WeeklyWorker

27.09.2018
Michael Chessum: he who pays the piper calls the tune

The poverty of left-remainers

Another humiliation for Theresa May; another ambiguous policy from Labour. But, says Paul Demarty, taking £70,000 from George Soros is the left’s very own road to disaster

Watching Theresa May’s reign as prime minister, especially since last year’s electoral disaster, has been odd indeed.

The spectacle is ultimately a matter of somebody setting themselves an impossible task and hurling themselves at it again and again, like one of those sliding-block puzzles whose impossibility can be demonstrated by a simple inductive proof. The futility of her endeavour is hardly ignorable after last Friday’s calamitous outing to Salzburg. After a great deal of media speculation that some sort of historic compromise would be achieved - all of which, in retrospect, looks very foolish - the European powers did the one thing they could, which was send her packing with no deal. The insults lobbed after her on the way out were, perhaps, egregious; but no worse than the yellow press’s anti-European invective.

Humiliation

The obvious difficulty May faced on her central European tour was the offer she was forced to stick on. The fact that we call it the ‘Chequers compromise’ tells you everything. Donald Tusk was not at Chequers (a pity, since we might have had a couple more of his acidic Instagram posts), and nor were Emmanuel Macron and Angela Merkel; the deal May brought to 27 heads of state was the same one she used to paper over the cracks in her front bench. This is diplomacy raised to the level of a philosophical category error; the political mathematics of an EU summit, with 27 competing sets of interests at issue, are hard enough to work out, without Andrea Leadsom’s feelings having to be taken into account.

Yet she could hardly bring anything else to the table, lacking as she does the practical political support. The 2017 election had the purpose of delivering May a parliamentary majority large enough to marginalise the Brexit true believers, leaving her a free hand to sort out the mess to the satisfaction of British national interests and big capital. She got the opposite, a minority government dependent on the good behaviour of level-headed statesmen like Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson. Either they or the Europhile ‘business’ wing of the Tory party have numbers enough to cause parliamentary humiliations.

A compromise like the Chequers deal is a matter of calling discussions to a halt at a moment where nobody is actively being beaten on a raw nerve. Its failure to secure May’s right flank, with the immediate resignations of Johnson and David Davis, plunged this little drama into its endgame. All they had to do was wait for the deal to be laughed out of the room at the next summit. The fact that a great flood of crocodile tears was got up by the professionally offended when Johnson called the proposal a “suicide belt” tells us only that government loyalists know that he was right, and are unable to rebut him on any point of substance: they are left, instead, with our age’s most tiresome variety of demagogy.

What now? The European Research Group types are circling like hungry sharks. David Davis proposes to publish some sort of plan for a cheerful cliff-edge Brexit, which will no doubt set the terms of argument at Tory conference. Tory remainers despair, and hope for the success of agitation for a second referendum, which however is necessarily being led by forces outside the Tories. It has begun to dawn on people that the options are pretty much what the Europeans have said all along, while the various Brexiteers fiddled around with their blue-sky thinking. Thus some now drift towards a Norway solution, others towards a Canada - the former entailing open borders, the latter a hard border with Ireland, and possibly even bisecting the Irish sea. Both are ‘red lines’, in theory. In practice, one or more will have to be crossed, though for now things are calmed down.

It is in this context that we must view May’s remarks after her humiliation. She raised the possibility of just walking away from the deal, and demanded angrily that European leaders treat Britain with respect. If they didn’t like the Chequers deal, they should damn well come up with a proposal of their own. This froth is a rather theatrical affair. EU negotiators are due, anyway, to come up with a counter-proposal in October. She demands something she knows she will get. That rather turns things around - the relatively mainstream Tories will have to plump for or against; the ERG will say no to anything, like an AI chatbot trained on Ian Paisley’s sermons; and the remainers will continue to pray for some kind of miracle. For this still does not sort things out properly - the parliamentary arithmetic just does not add up.

Cuckoo in the nest

This may all seem to be a mess of May’s own making. Yet to truly understand it we need to go much further back in history than 2017 or even the Brexit result itself; only as a result of events over the whole post-World War II era is the latter vote comprehensible. May’s misfortune is to inherit a disaster long in the making.

