After three years of wrangling over Brexit, parliament has voted for a snap general election on 12 December.
The battle lines for the election are clear.
On one side are Boris Johnson’s Tories, backed by Donald Trump, who aim to finish what Thatcher started. A Tory government will unleash a Brexit fuelled blitzkrieg against workers’ rights, environmental protections, and the battered remnants of our welfare state.
Against them stands Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour Party, with half a million members, and a programme that promises to end austerity, inaugurate a green new deal, and give people the final say on Brexit in a referendum.
Between the ambitions of the two contenders for government stands Brexit – and the Liberal Democrats and Brexit Party who have positioned themselves to exploit the divisions in Labour and the Tories.
The Scottish National Party, SNP, and the Liberals came to Boris Johnson’s rescue by calling for an election because they calculated now is the best time to split Labour’s overwhelmingly pro-Remain vote in England, and retake the seats lost by the SNP in 2017.
For the Scottish nationalists, exploiting Brexit is straightforward because the Leave vote was overwhelmingly an English phenomenon and is grist to the mill of their campaign for a second independence referendum.
The Liberal Democrats, while posing as a principled refuge for Remain-supporting Labour voters, are more concerned with destroying the prospects of a left wing Labour government than they are with stopping Brexit. That’s why they have gambled on an election which could return a hard-right pro-Brexit majority, and ruled out a coalition with a Corbyn-led Labour Party. It’s no surprise that the junior party of British capitalism finds itself objectively supporting the Tories, even at the risk of triggering the Tory Brexit they claim to oppose.
The Brexit election
All elections are called decisive or historic, but the 12 December poll really does pose an existential question about what future Britain’s workers and capitalists want. Although the majority of Britain’s bosses don’t want Brexit, they want a radical Labour government and a working class with enormous expectations, even less.
For Britain’s ruling class, Brexit is a struggle over how to manage the contradictions of a declining, second-rate imperialist power. In the past, its worldwide financial interests always meant a military-strategic commitment to a role as a junior partner to US imperialism. More recently, this has come into conflict with its status as a leading member of the EU, increasingly seen as a rival by US interests.
At its heart, Brexit is about the choice between maintaining and deepening economic and political ties with Europe or becoming not just a junior partner of US imperialism but its outpost on Europe’s border. For Trump, and Farage, the UK would be a useful tool in the increasingly frenzied trade wars and political disputes not only with the EU but with China and Russia, too.
For all the importance of Brexit, however, a general election allows the whole range of factors in economic and political life to come into play. This is where Labour has an advantage after almost ten years of Tory rule. The NHS, housing and homelessness, the environment, the refugee crisis, are all crucial questions, but dealing with them means settling accounts with Brexit: the far right strategy to bring the UK out of the EU and unleash a neoliberal offensive. An economic collapse, engendered by Brexit, will make mobilising the resources for major reforms that much more difficult.
A majority Tory government will inaugurate an unprecedented ruling class offensive, designed to restore the UK’s international competitiveness. They plan to turn Britain into a low-wage, low-tax, billionaire’s playground, in which US private healthcare firms, City of London speculators and hedge fund parasites will asset strip our health, education and welfare systems.
Though Johnson and other ministers have said the NHS would be “off the table” in talks for a trade deal with Trump, they are lying. Ministers and departmental officials have had six secret meetings with US health firms. A Brexit-induced trade deal with Trump means a menu of adulterated food, rip-off medicines and the completion of the privatisation of the NHS.
Labour’s offer of a second referendum, a choice between the deal it hopes to negotiate with the EU and Remain, will settle whether we leave or not. But it will not silence the pro-US right. They will denounce such a ‘Labour Brexit’ as a con because it will leave the UK in the EU customs union, with a close relationship to the single market and its ‘level playing field’ regulations. That would not only make the UK off-limits to US raiding parties but also commit it to obeying decisions made by the EU member states; decisions in which it will have no say.
Moreover, a Labour Brexit will still make Britain the thin end of the wedge for the United States’ growing antagonisms with the EU, since a future Tory government could always decide to leave the customs union.
