Brexit and ‘left’ cover for Farage and UKIP
by Chris Gilligan
On the 29th of March, the day that the United Kingdom (UK) was scheduled to leave the European Union (EU), the UK Independence Party (UKIP) and its former leader, Nigel Farage, organised rival pro-Brexit rallies in London. The common rallying cry on both platforms was ‘the betrayal of Brexit’. Speakers on both platforms railed against elites in the Westminster parliament who were betraying ‘the people’s vote’ (their term for the 52% vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU, in the 2016 referendum). This ‘betrayal of democracy’ claim is both wrong and dangerous. It is wrong, because the Brexit mess in Westminster is an accurate reflection of the confused and fractured nature of ‘the will of the British people’. It is dangerous, because it is an argument that uses the claim to be defending democracy to attack democracy.
Some of those sharing the stage with Farage on the 29th are associated with the online magazine Spiked, which emerged out of the voluntary liquidation of the unorthodox Trotskyist Revolutionary Communist Party (RCP). (Disclosure: I have written for Spiked in the past. But my criticisms of their Brexit stance are political, not personal). These speakers, (Brendan O’Neill, Claire Fox and Paul Embery), schizophrenically claim to be left-wing, and also claim that politics has moved beyond left and right. One of them, Claire Fox, has now joined two other Spiked writers, Stuart Waiton and Alka Sehgal Cuthbert, in standing for Farage’s Brexit Party in the forthcoming elections to the European Parliament. This article focuses on these ‘leftists’ as exemplars of the attack on democracy from the right.
The ‘real’ democracy of the Leave vote
In the 2016 referendum, a majority (52%) of voters cast their vote in favour of the UK leaving the EU. The Spiked advocates of Leave argue that this vote was a ‘real’ expression of democracy. There are different elements of this argument. In this short article, there is only space to look at two of these: the idea that the referendum vote is ‘real’ because it was a direct expression of the will of the people, and; the idea that it is ‘real’ democracy because a majority voted for it.
The referendum is viewed as a direct expression of ‘the will of the people’ because it did not involve alienating one’s decision-making powers to a representative or delegate, instead it involved providing a clear instruction to government – Leave the EU. Failure to follow through on the Leave vote, the argument goes, is a betrayal of democracy.
In this view of the referendum, direct democracy is contrasted with representative democracy, and the latter is found wanting. Representative democracy is understood to be inferior because it involves the will of the people passing through a medium, the MP or the political party. And these mediators of the will of the people, are viewed as having failed to act in the interests of the demos. A referendum is purer, because it involves no mediation. The people decided, and it was MPs job to act on that decision.
Secondly, the Leave vote is presented as ‘real’ democracy because it was the option chosen by a majority of voters. Representative democracy in the UK has been presented by some Leave advocates as democratically inferior because elections to Westminster involve a first-past-the-post system of voting, which means that the House of Commons does not reflect the voting preferences of the electorate. As Claire Fox put it, ‘in its idealised form, people hold the vote and are equal as voters, in practice their vote may not count or will never make a difference. Just to use an example – in the last UK election, only one member of the UKIP party was elected… whatever you think of them, there are still millions and millions of people voting for them who are not able to get past the so called ‘first past the post’ electoral system, which delivers just one MP for millions of votes.’ So, the argument goes, the Leave vote is a clearer expression of the will of the people, because a majority voted for it, (unlike the current government, or even the majority Conservative government which preceded it).
These claims for the Leave vote as a superior expression of democracy than parliamentary representation are superficial and self-serving.
The limited democracy of the Leave vote
The claim that the referendum was a direct expression of the ‘will of the people’ is misleading. A referendum is a limited form of direct democracy. The referendum vote was only adirect expression of the will of the people at the moment of the vote itself. The will of the people was mediated, through the construction of the referendum. The voters did not decide that there should be a referendum, who was eligible to vote, nor what the question on the ballot paper should be. It was the Conservative Prime Minister, David Cameron, who decided that there should be a referendum and it was through parliament that the terms of the referendum were decided.
The will of the people has also been mediated through the interpretation of the Leave vote. In the months since the referendum numerous different versions of Leave have been proposed. ‘No Deal’ Brexit, the Withdrawal Agreement, and the customs union are only the three (currently) most likely scenarios. Others include Canada, Norway, Singapore, Switzerland or Turkey models. The vote in the referendum does not tell us which one of these forms of leaving the EU is the one that people voted for.
Spiked have been supporters of a ‘No Deal’ Brexit. They have argued that the Leave vote in the referendum was really a ‘No Deal’ Brexit vote. Their logic is that, since the other Leave options involve tying the UK to the EU in some way, they do not really involve leaving the EU. This is a logical argument, but it is not self-evident that this was the logic which informed the Leave vote. The attribution of this logical argument to all Leave voters involves the mystical divining of the rationale that informed Leave voters. That is a form of sorcery, not democracy. It is a self-serving argument, because it attempts to conjure a cohesive ‘hard’ Brexit majority out of a disparate Leave vote.
The Leave majority as an artefact
The idea that the referendum expressed the will of the majority of the people is also misleading. The majority in the referendum was partly an artefact of the referendum question. If there had been more than two options, (e.g. ‘No Deal’, ‘customs union’, Norway+), it is likely that there would not have been an overall majority for any one option. If ‘No Deal’ had been spelled out on the ballot paper, (e.g. ‘Leave, even if that means operating under WTO rules’), it is unlikely that there would have been a majority for Leave.
Nor was the majority vote an expression of a united will. The majority did not constitute themselves as a collective. There was not even a single Leave campaign, but rather an official Leave campaign and various unofficial campaigns, (including UKIP’s heavily anti-immigrant one, and various Left campaigns). O’Neill recognises the disaggregated nature of the popular will behind the Leave vote, in a fawning interview with Farage. In the interview O’Neill speculates that failure to leave the EU will lead to either the mass withdrawal of Leave voters from participating in elections, or to outbursts of rioting. Both are forms of protest, but they are also disaggregated forms.
Finally, it is also worth pointing out that the majority was also constructed through the exclusion of EU nationals from the vote, even though many of these EU nationals had been part of the British demos for many years. Many of these excluded members of the demos have been politically active since the referendum. They have been active campaigning against erosion of their rights, in the event of the UK leaving the EU. They have been active in campaigns for a, ‘people’s vote’, second referendum. They have been active in campaigns to revoke Article 50. This political activity is not anti-democratic, it is democracy in action.
The Brexit mess in parliament
I am not claiming that democracy in the UK is in a healthy condition. Westminster is evidently in turmoil because of Brexit. But why? Spiked have the answer. It is because a timid ‘Remoaner’ Prime Minister, Theresa May, and a parliament stuffed with Remain voting MPs, are attempting to frustrate the will of the people. This argument takes the fact that parliament has failed to agree on a leave option, as evidence that parliament doesn’t want to leave. To sustain this argument Spiked have had to find an anti-Brexit conspiracy everywhere.
Almost as soon as the referendum vote was counted Spiked were campaigning for parliament to invoke Article 50 and start the process of leaving the EU. The ‘slowness’ of parliament to do so was viewed as evidence that a Remain parliament was foot-dragging to frustrate the Leave vote. This theory, however, appears to be contradicted by the fact that when parliament did vote to invoke Article 50, they did so by a majority of 498 to 114. In retrospect the parliamentary decision to invoke Article 50 actually appears rushed, rather than reluctant, given the fact that the UK government was ill-prepared when entering the negotiating process with the EU.
