Wednesday, July 6, 2016

Harsh Kapoor - The Brexit working class counter-revolution: British lefties who are rejoicing today risk being engulfed by a right-wing firestorm

[A version of this article is appearing in print and web editions of the Mainstream Weekly]
After 1945, war ravaged Europe, its people economically drained, saw peace as crucial for democracy; and the route taken was economic integration. The Treaty of Paris was signed in 1951 to set up the European Coal and Steel Community (ECSC), and in 1957 the Treaty of Rome had six countries forming the European Economic Community (EEC). It was a project of the elites to engage in creating economic cooperation, and for social stability, and it took decades to grow into what became the EU of today. European unity, abolition of the borders that separate the peoples of Europe, a European Parliament where directly elected representatives from 28 member states from all political streams from across Europe meet and debate issues of import, are commendable gains made in the EU experiment. These are progressive social gains. Why would any sane person or political formation want to roll them back?

But for all its early social democratic promise and internationalist virtues, Yes, EU’s policies over the past decade or so have become sharply driven by an economic governance model based on austerity and neoliberal policies (what was called monetarism in the 1960’s). EU needs democratisation and change.

Britain joined the EEC in 1973, but with reservations and in a half hearted manner; and even decades on, they did not join the Eurozone, had restrictions regarding the schengen pact, etc. Unlike many other European states, Britain has a long tradition of Euro-scepticism.
Euro-scepticism has been around on the left, got big with the British Conservatives, particularly after 1988, and Thatcher led the charge; but it had its votaries in the left already in the 1970s. The most adored figure of the Labour left in Britain, Tony Benn, had been an opponent of the EEC (sadly he had even shared an anti-EU platform with Enoch Powell at that time). In 1975, in the United Kingdom’s referendum on Europe, 47.5% of Labour supporters voted to leave the EEC — at least a third more than in the referendum of 23 June 2016 .

In 2013 David Cameron promised Britons a referendum on whether the UK should remain within the European Union. Euro-sceptic, right-wing United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) won just a single seat in parliament in the 2014 elections, but its influence set the Brexit vote in motion. There was a massive campaign by the right in Britain and its simple anti EU, anti immigrant props with a nationalist tone had an echo that dragged in a large section of Labour and working class voters to its side. A genie of ugly nationalism got un-bottled. On June 23, 2016 the Leave EU campaign had won the referendum.

Brexit is a triumph of national chauvinism and is damaging to the left. We have seen a dramatic spurt in instances of racism all over Britain. All this is shot in the arm for the far right. Europe’s far-right parties have hailed the UK’s vote to leave the European Union as a victory for their own anti-immigrant and anti-EU stance and have vowed to push for similar referendums in their own countries. Marine Le Pen of France’s far right National Front, in an op-ed in the New York Times, described the Brexit vote as a courageous act of the British, and said that now it’s time for a people’s spring across Europe. Le Pen and her counterparts from far right parties have a big resonance among sizeable sections of the labouring people

The EU has been weakened by the fallouts of the 2007 financial crisis, and now Brexit threatens it in a big way with ricochet effects in different parts of Europe. The EU will be under the huge stress of being pulled apart not by any left driven idealism of the people but by brute hyper-nationalism and inward looking politics of fear. The right wing is far better at selling nationalism, and the left shouldn’t be playing this game.

International capital and the big banks that face damage will weather this storm. Trade unions will not in any way come out strengthened by Brexit. The EU has been weakened, with a country that was the second largest economy of Europe, contributing 15 per cent of its overall GDP, leaving. Britain lost more money in the 48 hours after the referendum than it ever contributed in the past decades when it was part of the EU. The British economy has apparently shrunk to become the 6th largest in the world, ceding its place to France which has now become the 5th largest.

Most disturbing in all this is the unmistakable working-class character of the Brexit vote. Like the labour Party, the British trade union leaders have shown themselves to be out of touch with the views of their own members. The Labour party is reeling from the fact that voters in areas that have traditionally voted Labour swung heavily behind Brexit. Labour Party’s leader Jeremy Corbyn (he like Tony Blair voted against EEC referendum of 1975), a long-time Euro-sceptic, has defended his conduct amid criticism of his lukewarm support for the remain in EU campaign. (Weeks before the referendum a leaked memo from ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’, a group campaigning for the UK to stay in the EU, pointed out that some 50% of the labour party supporters didn’t know whether their party was for Brexit or was in favour of the EU.)

