Winning with Conservative Leftism: Jeremy Corbyn and Brexit

by Daphne Lawless

maxresdefaultBritish exit from the European Union (EU) is fast becoming a disaster acknowledged on all sides. Theresa May’s Conservative (Tory) Government is making no headway in their negotiations with the EU’s leaders on finding a way for the UK to leave the EU without causing a massive economic crash and social dislocation. The Tories are split between moderates who would like to keep the status quo as much as possible, maintaining many current EU institutions, on one hand; and on the other, a fanatical right-wing who’d prefer a “hard Brexit”. This would entail complete disentanglement from Europe’s laws and institutions, creating some kind of deregulated tax-haven capitalist utopia, leaning heavily on Trump’s USA.

Meanwhile, after shocking the world by winning the British Labour Party leadership in September 2015, veteran left MP Jeremy Corbyn again confounded his detractors by leading the party to a respectable second place in the June 2017 general election. In left-wing politics, after 35 years of global neoliberal onslaught, sometimes victory can be its own argument. The feeling of many activists seems to be that if Labour (or whoever the local centre-left party are) do well in an election, what they are doing must be right and the radical left is obliged to support them.

Certainly there’s been a rush from various British Left groups to join the Labour Party to “back Jeremy” against his opponents within the party. But there’s such a thing as a Pyrrhic victory – winning at such a cost that the win was not worth it. Has “Corbynmania” been purchased at the cost of the British Left’s principles – specifically its internationalism?

Brexit is reaction

There’s a common myth on the Left that the vote for Brexit was some kind of “cross-ethnic working class uprising”, a revolt against the neoliberal elite by the oppressed and excluded. But the British revolutionary group Socialist Resistance said at the time:

Most of the radical left supported an exit vote and the so-called Lexit [Left-Brexit] campaign – which had zero influence on the entire referendum. It peddled the illusion that a left exit was on offer when it was not…  [T]hose in Lexit such as the SWP [Socialist Workers’ Party] claim that it was a “revolt against the rich and powerful” and that the danger from racism “is far from inevitable”.

They failed to recognise the dangers that the mainstream exit campaigns, led by right-wing xenophobes, represented. They were oblivious [to] the racism and hatred that would be generated by them, the reactionary impact this would have on the political situation and the balance of class forces, and dangers involved of being in any way associated with them—particularly in the case of an exit vote.

They chose to ignore (even when challenged) the damaging outcome that an exit vote would have for the 2.2m EU citizens living in this country whose status would have been threatened as a direct result.

This analysis has been borne out by research showing that support for Brexit was “largely determined by authoritarianism, which is itself significantly linked with fear of diversity, novelty, uncertainty, and change.” John Curtice, research fellow at the NatCen research agency, comments:

“Brexit is not an issue that divides those on the left from those on the right. Instead, it divides ‘social liberals’, that is, those who relatively comfortable living in a diverse society in which people follow different customs and social norms, and ‘social conservatives’, that is, those who feel that everyone should share and respect a common culture. Those of the former view typically voted to Remain in the EU, while those of the later disposition usually backed Leave. Not least of the reasons why this is the case, of course, is that one of the central issues in the Brexit debate was and still is immigration…

‘What clearly emerges from our analysis is that Labour’s advance in the 2017 election was strongest not in left-wing Britain but rather in socially liberal Britain…’

‘Labour’s advance in June then does not simply lie in the popularity of the more left-wing stance that the party adopted. Indeed, that may not have been particularly important at all. Rather, in an election in which Brexit and immigration were also central issues, Labour’s advance was strongest amongst those who were keenest on staying in the EU and those who were least concerned about immigration.’

Most tellingly – the only ethnic group to back Brexit were white British. Like a Trump voter, the best predictor of wanting to quit the EU was being white. Leftists trying to cheerlead for Brexit as a radical mass movement are making the same ghastly category error as who claimed that voters for Donald Trump were motivated by “economic anxiety”– out of over-optimism, cynicism or unacknowledged racism, attempting to take a groundswell of white nationalism and “paint it red”.