Theresa May was hampered in her EU negotiations by a divided party, and Cabinet. She also had to contend with having to run a minority government, with the support of the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP), which took an intransigent line on Northern Ireland’s position in any Brexit deal. But this ‘Remain’ PM did negotiate a leave deal, the Withdrawal Agreement. So, did Spiked welcome the Withdrawal Agreement as a vindication of the Leave vote? Not exactly. O’Neill’s response was to claim that: “not since every British adult finally won the franchise in 1928 has a mass vote been so explicitly and wilfully overthrown”. Yes, you read that correctly, O’Neill claimed that May’s Leave deal was a betrayal of democracy. This betrayal narrative, that Spiked share with Farage, George Batten (UKIP’s new leader) and Tommy Robinson (former figurehead of the far-right English Defence League (EDL), and currently an ‘advisor’ to UKIP), is a recurring theme in Spiked commentary on Brexit.
Confusion, not conspiracy
There is a simpler explanation for the Brexit mess, one that also considers the evidence and is based in how parliament actually operates.
The role of an MP at Westminster has been traditionally conceived in a Burkean conception, (or trustee model). According to this conception, the role of MPs is not to act as a delegate, but as a representative. As such, they are supposed to represent all of their constituents in parliament, not just the ones who voted for them. MPs are expected to represent their constituents who voted to Leave, those who voted Remain, and those who did not vote. From the perspective of MPs, therefore, interpreting the will of the people is difficult when only 37% of the electorate voted Leave, 35% voted Remain and 28% did not support either option. That simple arithmetic does not provide MPs with a guide to how to vote.
There are other ways in which MPs can discern ‘the will of the people’. These include constituency surgeries and other forms of constituency work. They also include opinion polls, and UK politics has gained an avid interest in opinion polls. Adrian Low, for example, has argued that ‘virtually all the [opinion] polls show that the UK electorate wants to remain in the EU, and has wanted to remain since referendum day’. This finding continues to hold true. The referendum, Low argues, provided a distorted expression of the will of the people and should be ignored. The UK parliament, he suggests, should revoke Article 50 and the UK remain in the EU. The opinion polls, however, provide contradictory findings. Anthony Wells, for example, has pointed out that some opinion polls indicate that a majority of people (69%) think that the result of the referendum should not be ignored or overturned. In other words, there is a popular majority for the UK leaving the EU. On the question of what form this leaving should take, however, ‘the will of the people’ is less clear.
There have been other, more participatory, expressions of popular will. These include e-petitions to parliament and public demonstrations. An e-petition calling for the UK to ‘Leave the EU without a deal in March 2019’, garnered more than 600,000 signatures; the second highest number for any e-petition to Westminster. This petition, however, was dwarfed by one calling on parliament to Revoke Article 50, which gained more than six million signatures, the highest ever number. The UKIP and Farage rallies in London on 29th of March were attended by thousands. The numbers at these protests were dwarfed by those on marches calling for a second referendum in June 2018, and by an even bigger crowd in March 2019.
These forms of participatory democracy indicate significant public support for revoking Article 50 and for a second referendum, much more than for a ‘No Deal’ Brexit, but this support is not larger than the 17.4 million who voted Leave in the 2016 referendum. These conflicting public expressions of the will of the people are reflected in parliament. In this sense parliament is not frustrating the will of the people, it is a concentrated expression of the confused will of the people.
Danger to democracy
The EU referendum has thrown UK politics into crisis. A majority voted to Leave, but what did they mean by Leave? When Theresa May was asked, she famously said ‘Brexit means Brexit’. The only reason why she could get away with such a vacuous statement is because no-one else knew what Brexit meant either. Or, to put it another way, everyone has their own idea of what Brexit means, but there is no way of deciding which one of these ideas is the correct one.
The Spiked Brexiteers have conjured up a Brexit majority, in their own image. They imagine themselves as the expression of ‘the will of the majority’. And they imagine themselves as valiant warriors, fighting against a ruling-class elite that despise ‘the people’. Their fantasies are a danger to democracy.
They are a danger to democracy, because they elevate rhetoric over evidence (e.g. from the e-petitions and protest marches and rallies; from the large parliamentary majority that invoked Article 50). They are a danger to democracy, because they rely on post-truth conspiracy theory, (‘it’s a Remain parliament thwarting the will of the people’), rather than the hard work of trying to understand and explain a complex, and evolving, situation. They are a danger to democracy, because they blame a ‘weak’ Prime Minister, and thus lay the ground for arguments for a ‘strong’ leader (like the self-seeking Boris Johnson). And they are a danger to democracy, because they are providing ‘left’ cover for people like Farage, Batten and Robinson, who only support democracy in as far as it suits their own ends.
About the author:
Chris Gilligan is a veteran migrant rights activist. He is the author of Northern Ireland and the Crisis of Anti-racism. He teaches at the University of the West of Scotland. A selection of his writings and talks on Brexit can be found here.
The European Parliament Elections in the United Kingdom
by Andreas Thomsen, Head of Office RLS Brussels
At the time of writing, it is still unclear whether the United Kingdom of Great Britain and Northern Ireland will actually participate in the 2019 European Parliament elections. If Prime Minister Theresa May manages to get the European Union Withdrawal Agreement negotiated with Brussels through the House of Commons, Brexit would stop the UK taking part. A second, even less probable, scenario would be a new agreement approved by both the House of Commons and the EU. However, if, as looks likely, the UK is still a member of the EU after 22 May, it will have to put up candidates for the European elections, and the country’s political parties are now gearing up for this eventuality.
Unlike elections to the UK Parliament, EU elections in England, Scotland and Wales apply a system of proportional representation in each region, making this poll more representative of the votes cast and giving smaller, less established parties a much greater chance of success. While the House of Commons, with its first-past-the-post voting system, is dominated by the two main parties, Conservatives and Labour, the results of European Parliament elections in the UK have long followed a different pattern. The rise of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), a right-wing populist party with the primary goal of getting the UK out of the EU, has been particularly apparent in previous European Parliament elections. UKIP polled 16.5% of the vote in the 2009 elections, making it the second largest party. In 2014, it notched up 26.6%, becoming the biggest party, sending 24 MEPs to Brussels, and consigning the Conservative Party to third place. These 2014 elections placed the Tories, in particular, in a desperate plight, as a governing party finishing third in first-past-the-post elections geared to a two-party system would be staring into the abyss. The initial legislation paving the way for an in/out referendum on EU membership was passed back in 2015. As we know, this would culminate, in June 2016, in a narrow majority voting in favour of Brexit.
Several years on from the referendum and weeks after what was supposed to be the final departure date, the political landscape in the UK looks chaotic, disorganised and utterly polarised. If they do go ahead, the European Parliament elections in the UK will inevitably be all about Brexit. The main parties, both government and opposition, have no other issues to campaign on, being completely unprepared for the nitty-gritty of EU elections. Therefore, the key question is how the two camps, Leave and Remain, will behave in these elections.
