The outcome of the Brexit referendum is a shock to all of the established political parties and to the British ruling class. The long term political and economic impact remains unclear. For socialists, the concern in taking a position in such referendums that are not of our making should be the outcome for the lives and living standards of working class people in Britain and across Europe; and the strengthening or weakening of the political forces fighting for socialist change.
The EU is a set of inter-state institutions (and a relatively toothless elected parliament) based upon a series of treaties – from which flow rules and regulations on how the member states act internally and in relation to one another. I am opposed to the politics of the EU and have opposed all EU treaties on grounds of their pro-capitalist and anti-social content. Exit from the EU means withdrawal from the EU institutions; it also means re-negotiating or abandoning the previously-agreed rules and regulations. This could be to the benefit of the bosses and the wealthy – or to the benefit of ordinary people, including measures to stop climate change.
In my opinion the content of Brexit is a reactionary break from the neoliberal EU. It was not a break by a government or movement seeking to reverse austerity, towards a Europe of working class solidarity and equality. It has strengthened British nationalist forces which oppose that perspective. The re-negotiation of agreements between the British state and the EU will not be to the benefit of ordinary people in Britain or elsewhere – because they will have no say in the process that will be conducted by their pro-capitalist enemies in the Tory Party who will seek to make gains for capitalists based in Britain.
Brexit has created a crisis for British finance capital – which supported ‘Remain’. But this crisis will not necessarily benefit the ordinary people of England, Scotland and Wales – not to mention Northern Ireland. The outcome of the battle for leadership and political direction in the Labour Party will influence the degree to which mass resistance to Tory politics will emerge on the basis of a left alternative, or whether UKIP will consolidate and grow.
The Brexit referendum campaign was not Left-led, nor significantly Left-influenced. The central issue was control / reduction of immigration and an end to British payments to the EU – posed as greater democracy and the solution to working class unemployment, falling wages, the crisis in healthcare and housing. This was exemplified by the ‘Breaking point’ poster of UKIP.
A brief look at recent research shows that immigrants contribute more to the British economy than they take in welfare benefits and education services. And it can be argued that the availability of cheap labour in China or Eastern Europe, to where many multinationals have relocated, has done more to drive down wages (in Britain and Ireland) than immigration – not to mention the anti-union laws that restrict effective action and the ability to recruit both indigenous workers and migrants to unions.
The other main issue in the referendum was democratic control over government decisions – supposedly restricted by the EU. But the desire to be free of EU regulation by the dominant ‘Leave’ forces around Gove-Johnson-Farrage and the Tory right is not for democratic public control of the banks and the economy, or control of the multinationals, or the right of the government to use of state investment to end mass unemployment and the crisis in services – which EU rules do oppose.
What the dominant ‘Leave’ forces want, as well as for a British government being able to decide on immigration restrictions, is to allow a British government to decide about regulation on domestic and multinational industrial and service enterprises. While the public presentation of this is greater democracy, their actual objective is to improve the ‘competitiveness’ (for which read take a bigger profit) of capitalists located Britain – without regulations or state aid restrictions from the EU. Proposals to reduce British corporation tax from 20% (it was 28% in 2010) to less than 15% – thereby reducing funding for public services – show the direction of mainstream British politics. Privatization and commercialisation of public services will continue – possibly with restrictions on external bidders, for the benefit of British-based companies.
Theresa May as prime minister – while a ‘Remain’ supporter and less strident than some on the right of the Tories – will not change the anti-immigrant dynamic. Her ‘Counter Terrorism and Security’ act of 2015 (when she was Home Secretary) casts suspicion on all British Muslims as terrorists – in a more divisive and xenophobic way than even the Prevention of Terrorism Act did to Irish people in the past.
Despite the current divisions in UKIP, the outcome of the referendum campaign is a strengthening of the anti-immigrant, populist Right. This is now mainstream politics, especially in the Tory party, and will have a determining influence in the coming years because of the growth of a working class base for these politics around UKIP. This is also evident in the immigration-control statements of some Labour MPs.
Notwithstanding the anti-democratic nature of EU rules, the anti-EU sentiment mobilised in support of ‘Leave’ was based more on demagoguery than on actual experience of anti-social EU strictures. There has not been a Troika-imposed austerity program in Britain to fund the bank bailout. Nor has the EU imposed privatisation of public services.