Corbyn’s successful fudge

Jeremy Corbyn, whatever else you can say, has the virtue of consistency, having opposed British membership of the EU since he became an MP in 1983. However, he toed his party’s line and (unenthusiastically) backed Remain in the referendum. The next year, in the election campaign, the Labour Party cleverly “fudged” the issue of Brexit, seeking to attract both “Remainers” aghast at Tory bungling of the process, and traditional Labour voters in the North of England who had voted Leave or supported the near-fascist UK Independence Party (UKIP). It worked – in that Labour gained a few seats, despite universal media predictions of total disaster. But Labour still lost the election, and the Tories were able to stay in power with the support on confidence and supply of Northern Ireland’s DUP (Democratic Unionist Party), a group of fundamentalist Christian reactionaries.

If some would argue that Corbyn’s performance was an endorsement of Brexit, research shows that voters who shifted to Labour in 2017, denying May her majority, were overwhelmingly “Remain” voters in 2016. More than half of Remain voters backed a Labour government, presumably as the best chance of stopping a hard Brexit.

Corbyn is now considered the credible alternative Prime Minister by the mainstream media – to the extent that apparently some Tories are talking quietly about his rise to power being “inevitable”. Labour’s fudged position allows it to mercilessly attack the Tories’ hapless performance in negotiations with the EU, without exposing its own divisions. But it’s odd for self-described revolutionaries to be talking about the electoral fortunes of the British Labour Party to as if they were the same thing as the interests of the working masses.

Throwing migrants under the bus

Corbyn has stuck to the line taken by the radical left all the way back to the first, failed “Brexit” referendum in 1975. The argument made then by opponents such as left-wing Labour legend Tony Benn was that the EEC (predecessor of the EU) was a “bosses’ club”, a cartel of capitalist states ganging up to impose pro-corporate politics all over Western Europe, in the days when Eastern Europe still belonged to the Soviet Union’s sphere of influence.

But a lot of things have changed over 42 years. The biggest difference between the EEC which Tony Benn opposed and the EU which Corbyn wants to leave is free movement of workers between EU countries, which was enacted in 1992. Simply put, any citizen of an EU country has the right to live and work in the UK – just like New Zealanders may freely live and work in Australia. There’s of course no real reason why free movement of workers couldn’t still exist after Brexit, as it does with non-EU countries like Switzerland or Norway. But that would require continuing to abide by many EU rules and regulations– which certainly not be welcome to the reactionary, authoritarian, and mainly white bloc which dominated the Brexit majority.

Citizens of other EU countries now living in Britain – many of whom have put down roots and have families – are terrified for what will happen to them once Britain leaves the EU. The rising tide of hate crime in Britain is an important marker of how Brexit has encouraged racism and the fascist right, in the same way as Trump’s election in the US. American news network NBC reported:

Two words hit Nikola Cugova where it hurts: “Go home.”

That phrase has been directed at the 37-year-old Czech national a lot since just over half of voters rejected keeping the U.K. in the European Union in last June’s “Brexit” referendum.

“I hear English people say, ‘Now it’s Brexit, we’re leaving the EU, go home,’” said Cugova, who moved to the U.K. 13 years ago. “My children were small when they came here. My daughter doesn’t speak Czech and knows nothing about the Czech Republic.”

Neil Faulkner on Britain’s Left Unity website adds:

There has been a permanent shift, underpinned by relentless anti-migrant messaging from the political elite and their media echo-chambers since the Brexit vote, giving confidence and licence to every closet racist who wants to spit at an East European.

It’s important to remember that, no matter on what terms Britain actually leaves the EU, the political effect of Brexit has been a “green light” for the worst racists and reactionaries to come out from under their rocks – which is why the radical left which had no love for the Brussels bureaucracy were right to oppose Brexit. Meanwhile, British citizens who live and work in the other EU countries are waking up to the realisation that they may lose their rights as well.

