Equality and the Euro gravy train

Peter Mandelson's nomination as Britain's EU commissioner sheds light on the undemocratic nature of the EU. Jack Conrad examines how communists should challenge this institution - to build a truly democratic Europe from below

Peter Mandelson’s nomination as Britain’s European Union commissioner was an inspired choice. The man is perfectly suited for the role. Not for nothing has he been dubbed the prince of darkness. Devious. Slippery. Conceited. Tarnished. Loathed by the Labour Party’s rank and file activists, he exudes the patrician’s contempt for democracy, openness and accountability.


Twice forced to quit Tony Blair’s cabinet amid allegations of shady financial dealings, he is now free to enjoy all the perks, privileges and piggery offered by life in Brussels. Mandelson will have his suite of plush offices in the star-shaped Berlaymont building, which cost the EU a cool £80 million to purchase and has just been lavishly refurbished.

As a commissioner he is set to receive an annual salary of £142,000 plus a 15% top-up towards accommodation. Besides that, there is a veritable cornucopia of tax-free benefits and bonuses: travel, entertainment, even a chauffeur. Proxies insist he will work a gruelling 12 to 15-hour day; doubtless, though, that will include hobnobbing with business lobbyists and socialising with Europe’s political elite - Brussels is blessed with many sumptuous restaurants of world renown. Over fine wines and cognacs, favours will be asked and favours will be given.

The 25 commissioners are merely top of a rotten pile. The European parliament is famously pampered and famously corrupt. Official perks for MEPs cost around £140 million annually. MEPs are paid the equivalent of the salary given to members of their national parliaments. At the upper end that means Italians get £78,244, while those from Spain have to make do with around £25,000. MEPs from Britain are on £57,485. Those who are MPs too are paid at a so-called duality rate - that would put them on a basic of £76,647.

However, there is a £19,162 accommodation top-up. MEPs also receive two more standard payments - one of 44% of their salary and the other of 33%. The first is for office expenses, the second for office staff. That amounts to a total package of around £120,000.

There are many other ways of making money, though. Claiming no-questions-asked travel expenses has proved particularly lucrative. MEPs are reimbursed at the highest economy rate for making the round trip in order to attend the regular sessions of the EU’s parliament - whether that be in Brussels or Strasbourg. Air flights are often discounted, though, and sold at rock-bottom prices. Some MEPs thereby manage to notch up tidy savings of around £10,000 - which they duly pocket. Allowances are also provided for taxis, language lessons, daily living, etc. Most tax-free. Nor is there any prohibition on MEPs employing their own relatives as aides - at least two dozen reportedly do so. There are generous pensions too. MEPs over 60 who have served for more than five years receive around £1,000 per month.

The EU’s so-called ‘fraud-busters’ calculate that in the year ending June 2003 proven scams amounted to £590 million. Probably the figure is around twice that amount. Subsidies provided for under the Common Agricultural Policy being an easy target. According to the United Kingdom’s own National Audit Office, during Neil Kinnock’s period as a commissioner corruption in the EU doubled. Amongst those accused of petty cheating was one Glynis Kinnock.

Fittingly the EU as a whole has, in popular parlance, become a byword for cronyism, extravagance and venality. And Tory rightwingers, the Murdoch media, the Daily Telegraph, the United Kingdom Independence Party and the whole chorus of little British chauvinists never miss an opportunity to heap scorn upon the EU’s institutions and personnel.

Rank hypocrisy. Blundering Tory MEPs have been caught with snouts deep in the EU trough. More importantly, the constitutional ideal of the Europhobes - monarchy, cabinet, unelected House of Lords, established church and Whitehall mandarins - is inextricably interwoven with the system of bribery. Capitalism strives to commodify everything - including virtue, propriety and honour. The wheels of profit must be greased. Democracy subverted. Hence fat donations to party funds, liberal wining and dining, luxurious Caribbean holidays, the old NUS network, jobs for sons and daughters, and straightforward blackmail. That way come continued restrictions on trade union rights, extensive infrastructural projects, useful legislation, juicy government contracts, huge subsidies, massive tax breaks, etc.

To a greater or lesser extent all countries dominated, or penetrated, by capitalism present the same essential picture. Italy, Saudi Arabia, Iran, Japan, Russia, China and South Africa are notoriously corrupt. But nowhere is immune. Capitalists will always try to use the state to fix the market. Despite the pious assumptions of Adam Smith and classical political economy and their present-day Chicago epigones, there is not and there never has been anything remotely like ‘perfect competition’. There is only unfair competition.