Rather it has been British governments – both Tory and New Labour – that have driven the rundown of social housing, the attacks on welfare and forcing people into low-paid work, and the privatisation and the liberalisation of trade in public services both domestically and in the policies of the EU (for example in the provisions of the Lisbon Treaty). People in Britain have not experienced EU rules in the same way as people in Greece or Ireland. Farrage disowning the Leave Campaign claim – the day after the referendum – that £350 million a day would go to the NHS rather than the EU, reveals the demagoguery that lay behind much of the Leave politics.
I think there were two reasons for the exit vote: there is a deep disaffection with the politics of the mainstream parties (including Labour) and with the similar neoliberal politics of the EU amongst the working class. In the absence of a serious socialist alternative, the ‘Leave’ vote was a kick at the establishment. But a significant section of the English and Welsh working class has moved to the British nationalist, xenophobic politics of UKIP – which has had a steady growth of (mostly white) working class support since the early 2000’s.
The portrayal of the EU as the cause of the social crisis is strengthened by its treatment of the people of Greece. This remains an illustration of the priorities of the EU: absolute priority for the banks and speculators by imposing the cost of the crash on ordinary people. The same is the case in Ireland.
The difference is that in Greece, the Syriza government initially made a commitment to fight on behalf of working class people but then capitulated when faced with the real priorities of the EU. Syriza needed both a write-off of bank debt taken on by previous governments; and loans to sustain Greek state spending. The EU-ECB-IMF Troika rejected debt write-down; and insisted on an austerity program to ensure loans to the Greek state would be repaid. In order to challenge this, Syriza would have had to default on existing repayments and take over the cash-starved banks and financial services of Greece.
Nationalization without compensation would have been necessary to avoid putting the costs onto ordinary Greeks – in a direct challenge to private ownership of huge wealth by the Greek ruling class and the laws which enshrine that. It would also have been a breaking of EU rules on progressive terms; and an end to the euro for internal Greek use.
Doing this would have meant that the Greek financial system would have ceased operating and would have had to be restructured; and that mass mobilisation would have been necessary to ensure the replacement of the management of the finance system and of the departments of finance and other departments of the state. Despite mass mobilisations, the Syriza leadership was not prepared to lead this challenge to the Greek ruling class that a repudiation of bank debt and rejection of EU-dictated austerity would have entailed.
In Ireland, on the other hand, both FF and FG have willingly taken measures to preserve the private wealth of the banks and speculators. Despite some discomfort to their supporters, they have put the cost of the 2008 crash / bank bailout onto ordinary people. The EU provided the framework for this – and indeed drove part of it. But Tim Geithner – Obama’s Treasury Secretary – was also trenchantly opposed to burning bondholders. And similar debt programs have been imposed by the IMF upon other countries. The method is not unique to the EU.
In order to challenge this an Irish government would have had to take over the bankrupt domestic financial institutions and refuse to pay their debts – rather than borrow hugely to pay their debts so as to keep their wealthy international financiers in business. Ireland’s pro-capitalist parties were / are not going to challenge the interests of the Irish rich or of other capitalists who loaned money to Irish banks. We need a new workers’ party to begin to make that challenge.
So with regard to supporting a break from the EU, while I think that a fight to reverse austerity will require governments to break both the national and the EU rules which facilitate the accumulation of wealth by a tiny minority, I do not support an exit from the EU simply because it is a pro-capitalist formation. A concrete judgement must be made: would exit benefit ordinary people and strengthen the left; or would it increase inter-state competition and strengthen the nationalist Right?
I think the latter is what has happened in Britain. While I did not expect the referendum result, I though a strengthening of the Right would be the outcome of a successful Leave campaign and that was why I supported Remain. The British referendum is now a pole of inspiration for the xenophobic Right across Europe: in France, the Netherlands, Italy, Austria, Germany – to name a few. The trajectory is further migration restrictions, including in EU policy, and the scapegoating of immigrants at the same time as continued erosion of working class living standards – while a section of the working class is drawn towards racism.
If and when a leftwing government, that was committed to taking the side of ordinary people, refused to pay the debts its banks owed to other banks or a national debt which includes private debt, that government would have to appeal to the workers organisations of other countries for support and solidarity in the face of trade sanctions or denial of credit by the governments of other countries and by the EU.
That’s why, for working class people, the nationalist anti-immigrant politics of Gove-Johnson-Farrage is a dead-end. Calls to restrict immigration, made against people moving from crisis locations or from poor zones, are actually a way of turning the fight against the rich minority into a fight between the poor and the very poor – and tie part of the working class to their own capitalist rulers on a nationalist basis. Appeals for international solidarity, while refusing the right of the poor of other countries to migrate, would have little resonance.
