One of the many lessons thrown up over the last two tumultuous years is that Blairites do have principles after all. The defence of Britain’s membership of the European Single Market is one such point of principle, second only in importance to the bombing of the Middle East (a perennial favourite). For this cause, Labour’s right wing would be prepared to go to any lengths, even rebelling against the leadership of the party, though it surely pains them to do so.
During the general election, Blair himself called for the public to vote for Tory and Lib-Dem candidates so long as they opposed Brexit. Unfortunately, for him, this appeal fell on deaf ears. So it fell to Chuka Umunna MP, to take up the tattered banner of Blairism and rally his steely band of rebels for another charge.
Umunna’s ill-fated amendment, which would have committed the government to keeping Britain in the Single Market, sank to defeat with 101 votes (including 50 from Labour, voting against the whip). But while it may not have achieved anything more than costing a few shadow ministers their jobs, this most recent Labour rebellion represents something deeper than just “virtue signalling”, as Emily Thornberry witheringly put it. The debate within the labour movement on the Single Market and Britain’s place in it marks a dividing line between the competing class interests struggling for the heart of our movement.
With a Corbyn-led Labour government looking increasingly likely, it is imperative that we clarify what the socialist position on the Single Market should be, and how a Labour government can pose a genuine socialist alternative to both the European Union and the reactionary ideas of British nationalism.
The national interest
Terrified by the prospect of a cliff-edge Brexit, many sections of the British ruling class are anxious for a liberal, pro-European (i.e. pro-Single Market) opposition: their “Macron moment”. In the not-so-distant past they would have found it in the leadership of the Labour Party (and can still find it within the PLP to this day), but events have diminished the ‘effectiveness’ of this opposition from their point of view.
Enter Umunna, for whom “this issue goes far beyond party and far beyond any particular individual. It goes to the future of our nation and you have to put the national interest first in that situation.” But what exactly is meant by “the national interest”? Predictably for the Blairites, this overriding principle is ‘the economy’, by which of course they mean the profits of British banks and big business.
Their logic is simple: workers need the bosses to make money so they can give them jobs. Therefore, whichever policy maintains the best returns for British business must be in the national interest. In reality, this so-called national interest is nothing other than the highest possible level of profit for the British capitalists, and exploitation of the workers, which they must support on pain of starvation. The more the bosses enrich themselves, the more prosperous and happy the nation becomes, in a never-ending virtuous circle.
This heartwarming fraternity between the exploited and exploiters is by no means a new idea. More than 100 years ago, in the days when Robert Tressell wrote “The Ragged Trousered Philanthropists”, bosses of both Tory and Liberal persuasion were equally convinced of the unity of interest between the “master” and his “hands”. “Work, boys, work and be contented, so long as you've enough to buy a meal!” Today Umunna sings the same tune from the Labour benches. One wonders why he sees the need for a Labour Party at all.
To preach this nonsense during a boom would just be liberal phrase mongering, the stock-in-trade of Blairism, but to put this forward now, after decades of wage suppression, privatisations and cuts in living standards is a sick joke. To paraphrase the reply of Tressell’s socialist protagonist, Berrington: such talk as that is not likely to deceive any but children or fools. We are not children, but it is very evident that Mr Umunna thinks that we are fools.
In the 44 years which have passed since Britain joined the Common Market, industries which employed thousands of people and formed the beating hearts of entire cities, if not regions, have been scrapped in the name of the national interest. Formerly nationalised industries and services have been sold off on the cheap to corporations who have squeezed them to breaking point, in the national interest. Real wage growth has steadily declined (and is now firmly in negative territory) while households have been forced to live on credit, again, in the national interest.
Today, inside the Single Market, the wealthiest 20% of the British population own almost twice as much as the rest of the population put together (60%), according to a report from Inequality Briefing, while more than a million people rely on handouts from foodbanks to survive. The “free trade” of the Single Market (in reality a capitalist trade block directed against the rest of world) has certainly brought prosperity to the banks and monopolies at the top of our society, but it does not contain a single atom of progressive content from the standpoint of the working class, which knows from bitter experience the real content of this “national interest”.
Another prominent Blairite, Wes Streeting MP, explained his own support for Umunna’s amendment: “We need an approach to Brexit that will help us end austerity, rather than prolonging it. That is why I will continue to fight to keep Britain in the single market after we leave the European Union.” Alison McGovern MP emphasised, “our best shot at stopping austerity is to stay in the single market”.
We live in interesting times indeed when Blairite MPs, figures who have echoed the Tories’ belt-tightening rhetoric almost line by line for seven years, rebel against Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership in the name of “stopping austerity”. And it is doubly curious that the issue on which they chose to make their stand was not over the Tories’ Welfare Bill (on which they abstained), or the brutal budget cuts being imposed on local authorities (which Labour councillors must carry out on pain of expulsion), but over the Single Market.