It’s true that the EU’s policy towards migrants from outside– where refugees are kept out on the borders with Turkey or Morocco with barbed-wire fences, or left no choice but to risk drowning in open boats in the Mediterranean Sea– is barbaric and racist and must be opposed. Is there any hope, though, that a UK “in control of its own borders” would be anything other than even more racist? One of the biggest ironies is,while Jeremy Corbyn has himself always been a promoter of Irish unity, Brexit would quite probably lead once again to a “hard border” (fences and police checkpoints) between the two parts of Ireland – while under the EU, the border between the Republic and the northern Six Counties is nothing more than a sign on the A1 highway.

There have even been some attempts by “Lexiters” to make a socialist case against free movement – which boil down to the old “immigrants drag down wages” argument, that we in Aotearoa/NZ know how to reject when we hear it from our own Labour or NZ First. One particularly disgusting argument on the Labour Leave website (now deleted but available elsewhere) was that migrant workers to Britain were “scabs”, probably the worst insult that any unionist can make about another worker. The author even had the cheek to chide Eastern European workers for not appreciating living behind the barbed wire and concrete walls of Soviet-style “communism” while they had it! (One little-noticed story is how many of Jeremy Corbyn’s major advisors, such as Seumas Milne or Andrew Murray, come from the pro-USSR political tradition.)

Other “Lexit” articles took the tack of depicting migrant workers (and foreigners in general) as an elite, privileged layer, contrasted to struggling native British workers. Such xenophobia, where “cosmopolitan” becomes an insult and nativist bigotry is treated as if it were class consciousness, is not only the exact same narrative used by American writers who want to alibi the racist Trump movement. It becomes the point where the radical left start talking like the radical right.

This is the growing tide of “red-brown” politics which I have warned against in previous articles. Such a Left has totally sold out its principles to jump on a bandwagon which is giving the liberal centre a pummelling – from the fascist direction. Thankfully, a Labour Campaign for Free Movement has been set up to push back against this tide.

EU or UK: which is more reactionary?

Another argument is made by “Lexiters” that the EU stands between a Corbyn-led Labour government and a socialist transformation of the UK. Like many reactionary ideas, Brexit arguments of both left and right portray the UK as a weak victim of EU neoliberalism. However, the UK is in fact one of the EU’s three most powerful members – and, historically, the most neoliberal of them all. Since the election of Thatcher in 1979, it is in fact Britain which has pushed the EU in a neoliberal direction – not the other way around. At the recent Labour conference, Jeremy Corbyn claimed that the EU would prevent a Labour government from nationalising companies – at the very same time that France’s incoming centrist President, Emmanuel Macron, nationalised a shipyard to protect France’s “national interests”.

Economist Martin Sandbu recently wrote in the Financial Times (paywall):

two lawyers have looked carefully at the general structure of state aid laws and how they would apply to the policies set out in the Labour manifesto. Their analysis concludes: “Neither EU state aid rules, nor other EU rules which are distinct from state aid rules but sometimes considered in the same bracket, provide any obvious barrier to the implementation in the UK of the measures contained in Labour’s 2017 election manifesto.”

Lexiters want to make the argument about “democracy”. Firstly, there’s the argument that somehow opposing the outcome of the Brexit referendum is “undemocratic” – as if, once the majority has decided something, that question can never be revisited. Neil Faulkner again:

Both the Lexit Left and the Corbynista Left are arguing that socialists should ‘respect’ the Brexit vote. This argument is false. It is a betrayal of every migrant worker whose status has been threatened by the vote. And it is a massive concession to the racist discourse for which Brexit is now the primary framework.

…Referendums are particularly dubious. There is a long history of referendums being used by authoritarian regimes to enhance their legitimacy.

Who is setting the agenda? Who is formulating the question? Who is supplying the information (or misinformation)? Whose interests are being served? To ask these questions is to underline the critical difference between their democracy and ours – the democracy of parliamentary (mis)representation and the democracy of mass assemblies.

There’s also a populist idea that dismantling bigger entities and empowering smaller communities and countries is always more democratic and better for working people. But British Labour (like its leader) strongly opposes Scotland separating from the UK; while at the same time they are now criticising the EU for not supporting Catalonia’s right to separate from Spain. Similarly, there’s a lot of talk about how the EU has victimised Greece. But Greece’s forcible submission to the yoke of austerity came about because of its membership of the single currency, the euro – not because of the EU itself, which only a tiny minority of Greeks want to leave.