Frankly, the anti-capitalist left faces an open goal. Eg, Socialist Worker reports that young people often automatically presume that “deceit, spinning and personal ambition” are endemic amongst politicians (February 28). And it is not only youth. Opinion polls regularly show that wide swathes of the population regard the entire political establishment with utter contempt.

Clearly though, the fight to expose and uproot corruption is not only to key into mass discontent - it is, if it is to be more than a sham, to take up the war against capitalism itself. Our main slogans must be equality and democracy. And yet, and yet ... In the midst of last month’s European elections, John Rees - the Socialist Workers Party’s paramount leader and Respect candidate in the East Midlands - issued what might appear to be a well aimed authoritative statement: “Our MEPs,” he pledged, “will be leading the campaign in the European parliament to derail the financial gravy train and clear up the mess”(www.respectcoalition.org/index, June 6).

Unfortunately a rather sorry own goal. It was not that Respect failed to get anyone elected. The words of comrade Rees simply rung hollow. There is the stench of double standards. After all one of the ‘shibboleths’ voted down by the SWP majority at the January 25 founding convention was the second letter in the Respect acronym. Supposedly the ‘E’ in Respect stands for ‘equality’ and this could, if it were taken seriously and made concrete, have a profound impact on a working class that has visibly grown sick and tired of Labourite politicians such as Mandelson and their naked career-ism.

At the Respect convention the CPGB backed a motion, ably moved by Lesley Mahmood, which would have committed all its elected representatives to stand well clear of the Euro gravy train and take a personal salary no greater than the average skilled worker - the balance being donated to the movement. We have no wish to see yet another generation of socialists become hooked on the bloated parliamentary lifestyle - one which undoubtedly is designed to go hand in hand with all manner of conservative and backsliding pressures. The fighting instincts of even the best militant can be subdued and tamed in conditions of political theatre, cosy compromise ... and middle class affluence.

Disgracefully, though, the motion was overwhelmingly defeated (other ‘shibboleths’ which were unceremoniously dumped included republicanism, open borders and political inclusivity - women’s and gay rights would surely have gone the same way too, if the SWP leadership reckoned they could have got away with it).

The SWP has got itself into a hopeless mess over equality. Paul Holborrow, for instance, urged the Respect convention to vote down the motion on a worker’s wage because “Respect is not a socialist organisation” (Weekly Worker January 29). Quite frankly this is risible: limiting the pay of representatives is a principle which our tradition applies to all spheres of representation.

The 1871 Paris Commune - originally the equivalent of the Greater London Authority - guarded against the “inevitable” danger of the “transformation of the state and the organs of the state from servants of society into masters of society”. It filled all posts - administrative, judicial and educational - “by election on the basis of universal suffrage of all concerned, subject to the right of recall at any time by the same electors”. And all officials were paid “only the wages received by other workers”. In this way, said Fredrick Engels, “an effective barrier to place-hunting and careerism was set up” (K Marx and F Engels CW Vol 27, London 1990, p190).

The Bolsheviks upheld this heritage. In Vladimir Lenin’s so-called ‘April thesis’ we read: “The salaries of all officials, all of whom are elected and displaceable at any time, not to exceed the average wage of a competent worker” (VI Lenin CW Vol 24, Moscow 1977, p23). Later, in State and revolution, Lenin argued for the growing “equality of wages” as an integral part of the programmatic aim of introducing labour certificates and, finally, realising a communist society, where need determines consumption, not hours done.

True, the Bolsheviks were forced to conduct a complete about-turn over ‘bourgeois experts’ in 1918. To dissuade them from going over to the whites in the erupting civil war and to get them to work diligently and effectively engineers, agronomists, scientists, etc, were generously bribed by the Soviet Republic. Nevertheless till the Stalinite counterrevolution within the revolution and the first five-year plan no member of the Communist Party was allowed to earn more than a skilled worker. SWP founder Tony Cliff rightly says this provision was “of great importance” (T Cliff State capitalism in Russia London 1974, p68).

And only a few years ago the SWP experienced no problem voting for this principle in the Socialist Alliance. Indeed there was unanimity amongst us. Subsequently every one of the SA’s 98 candidates in the 2001 general election - not least the chair, Dave Nellist, a former Coventry MP - proudly proclaimed that they were not like the self-seeking career politicians who dominate establishment parties. They were not in it for the money. They would live on a skilled worker’s wage. Tommy Sheridan and the Scottish Socialist Party made the same pledge ... and won considerable esteem in the working class as a result. Today their six MSPs take home something like £23,000. Roughly half the official Holyrood salary.