The notion that the Single Market, arguably the most central of all the EU’s institutions, is a force for ending austerity would raise more than a few eyebrows across Europe, particularly in places like Greece and Ireland, where membership has been accompanied by the most devastating cuts to public services and living standards.
The Single Market has austerity coded into its DNA. The Maastricht Treaty, which founded the Single Market in 1993 (replacing and enhancing the “Common Market” which the UK joined in 1973), set out a finished recipe for permanent austerity under the auspices of its criteria for monetary union. This is not a feature of the Single Market which is confined solely to Eurozone countries either. Economic analysts and investment advisors, the so-called strategists of capital, are unanimous in their counsels to the governments of Europe: labour costs are too high and must be brought down by any means necessary.
Austerity is not just about setting parsimonious budgets (as the Tories’ unmitigated failure to reduce the public debt has amply demonstrated); it is a vital weapon in the struggle of capital to weaken the working class and reduce the share of wealth going in its direction. Alongside “labour market reform”, i.e. the waging of a pitiless struggle against workers’ pay and conditions, the cutting of benefits and public services serves to “incentivise” workers to accept a worse and worse deal. Receiving welfare must become less attractive than a zero-hours contract: a difficult task.
Further, the slow and painful strangulation of the NHS and other vital public services goes hand in hand with their privatisation for the sole purpose of creating greater profits for parasitical speculators like Richard Branson (who also happened to be a vocal supporter of the Remain campaign). That this process has coincided with - and to an extent abetted by - the UK’s membership of the Single Market and its predecessor gives the lie to the Blairites concerns about austerity.
The Single Market, the whole purpose of which is to enhance “free competition” and “prosperity”, only offers more austerity and more attacks for British and European workers. It cannot solve Britain’s crisis of underemployment and low pay, its lack of suitable housing and extortionate rents, or the collapse of the NHS and social care. Nor can any capitalist trade deal.
If Labour is to succeed in breaking with austerity, it must break with the system which produces it. It must base itself squarely and solely on the fundamental interests of the working class, which are naturally antagonistic to those of the bosses and their system. This is the backbone of a genuine socialist programme and must be the starting point for any consideration of the various challenges posed by Brexit.
An important feature of the debate over Brexit is the question of workers’ rights. That the government will use its newfound legislative freedom to try to tear up workers’ rights is a foregone conclusion, regardless of May’s false promises to the contrary. Tory MPs, John Wittingdale and Michael Gove, have already advised businesses that they should examine “the opportunities which may exist to reduce the burden on business”. It is clear that all of the risks faced by British businesses will be offloaded onto the back of workers in the form of even more precarious conditions and longer hours, which is the only capitalist solution to this crisis.
The response of the Liberals and the Labour right wing is simple: Britain must remain a member of the single market, leaving it under the jurisdiction of the CJEU (Court of Justice of the EU), thereby preventing the Tories from eroding workers’ rights. “The single market harmonises regulations and means there are no barriers to trade; it’s crucial for the economy and protects workers and we must fight to stay in”, as Streeting put it. By this logic, the interests of both workers and bosses once again miraculously coincide, but it conveniently neglects to consider the actual state of workers’ rights and conditions.
Over the last period, particularly since 2010, workers have seen many of their rights stripped away under the nose of the same EU court which supposedly “guarantees workers’ rights”. A report by the ONS, published in 2014, stated that the number of so-called “self-employed” workers (in reality those working in the most precarious conditions) reached its highest level “since records began”: 4.6 million people, or 15% of the total workforce. The sharp rise in self-employment reflects the growing use of sham self-employment by large companies such as Uber and Deliveroo. As they are technically working “for themselves” whilst making someone else rich, self-employed workers receive very few of the protections enshrined in EU or UK law.
Likewise, the number of workers on zero-hours contracts, so-called because they offer no guaranteed work at all, rose to almost 1 million at the beginning of this year. As has been widely reported, the conditions in workplaces which rely on these super-exploitative contracts hark back to the “dark Satanic Mills” of the industrial revolution, with one Sports Direct worker reportedly giving birth in her workplace toilet because she feared she would effectively be sacked if she went to the hospital.
Even those workers who have ‘normal’ employment contracts have suffered attacks on their rights. In 2012, the Tories (and Lib-Dems) increased the qualifying period for unfair dismissal claims to two years, meaning that employers could in effect sack employees at will. In 2015, a survey conducted by the TUC warned of a return to “Burnout Britain” as almost 3.5 million people in Britain worked longer than 48 hours a week, the maximum allowed under the European Working Time Directive.