The Brexit camp
In the Brexit referendum he triggered, former Prime Minister David Cameron campaigned for the UK to remain in the European Union. Following the referendum and Cameron’s resignation, his successor, Theresa May, tried to position the Tories as the party that would calmly, resolutely and in the end successfully negotiate and implement Brexit. In doing so, she has faced relentless pressure from within her party, most notably from the hardline Brexiteers of the European Research Group (ERG). For the Leave camp, the UK’s very participation in the 2019 European Parliament elections is a sign of the government’s failure to implement the ‘will of the people’ as expressed in the referendum, making a heavy defeat for the Conservatives all but certain. Nigel Farage was a member of UKIP from its outset in the early 1990s, sitting as one of its MEPs from 1999 on. He has now quit the party, having stood down as its leader for the final time in 2016. Since March 2019, he has been leading the Brexit Party, which was only formed in January of this year, and is running for the European Parliament again under its colours. It is quite possible, indeed likely, that in the upcoming elections Farage will repeat and maybe even surpass the success he enjoyed with UKIP, with the Brexit Party potentially becoming the biggest party and topping UKIP’s 2014 result. Whereas in 2014 the Tories were only a few percentage points behind UKIP and Labour in first and second places, the party could find itself well and truly languishing in third position this time round, polling significantly below 20%. If so, the turmoil enveloping the parliamentary party and the party more generally will surely increase yet further (if that is even possible), again begging the question how the May government plans to weather this storm.
The Remain camp
Dyed-in-the-wool Remainers have a number of parties to choose from as an alternative to Labour or the Tories. The Liberal Democrats, David Cameron’s coalition partners from 2010 to 2015, garnered 6.6% of the vote in the 2014 European elections but only ended up with one seat in the European Parliament. The Greens managed 6.9% in England and Wales in 2014, netting three seats. Change UK, a new party formed by a group of breakaway Tory and Labour MPs spearheaded by former Labour politician Chuka Umunna, could pick up between 5 and 10% of the vote. Last but not least, in Scotland and Wales there are the nationalist parties, the Scottish National Party (SNP) and Plaid Cymru, which already have representatives in the European Parliament. All these parties adopt a clear anti-Brexit line. Labour is split on the Brexit issue, but in recent weeks the party and its leadership have repeatedly shown themselves open to the idea of a second referendum, which seems to be the most promising option for ultimately stopping Brexit. So while many Remainers have been disappointed by Labour’s stance, the party could, somewhat paradoxically, be their best bet for keeping the UK inside the EU. Given the idiosyncrasies of the electoral system, Labour could become or remain the top choice for anti-Brexit voters hoping for the softest possible Brexit if the UK does have to leave, one that would maintain a close relationship between the UK and EU. As a result, the Labour Party is expected to sustain only moderate losses compared with the Tories. Achieving significantly above 20% and possibly taking second place behind the Brexit Party could buoy the hopes of optimistic Labour supporters that they might emerge victorious from subsequent UK Parliament elections.
Outlook: advantage to Labour and right-wing populists on the up
Given the rumpus over Brexit, Labour’s social and economic policy positions are taking a back seat in the run-up to these (potential) European elections. While Brexit might actually provide a favourable backdrop for such policy proposals, and withdrawal from the EU would have many direct impacts on UK society as a whole, the highly-charged atmosphere and polarisation surrounding Brexit are squeezing out any opportunity for meaningful public debate about the country’s future. There is no contradiction here: Brexit has curdled into symbolic politics, and when this happens, election results are primarily an expression of the crisis in the representative political system – just as Brexit itself, the outcome of the referendum, is a symptom rather than the cause of the crisis. The muddled, chaotic and frustrating situation in which the UK finds itself today is the result of onslaughts by right-wing populist opportunists and the failure of democratic forces, which to various extents moved in the direction of the populists in an attempt to quell and ‘appropriate’ the populist revolt, rather than countering it. The Tories, long a majority Eurosceptic party, could now become the first victim. But the Labour Party is not immune either: dealing with the right-wing populist onslaught, which targets its supporters too, has proved a real challenge and continues to do so. Most of its members and voters either do not seem to put much hope in Brexit or reject it outright. And yet, partly for tactical reasons, Labour’s line on this issue is dangerously indecisive. This tightrope act also makes any agreement on this matter with the May government unlikely. That said, it is quite possible that Labour, unlike the Tories, will emerge from this mess with just a few cuts and bruises, an outcome that is of course made more likely by the electoral system. For the Tories, their very survival is at stake, whereas even if Labour experiences losses, it could go on to emerge as the leading player in the party system, propelling its leader Jeremy Corbyn into 10 Downing Street. The results of the European elections will give us an idea of future developments. However, the key question for future general elections must be whether they will continue to be dominated by Brexit. The longer this gruelling process goes on, the more disruptive it will be for the political landscape and the party system and the greater the opportunities it will provide for right-wing populists. In other words, there is far more at stake here than just the United Kingdom’s membership of the European Union.
by David Jamieson
Brexit represents the latest manifestation of a deeper constitutional and political crisis affecting the British state, in which the Scottish question is a key factor. In this week’s guest post, David Jamieson outlines how the Scottish National Party (SNP) has responded to Brexit by rooting itself more firmly in political centrism and pursuing the objective of ‘independence’ within the existing economic and political order. This, he argues, has created the opportunity and necessity for a grassroots left-wing response.
The Scottish pre-history of Brexit
One might have imagined that Brexit would present a major historical opportunity for a Scottish independence movement riding high after its 2014 victory.
For really, that is what securing a 45% Yes vote in September of that year was. We now know that Cameron’s advisers in the Conservative party understood it to be an exemplary defeat over an intransigent and well-established Scottish nationalism. This understanding partly informed the Remain campaign’s strategy in 2016, with disastrous consequences for then Prime Minister David Cameron and the wider British political establishment.
In reality the idea of Scottish independence was a fringe political concern when the SNP won office in the 2011 Scottish elections. SNP leader Alex Salmond tried to avoid a Yes/No independence referendum, so convinced was he of the weakness of pro-independence sentiment. He instead wanted an option for the further devolution of powers from Westminster to Scotland – a far more historically popular policy.
In many ways, the Scottish referendum era presaged the 2016 Brexit vote. The surge in support for independence in 2014 indicated the political bankruptcy of the UK’s political leadership, who had nothing to offer Scots but grim continuity. ‘Project Fear’ was not the name independence campaigners gave to Better Together ‘No’ campaign; it was the name they gave themselves in private before being leaked to the press.
The demonology of the Brexit era was first trialled in Scotland. Independence supporters were ‘Cyber Nationalists’ who were dangerous, hectoring, bullying and intolerant. No voters were the original Remainers – liberal minded, educated and pragmatic.
After 18 September 2014 Yes voters and independence activists, infuriated with having been maligned by the press and politicians and still passionately hoping for independence, rushed into the SNP – making it one of the Western world’s largest political parties per head of population.
But this party, forged by an era of populism and constitutional crisis has not made an opportunity of the Brexit impasse. Instead, under the influence of a leadership lacking any understanding of the British state crisis, it has clung to the ruling class and the British state for orientation.
Independence by deep globalisation
Since the Leave vote, the SNP have accelerated a strategy to make Scottish independence acceptable to existing power structures and elites both within Scotland and abroad.
This strategy of integration is not new to the SNP. Under the leadership of Alex Salmond, the modern party’s architect, the SNP was firmly won to gradualism on the constitutional question. Salmond had a populist instinct to position the party to the left of New Labour and the Westminster political consensus with just a few cleverly placed policies. But it was under Salmond that the party abandoned its opposition to an independent Scotland’s membership of NATO.
It was in the Scottish government’s White Paper on independence that he proposed a series of positions – including a monetary union with the remaining UK state – that pointed towards the logic of ‘independence lite’, laying the way for a sorry future.
The populist sensibility has largely vanished under the leadership of Nicola Sturgeon, and a clique of right-wing elements has gathered and is fully in ascendance.