The fact that the Brexit project is the property of a militant minority of the bourgeoisie, wrestling for control of Britain’s strategic place in a world order as we enter a period of realignment and conflict, does not, however, mean socialists denounce it as just a squabble between bosses, of no concern to workers.
It’s not for socialists to advise British bosses which framework of trade rules and political relations will be most advantageous for them. For us, there is no national interest, by which we mean there is no common interest between Britain’s working class and its ruling class.
Brexit must be stopped, in the interests of the working class on both sides of the Channel. The Brexiteers won their narrow victory by lying about the EU as the cause of closed down or declining industries, overstretched health services and playing on the tabloid generated, and openly racist, fears about immigration. Refusing to take sides or, worse, capitulating to nationalism ourselves, is just asking to be smashed to pieces.
Labour should have fought these prejudices tooth and nail and addressed the real economic and social problems in the areas where they held most sway. Jeremy Corbyn’s ambiguity, designed to hold the minority of Labour leave voters together with the majority of remainers, was not, as he claimed, “creative”. Rather, it was destructive of the international solidarity we will need if Labour wins and comes under attack from the City and Wall Street. We will need it even more if Johnson makes us into Trump’s backyard. Last, but not least, Labour’s ambiguity, far from showing respect to the working class people who voted for Brexit, did not respect them enough to patiently argue with them that they were wrong and that the real cause of their “left behind” areas, low wages and insecure jobs, was primarily British, not EU, capitalism.
Limits of Labour
Labour’s programme is yet to be settled by the Clause V committee. Labour Campaigns Together, a coalition of grassroots campaigns, is pressing for the manifesto to include the policy commitments passed at conference – on open borders and an end to the racist immigration system, on the green new deal, on housing, etc. This is important and would mark a historic break with the pattern of the Leader and his advisers, the trade union leaders and the PLP, ignoring policies they think the electorate would find unpalatable instead of putting them to the test. However, a warning shot was fired when Diane Abbott, immediately after the conference, refused to endorse the immigration resolution saying that Labour would introduce “a new system of work visas” for those wishing to enter the UK. This is a chauvinist “British jobs for British workers” policy which, far from protecting British-born workers, will give bosses the whip hand over migrant workers, undermining collective bargaining and precipitating a race to the bottom.
Even if all the progressive conference policies were included, Labour’s programme, although it would be the most left wing since those of 1974 and 1983, and despite representing a significant redistribution of resources from the rich to the poor, would, nonetheless, leave the capitalist control over the decisive levers of the economy intact. With the exception of cosmetic proposals for workers’ representation on boards and a limited programme of renationalising public utilities, the core of the economy, the manufacturing and extractive industries, private transport, above all the banks and investment funds, will remain in private hands. The currency and bond markets, the ratings agencies, would still be able to “blow a Labour government off course” just as they did in the 1960s and 1970s. The only reason they didn’t do it to Blair and Brown was because they never challenged them on anything serious.
In short, Labour’s modest proposals are designed explicitly to promote UK capitalist industry. Its central policy, to borrow huge sums to finance investment, is intended to be palatable to “business interests” because it is essentially a subsidy from the state (and the working class) to the private industries. Not encroaching on the private ownership of the economy would leave a Corbyn-led government entirely at the mercy of business and speculators. Faced with the onrushing headwinds of an international economic crisis, they will have absolutely no intention of peaceful coexistence.
The danger is that Labour is leaving the working class unprepared and disarmed for the major class battles that are looming up on us.
From a Labour to a Workers’ government
Already, the shape of Labour’s campaign is clear: it is a left-populist campaign which singles out individual bosses like Sports Direct owner Mike Ashley, or tax dodgers like Amazon, for criticism, without attacking the competition for profit between bosses which is the foundation of the capitalist system. That is the ultimate law which justifies their ruthless behaviour, their constant pressure on wages, conditions and jobs, as part of their struggle for survival.
The reality is that for every worker mistreated at a household chain or multinational corporation run by obnoxious and media-hungry billionaires, there are thousands more in exactly the same situation in Leicester’s garment factories, cleaners at government departments, or zero-hours workers on our railways.