If that isn’t enough, in 2013, the Tory-Liberal coalition introduced non-recoverable Employment Tribunal fees, meaning that those workers whose rights had been infringed would have to gamble up to £1,200 for the privilege of bringing their case to court. In January this year, a government review reported that the number of cases being brought to Tribunal fell by a staggering 70%. All of these outrages occurred (and are occurring) under the jurisdiction of the CJEU.
The truth is that legal rights without the power to enforce them are meaningless. Over the last 30 years the ruling class, taking advantage of the retreat of the trade unions and the rightward shift of the Labour Party, has succeeded in replacing organised collective bargaining in workplaces with ephemeral legal rights which can be rendered useless overnight. The result is the Dickensian conditions we see today.
Karl Marx once said that when the working class is disorganised it is nothing more than raw material for exploitation. We can see the truth of this statement playing out before our eyes in Tory Britain. And it is this crushing of the working class for more and more profit which is the real source of the prosperity treasured by the likes of Blair and Umunna.
If the British labour movement is to fight against the attacks on workers threatened by Brexit, it must start with the fight to recover all that has been lost. This fight has already been written into Labour’s recent election manifesto, which represents a clear step forward for the both the party and the workers’ movement as a whole. But it will find little support in either Westminster or Brussels. The workers must rely on their own strength. The trade union leaders must launch a united, militant campaign to shut down exploitative practices across the UK.
For too long, workers in precarious industries have been left to the tender mercies of unscrupulous bosses. The unions should boldly go to these workplaces, organise the workers (who are already beginning to organise themselves in inspiring fashion, as in the case of the Deliveroo drivers) and prepare their forces to act in solidarity with all workers under attack, even if this means breaking the law.
The Labour Party, campaigning alongside the unions to repeal all anti-trade union legislation, ban zero-hours contracts, abolish Employment Tribunal fees and bring an end to sham self-employment would necessarily strike a hard blow against the interests of the bosses, who parasitically depend on all of these outrages. Once in power, Labour should stand for the nationalisation - under workers’ control - of all companies who claim to be unable to provide humane conditions for their workers.
How can such a programme be married up with membership of the Single Market? The same companies which depend on the Single Market for their exports also depend on the crushing of workers and effective removal of their rights and protections, and the so-called “floor of rights” provided by EU legislation has done nothing to prevent them from doing just that, just as it poses no obstacle to Emmanuel Macron’s sweeping programme of “labour reforms” in France.
To subordinate the struggle for the genuine protection of workers’ rights, pay and conditions to the UK’s membership of the Single Market is to throw it out altogether. It is easy to tell which way Umunna and his ilk would turn in the event of a conflict between the two. Any negotiations between a Labour government and the EU (or any potential trade partners) should be predicated on the guarantee of a decent, civilised existence for all workers, backed up by the power of the workers’ organisations, the only real guarantors of workers’ rights.
Free movement of labour
In addition to the question of workers’ rights, the question of immigration has been a prominent feature of the Brexit debate, both before and after the referendum. Decades of stagnating wages, housing shortages and failing public services have given grist to the mill for bigots and charlatans like Nigel Farage, who build their careers on sowing distrust and xenophobia amongst the masses without offering any alternative to the crisis of British capitalism.
The pitting workers of different origin against each other so as to exploit them all is not new; it is built into the foundations of British capitalism and its Tory Party. It is therefore all the more vital that the labour movement respond in a bold and socialist way. But what would a socialist policy on immigration look like?
Already, many right-wing Labour MPs have swiftly ditched their previous support for freedom of movement. As the outspoken “pro-European”, Chuka Umunna, put it in June, “there is scope for a Labour government to explore, with goodwill and in the spirit of compromise, how single-market membership could be reconciled with greater controls over immigration.” Instead of taking on the Tories’ vile rhetoric over immigration, Umunna and the Blairites have capitulated to it, adopting essentially the same position as David Cameron prior to the referendum.
Corbyn’s own position appears to be something of a compromise. When asked about immigration he correctly emphasises the crucial point, that the crisis facing UK workers is not a product of immigration at all, but rather of the lack of decent employment, housing and services, exacerbated by the Tories’ disastrous policies. But at the same time, under pressure from the right, he puts forward a policy of “reasonably managed migration”.
But what exactly does this mean? Corbyn has thus far concentrated on the need to prevent employers from exploiting foreign labour on poverty wages, but the only way that this can be achieved is through a mass campaign to end exploitation for all. As well as fighting to organise in workplaces across the country, the leadership of trade unions and the TUC should go to the greatest possible lengths to reach out to migrant workers and take up the fight against their super-exploitative employers directly.
Such a struggle requires the greatest possible unity of the working class which cannot be achieved without also defending the democratic the right of all workers to live and work where they choose without exception or special privilege. This is fundamentally a class question.