They include Andrew Wilson, the chair of the SNP’s Growth Commission, set up by the leadership to provide a blueprint for a post-independence Scottish economy. Wilson is a former RBS senior adviser and Director in Charlotte Street Partners, a secretive corporate lobbying and public relations group at the heart of Scotland’s networks of elite power and influence.
The report he published in 2018 exceeded the worst fears of the pro-independence left. Scotland would face years of public spending restraint after independence, advance a deficit reduction programme and maintain alignment with financial regulation in the City of London. But the standout horror from the report was its plan for Sterlingisation; Scotland would continue to use Sterling after independence without any recourse to monetary policy, without a central bank and with no ability to print money. Bizarely, the model for this arrangement put forward by leading members at the forthcoming SNP party conference is the Irish Free State, which is still living with the consequences of its long-term dependence on the fortunes of Britain.
These policies not only jar with the left-wing character of so much of the 2014 independence movement. They also jar with the SNP’s wider centrist political orientation. Under the Maastricht Treaty no country may join the EU without a fully independent central bank.
Yet the strategy of the SNP’s leading faction could now be described as ‘independence by deep globalisation’. Independence is made safe for domestic and foreign elites by off-shoring the country’s sovereignty to various institutions – foreign policy to Washington and Nato, trading relations (and much else besides) to the EU, and monetary policy to London and the remaining UK state. Independence then becomes a formality – a mere changing of the flag.
This only demonstrates the extreme incoherence of an elite-led independence movement, something made all the more stark when we look at the SNP leadership’s relationship with the Brexit crisis.
The Brexit crisis
From the start the party faced a simple strategic choice: seek advantage for the independence movement by exploiting the contradictions of the British state, or side with the Remain lobby representing the bulk of elite interests.
Immediately after the vote to Leave in 2016 Sturgeon put another referendum on independence “on the table”, something she was mandated to do in the SNP’s Scottish election manifesto in 2017. This move gained the support of a majority in the Scottish Parliament. The request for talks on an independence referendum were then immediately refused by Theresa May.
Since then, the party has pursued an alliance with the British political centre, with demands for a soft Brexit and more latterly a second referendum on UK-EU membership. This blunder has fostered the most interesting development in the broader independence movement since 2014; a large street movement detached from the party’s leadership.
Tens of thousands have repeatedly marched in Scotland’s cities and towns, including in remote places which have not seen such sizeable demonstrations for decades. Organisers claim their largest march, in Edinburgh in October 2018, to have reached 100,000. Scotland has never seen a pro-independence movement of this scale before.
Sturgeon herself has attended none of these marches. Speaking at her party conference just after the Edinburgh manifestation, she warned marchers to be patient.
In March this year she attended the large demonstration for a People’s Vote in London, organised by establishment figures. The message was a clear one – Sturgeon won’t leave her front door in Edinburgh to join her own supporters in a march for her party’s flagship policy. But she will turn up in London to defend the stature of the British state at its lowest ebb.
And she will share a platform with the same figures who fought against independence in 2014, and have said openly that should a second referendum on the UK’s EU membership be held, this would provide the precedent for a second vote to ratify any future vote for Scottish independence.
The SNP’s orientation deserves lengthy consideration for a simple reason: it remains a length ahead of all its political rivals, left and right. Its base has shown remarkable solidity since 2014, and there are few signs of it weakening. Crucially, the policy with which it remains most associated, independence, still carries considerable enthusiasm among active layers of the working and lower-middle classes.
The one major question the party faces is how its support will react if it becomes apparent that no independence referendum is likely in the short term. Indeed, it is entirely possible that the leadership see independence as an ultimate goal on an unknowable timescale – what we might call ‘Québécoisation’.
In the meantime all other political forces remain in a precarious and frustrated state. It seems for now that the Tories have met their limit for growth, particularly tied as they are to a mother party falling apart under the Brexit strain. The Scottish Greens, a more established tradition north of the border than elsewhere in the Kingdom continue to press for immediate answers on Scottish independence, but they too are caught between this question and an ultra-People’s Vote orientation.
Scottish Labour, the rump figure of a once dominant party, has moved left into the wake of Corbynism. But Richard Leonard’s version of Labour leftism is less dynamic than Corbyn’s and more represents the bureaucratic soft-leftism of the Union leaderships. His greater problem is that Labour’s appeal remains hemmed-inn by the legacy of its alliance with the Tories in the Better Together campaign, and by the subsequent loss of many working-class Labour heartlands to the SNP.
The extra-parliamentary scene has seen some bright moments. The 2018 women’s equal pay strike in Glasgow was the largest and most successful in UK history, with 8,000 women winning £500 million in payouts after a twelve year struggle with the council.
Recent years have also seen the growth of a tenants’ union – Living Rent – particularly in Scotland’s cities, which is fighting and winning on a range of fronts.
Greater efforts have been made to unionise parts of the economy infamous for low pay, precarious conditions and under-unionisation, particularly Scotland’s large hospitality sector.
But the general picture reflects the wider Anglosphere and Western left. Organisational and intellectual traditions have atrophied after decades of setbacks.
At its worst this leaves the left vulnerable to the same disorientating forces as the SNP. Caught in the confusion of the era of de-globalisation and rooted in a past of relative constitutional peace, the SNP has collapsed into the embrace of more powerful actors.
Scottish socialists must establish their own independence from the institutions of British and European capitalism to be a viable force in the future of this historic crisis of the state and political establishment.
About the author:
David Jamieson is a journalist, writer and socialist activist based in Glasgow. A reporter for the left-wing media outlet CommonSpace, his writing can also be found at Jacobin magazine, Bella Caledonia and ConterScot, a new anti-capitalist platform of which he is an editorial board member.
by Emma Clancy
The decision of EU leaders to grant Theresa May a long extension has kicked Brexit into the long grass. But with the European Parliament elections approaching, the structural, economic and political faultlines within the European system lie badly exposed. Emma Clancy explains how another eurozone recession and continued gains for the radical right are made more likely by European rules and their unequal enforcement by the EU institutions.
In his open letter to Europeans last month, French President Emmanuel Macron revealed that he feared Europe “has become a soulless market” in the eyes of its citizens. Twenty years after the introduction of the common currency, and more than a decade after the global financial crisis, the soulless market is in trouble – again.
The eurozone has experienced a period of weak GDP growth over the past five years, during which a peak of 2.4 per cent growth in 2017 – the highest in a decade, but a rate that pre-crisis would have been considered to be very low – was celebrated as heralding the final end of the crisis, and christened with the hashtag #euroboom.
After a dramatic fall in growth in 2018 in which growth slumped to 0.2 per cent in the third quarter, the European Central Bank (ECB) and the European Commission have both sharply revised downwards their growth projections for the eurozone in 2019. In its February Winter Forecast, the European Commission said it expects eurozone growth to slow from 1.9 per cent in 2018 to 1.3 per cent this year and 1.6 per cent next year.
The ECB followed in March with a gloomier quarterly forecast, projecting growth to slow to 1.1 per cent in 2019 and 1.6 per cent in 2020. This announcement was followed by several ECB policymakers anonymously briefing Bloomberg that they thought the projections were still too optimistic. Apparently abandoning all pretence of hope of achieving its target of “close to 2 per cent” inflation at any point in the near future, the ECB also cut its inflation projections to 1.4 per cent for this year, 1.5 per cent in 2020 and 1.6 per cent fin 2021.