The EU is not a democratic federal state, even to the extent that Germany, the US or Australia are. The European Parliament – which is elected by the people – has little control over the European Commission, who are the real “government” of the EU. The Commission is far more under the control of the various national governments – which is one reason why the Commission is being “leant on” by Spain to oppose Catalan separation, and why – while the UK was a staunch member of the EU – the Commission also opposed Scottish independence.

No matter how much British nationalists might spout romantic nonsense about their “mother of Parliaments”, the United Kingdom has no written constitution, very few guaranteed civil liberties, a crushed union movement and a parliament half elected by the undemocratic FPP system, and half (the House of Lords) which isn’t elected at all. British socialist John Game put it like this on Facebook:

The primary barriers to socialism are British laws, not European ones. Neo-Liberalism is practically in the European context a British invention. It is quite simply chauvinism to suggest anything else. In an odd way, if the old argument was that the EU couldn’t rescue us from the British state, the new argument has become that only the British state can rescue us from the EU. Which is obvious nonsense.

Lessons for the rest of us

  1. Avoid nationalism. No socialist could defend the current undemocratic, neoliberal and racist EU system with a straight face. But no-one could defend Hillary Clinton with a straight face either – until her opposition was Donald Trump, who whipped up racism and fascist currents, making the vulnerable more vulnerable, showing that there are worse things than neoliberalism. The British state is in important ways less democratic, and more racist, than the EU. It is significant that the separatist local governments of Scotland and Catalonia both wish to remain in the EU after independence – precisely because of its guarantees of some basic levels of civil liberties.

So one important point is – as I’ve mentioned in previous arguments – to strongly oppose attachment to “our own” nation state as an alternative to globalised neoliberalism. Not only does this cede important ground to fascism, it also whitewashes the colonial and imperialist bloodshed that set up all the existing nation-states on the planet.

  1. Avoid the pressures of electoralism. Another important point is that for radicals, electoral politics should be one means among many to the end of social change. The real danger comes when all we can see is the parliamentary fight, or even worse, an intra-party factional battle. When socialists and radicals entered the British Labour Party, especially through the “Momentum” network, they immersed themselves deep in th­e cut-throat world of struggle within the bureaucracy of a major electoral party, against the various anti-Corbyn factions (ranging from old Blairites to liberal Europhiles).

One consequence of this – apart from burning out activist energy – is a regrettable consequence of seeing events in the wider world through the prism of that faction fight. When you set out to rebuild the world on new foundations, it’s hard to accept that it all boils down to backroom deals and faction fighting within an organisation that most socialists wouldn’t have touched with a ten-foot pole until recently. The fact that all sides agreed to not discuss Brexit at the recent Labour Party conference doesn’t say much for a democratic culture in that party.

A related pitfall of electoral politics is falling into leader worship. Some have accused the Corbynists of being more interested in propping up “Jezza” as leader than fighting injustice out in the real world. Every issue in the world gets boiled down to “is this good or bad for Corbyn?”– to the point of conspiracy theory, where political events are sometimes argued to have been cooked up by media or the “Deep State” for the purposes of undermining Corbyn’s leadership. Socialists in Aotearoa also have recent experience of being in broad formations where supporting the prestige or authority of a popular leader – for electoral or other purposes – overrode standing by radical principle.

  1. Don’t lie to yourself. “Lexit” is fundamentally a form of self-delusion, caused by a loss of faith in the power of the actually-existing movements to change the world. It is also something of a nostalgia trip for people whose ideas were formed in the 1970s, who are now trying to impose those ideas on the current movement. It replaces hope in the movements of the working class and the oppressed with cheerleading for the colonial, imperialist traditions of the UK against the neoliberal, technocratic EU. Some socialists have deluded themselves into going along with this through some kind of misplaced duty to be “optimistic”– to assume that any bandwagon must be going in a positive direction, just as some tried to paint the Trump movement red. This smacks of desperation to “win” something, anything, even if it is part of a global swing towards the radical-Right which if not stopped would literally mean death to ethnic minorities, LGBTs, or indeed socialists.