For all the liberals’ talk of “internationalism”, for them the freedom of movement means the freedom of the capitalists to exploit the workers of all countries for their own benefit. As Marx said of the arguments of the liberals in favour of free trade: “To call cosmopolitan exploitation universal brotherhood is an idea that could only be engendered in the brain of the bourgeoisie.”
For socialists however, the full and free development of all workers (and not just Europeans) requires that capital is subjugated to labour. It is time to make the bosses, not the workers, pay for the right of all to move and live where they want, regardless of where they come from.
Ultimately, this demand poses the question of who runs the economy, and for whose gain. We already have the resources to provide ample homes and jobs for those who seek to build a life in Britain, whether it be EU citizens, workers from outside the EU, or refugees. We should see it as our duty to help these people, who have been forced to sacrifice everything by the impasse of world capitalism and the bloody adventures of European and American imperialism. The only barrier to this is the “rights” of the capitalists and bankers to own everything under the sun. If we must restrict any rights it should be these.
As opposed to the Tories’ (and the EU’s) criminal policy towards refugees, Labour must demand that they be allowed to come to Britain, where the cost of accommodating them will be borne by the nationalisation of the same banks and monopolies which have profited from their suffering for so long. Further, with the seizure of housing from billionaire speculators and a huge campaign to build decent homes for all, a socialist Labour government could eliminate homelessness within a year and avoid further disasters like that of the Grenfell Tower fire.
There is plenty of work to be done. The artificial scarcity of employment is caused by fewer and fewer workers being forced to work longer and longer hours. This must end. In addition to guarding the rights of workers, the labour movement should set out a plan to reduce working hours with no loss of pay, and to hire and train more workers to meet any shortfall. To the anarchy and waste of the market, Labour should respond with a rational plan to guarantee the basic needs of all workers.
But no policy on migration can end at home. Wherever there is poverty, unemployment and danger there will be a source of cheap labour to exploit at home or abroad. Labour’s foreign policy should therefore flow from its domestic policy. Labour should stand for an end to Britain’s imperialist wars and the abolition of the arms trade. Issuing a call to the workers of Europe and the world to take up similar demands, Labour should stand for international co-operation and development, not mutual exploitation.
This struggle can and must be joined with that of the workers the rest of Europe. A socialist Labour government could help to forge an alliance of workers’ organisations all over Europe against the catastrophic austerity policies of the EU, laying the basis for a future Socialist United States of Europe. Against the false internationalism of the bosses, Labour should stand for the socialist internationalism of the workers. Only this can bring an end to the poverty and injustice wrought by capitalism.
For a socialist Labour government!
Even the best programme is bound to fail so long as it is confined to paper; it needs a real political force in society to carry it out. This is the role of the party. But there can be no question of an independent workers’ programme without an independent workers’ party. This is why the Labour Party was founded - to generalise the demands of the labour movement, unify them under a political programme, and with this change society. The Tories are simply the political wing of the British capitalist class; Labour must see itself as the political wing of a mass struggle to end Tory rule and transform society with socialist policies.
In the past, the demoralisation of the party membership, the retreat of the trade unions, and the relatively stability of British capitalism in the boom years allowed the right wing and its millionaire backers to shape the Labour Party in its own image. The Corbyn movement represents a break with this, not just because of Corbyn’s individual beliefs, but because of the hundreds of thousands who have joined in the belief that we can change society, and the millions of people who endorsed the left-wing Labour manifesto in the last election.
Already the question has being posed directly: who does the party belong to? Does it belong to the majority of the membership and its elected leadership? Or does it belong to the bureaucracy and its selected representatives in the PLP and party headquarters? This question cannot be resolved by hollow appeals to unity; one way or another it will be resolved through the struggle going on within the party. The outcome of this struggle will have major implications both for the party and the course of the class struggle in Britain.
The fight to continue the transformation of the Labour Party flows practically from the needs of the socialist programme outlined above and must be its most immediate demand. With May’s “strong and stable” government on the ropes, another general election - and with it a Labour government - could very well be on the cards. It would be naive to expect that MPs who have conspired to eject Corbyn from the party leadership and continue to rebel in parliament would simply support and accept the implementation of his programme in power. It is clear that in such circumstances, a number of MPs would rather split the party and even break the government than carry out Corbyn’s policies, leaving his manifesto permanently confined to paper.
The only defence against this is to carry out the democratic reselection of parliamentary and council candidates, to ensure that the composition of the party’s MPs and councillors truly represents our movement and our demands. Without this, there can be no talk of genuine unity and no hope of a lasting victory.
A reinvigorated and democratised Labour Party at the head of a mass movement of workers is the first requirement for a socialist answer to Brexit. Workers and youth must strive toward this goal as an important step towards a socialist Labour government: a workers’ government carrying out a workers’ programme to fundamentally transform society.