In Italy, growth was negative for two consecutive quarters in the second half of 2018, meaning the country has officially fallen into its third recession in a decade. The grim surprise came from the export-led manufacturing powerhouse of the eurozone: Germany barely avoided the recession label, recording negative growth of -0.2 per cent in the third quarter and zero growth in the fourth. Data released last week showed that German industrial production and manufacturing orders and fell in February, with a survey this week reporting “both total new orders and export sales are now falling at rates not seen since the global financial crisis”.
Addressing a bankers’ convention in Frankfurt in November, ECB President Mario Draghi outlined the weak and fragile nature of the eurozone’s recovery: “Since 1975 there have been five periods of rising GDP in the euro area. The average duration from trough to peak is 31 quarters, with GDP increasing by 21 per cent over that period. The current expansion in the euro area, however, has lasted just 22 quarters and GDP is only around 10 per cent above the trough. In contrast, the expansion in the United States has lasted 37 quarters, and GDP has risen by 21 per cent.”
What can explain the brief period that saw eurozone growth reach the dizzying height of 2.4 per cent in 2017? In a word – a massive fiscal expansion. But the expansion did not take place in the eurozone; it was a result of the fiscal policies implemented in the US, Japan and China, in the latter two cases funded by their respective central banks. Such an expansion could not possibly take place in EU Member States, which must stick to the absurd, arbitrary and stifling debt and deficit limits laid down as gospel in the Stability and Growth Pact (SGP) and Fiscal Compact.
The slow growth and grinding recovery in the eurozone can be partially explained by the post-crisis austerity shock treatment applied to the periphery by the Troika, but the architecture of the common currency has acted as a brake on sustainable growth and convergence since day one. The euro has been built on an enduring effort to constitutionalise austerity, an effort that continues today despite all of the evidence demonstrating that it causes economic contraction.
‘Purely ideological and economically unsound’
The Maastricht Treaty of 1992 enshrined the so-called ‘convergence criteria’ – a set of rules members and potential members of the common currency were obliged to follow. And what were these convergence criteria? To join the euro, states had to pledge to control inflation, and government debt and deficits, and commit to exchange rate stability and the convergence of interest rates. As the ECB was preparing to begin operating to control inflation and interest rates, Germany pushed for the adoption of an EU-wide SGP in 1997, including non-eurozone members, to enshrine the fiscal control aspects of Maastricht, and more generally to increase EU surveillance and control over Member States’ national budgets.
The convergence criteria are purely ideological and economically unsound. When a eurozone Member State experienced a downturn, its deficit would inevitably rise as a result of lower tax revenue and higher expenditure on social security. But when the convergence criteria kicked in, causing governments to cut spending or raise taxes, it would invariably worsen the downturn by suppressing demand. Even French neoliberal Pascal Lamy, formerly the Director-General of the World Trade Organisation, called the SGP “crude and medieval” when he was EU trade commissioner.
The blanket, one-size-fits-all fiscal rules in the criteria – that Member States must keep public debt limited to 60 per cent of GDP and annual budget deficits to below 3 per cent of GDP – were proposed by Germany, based on its own national SGP structure. In 2010, Germany proposed the reform of the Pact to make it stricter and more enforceable through the adoption of the ‘six-pack’ and ‘two-pack’ of enhanced macroeconomic and budgetary surveillance measures. Despite the vast evidence by this stage that the SGP was counterproductive and unenforceable, Germany pushed for the fiscal rules to be tightened yet again in 2012 through the Fiscal Compact Treaty, which created the obligation for the convergence criteria targets to be inserted into the national law of the ratifying states.
The Fiscal Compact and its implications
The Fiscal Compact Treaty, signed by all EU Member States with the exception of Britain, the Czech Republic and Croatia, enshrines the rule that members in excess of the limit are obliged to reduce their debt level above 60 per cent at an average of at least 5 per cent per year. The structural deficit rule – called the ‘balanced budget rule’ – must be incorporated into the national law of signatory states under the Fiscal Compact.
Not satisfied with the Fiscal Compact being an intergovernmental treaty, the Commission proposed last year that it be permanently enshrined into EU law. The Commission wanted the Fiscal Compact’s automatic correction mechanism to be integrated into national budgetary processes so that deviations would immediately lead to a reduction in public expenditure.
On 27 November 2018, this proposal was rejected in a tied vote of the European Parliament’s Economic and Monetary Affairs Committee. Fortunately for the Commission, it had anticipated such a possibility and had made its proposal on a dubious legal basis that provides for a decision to be taken solely by the Council of Member States, and under which the Parliament only has an ‘opinion’ – despite the fact that several EU laws on the same issues have been adopted using the normal process whereby the Parliament and Council are co-legislators.
Despite the opposition of the Parliament, the Fiscal Compact is likely to be enshrined into EU law permanently – with its automatic correction mechanism, designed to remove the power to make a political decision on spending from national governments and put it in the hands of technocrats, beyond the reach of politics.
Winners and losers
It will come as little surprise that a system designed to promote the German model of wage suppression, low inflation and export-led growth, propped up by a currency modelled on the Deutschmark, has benefited one country more than all other members of the eurozone.
In February, a German ordoliberal think tank affiliated with the ruling Christian Democrats, the Centre for European Policy, published an empirical study of the “winners and losers” from the euro twenty years after its introduction. It found that Germany was the big winner, having benefited by €1.9 trillion from the euro between 1999 and 2017, or around €23,000 per person. The Netherlands was the only other state that gained substantial benefits from the common currency. France had lost €3.6 trillion or €56,000 per person; while Italy had lost more than any other state, at €4.3 trillion or €74,000 per person.
Germany’s massive and consistent trade surplus – whereby the country’s exports exceed its imports by nearly €300 billion – has meant that its biggest export to the rest of the eurozone has been stagnation. But as a result of European fiscal discipline in the wake of the recession, there is not enough internal demand in the eurozone to sustain German industry. Now that a global slowdown has taken hold, and growth is slowing in China due to US trade tariffs and a debt crisis, the dangers of this economic model are exposed. If China’s latest stimulus package fails to boost demand, the German economy will certainly enter recession.
Italy, the euro’s big loser, is there already. The Italian economy is one of just two in the OECD in which GDP has failed to return to pre-crisis levels; the other is Greece. The Italian governing coalition between the anti-establishment Five Star Movement and the far-right Lega Nord faced its first test of eurozone fiscal discipline last year through the European Semester process. When it presented its draft budget for 2019, including a 2.4 per cent deficit, the Commission rejected it and threatened to enact the ‘excessive deficit procedure’ under the SGP, which consists of deadlines to comply, followed by substantial fines.
The proposed deficit did not even cross the SGP’s 3 per cent limit. But using dubious mathematics to measure the structural deficit – what the deficit would be if the economy was at full employment – described here by Thomas Fazi, the Commission argued that the Italian economy, in recession, would be at risk of overheating if a fiscal deficit of 2.4 per cent was reached.
Instead of being technocratic, the budgetary surveillance and enforcement process is overtly political. When Macron’s government announced €10 billion in additional spending in December to defuse the gilets jaunes protests, taking France’s projected deficit for 2019 up to 3.4 per cent, EU economic commissioner Pierre Moscovici gave the thumbs-up.
“The comparison with Italy is tempting but wrong,” he said. “The situations are totally different. The European Commission has been monitoring the Italian debt for several years; we have never done that for France.” This is despite the fact that it was only in 2017 that France emerged from a long period with a deficit breaching the SGP rules.
A French treasury official agreed with Moscovici: “The situations are not comparable. Contrary to Italy, we do not question European rules. We agree that having public finances in order and reducing public debt are the right thing to do.”