This approach was unproblematically extended to the entire labour movement. People before profit - the SA’s 2001 election manifesto - demands that trade union officials must be regularly elected, accountable and “receive the average wage of the workers they represent” (p7). Ditto a recent SWP pamphlet, written by Martin Smith, its industrial organiser. After slating the “astronomical” salaries enjoyed by the trade union bureaucracy, he promises that “a rank and file trade union official” would take home the “average wage of the workers he or she represents” (M Smith The awkward squad London 2003, p26).

Whether it be a class party or a sect, nothing, it seems, can be easier than repeating elementary Marxist principles in order to accrue prestige. Eg, Alex Callinicos boldly, and rightly, says that to “demand equality is to propose revolution” (A Callinicos Equality Cambridge 2000, p128). However, it is only when there is a price to pay - eg, a government ban, temporary unpopularity, loss of big names - do we discover beyond any shadow of doubt what is authentic, serious and worthwhile and what is merely an affectation.

The right and centre of the German Social Democratic Party showed their true colours in August 1914 by treacherously voting for the kaiser’s war budget. Obviously the SWP did the same on January 25 2004 when it voted against equality, republicanism, open borders, etc. Its leadership routinely preach Marxism in books and articles and at their fortnightly Marxist forums. But SWP practice is thoroughly opportunist: ie, principles are sacrificed in favour of anything that is perceived as advantageous in the short-term. Quite frankly in that light Socialist Worker has no right to criticise Labour Party turncoats such as Charles Clarke and Diane Abbott for reneging on their principles (nor does International Socialist Group/Resistance leader Alan Thornett - who suddenly no longer knows what an average skilled worker’s wage is, or how one might arrive at a suitable figure).

Presumably the SWP calculated that sticking to a workers’ representative on a worker’s wage might risk seeing the likes of George Galloway and Yvonne Ridley swiftly head for the door marked ‘exit’. Galloway publicly states he needs a minimum of £150,000, if he is “to function properly as a leading figure in a part of the British political system”. Ridley is the same, only perhaps more so. She sends her daughter to an exclusive public school in the Lake District and enjoys a rich Harper’s and Queen lifestyle. Not surprisingly she views the idea of getting by on a skilled worker’s wage with a mix of unconcealed horror and blank incomprehension. Not that an MP’s “meagre” wage of £57,485 would be enough for her. “Give me three of four times as much”, she says. Only then can she “do the job properly” (Weekly Worker July 1).

Leading SWPers - crucially John Rees and Lindsey German - have assiduously courted, defended and promoted the likes of George Galloway and Yvonne Ridley. Why? These paragons of middle class socialism rate with the bourgeois media. Minor celebrities they may be, but they are celebrities for all that. As such, they and their aristocratic airs, hallowed prejudices, sudden whims and garbled politics must be allowed to set Respect’s agenda, because they alone are conceived of as the bridge to a mass audience. The operative conclusion is clear: shed the baggage of past ages and move further and further to the right. Then the left can garner votes - a mirror image of what the SWP used to say about the sorry course plied by successive generations of Labourites.

Under the leadership of John Rees the SWP’s craving for respectability is palpable. Increasingly elections are seen not as a means of making propaganda and enhancing class combativity; rather of saying what you think people want to hear in a desperate bid to get yourself elected - despite the failure of the June 10 elections and the subsequent ratcheting down of expectations, the fond hope is that eventually careers as MPs and MEPs will follow.

To achieve that end Respect must be all things to all people - “What you want: we’ve got it,” Galloway is fond of saying. In other words, Respect is a rainbow coalition within which any working class component is merely listed alongside pensioners, students, muslims and other religious groups, ethnic minorities “and many others” who have been “deeply disappointed by the authoritarian social policies and profit-centred, neoliberal economic strategy of the government”.

This non-class approach is understandable from Galloway. His background lies in Stalinism, third worldism and left Labourism. But for Rees and the SWP it represents a practical collapse into populism: “a form of politics which emphasises the virtues of the uncorrupt and unsophisticated common people against the double-dealing and selfishness to be expected of professional politicians and their intellectual helpers. It can therefore manifest itself in left, right or centrist forms” (A Bullock, O Stallybrass, S Trombley [eds] The Fontana dictionary of modern thought London 1988, p668).

There can be no doubt that Respect is a manifestation of left populism. Nor can there be any doubt that the SWP leadership is nowadays consciously acting as a conduit for bringing petty bourgeois influences into the socialist and workers’ movement - not least those gathered together in 2003 in the Stop the War Coalition “mother ship”.