Socialist Party England and Wales - editorial from the Socialist newspaper
Three months ago the Tories and British capitalism suffered a massive defeat. Similar to the Scottish independence referendum in 2014, the Brexit vote was a democratic uprising – a rejection by millions of working class people of the establishment. It dealt a huge blow to European capitalism into the bargain.
The lack of a left exit campaign by most of the leaders of the labour movement meant that the only mainstream leadership given to Leave was from the racist right wing. Understandably that meant many people were repelled by that and voted Remain to stand against racism and nationalism.
Capitalism’s crisis – continued economic disaster, the increasing gap between the obscene wealth at the top and the suffering of the rest, growing discontent, and a crisis in the establishment political parties – is expressed most keenly in the Brexit vote.
During the referendum campaign, the Tory party was split, providing the leadership of both Remain and Leave. British big business found itself without a reliable political party to defend its interests. The Socialist Party raised the likelihood that a Brexit vote would bring the end of David Cameron and George Osborne.
We argued, and vigorously fought for, a socialist, internationalist exit campaign, explaining that the EU is a bosses’ club. Had Jeremy Corbyn and the trade union leaders taken that bold, socialist approach, that huge elemental anger could have been channelled into a fight against the Tories and for jobs, homes and services for all. It could have brought down not just Cameron but the whole Tory government.
Even though that opportunity was not seized, the Brexit vote still tore the Tories apart. Cameron and Osborne are gone. If the Labour right had not immediately, scandalously, turned on Corbyn, the Tories could have fallen from power. The coup against Corbyn was mounted in haste in fear of an early election.
So now, temporarily saved by the Blairites, an unelected prime minister sits atop a Tory government with a tiny majority, voted for by only 24% of the electorate.
There is a massive anger, a rage against the rich, who have gorged on increased wealth since the onset of the economic crisis in 2007-8. Inevitably, even despite the woeful role of the majority of the trade union leaders, there is and will be more struggle.
At last week’s Tory conference, new prime minister Theresa May posed Brexit as a historic turning point, an opportunity for “a change in the direction of the nation.” May described the Brexit vote as a “quiet revolution”, an expression of a “deep, profound and often justified” sense that “the world works for the privileged few but not for them.” Her aim was to try to abate class struggle. To say to working class people that things will change. “It was not the wealthy who made the biggest sacrifice after the crisis, but ordinary working class families.” She used the words “working class” six times in her conference speech.
But she also wanted to say to her party and the bosses, ‘we have to rein it in, or there’ll be trouble for our system’. She said: “Resentment will grow and divisions will be entrenched”. She made pointed attacks on privileged tax avoiders and bosses who pay themselves big dividends while workers’ pension schemes collapse.
Fearing the social and economic consequences of their policies, the Tories overturned their economic policy in one fell swoop. Suddenly, in words at least, and with no acknowledgement of the misery imposed for the last six years, gone is the promise of endless austerity and George Osborne’s commitment to a budget surplus by 2020, replaced now with talk of government intervention and investment, and reduced austerity. As socialists argued from the very start, austerity does not work, even from the point of view of capitalism. Slash jobs, wages and benefits and people cannot spend money.
Of course, the government’s hope is to stimulate the economy in the interests of the capitalists. The latest survey of businesses by the British Chambers of Commerce shows a marked slowdown in the services sector and widespread fears about Brexit. The UK’s trade deficit has widened. The recent crisis of Deutsche bank in Germany is a warning of the huge debt crisis that still besets the European economy. Brutal austerity for the majority will continue, along with other right-wing divisive policies such as grammar schools.
So in the name of trying to create a united country, the Tories of course sowed division. The racist right and the leaderships of both Remain and Leave camps led campaigns that scapegoated migrants for the vast inequalities of crisis-riven capitalism, and the Tory conference confirms the continuation of that, ratcheting up anti-foreigner rhetoric. It serves the purpose of a dog-whistle to Tory loyalists while stoking up tensions between working class people.
David Cameron’s downfall was in his attempt to square the circle: to appease the eurosceptic right of his party with a referendum while campaigning in the interests of big business for Remain. Theresa May faces the same impossibility.
