in 1852, which made him emperor.
Needless to say, Marxists condemned this ‘democratic despotism’. And Marx and his co-thinkers - Jules Guesde, Paul Lafargue and Frederick Engels - presented their alternative in the minimum section of the Programme of the Parti Ouvrier. Here it was argued that the creation of a workers’ party “must be pursued by all the means the proletariat has at its disposal, including universal suffrage, which will thus be transformed from the instrument of deception that it has been until now into an instrument of emancipation”.19 The emperor constitution had to be abolished and in its place there had to be universal suffrage and representative democracy.
Similarly, social democrats (ie, Marxists) in the United States took it for granted in the 1890s that they had to “abolish the presidency” (and the Senate). The only question was the ‘how’. Engels countenanced comrades in America standing presidential and senatorial candidates … provided they were committed to abolishing the post of president and the Senate.20
Karl Kautsky’s Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy (1893) is particularly worth commenting upon here.21 Kautsky skilfully outlines the Marxist case against legislation by referendum going into some considerable detail.
In an age of class-based parties, it is, he said, from the standpoint of revolutionary change, far preferable for the population to think about, organise around and vote for competing party outlooks for society as a whole. Referendums serve to blur and override the fundamental dividing lines between classes and their respective parties: precisely the opposite of what any Marxist wants to see.
Usefully, Kautsky makes a more general point about direct democracy in the form of referenda. Marxism strives, particularly through its emphasis on the necessity of a social democratic party, to bring about a situation in which the state is as weak and the people are as strong and organised as possible. He draws a vital distinction between, on the one hand, ‘the people’ as an isolated, unorganised mass, who are not thinking about national or global issues and not organised into, or by, social democratic parties with a national focus, and, on the other, ‘the people’ as a coherent, organised, partyist force, organised into, or by, social democracy on a higher level of political struggle.
To press home the point, Kautsky refers to contemporary studies about the conservative effects of referendums in Switzerland. Louis Blanc had already made a similar point back in 1851 (ie, in the midst of Louis Bonaparte’s power grab). Blanc highlighted the Girondist roots of proposals for political decision-making by referendum. When in 1792 Louis XVI was condemned to death by the French convention, the Girondists demanded a referendum (in vain, true). They were convinced that this was the only the way to stop the revolution falling into the hands of the sans culottes. Notwithstanding that, Kautsky claims that referenda might be useful in the weaker, less autocratic states (“Maybe in the US, England and the English colonies, even under circumstances in France”). However, far more importantly, he stresses the expansion and deepening of existing representative democracy. In terms of Britain, for example, this would involve the election of judges, the abolition of the House of Lords, short parliamentary terms and the abolition of extortionate electoral deposits, which effectively debarred working class representatives (the experience of Chartism is in the forefront of his mind).
The rise of social democracy - which Kautsky is convinced will also spread to Britain with time - not only counters the capitalist monopoly over the press and its systematic corruption of public opinion, but through the establishment of a workers’ press, leaders, speakers and parliamentarians would be trained to take the social democratic message to ever wider masses. Indeed, through party organisation the working class learns how to impose its agenda on society ... and thereby prepares itself to rule.
Despite its undoubted shortcomings, Parliamentarism, direct legislation by the people and social democracy retains its worth, not least because we have seen the entirely negative effects of referenda campaigns over recent years. In Northern Ireland the left fell in behind the 1998 Good Friday agreement, although it constitutionally institutionalised the sectarian divide of the working class; in Scotland the working class split into two hostile camps over independence and the non-Labour left hopelessly collapsed into petty nationalism; and throughout the UK the question of Europe effectively cleaves the working class into bitterly opposed ‘leavers’ and ‘remainers’.
The reason why the left has largely forgotten the history of opposing referendums in the name of extending representative democracy results from two sets of ideas.
The first is the tradition of the early Communist International, which in 1919-22 declared in one thesis and in one resolution after another that revolution in the west was an immediate prospect. Communists had to prepare the working class for a frontal assault on the citadels of bourgeois power. Constitutional demands of the minimum programme therefore seemed to be of secondary importance. Even a barrier. Such an assessment doubtless appeared well founded amidst the storms and turmoil that accompanied the immediate aftermath of World War I. However, such perspectives had become a nonsense by 1923. The entirely artificial attempt to make revolution in Germany ended in a predictable fiasco.
The second set of ideas are those which stem from the so-called ‘transitional method’ developed by post-1945 Trotskyites. Antecedents can be traced back to Comintern’s 1922 4th Congress and the resolution to include “transitional demands” in drafting the envisaged programme for world revolution.22 Examples of such demands are the call for a workers’ government and workers’ control over production. Then, of course, there is the Transitional programme written by Trotsky and presented to the founding congress of the Fourth International in 1938. It too was based on the conviction that capitalism was undergoing its “final death agony” and that therefore the world socialist revolution would triumph within a few years.
While many of the ‘transitional demands’ of 1922 have an appropriate place in the modern communist programme, the post-1945 ‘transitional method’ turns out to be merely an attempt to trick the working class into taking power by defending existing constitutional arrangements and taking up everyday economic demands. Supposedly difficult constitutional questions are shunned: eg, in Britain abolishing the monarchy and the House of Lords, replacing the standing army with a popular militia and achieving a federal republic (all compatible with the continuation of capitalism).
In other words, the ‘transitional method’ is a mere variation of the line advocated by the Russian economists of the early 1900s. Journals such as Credo and Rabochaya Mysl argued that Russian workers were far from ready for the sophisticated social democratic politics that had become so popular in Germany. No, before that, social democrats would have to help organise Russian workers around their immediate economic interests: eg, building trade unions and taking strike action against the capitalist employer. Iskra’s insistence on placing the demand for the overthrow of tsarism and a democratic republic at the centre of its message would find no mass hearing and criminally it ignored “the enormous educational significance” of economic struggles. Getting rid of tsarism and achieving a democratic republic were long-term goals and were anyway mere bourgeois tasks.
Modern leftwingers too often denounce immediate constitutional demands as not being revolutionary enough. Meanwhile, they give a revolutionary gloss to routine pay disputes, pacifist protest marches, liberal anti-racism campaigns and the nationalist project of breaking up Britain. Hence the immediate demand for a federal republic is counterposed to the maximum demand for a socialist republic. The result, in programmatic terms, is a combination of tailism and a refusal to even countenance an independent working class challenge to the existing constitutional order.
1. The Guardian June 22 2018.
2. Daily Mail June 25 2018.
3. The Guardian February 11 2018.
6. The Independent July 2 2018.
7. The Independent June 1 2018.
8. The Guardian June 1 2018.
9. Solidarity June 22 2018.
10. Office of National Statistics ‘Mirgation statistics quarterly report’ November 2017.
11. C O’Arcy Low Pay Britian 2017
12. The Guardian November 13 2017.
13. Solidarity February 28 2018.
15. See J Conrad Blair’s rigged referendum and Scotland’s right to self-determination London 1997.
16. V Hugo Napoleon the little London 1852, p144.
17. G Sand The letters of George Sand Vol 3, New York NY 2009, p192.
18. See L Morel and M Qvortrup (eds) The Routledge handbook to referendums and direct democracy Abingdon 2018.
20. F Engels to F Wiesen (in Texas) in K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 50, New York NY 2004, p119.
21. See B Lewis, ‘Referenda and direct democracy’ Weekly Worker September 18 2014; K Kautsky, ‘Direct legislation by the people and the class struggle’ Weekly Worker March 31 2016.
22. J Riddell (editor) Toward the united front: proceedings of the Fourth Congress of the Communist International, 1922 Chicago Il 2012, p632.