A real radical-left movement in Britain would not necessarily want to keep Britain in the current EU structure. But it would support all the social gains of the EU – especially free movement of peoples between countries – while demanding their extension. It would support replacing both the EU structures and the UK state with democratic, responsive organs of power based on solidarity and responsible to their peoples, rather than to multinational capitalism – a true “Social Europe” accepting all migrants and refugees. As the old saying  had it, “Another Europe Is Possible” which would give not one single inch to racist, xenophobic ideas. To bring this about, we must challenge the conservative left and the red-browns who have brought such ideas into the common sense of British Labour under Jeremy Corbyn.

The “Alternative for Germany”: A chronicle of the rise of a far-right party

 

Nationalism is No Alternative

German anti-fascist group Nationalism Is No Alternative/NIKA (Source).

By Jojo, a Fightback subscriber based in Germany.

22 April 2017: I am sitting at an intersection somewhere in Cologne, together with other antifascists. It is cold, wet and we had to get up early, but people are happy as news has reached us that other roads are blocked as well, and members of the “Alternative for Germany” (AfD) are having a hard time reaching their party conference. Nevertheless, it is quite likely that the AfD will enter federal parliament after the elections this September. It will be the first time a party to the right of the Christian-Democratic party (CDU) and the liberal party (FDP) will enter federal parliament since the 50s. So how did we get here?

2013: The AfD is founded. From its beginning, it gets a lot of media attention that helps it to gain  support. Their focus is on financial policy: the AfD criticizes the government’s reaction to the Euro-crisis (supporting Greece with money, but only in turn for brutally enforced austerity). However, the AfD does not criticize this from a standpoint of solidarity with the Greek working class (as the leftist Blockupy network did), but from the standpoint of the German middle- to upper-class tax payer who does not want their tax money being spent on the Greeks. This program is also reflected in the party’s personnel: Its leader and founder is Bernd Lucke, a professor of economics.

The AfD has already developed a program on immigration, demanding stricter rules, but this is not yet the main focus. In the federal election this year, the AfD gets 4.7%, but because of the 5% threshold does not enter parliament.

May 2014: The AfD enters the European Parliament with 7.1%. During the year, they also enter several regional parliaments in Germany.

October 2014: In Dresden (a town in what used to be the GDR or East Germany), 350 people rally under the slogan “Patriotic Europeans Against the Islamisation of the Occident” (Pegida). They continue demonstrating every Monday, like the opposition in the GDR from whom they also take the slogan “we are the people”. Their numbers will grow to over 10,000 in December. Though they are not formally connected to the AfD, these are also people who would self-identify as ordinary citizens and not as Nazis, but who nevertheless promote a racist agenda. If the AfD is the parliamentary wing of the shift-to-the-right in Germany over the last few years, Pegida is the extra-parliamentary wing. However, they present themselves as a bit too radical for large parts of the AfD, so the party has no clear position on Pegida and will continue to argue about this issue during the coming years.

4 July 2015: At a conference, the party votes for Frauke Petry as the new leader, replacing Bernd Lucke. Lucke leaves the party and founds another one, which will not be as successful as AfD. This split marks a shift in how the party presents itself: While Lucke wanted to have a serious, bourgeois party and his focus was mainly on currency-politics, Petry represents the new AfD, which is far more populist and more openly xenophobic, racist and anti-feminist. With this shift, the party’s electorate also changes: While they still have cross-class support, more and more working-class voters vote for the AfD. Their support also grows in the former East Germany.

August 2015: Thousands of migrants, many of whom have fled the civil war in Syria, come to Germany over the Balkan route. Crowds of people welcome the migrants at the train stations and many organize in networks of refugee support, filling a gap left by the state. This shows that there is still a big portion of people that do not see migrants as potential enemies – is this a basis for a successful struggle against the AfD?