European unity - at least in its current incarnation - was forged in the aftermath of 1945. The catastrophic nature of the war, but also the shape of its result, with a much-expanded Soviet sphere of influence and the start of American global pre-eminence, dictated things. With Russian tanks on the Elbe, further squabbles between Germany, France, Britain and the like could hardly be tolerated. The Americans hoped that some kind of European supranational institution would firm up the cold war front-line; in France, Charles de Gaulle saw in European co-operation a way for the French colonial empire to survive and a pole of global influence independent of the USA to be maintained. The first serious result was the European Coal and Steel Community, which created a customs union for the eponymous goods and a series of supranational institutions to administer it. De Gaulle opposed it, since he thought that France did not dominate it; and Winston Churchill, then prime minister of Britain, demurred from joining, on the basis that British colonial holdings were sufficient for the UK to play an independent world role.

Both the Gaullists and Churchillian imperialist Tories were in for a rude awakening in 1956, when the cynical French-British-Israeli attack on the Nasser regime in Egypt after the latter’s nationalisation of the Suez canal was stopped in its tracks by the US state department. The result was a huge amount of American pressure for a duly-chastened Britain to join what was to become, a year later, the European Economic Community; de Gaulle, however, now retrenched, and vetoed British membership because he judged that it would essentially give the US a veto over the development of European institutions. It took de Gaulle’s political eclipse after 1968 to open the door to British membership.

Joining was hardly an uncontroversial matter in Britain, however. There was, on the one hand, opposition from the ultra-nationalist, empire-nostalgist right - Enoch Powell, for example - and on the other, from the left. Leftwing opposition was ultimately a cold war matter. The Labour left took many of its political cues from the Communist Party, whose strategic objective was to break Britain from diplomatic alliance with the US into formal non-alignment and ultimately friendship with the Warsaw Pact. From this point of view, the EC was the human face of Nato. When the ailing Heath government succeeded in dragooning Britain into membership, Harold Wilson promised a referendum on whether to stay, and duly delivered - thus the peculiar sight of Tony Benn sharing a platform with Enoch Powell. In the end, Britain remained.

De Gaulle’s fears, also, were justified - Britain’s role in Europe has been to act as an American client. The United States - certainly during the Cold War - had an interest in good relations between the main European powers, but relations that went no further than trade deals and so on. In particular, there was to be no military unification. In practice this means exploiting the relative fragility of EC/EU decision making mechanisms. The US - through Britain - pushes the EU to spread outwards, rather than to integrate more closely, thus increasing the number of vetoes and difficult qualified majority votes and preventing a serious strategic rival from arising.

In its general character, the right-wing Euroscepticism that won Brexit is not so much a matter of ‘Enoch was right’ types - present though they certainly are - but rather Thatcherites, whose heroine turned viciously on the core European powers when they began to push much harder for more comprehensive unity in the late 1980s. The result was the Maastricht Treaty, which formed the European Union, and - thanks to Thatcher’s vigorous backbench opposition - the Tory split on Europe that has caused so much chaos today. It is the American interest in preventing a European superpower rival emerging that generates Thatcherite agitation about straight bananas and so on. There is - or, rather, was until 2016 - a kind of symbiotic relationship between Brexit headbangers in parliament and especially the rightwing press, and the state-core establishment, staffed by Tories with their ‘natural party of government’ hats on. The vituperation of the former was directed not at the latter, but at the liberals and the ‘metropolitan elite’. The refusal of the Tory leadership to countenance a thorough break with the EU was, in reality, tolerated by the ostensible Brexit faction, so long as they were saved from ‘socialism’ and ‘political correctness’.

Managing the European issue is, nevertheless, a full-time job for Tory leaders. John Major was unable to do it. William Hague, Iain Duncan Smith and Michael Howard had the luxury of opposition, but not so David Cameron. In some ways, he was fortunate to govern in coalition with the Lib Dems, which of course ruled out any Eurosceptic suicide missions in advance. The practical result, however, was that Eurosceptic opinion began to abandon the Tories. The far right’s centre of gravity - which drifts in and out of the Conservative Party - fell rapidly to Ukip, who now began to receive regular mass votes, taking over councils and coming first outright in the 2014 European parliament polls.