Excoriating the ruthlessness or exposing the lack of compassion of any given boss, is good agitation, but it is no substitute for a serious anticapitalist programme that sets out to replace the tyranny of private ownership with democratic ownership. We need a programme that suppresses the profit-motive in production in favour of producing what society needs. A programme that stops the rapacious exploitation and pollution of our natural environment by planning the use and distribution of our planet’s resources.
All the same, we have to recognise that Labour’s reform programme, however modest by historical standards, is completely unacceptable to the British capitalist class in its present position. They are not going to abandon their forty-year assault on the post-war concessions to the working class, driven by the need to destroy unprofitable industries, and open up new markets for profit like the NHS, because there is a climate emergency. The underlying conditions that drove the neoliberal offensive have not fundamentally changed. Indeed, the 2008 crisis and its aftermath have intensified them.
A Labour government will face the obstruction, sabotage and naked class aggression of the entirety of the capitalist class, its media, its allies in the security and military establishments, and not just a few individuals or US corporations. There will be no easy victories, whether judged in moral terms or, rather more importantly, in cold hard cash and control.
Fighting to win this election certainly means using all the accumulated experience in voter registration, canvassing, “getting the vote out” and reminding people not only of what the Tories have done but also of the Liberals’ criminal responsibility for austerity. More than that, however, it must also be a campaign to prepare people to defend a left wing government when it is elected.
That means a mass campaign, not just in the sense of mass canvassing sessions but of drawing the masses into political consciousness, an awareness of the tasks and confidence in their collective strength. As we saw in 2017, the traditional methods of mass action; big rallies supported by the trade unions and social movements in the major working class centres; mass political meetings in working class communities to debate Labour’s programme, its implementation, and the direction of the campaign, can work effectively to complement work on the doorstep.
Instead of a populist campaign which promotes the illusion of a regulated capitalism, Labour should take seriously its campaign for a green industrial revolution. That means promoting the necessary anticapitalist measures in a campaign which names capitalism as the enemy and socialism as the solution.
Labour’s programme depends principally on borrowing money from the banks and world financiers. A short sharp investment strike, capital flight, a run on the pound, a media offensive quoting prominent PLP members to demoralise and disorient its supporters, and the inevitable mutterings from un-named ‘sources’ in the security establishment, these are the tried and trusted weapons from the ruling class arsenal which they will use to try to bring a Labour government to heel.
In response to this: a Labour government needs to introduce capital controls requiring nationalisation and democratic control of the banks and financial institutions; workers’ control over the television, print and online media; nationalisation of businesses that defy the government and workers’ inspection of the secrets contained in their bosses’ computers. So far we have had to depend on the courage of individual whistle-blowers. What we need is an overall struggle for workers’ inspection; the demand that the bosses open their books in industry, the banks, and the big retail chains.
Such measures start from mass mobilisation in defence of Labour’s measures but this will require discovering what the capitalists are planning, combatting their sabotage with workers’ control and, whenever it is uncovered, demanding that the culprits’ enterprises and private fortunes are seized and employed for the public good.
Last, but not least, it should not be forgotten thatshortly after Jeremy Corbyn was elected as Labour leader a “senior serving general” told the Sunday Times that the army would “use whatever means possible, fair or foul” to prevent a “maverick” being in charge of the country’s security. “The army wouldn’t stand for it …..you would face the very real prospect of an event which would effectively be a mutiny.”
True, since then Corbyn has abandoned his previous pledge to abandon Trident and to call into question Britain’s Nato membership. The generals clearly loathe Corbyn and McDonnell, regarding their past anti-war activity as simple treason.
So the labour movement should seriously consider how to stand up to blackmail from the military, how to ensure that the ordinary soldiers refuse to be pawns in any sort of officers’ mutiny, indeed how to win them to the side of a workers’ government.
We have to be clear that transforming a Labour government into a real workers’ government will need the mobilisation of the unions and whole working class communities, building up a counter-power to the capitalist state and superseding it by one based on, and accountable to, the working class and its organisations. For that, those organisations themselves need to be thoroughly democratised to overcome the bureaucratic inertia that leaves them passive and inactive. Finally, such a contest for power, not just for office, against our ruling class, will require the solidarity and aid of the European working class, as part of our common struggle for a United Socialist States of Europe.