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EU technocrats running EU affairs far removed from ordinary citizens is a problem, but this is true also of technocrats in national governments and the UN. Ultra Nationalist parties, far left groups and anti globalisation movements within Europe rub shoulders at anti-EU campaigns for the past many years, and they share a common repertoire.

The nationalists groups convenient clubbing together of anti EU-ism along with anti-immigrant propaganda. Xenophobic fear of migrants giving them better sales pitch than for the left salesmen. Many on the left denounce racism but have hardly taken this problem head on. Workers and union members, and the unemployed, in large parts of Europe are racist: but unions haven’t run mass campaigns to address this. Widespread unacknowledged everyday racism exists in Britain. Great Britain is a “tolerant” country, Immigrants have been tolerated, not really integrated. Britain is divided and ghettoised thanks to institutionalized multiculturalism.

These are dark times in European politics. The backdrop for this crisis dates to the 2008 financial meltdown that affected the world economy and the Eurozone. Across Europe the economic crisis fuelled the rise of quick fix, ‘anti political’ and ‘anti-systemic’ movements and also of the far right while taking away the sheen of the old established mainstream political parties, leading to loss of influence. Nationalist and far right parties that have been on the margins have been slowly but systematically growing across Europe. Many of these ultra nationalist parties with xenophobic and retrograde social agendas have been getting mainstreamed by repackaging themselves in Europe. 

France’s National Front was formed in 1972 and was on the margins, but today it has some 30% of the national vote share. In the UK we have had many euro-sceptic and right wing formations, the fastest growing one being UKIP, ‘Britain First’ (emanating from British National Party and the English Defence League). Across the continent, from Switzerland (Swiss People’s Party), Belgium (Vlaams Blok now Vlaams Belang), the Netherlands (Party for Freedom), right down to the south in Italy (Northern League, Tricolour Flame, New Force etc), Greece (Golden Dawn), the far right groups have crafted a comeback. In the once famous social democratic north from Austria (Freedom Party) to Denmark (Danish People’s Party), Sweden (Swedish Democrats), far right parties have made huge forays. In former socialist bloc countries from Poland (Law and Justice party) to Hungary (Jobbik party), and Serbia (Serbian Radical Party) there is a huge resonance of the far right. Memories of Fascism and the terrible price that Europeans paid seem to have been set aside. However corrupted the European Union project was about ensuring free movement of people across Europe, the creation of the schengen and the roll back of borders was indeed a marvellous project. 

The forces of the left remained in their national cocoons and never really built a cross border solidarity movement in the past decades. Why should the left in the 21st century oppose European capitalist integration any more than opposing the merger of two companies. Shouldnt they have been arguing for ground level Europeanisation of the union federations. NO they prefer the prison house of the nation state.

Sections of the British Left Getting a High on Nationalism
In 2009 ‘No2EU’ a left-wing Eurosceptic electoral alliance (Socialist party, Communist Party of Britain and National Union of Rail, Maritime and Transport Workers (RMT)) was formed in the UK. It participated in the 2009 European Parliament elections and the European elections in 2014 with the party name "No2EU" It campaigned for Britain’s withdrawal from the EU.

Like the No2EU nuts other reckless fabulists of the British far left pushed a Left Exit (Lexit) campaign that was led by the Socialist Workers Party — saying that withdrawal from the European Union would strike a blow to the interests of dominant sections of British capital, and to European elites, opening opportunities for workers’ struggle in the United Kingdom. Similarly there was a Labour Leave campaign from within the Labour Party campaigning for Brexit (it has been revealed that this group was funded by right wing and Conservative Party donors). The left-wing fight against neoliberal globalisation sits neatly juxtaposed to the strategy of right-wing movements and makes the left allies of Farage (UKIP), Le Pen (National Front), Wilders, et al. Large numbers of Labour voters have voted for UKIP (something similar has been happening in France, where large numbers of socialist and communist voters have switched to the National Front)

A Modern Cross Border Euro-Left
In 1972 Tom Nairn had shown unique moral courage from the new left in critiquing dominant socialist opinion on British entry to the Common Market and argued that the Left was betraying its principles by siphoning discontent into nationalistic opposition to Europeanisation… read more:

see also

Militarism and the coming wars