The ECB as enforcer
The Commission is not the only enforcer policing the public spending of EU Member States. The ECB has played an even more important role, throughout the crisis and in the latest clash with Italy. Its role during the crisis as part of the Troika enforcing austerity shock therapy under the bailout programmes is well known; its role in manufacturing the sovereign debt crisis between 2009-2012 as a means to force governments to capitulate on their budgetary plans, less so. Adam Tooze refers to the ‘bond market vigilantes’ behind the massive capital flight from the periphery to the core during this period, and adds: “The role of bond markets in relation to the ECB and the dominant German government was less that of a freewheeling vigilante, than of state-sanctioned paramilitaries delivering a punishment beating whilst the police looked on.”
In May last year, during the political and market crisis in Italy arising from the temporary collapse of the coalition after the effort to appoint a eurosceptic finance minister by Five Star, EU budget commissioner Günther Oettinger openly hoped that the market turmoil “could be so drastic that this could be a possible signal to voters not to choose populists from left and right”.
The ECB’s new role, self-proclaimed in 2012, where there is a mass sell-off of government bonds of a eurozone member – the situation that caused the sovereign debt crisis in 2010-2011 – is to support the state’s economy by purchasing the bonds through its quantitative easing (QE) programme. But instead of buying more Italian government bonds during this crisis in May last year, the ECB was buying less, and diverting its investment to German bonds instead.
In October the ECB announced it planned to change the ‘capital key’ it used in its €2.5 trillion QE programme. Put simply, the central banks of Member States act as shareholders of the ECB. The capital key calculates the size of their shares according to the size of national populations and economies. By extension the capital key also determines how much the ECB spends on eurozone government bonds, and where.
Though the ECB announced it would stop buying government bonds from the end of 2018, it is not the end of QE. The ECB is continuing to reinvest the maturing debt it holds – an estimated €117 billion in the first nine months of 2019 – back into eurozone government bonds. The adjustment to the capital key will reduce the shares of twelve Member States including Italy, Spain and Greece, while increasing the shares of sixteen, including Germany, France and Austria.
One economist estimates that the change will result in about €28 billion less in reinvestment in Italian bonds, and €19 billion less in Spanish bonds than would have been the case if the change had not been made. Like the Commission’s bizarre calculation of the structural deficit as potentially causing runaway inflation in Italy’s clearly stagnating economy, the ECB’s capital key adjustment is another example of politicised thuggishness dressed up as ‘technocracy’.
Approaching the ‘cliff-edge’
This long stagnation caused by the SGP rules, Italy’s inability to recover economic activity to pre-crisis levels, double-digit unemployment and still massive youth unemployment have created the conditions for the election of the racist Lega Nord and the anti-establishment Five Star Movement. Following the Commission’s budgetary clash with Rome, support for Five Star has been strongly overtaken by support for the Lega. The actions of Commission and the ECB have directly contributed to the ongoing rise of the far right in Italy. It is no mystery if Italians, and Europeans, see Europe as a “soulless market”.
The threat of an economic collapse in Italy, precipitated by an inter-related banking and sovereign debt crisis, remains very real. It is exacerbated daily by the Commission and ECB. The Italian government needs to issue around €400 billion a year in public debt in order to stay afloat, which domestic banks are pushed into buying. This means Italy’s shaky bond market is highly exposed to its vulnerable banking sector, and vice versa. Banks in other EU states hold more than €425 billion euros of sovereign and private Italian debt. French banks are most exposed, holding €285 billion of this.
None of the much-touted reforms put in place in the EU after the crisis will rein in the bond market vigilantes; free movement of capital is sacrosanct. The proposal to end the ‘too-big-to-fail’ problem in Europe’s banks by structurally separating the commercial and investment activists of the banks – the so-called Bank Structural Reform – was officially withdrawn in 2017 after conservatives blocked its progress in the European Parliament and Council.
It is little wonder that there are winners and losers in the eurozone when the game is rigged and the referee is openly biased. Fears of economic collapse in Italy that peaked in May last year receded later in the year. But the country’s recession, combined with the broader global slowdown and a high likelihood of a eurozone-wide recession in the near future will push Italy closer to the cliff-edge. The deficit fetishism of the ECB and the Commission may push them off.
About the author: Emma Clancy is an economics advisor for the European United Left/Nordic Green Left group in the European Parliament, and editor of Irish Broad Left.
in ‘historical thunder and lightning’
by Stiofán Ó Nualláin & Seán Byers
Events have moved so fast in the past two weeks or so that has been difficult to keep pace with or make sense of them, especially since they have been accompanied by an escalation of rhetoric and the flailing of arms.
Last Monday the Speaker of the House of Commons, John Bercow, seemingly delivered a ‘bombshell’ by ruling that he would not permit a third meaningful vote on Theresa May’s deal unless MPs were asked a different question or presented with a deal that had been substantively changed. Instinctively, the right-wing press went on the attack, some accusing Bercow of an ‘ambush’ and of ‘sabotaging Brexit’, others descending into more personal insults. Cries of ‘constitutional crisis’ abounded, while the Confederation of British Industry (CBI) and the British TUC joined forces to warn that the UK is facing a ‘national emergency’. Alongside this reports began to emerge that the British military had set up a team in a nuclear bunker to prepare for a no-deal Brexit, with 3,500 troops said to be ‘at readiness’ to help deliver contingency plans.
For all the panic and bluster, the main consequence of Bercow’s decision was to assist May in pulling the meaningful vote, temporarily sparing her another humiliation. It also put wind in the sails of those behind the so-called People’s Vote campaign, as they geared up for their march against Brexit in London last Saturday.
In the event, the #PutItToThePeople march was attended by somewhere between 300,000 and 1 million people, depending whose report one believes. Undoubtedly, the protestors included among their number those who are pro-immigration, vaguely internationalist, not necessarily well-off and are generally fearful about what Brexit might mean for them and their families. The march also featured a small Left Bloc comprising of left-wing politicians, trade unionists and activists who sought to represent the progressive case for staying in the EU based on demands for a Green New Deal, trade union rights, free movement of people, democratic reform and combating racism and the far right.
These good people and good intentions notwithstanding, there is no getting away from the demonstrably elite and anti-left character of the march and the People’s Vote campaign as a whole. The campaign is fronted by unpopular centrists such as Alastair Campbell, Blair’s former spin doctor, the Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable, the recently established Independent Group of Labour and Tory defectors, and is linked to a number of corporate interests. This coalition of centrist forces is united not only by its desire to remain within the EU but also by its determination to drive a wedge between the mass of the people marching behind them and the possibility of a progressive Labour government. This is obvious from the fact that Jeremy Corbyn, rather than Tory government, forms main target of the campaign’s ire. There is also an air of anti-working class intellectual superiority about the campaign, evidenced on Saturday by the display of obnoxious placards directed towards ‘the ignorant masses who voted for Brexit’. It is difficult to see how these predominant features can be reconciled with any attempt at left-wing ‘messaging’, much less the practical task of building a socialist movement.
More fundamentally, socialist involvement with the People’s Vote campaign rests on a denial of the fact that there is no parliamentary majority for a second referendum, nor is there a clear majority for one across the country. While there are many polls showing increased support for Remain or for another ballot, there are many others showing the exact opposite. For example, the most recent ComRes poll puts Remain on 35 points and Leave on a combined 50, the biggest lead since the 2016 referendum. An earlier poll by the same company pointed to a strong sense of betrayal on the part of Leave voters and a feeling that Parliament is out to thwart Brexit.