May campaigned for Remain. But now she has stated that Brexit means working towards ‘getting back control’ over immigration and achieving sovereignty, ahead of access to the single market.
This is not what the majority of big business want. The majority of big business want a ‘soft Brexit’ – that is, barely Brexit at all, keeping access to the single market, which means free movement of goods, services, capital and labour. 44% of British exports go to the single market. Big business generally prefers to trade and move around capital freely, and to be able to super-exploit cheap labour.
The capitalist establishment needs its political representatives to organise for this outcome. But the Tories’ inability to come together to achieve this, and the civil war in the Labour Party, which is about the future of the party as a “second eleven” for capitalism, means there is no clear political representation of this requirement.
While some sections of finance capital look forward to the idea of the City of London as a Singapore-style free financial centre, the majority see that there are risks to London’s leading financial position outside of the EU.
It is possible that May hopes that grandstanding like this will force the hand of other European leaders into allowing more concessions on access to the single market. But German Chancellor Angela Merkel says categorically that the UK will not be part of the single market without the free movement of people. French leader Hollande has warned that Britain will have to “pay a price” for Brexit.
Their fear is that Brexit threatens the continuation of the EU itself. Once one country dictates its own conditions in the single market the whole project of trying to draw different European nations into one capitalist trading bloc could start to unravel.
The pound plunged in a ‘flash crash’. CBI bosses fear that Brexit will bring the British economy to its knees. Carolyn Fairbairn, the CBI director, warned that a ‘hard Brexit’ could make things worse for the country’s trade, and that a clampdown on migrant labour could “close the door” to Britain remaining an open trading economy.
A ‘hard Brexit’ is also not what significant sections of May’s own party want. The eurosceptic majority in the Tory party oppose the EU at least in part on ‘patriotic’ ideological grounds, harking back to British imperialism’s ‘glorious’ past. But while Brexit minister David Davis argues that there is no downside to Brexit, chancellor Philip Hammond has come out as leader of a ‘soft Brexit’ movement. He is joined by former education secretary Nicky Morgan and former business minister Anna Soubry.
In particular, Amber Rudd’s speech threatening to name and shame companies that employ foreign labour was disastrous for the government. Even a pro-Brexit former ally of David Cameron, Steve Hilton, called the plans “divisive, repugnant and insanely bureaucratic” – they might as well announce “that foreign workers will be tattooed with numbers on their forearms.” After an international outcry the government backtracked within one day.
The conference gave the superficial appearance of a united party, told by May to “stop quibbling”. But the only reason she resists a parliamentary debate on any Brexit deal is because she knows she cannot hold her party together, and is currently uncertain what Labour will do. Her party divisions are also one reason why she doesn’t go for an early general election.
But in Brexit there is a massive opportunity for a Corbyn-led Labour Party.
Immigration was not the key reason that most people who voted Leave did so. The biggest reported reason was for decisions about the UK to be taken in the UK. But for the majority of the 33% who said it was mainly about immigration, in reality that is an expression of the same thing.
The Socialist Party completely opposes racism and racist attacks. But the sentiments expressed in the EU referendum are cries of rage expressing powerlessness and alienation. It means anger and fear about jobs losses, debt, sky-high rents, low pay, benefit cuts. It is a reflection of anger at hospital, library and nursery closures.
A socialist, internationalist Brexit is possible. It means fighting for a £10 an hour minimum wage and the abolition of zero-hour contracts; for a mass programme of council house building and rent controls; for an end to cuts and privatisation in the NHS.
A socialist Brexit would mean a different kind of Repeal Bill – one that annulled all EU regulations which go against working class interests, like the rules restricting state aid or the posted workers’ directive which drives down wages.
It would mean repealing anti-trade union legislation, including the Tories’ latest Trade Union Act, and enforcing collective agreements. It would mean bringing about real working class control.
All of this necessitates standing up to big business and its demands, and instead defending working class interests. A capitalist economic crisis only means job losses and pay cuts for workers because the bosses of major companies demand it, while continuing to line their own pockets. A socialist Brexit would take such companies into public ownership. Nationalising the banks and the big companies that dominate the economy would protect jobs and livelihoods, and enable democratic planning of resources to ensure decent homes and public services for all. A socialist Brexit would mean building international workers’ solidarity and collaboration.