This was a serious problem for Cameron, as the next general election began to loom. Ukip were taking, by some estimates, six Tory votes for every Labour vote (despite overhyped studies purporting to show Ukip success in Labour heartlands, whose purpose was to blackmail Ed Miliband away from his extremely modest leftwing gestures). There was very little possibility of a better showing for the Tories in 2015 than in 2010. A continuation of the coalition was the best they dared hope for. Cameron then made the decision to promise an in-out referendum on Europe. It was an attempt to lure back voters from Ukip in sufficient numbers to avoid a Labour victory, or a Labour-led coalition government. But it could not be delivered without support from coalition partners, and thus was easy to drop later.

But that is not what happened. Cameron was a victim of his own success. He bear-hugged the Lib Dems to death, destroying their parliamentary party. And skilful manipulation of the Scottish independence issue caused a Labour wipe-out in Scotland. So he was forced, reluctantly, to deliver - the rest is history.

The important point is this: the demand for a referendum was the result of political obfuscation, and by extension, so was the event itself. When we talk about big Brexit lies, we tend to drift towards the particular distracting trivialities of the campaign trail (that £350 million), but hide from the really big lie, which is the idea that membership of the EU is posed primarily as a matter of British domestic policy, a matter of how much Britain is constrained by ‘red tape’ and migrants and what have you, rather than international strategy. So it was that the British state and its natural party of government concealed their strategic objectives in Europe from voters, and instead presented them an endless diet of silly-season lies about ‘mad’ Brussels regulations and ‘political correctness’, using the resulting domestic hostility as a hostage in negotiations with the core EU powers. It so happened that a layer of prominent Thatcherites, along with their friends in the yellow press, began to ‘drink their own Kool-Aid’; thus a fig-leaf for strategic sabotage of European unification was transformed into a colossal strategic self-injury.

Tunnel vision

This makes the Brexit issue into rather perilous territory for the workers’ movement.

The most egregious consequence is the flat-out refusal of the Labour leadership to make a clear call for one ‘side’ or the other of the Brexit debate, and its particularly acute expression in official politics, the question of a second referendum. Corbyn and his immediate allies have adopted an impressively unmovable ambiguity on the issue. Once more, conference has contrived to fudge things - with an election quite possibly imminent, now is not the time to play your hand, and so they have not, instead motoring on with a compromise that commits nobody to anything.

It is a funny thing. To look at the liberal and centre-right media over the weekend, you would get an image of a tsunami of remainer opinion about to blow over the leadership. One centrist or right-wing grandee after another trooped onto the morning news shows to trumpet the need for a second referendum. We had been assured already - by a wildly optimistic reading - that the major unions were in favour of a do-over, when they had merely refused to rule out pursuing one at some later date. The Guardian has found no end of space for the left-remainer group Another Europe is Possible, presently headed up by a comrade Michael Chessum, the last president of the University of London Union before it was ushered gently into that good night, and sometime Alliance for Workers Liberty hanger-on. (The AWL, ever the idiot stepchildren of the Foreign Office, have much the same kind of attitude.)

So far as the Blairites are concerned, remainerism is a simple matter indeed - a matter of the perceived national interest. For the trade union bureaucracy, there is - in spite of Viking and Laval - a marginally kinder legal regime than the unvarnished Thatcherite hostility of the British body politic in the last three decades. Brexiteer outliers among them have their commitments based in general politics (for example, the late Bob Crow’s unrepentant Stalinism) rather than the sectionalism that preponderates by default in the union movement’s upper reaches.

Left-remainerism is a rather more peculiar phenomenon. There is a limited principled basis for it in that a clear majority of Labour members are for remain, for better or worse. The tricksy tactical outlook of the leadership, the insistence on backroom stitch-ups, is thus profoundly opportunist and amounts to a denial of democracy - hardly the most serious to have taken place this conference, alas.

