Saturday, April 01, 2017
Labour, Brexit and Racism - the challenges facing socialists
As a committed democratic socialist (and therefore someone who supports Labour’s current leader) and also – which seems to me to follow anyway – as a committed internationalist (who therefore opposed the bigoted anti-migrant campaign which led the “Vote Leave” camp to victory last year and set us on the path out of the European Union) my social media is full of two sometimes conflicting debates. On the one hand there is the debate about how to defend Corbyn, and the supporters of the leadership from incessant attack and, on the other hand, a debate among opponents of “Brexit” about how to act (which action often seems to lead to those attacks upon our leadership).
Paul Mason, writing today for the New Statesman, addresses both of these two issues, and whilst his analysis arguable skirts around one vitally important question, I have considerable sympathy for what he has to say.
The first thing to do is to understand where our current political predicament has come from, as most critics of the Corbyn leadership refuse to do – or to use Mason’s words; “ One of the saddest aspects of mainstream Labour’s panic about the party’s poll rating is its refusal to understand the objective causes; its refusal to debate the origins of the problem within the class dynamics of Britain; its determination to reduce everything to the issue of Jeremy Corbyn, his politics and his leadership style.”
I could hardly agree more. As Lenin said, politics is the concentrated expression of economics and our politics today are the product of developments in the economic base over the past generation. The defeat of the National Union of Mineworkers in the 1980s was merely the largest moment in our domestic defeat, the impact of which has been augmented by the absence of a global alternative to capitalism since the collapse of the Soviet Union.
The consequent weakening of the working class at the point of production (reflected in the halving of trade union membership and density since their peak) has its corollary in the rightward shift of the “centre ground” of our polity, in the context of which New Labour was only able to pursue a path of social liberalism alongside neoliberal economics whilst the economy could sustain the cost of the former.
However, capitalist economies don’t grow in a straight upward line and the economic crash of 2008 wasn’t just a one-off loss of wealth and income. The trend increase in per capita Gross Domestic Product (GDP) from 1996 – 2006 was 1.6% pa but since the crash this figure has fallen to 0.3% pa. (This means, among other things, that the social policies of New Labour in its heyday are no longer affordable on the basis of its economic policies).
The experience of social democratic parties in the rest of Europe rather suggests that the UK is not alone in facing these political consequences of economic developments.
Whilst the choice of Labour Party members to reject the (New) Labour “mainstream” in two successive leadership elections shows far more understanding of this reality than the attitudes of the terminally disappointing majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party (never mind the Party’s official “machine” and the bulk of the local government leadership) – we cannot change what has happened over the past generation simply by an effort of will.
The decline in class organisation has produced a decline in class consciousness which has led to a decline in class politics, such that our polity is now organised around issues which are not class issues (i.e. they are not fundamentally issues between the ruling class and the working class). Mason warns what this means since last year’s Referendum; “Brexit reframes all issues around the national economic interest – and it is likely that the hard-line negotiating position of the EU27 will do so even more”.
Leaving aside the anodyne observation that the very idea of a “national economic interest” is, from a socialist point of view, meaningless (other than as an ideological device to secure the assent of workers to policies in the interests of “their” “national” ruling class), the key point is that the main dividing line in our polity is not currently a dividing line between classes.
We saw what this meant in Scotland, where the independence referendum reorganised politics around a division between nationalists (led by the SNP) and unionists (of whom the Tories are the most committed), marginalising a (previously dominant) Scottish Labour Party which does not appear to know what to do next.
Brexit now threatens the same outcome at the level of the United Kingdom as a whole, and Mason’s article (which I urge you to read now even if that means you read no more of this) explores the challenges which this poses for this (or any) Labour leadership, facing the challenge of uniting those of its supporters who voted to leave the EU with the (much-maligned) “urban salariat” (of which your blogger is proud member).
Mason addresses the leadership as follows; “The leadership needs to firm up its “red lines” in the Brexit negotiations. The detail of Keir Starmer’s “six tests” scarcely matters against the need to pledge, loudly and irreversibly, that if they are not met Labour will vote down any Brexit deal in the Commons”.
Since any worthwhile “tests” of a Brexit deal will not be met in the negotiations between the May Government and the EU27, and since there are sufficient other Members of the current Parliament who would follow suit that Labour opposition to such a deal would lead to its defeat, such a position would unite we “remoaners” with as many of Labour’s leave voters as would be prepared to recognise their own self-interest (and still could prevent the UK exiting the EU).
Mason also addresses the recalcitrant PLP majority and their supporters (who do not seem to be paying much attention to the Party’s evolving position in relation to the EU) as follows; “The Parliamentary Labour Party needs to stop sabotaging and undermining the leadership. It needs to accept that the balance of forces inside Labour’s broad church has moved to the pews on the left of the aisle. For those who can’t accept this, it would make everyone happier in their skins if they found a different party to be in”.
Whilst I think that it was a mistake for the Party to leave it until after we had supported the triggering of Article 50 to come up with a policy platform which reflected the wishes of the majority of Labour supporters and trade unionists (who voted by a sizeable majority to remain in the European Union) I generally agree with Mason both about the nature of the political challenge we face and about how to respond to that challenge.
If there is one thing missing from Mason’s analysis (and I think there is – albeit it may not have been an issue he was intending to address) then it is that the genie which came out of the bottle during and after the referendum campaign cannot now easily be replaced in its bottle. That was the genie of bigotry in general and racism in particular.
Of course supporters of the “Leave” vote (in particular the increasingly absurd supporters of the mythical “Lexit” or “left-Exit”) can justifiably point out that racism and bigotry in this country did not begin last summer (on the contrary, racism in particular was at the heart of the Empire to which many supporters of Brexit plainly look back with desire and delusion). Nevertheless, it is evident that the victory last summer of the forces of reaction has further unleashed those very forces.
The referendum result itself has accelerated the rightward shift of the past generation, moving the Tory Party in Government to the right (not the left) from its former Europhile position and empowering (at least in the short term) the right-wing opponents of Labour’s socialist leadership, whilst dividing the political left, the genuinely internationalist (and therefore anti-Leave) majority of which is plainly on the defensive).
The strength and encouragement which the referendum result has given to racists will continue to challenge our movement – and to threaten the lives and security of black and migrant workers in this country. Our mass membership Labour Party under a socialist leadership needs to build opposition to racism in every constituency right here and right now as an integral part of our long term project to build support for socialism.
The problems we now face are not problems which arose over the past eighteen months but over the past generation. They will not easily or swiftly be addressed or resolved.