Thus, it remains the case that a second referendum would not resolve the social, economic or political contradictions that led to Brexit or the societal divisions it has opened up, but instead widen those divisions, further alienating working-class Leave voters and pushing them into the arms of the right.
The March to Leave
While it is difficult to know what the reaction to revoking Article 50 will be until it happens, the most vocal proponents of Brexit have begun to mobilise in an effort to prevent any such ‘betrayal’ and, equally, to exploit any broad disaffection that might evoke. On Friday 29March, the day that the UK was due to leave the EU, thousands of people made their way to Parliament Square in London for the March to Leave organised by right-wing Leave Means Leave campaign group. By all accounts, the bulk of the march was good-natured, with the BBC reporting ‘a lot of quiet but angry, angry people who believe that Parliament has “betrayed” Brexit’. The online political magazine Spiked, a pro-Brexit outlet and supporter of the rally, noted the presence of newly politicised sections of the working class, motivated principally by their concerns about democracy.
A smaller fringe rally was hosted by UKIP and supported by Tommy Robinson, which ended with far-right protestors clashing with the police resulting in five arrests. Some media outlets were inclined to lump these far-right elements in with the bulk of ordinary protestors, thus conflating the two marches into one. But, regardless of this conflation, there is no doubt that the day’s proceedings were dominated by the forces of the right, and that the barriers between the centre and far right are breaking down. Speakers on the main Leave Means Leave platform included the former UKIP leader Nigel Farage, the DUP’s Ian Paisley junior, the Tory MP Peter Bone and a number of right-wing commentators and business figures. The General Secretary of the Fire Brigades Union (FBU), Matt Wrack, released a strong statement condemning Labour MP Kate Hoey and one of his own members for sharing a platform with Farage, going on to say that ‘there is no place in the labour movement for lining up with Tories, hedge funds and others in big business on either side of the Brexit debate’.
The living dead
As the March to Leave came together in London, Theresa May’s deal went down to a third defeat in the Commons. Her pledge to resign in return for MPs backing her deal failed to win over enough hardline Tory rebels, although the prospect of a leadership contest did prompt individuals such as Boris Johnson to reconsider their ‘principled’ commitment to a hard Brexit. When asked to explain why May would bring the same deal to the Commons, knowing that it was sure to be defeated, one Tory frontbencher was quoted as saying:
Fuck knows. I’m past caring. It’s like the living dead in here. Theresa May is the sole architect of this mess. It is her inability to engage in the most basic human interactions that has brought us here. Cabinet has totally broken down.
This breakdown at the heart of government is total and without an immediate, internal solution. May has lost the support – if she ever had it – of almost half her Cabinet, yet the competing agendas and leadership ambitions of individuals within this grouping mean that they have been unable to coalesce around an alternative. More broadly, the Tories continue to tear themselves apart over Brexit and the long-term future of the party. These contradictions won’t be resolved with May’s departure alone, but neither will they be resolved without it.
Parliament takes control?
May’s dogged refusal to compromise on own red lines and find a solution that commands a Parliamentary majority, coupled with her very public attack on MPs, soon led the House of Commons to ‘take control’ of the Brexit process. In practice, this meant two rounds of ‘indicative votes’ – as opposed to legally binding votes – to ascertain whether MPs could come up with an alternative plan that could conceivably be passed. On both occasions, the soft Brexit options were rejected along with the motion that would put any deal agreed by Parliament to a public vote. The veteran Tory MP Ken Clarke’s motion for a permanent UK-wide Customs Union was only narrowly rejected by three votes. Clarke’s colleague Nick Boles resigned the Tory whip following the defeat of his Common Market 2.0, Norway-plus proposal, blaming his party’s refusal to compromise.
The indicative votes process was revealing in a number of ways. Firstly, the results show that Labour’s whip held up fairly well, with only those MPs in strong Leave constituencies opting to defy the leadership’s instruction that they support the soft Brexit options and the proposal for a second referendum. This is not at all surprising, nor should it give Corbyn much cause for concern.
Secondly, the decision of The Independent Group (TIG)’s eleven MPs, the Green Party’s Caroline Lucas and a number of Liberal Democrats to vote against both a UK-wide Customs Union and Boles’ Norway-plus proposal raises serious doubts about their determination to avoid a no deal exit. In fact, it can only suggest that they are willing to risk that very outcome in their now fanatical pursuit of a second referendum, and that they wish to scupper any deal that might bring down the government and trigger a general election. Norman Lamb MP has said that he is considering quitting the Lib Dems because the party is becoming a ‘mirror image’ of the European Research Group (ERG) of hardline Brexiteers. But while we have come to expect these antics from the TIG and indeed the Lib Dems, it is disappointing to see the Greens allowing themselves to be taken for a ride.
Finally, the process confirms that the political crisis runs much deeper than straightforward parliamentary arithmetic, which is shifting in response to wider social and political imperatives. As Richard Seymour has argued, ‘there is a deep-rooted crisis of the British state, its representative structures, and its organisation of its legitimacy’, which requires a solution to Brexit, a transformative political response and a ‘constitutional reformation’ from the left.
May sets her trap
The latest twist in the saga came following a seven-hour meeting of the Cabinet yesterday, with May’s public call for Corbyn to engage in talks to help deliver Brexit. This brazen appeal for ‘compromise’ and ‘national unity’ comes after months of Corbyn offering just that, while the Prime Minister continued to run down the clock and attack Labour’s position at every turn.
In effect, May is asking Corbyn to back her Withdrawal Agreement in return for possible changes to the Political Declaration outlining Britain’s future relationship with the EU. One problem with this, as May well knows, is that the Political Declaration is not legally binding. Given that she has pledged to resign with the passage of her deal, making way for a hard Brexiteer, she is in no position to offer Corbyn any guarantees into Phase 2 of the Brexit negotiations.
Relatedly, there is no clear support within the Cabinet or wider Conservative Party for an extension much less a permanent, UK-wide Customs Union along the lines proposed by Labour. This is clear from the results of the indicative votes process, while fourteen Cabinet members are said to have opposed a delay during yesterday’s meeting. Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson have since come out against May’s plan to involve Corbyn, which leaves open the possibility that they could yet round on the Prime Minister and force her into another retreat.
May’s move should therefore be seen for what it is: a desperate attempt to pressurise Corbyn into supporting her deal in order to keep the Tories in power and Labour in opposition. In this she will no doubt be assisted by centrists within and outside of the Parliamentary Labour Party, who will lay the blame for any resulting failure squarely at Corbyn’s feet.
Corbyn’s initial response has been to take up May on her offer, agreeing to talks without preconditions. There is every chance that he has no intention of supporting May’s deal, regardless of the ‘concessions’ she offers.
Either way, now is the time to hold firm. The EU has indicated that will only support an extension in the event of a process to find a consensus, a second referendum or a general election. The only progressive path available to Corbyn is to reject May’s cynical overtures and push for a general election, where he can put his Brexit plan to the people and work to unify the labour movement around his party’s transformative programme. There is of course the risk that this would lead May to adopt a ‘my deal or no deal’ position. But the current crisis demands that these risks are taken.
With Owen Jones, Brian Carty, Elena Crasta, Alena Ivanova, Helmut Scholz and Luke Cooper
As Britain stares down a “no deal” Brexit abyss, we head to Brussels to talk to groups across the European left. In the latest in our series of international live audience events, we place Brexit in the context of the upcoming European elections and ask whether there is a way out of this terrible mess.