Yet we do not, in fact, find the left remainers fighting out on principle at all, but precisely engaged in tactical skulduggery as well. To wit, comrade Chessum in the Guardian:

Theresa May’s Chequers proposals were dead before the Salzburg summit, killed off by her own party long before Donald Tusk stuck the knife in, but their demise leaves her stranded. The government now faces a choice between a hard border in Ireland on the one hand, and a humiliating climb-down into the EEA on the other. This is a crisis for the government but it raises questions about Labour’s position, too. If the EU won’t entertain May’s proposals, then the idea that a Jeremy Corbyn-led government could come to power and deliver a bespoke Labour Brexit before March 2019 is effectively out of the window.1

That means that “any superficially ‘left’ case for leaving the EU” is out - because the same options will be on the table. (Chessum seems oddly unaware that left-Brexitism tends towards a cliff-edge mentality.) The costs of Brexit outweigh any unfortunate details of EU state aid rules - which, anyway, “are far less restrictive than some would lead you to believe”. The answer, of course, is a second referendum, called with dogged fatuousness by its advocates a ‘people’s vote’. Committing itself to such a vote will, according to a poll Chessum brandishes, win the Labour Party 66 seats in a general election. But the benefits keep on coming!

This is a difficult time for the Corbyn project. On one flank, it faces the prospect of an SDP-style split that would fatally undermine Labour’s electoral prospects. On the other, it faces a support base that is up in arms about attempts by unions and the leadership to block open selections and enforce a higher threshold for leadership elections … By backing a referendum and endorsing a roadmap out of the nightmare of Tory Brexit, Corbyn can kill off the political pretext for a split from the Labour right. Instead of horse-trading with union leaderships and placating the parliamentary party, Corbyn can stick to his principles and make the case for democracy – in the party, and, ultimately, in the country.

The peculiarity of this view is that Chessum starts from exactly the same premises as the party and union leaderships, but draws opposite conclusions. Both proceed from the assumption that the priority is to trigger a general election in the short term in order to get Corbyn into No10. Both subordinate everything to the electoral calculations. Both want to avoid a split with the right. Yet they end up at rather different destinations; Chessum wants full-throated support for a second referendum, whereas the leadership spared no exertion to make sure nothing of that kind would be voted on by delegates at conference and to keep its determined ambiguity as intact as circumstances allow.

Within this thought universe, it has to be said that Chessum and his left-remainer chums have the worse of it. He cherry-picks one poll, ignoring the combined weight of evidence that there has been no significant shift of public opinion on whether to go ahead with Brexit, that calls for a second referendum are entirely associated with remainerism and described as treacherous in the Brexiteer galleries, that a shift to clear identification with remain would certainly cost Labour votes in its northern heartlands, and would be a serious risk in swing constituencies. At the most recent electoral test, in 2017, Corbyn and Momentum overperformed in part because they refused to be drawn on this - despite contemporary jeremiads from remainers.

By their friends …

Some clues as to the discrepancy may be found in another Guardian piece, profiling Chessum and other left remainers. Another Europe is Possible is not strictly a Labour outfit; it enjoys the support of what remains of Left Unity and the Greens. It works with Labour for a People’s Vote, whose administrator Mike Buckley tells our intrepid journos that, before these initiatives got to prominence, “there was nothing [for left-remainers] to rally behind … The people talking publicly about having another referendum, however well-intentioned they are, they are not going to gather the majority of Labour party members behind them because they are seen as being anti-Jeremy.”2

That’s rather delicately put - it is surely not unfair that the likes of Chuka Umunna and Tony Blair are “seen as being anti-Jeremy”, because they are anti-Jeremy. These comrades are delighted at the turn of events that appears to have put the latter sorts of MPs in their debt, but we wonder if the reality may be the other way around. Elsewhere, we learn that Another Europe is Possible has received a cool £70,000 from George Soros. Imagine, for a moment, the outcry that would greet this news if it was a Russian billionaire funnelling money into a British political campaign, especially given that it is clearly an act of subterfuge - billionaires, and billionaires’ friends, putting some leftwing frontmen and women up in pursuit of their interests. It is of no consequence to the Guardian, however, which breezily lets the factoid slip with no worries expressed at all; clearly it does not bother AEIP itself either.