29 September 2015: The federal government reacts to the summer of migration (which is also called the “refugee crisis” in  mainstream discourse) and to far-right mobilisations with the “asylum package I” – speeding up the asylum process, declaring more countries “safe” (so people can be deported to them) and stopping the announcement of deportations (now refugees will be arrested and deported without any prior notice). In 2016, package II follows. Just like in the 90s, the centrist parties (now including the Greens) react to the far-right by adopting its policies.

New Year’s Eve 2015/2016: In Cologne, groups of young men sexually harass women in the main train station. Many are of North-African or Arab nationalities, which will in the following weeks and months be used in racist discourse to portray North-African and Arab men as sexual predators. The far-right including the AfD, that is otherwise strictly anti-feminist, discovers women’s rights for their agenda – these rights can now be defended against migrants. Feminist and leftist groups will answer with a demonstration on International Women’s Day under the motto “our feminism is anti-racist”.

31 January 2016: The communist alliance “Ums Ganze” (“everything is at stake”) has called for a nation-wide meeting of anti-racists and antifascists in Frankfurt. Activists discuss what to do in this situation – so far, many antifascists have felt rather paralysed by the rise of the AfD which they could not prevent. After the meeting, UG launches the campaign “Nationalismus ist keine Alternative” (NIKA, “Nationalism is no alternative”). NIKA is an open campaign and a label that groups can take up to relate to each other. NIKA instigates a lot of small creative actions that do not need many activists but are good for publishing on social media.

The hope that those who showed solidarity for migrants in summer 2015 could be mobilised to join the struggle against the AfD and against asylum packages I and II will only partially be fulfilled. But at least there is now an effective campaign that organizes antifascists and anti-racists.

The AfD’s election campaigns this year are interrupted by these actions and others, but that does not prevent the party entering several more regional parliaments and reaching results far over 10%. The party’s rhetoric radicalises further, e.g. AfD politician Beatrix von Storch suggests shooting refugees to prevent them crossing the border. In the Saarland region, the AfD cooperates with the neo-Nazi NPD; an attempt to kick out this regional branch fails.

3 September 2016: In Berlin, a nation-wide demonstration against the AfD takes place, organised by the alliance “Stand Up Against Racism”, but the participant numbers are below expectations. The intention of “Stand Up Against Racism” was to form a broad alliance including trade unions, the Social Democrats (SPD) and the Greens. However, the inclusion of these organisations does not lead to a bigger mobilisation. It remains mainly the job of the radical left to challenge the AfD.

New Year’s Eve 2016/2017: As a reaction to last year’s New Year’s Eve, the police in Cologne now use racial profiling to prevent every North-African-/Arab-looking man who is single or with a group of other men from entering the square in front of the main station. Once again, the state adopts far-right policies.

17 January 2017: Björn Höcke, a far-right politician of the AfD in former East Germany, holds a speech in front of the party’s youth organisation. He demands a “180 degree change” in the politics of commemoration concerning the Holocaust. He says: “We Germans are the only people in the world who have planted a memorial of shame in the heart of their capital”. He is criticised for this blatant anti-Semitism by members of his own party and the leadership tries to expel him. This debate is part of a bigger clash between factions within the party. After Frauke Petry took over from Lucke who was too moderate for her in 2015, now her faction fears that  ultra-radical politicians like Höcke could endanger the party’s image.

On 22 April, we at least succeeded in delaying the AfD conference for more than an hour. After the blockades, there are several big demonstrations in the city. As Cologne likes to present itself as an open city, it is easily possible to mobilise big parts of civil society here, including the Carnival committees. This day was a success for us, but the AfD seems to carry on despite their inner disputes. The leading duo for the federal elections will consist on the one hand of Alexander Gauland, who supports Björn Höcke and has similar positions, and on the other hand of Alice Weider, who was in favour of Höcke’s expulsion but said she would support his election campaign if he stays in the party. So the different factions seem to get along with each other. The prospect of ending the election success of the AfD in a short term is thus unlikely. While it is important to interrupt their election campaigns, the radical left needs long term strategies on how to go onto the offensive, push forward its own leftist politics and get rid of the basic problems in society that make the success of far-right populism possible.