The left, the crisis and the EU
by Martin Hall
When Mark Fisher wrote in 2009 that there was ‘a widespread sense that not only is capitalism the only viable political and economic system, but also that it is now impossible to even imagine a coherent alternative to it’, he could not have had in mind the long march through the EU’s institutions favoured by DiEM25, and to a lesser extent, Another Europe is Possible (AEIP), the pressure group set up to argue for a left remain position in the UK Brexit referendum of 2016.
Nevertheless, the extent to which the dream of reforming the EU from within functions as a form of defeatism, rooted in a capitalist realism that beset sections of the left in the wake of the end of the Cold War, is instructive. Furthermore, the positions taken by both groups must be seen from within the context of the current manifestation of the crisis, set in train by the collapse of the US subprime mortgage market and the consequent crisis of international banking in 2008 and the hollowing out of the political centre that has been its delayed effect during these last few years.
The rise of parties of the right throughout Europe and the world, allied to the rise (and failure, in some cases) of parties of the left, suggests that the grand narratives thought buried under capitalist realism at the end of history are actually alive and well. With this in mind, let us initially consider the efficacy of the ‘remain and reform’ position espoused by both groups, paying particular attention to its limitations.
Remain and reform: Variations on a theme
DiEM25’s 2015 manifesto correctly identifies the problems with the institution: a democratic deficit; a common currency that divides, not unifies; enforced austerity in the name of competition; bureaucracy and a culture of lobbyism; technocracy and the Troika; increasing authoritarianism, and so on. However, despite clearly implying that these problems are structural and therefore that any strategy of systemic transformation would require clear tactics, the remainder of the document contains nothing more than a series of demands, with no clear idea of how they are to be actualised.
AEIP, on the other hand, while supported by DiEM25, is a less ambitious project, and not simply because it was conceived with a specific goal in mind: to keep the UK in the EU. Its website and campaigns do not place the same level of demand upon the EU to reform, instead leaving that to one side for an unspecified time in the future. It is perhaps more of a popular front than DiEM25. That being said, there are similarities in their published pieces.
For example, Niccolò Milanese, in a discussion of the EU’s neoliberal form in AEIP’s pamphlet, The Left Against Brexit, suggests that ‘while the overall trajectory is clear, it would be a huge exaggeration to suppose that the EU is intrinsically neoliberal, or that leftist forces and ideas have had no influence in it at all.’ He then proceeds to make the case that this leftist influence can be felt in the veneer of rights existing in the institution, despite many of them having much earlier origins in trade union struggle. Little is said regarding how the EU can actually be reformed; specifically, how this would be possible in the only state-like entity in the world that has free market capitalism enshrined at treaty level and in which the direction of travel from Delors’ social Europe to neoliberalism is clear. Instead, criticisms of Lexit positions are proffered, as they are with DiEM25, amounting to little more than uncontextualised re-readings of old arguments concerning the difficulty of socialism in one country.
However, the Lexit argument as evinced in the UK and elsewhere is not for socialism in one country. It is, in the first instance, for what can be achieved by a radical reforming government from outside of the EU; specifically, free from capital’s freedom of establishment, and the extent to which this can function as an example to the left across the continent. Costas Lapavitsas recently referred to how a Corbyn-led government in a post-Brexit UK ‘could signal the emergence of a radical internationalism that would draw on domestic strength and reject the dysfunctional and hegemonic structures of the EU’. This may lead to a new union of nations totally distinct from the EU. What it will not lead to, though, is an organisation that is in any way comparable to the one currently existing.
Regardless of the origins of the referendum in Tory divisions on Europe, the Lexit argument is necessary, as history does not always occur in the order in which people would like it to; so the 2016 referendum had to be grasped as an opportunity. Of course, the right wing arguments for leave were hegemonic during the referendum, which in their majority form simply presented two battling wings of capitalism: one global and supranational; and one national, harking back to Britain’s imperial past. Arguments made by AEIP that Brexit is a hard right Tory project tout court are not predicated upon the balance of forces, though, but upon seeking to disavow the left base for leaving.
Why is this the case, then? All the left want a socialist Europe and a socialist world. Why are the tactics designed to achieve this so contradictory? In the dialectic of theory and practice that is intrinsic to socialist activity, it seems to be the case that something is missing. I want to suggest that this is faith in a transformative socialist paradigm and that this can be understood as an effect of Fisher’s concept, which has led to a position where the concrete situation is being misunderstood. Before considering this further, let us look at this situation, and why wholesale reform of the EU is unachievable.
Contours of a hegemonic order
The EU is still in legislative and organisational terms a confederation of nation states, and would require a majority of countries to move leftwards in order to create a left bloc to amend or overturn the treaties. Conceptually, the belief that this is possible assumes a neutrality in the EU’s structure that is simply not there. This is particularly the case within the Eurozone, with its swingeing fiscal discipline, favouring of monetary factors, reliance on fiat money and architectural flaws that benefit the export economy of one state: Germany. Attempts to break with EU fiscal discipline, particularly in countries with governments from outside of the neoliberal centre, are met with the strongest opposition.
Of course, there are the well-known barriers to state aid and nationalisation, which are inextricably linked to the democratic deficit at the heart of the project. A quick internet search will provide the reader with plenty of quotes from senior EU figures regarding the disparity between the will of the demos and the aims of the institution.
This has all taken place in the context of the hollowing out of representation that occurred in the neoliberal era of late capitalism, where until recently voters were simply given a choice between nominally right and left versions of the same economic model: as the Hayekian economic policy pushed so strongly by Margaret Thatcher’s Conservatives in the UK and by similar parties elsewhere became hegemonic, it was followed by a similar process regarding the social liberalism pushed by Clintonite parties, itself accepted by the centre right throughout the continent. This is the model that has been disrupted so markedly by the crisis, even if it took a little longer than might have been expected.
This brings us back to capitalist realism and its relationship to faith in the EU as a potential instrument for social democracy and even, in the case of DiEM25, socialism. While the paragraph above can only provide a glimpse into the institution’s workings, it does strongly suggest that the dream of left reform is for the birds.
A left departure from capitalist realism
The reason why capitalist realism should no longer, to paraphrase Fredric Jameson, be the cultural logic of our time, is that the model set in train by Richard Nixon’s unpegging of the US dollar from gold in 1971, the subsequent breaking up of the Bretton Woods system and following that, the Yom Kippur War and the oil crisis brought about by the embargo of October 1973, is so clearly in crisis. These events began a fight back by capital against labour in an attempt to reverse the relative gains made by the working class in Western democracies to varying degrees throughout the century.
However, since the crisis of 2008 governments of the centre which propose a neoliberal business as usual are becoming few and far between. There is no doubt that the right is currently gaining more quickly than the left from the situation, with various Bonapartist figures in and out of Europe taking power and presenting themselves as anti-establishment and insurgent. The question then becomes how the left responds to this new threat.
Reform of institutions, at a time when forces of the right are arguing for ruptures, will not cut it. Instead, left parties and movements must disentangle themselves from the suffocating effect of capitalist realism via programmes that engage fully with the needs of the people, and do not tell them that there is no alternative to their imposed penury. If they do not, then other forces that wear the clothes of anti-capitalism will continue to rise, aided and abetted by capitalism’s anti-leftism, which is always stronger than its anti-fascism.
About the author: Martin Hall is a writer and activist. He is a member of Counterfire, Stop the War Coalition and University and College Union.