I do not accuse Chessum and co of corruption, only of extraordinary naivete. I suspect that they do not fully understand how completely they have been roped into a political rearguard action on the part of big capital. Chessum’s article is followed by a byline identifying him as a “socialist activist”, but you would hardly know it otherwise - half of its actual prose might have been cribbed from a KPMG Powerpoint slide (“Deliver a bespoke Labour Brexit”, indeed!). He claims to be “hard left”, “hard remain”; but he is not currently even the latter, pursuing only the dishonest intermediate objective of a second referendum, dutifully recycling the official branding put on it by Soros, Blair and co. Another Europe is possible, apparently, but you would never know there was anything wrong with the current one. On Viking and Laval, on the troika’s punishment beating of Greece, on the morally repugnant attempts to bribe trouble-spot regimes to pen refugees in fetid camps for the noble aim of sparing Frau Merkel her blushes, Chessum is diplomatically silent. Until the more important matter of Brexit is sorted out, we surmise, another Europe is beneath mentioning - and the crimes of the extant incarnation must be brushed over with a grimace and a few hail Marys.

It is Chessum’s peculiar bedfellows also that, in the end, give the lie to the sagacity of his electoral advice. Suppose the left-remainers were absolutely right, and the international working class has a compelling interest in continued British membership of the European Union. It would then simply be the case that there was a commonality of interest with finance capital in making that happen - and a limited common front on that issue would be no more unprincipled than trade union support for Liberal legislation in the unions’ favour in the 19th century, or for that matter many of the electoral arrangements between the Bolsheviks and the liberal bourgeois parties in pre-revolutionary Russia.

The trouble is that this by no means implies that there is a common interest on any other matter whatsoever. In the current context, there is a particularly obvious divergence. Chessum wants a Corbyn government; Soros certainly does not, and neither do the Liberal Democrats or Tony Blair … or, if he is being honest with himself, Chuka Umunna. For them, the electoral failure of Labour is not an especially expensive price to pay for an end to the Brexit madness; for many of them, indeed, it is a positive good. Even the sitting Labour MPs can look forward, in the event of personal defeat, to the honours list, the after-dinner circuit and the lucrative corporate sinecure. No such rosy fate awaits useful idiots on the “hard left”.

So far as Brexit is concerned, it seems - after a week of frenetic activity and drama - we have arrived more or less where we were. The immediate crisis in the cabinet is over; the real players have been corralled into support for the Chequers deal, in lieu of anything better. (May is fortunate that the Daily Mail is swinging behind her and distancing itself somewhat from the ERG.) Labour has made a great show of having a vote in favour of the idea of nothing being off the table; in short, in favour of … nothing. Kier Starmer spins it his way, John McDonnell his; in the meantime, go back to your constituencies and prepare for government!

The Labour leadership is, of course, correct - as far as things go - that the only chance at breaking the deadlock is a general election. Reports of plans afoot for a snap election in November - if only contingency plans, for now - were denied by the government, but surely must reflect some reality. It will not be an attractive option unless there is a great likelihood of victory, however, and nothing is certain. If Chessum had got his way, and Labour had committed itself to remain, then the case would be very compelling to go for it and clean up; we must assume that the possibility has receded somewhat.

The grain of truth to left-remainism is, of course, that the Labour leadership’s balancing act is profoundly dishonest. Absent from the discussion is any possibility that we might actually convince anyone to change their minds. That is far too high risk an endeavour, with a snap election to win. Risky, and also slow: the ticking-time-bomb aspect of the matter leads to the abandonment of principle, the high premium on knights in shining armour, and - of course - the hysterical sense of crisis that leads well-meaning left remainers to cash George Soros’s dirty cheques.

We leftists are in this mess, in large part, because one such crisis has followed another, and the only constant has been the abiding sense that something must be done right now and there is no time for teasing out the treacherous subtleties of the issues before us. We assert, again, that a dispute that unites Michael Chessum with Tony Blair on one side, and the Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain and Jacob Rees-Mogg on the other, must be posed differently altogether for the workers’ movement to make any serious purchase. For it is an argument about the relationship between the British state and a EU bureaucracy, which ignores the reality that both are in enemy hands, and that both must be destroyed, and a genuine socialist internationalism put to work replacing them.

paul.demarty@weeklyworker.co.uk

Notes

1. https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/sep/21/labour-brexit-referendum-corbyn-deal-election-party

2. https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2018/sep/20/im-hard-left-hard-remain-grassroots-bid-for-labour-brexit-seachange