The primary responsibility for the support by significant numbers of working class people for the UKIP-led Leave campaign is the capitulation of the social-democratic parties (Labour and its European equivalents) to the politics of neoliberalism. Those who claimed to defend the interests of working class people implemented neoliberal austerity instead – under which the poor of the ex-industrial regions suffered the most.
This was fertile ground for UKIP to turn the despair of poverty into hostility to the immigrant (as the taker of shrinking welfare and housing resources) and the external EU (as the restriction on British governments giving preference to British interests). The neo-Blairites who now want to ditch Corbyn have capitulated to the anti-immigrant politics of Farrage: some are openly saying that there must be controls of the movement of people within Europe – not to mention from outside Europe. Corbyn, to his credit, has said there should be no limits on migration into Britain.
The attacks on Corbyn are the continuation of the Blairite opposition to the left taking the leadership in the Labour Party. Hilary Benn and other Blairite MPs are linking Corbyn to their referendum defeat, saying he is a failed leader because he failed to sufficiently champion the EU in order to boost the Remain vote. But how could he? There is nothing a socialist can defend in the key decisions and policies of the EU in recent years. In the context of the financial crash, both socialists and ordinary people have seen that the EU has been anti working class in its prioritisation of the banks and the financial speculators of Europe. Likewise the EU treatment of refugees and migrants has been shameful.
Corbyn was faced with a choice of playing a secondary, supporting role in a xenophobic campaign for a break from the EU; or critically saying remain, in opposition to the anti-immigrant politics of UKIP. While not all who voted Leave are UKIP supporters, a demand that the British government should have the power to restrict immigration – and that it should do so – was the issue on which the referendum was held. The socialist left was mistaken to think this campaign to leave the EU could be turned into a fight against EU-imposed austerity – which is not the case in Britain because the Tories and New Labour were doing it anyway.
Corbyn’s mistake was not his position on the referendum – although an explicit remain-but-break-the-
Arguments that the Corbyn leadership should be inclusive to the right in the Labour Party are mistaken: they will sabotage any serious attempts to implement socialist policies and will oppose mass action to overturn anti-social legislation. The support from the UNITE leadership for mandatory re-selection of Labour candidates is a positive step.
There are reports that up to 100,000 people have recently joined the Labour Party. I think socialists in Britain should do likewise – to link up with and give a political lead to the many who want a real alternative. Exact tactics cannot be decided from afar – be that to join Momentum or other formation. But in my opinion to stand aside from this struggle for reasons of building the profile of their own organisations would be a big mistake.
The politics of the Tories and the right will only deepen the social contradictions. At the same time as they want to forcibly stop ordinary people moving to Britain, the Tories – and not just the Tory right of the like of Gove and Johnson – support the imperialist military and economic interventions that create the conditions for mass migration towards northern Europe: invasion and war in the Middle East and North Africa; trade agreements that undermine the economies of other countries; and resistance to measures to stop the climate change and global warming that is causing food scarcity in equatorial regions – like the impending famine in Ethiopia.
Irish governments act similarly – if not directly: they allow the US military to use Shannon to move troops and weapons for the wars in Afghanistan and Iraq; there is complete inertia in doing anything to end the scandal of Direct Provision – an illustration of passive racism in the operation of the state; our government supports TTIP; and government policy will increase carbon emissions rather than taking steps to reduce them and slow down climate change.
While creating the conditions that force people to move, the Gove-Johnson-Farrage response to migration is to support barriers to movement and to let people drown in the Mediterranean. Gove and Johnson voted against the settlement of 3,000 orphaned Syrian children in Britain – a state with a population of 65 million, a hugely wealthy ruling class and huge military spending (2% of GPD or £55 billion a year). They also voted to bomb Syria; and they supported the US-British invasion of Iraq – the cause of the current crisis in the Middle East, which has led to the emergence of ISIS and the mass migration out of the region.
Labour’s Angela Eagle – a challenger to Corbyn as Labour leader – voted the same way as Gove and Johnson in favour of the attacks on Iraq and Syria. While Owen Smith, the new challenger to Corbyn, does not have the same pro-war positions as many of the current Labour MPs who want to remove Corbyn, he is clearly the candidate of the neo-Blairite bureaucracy and offers no real change.
As to moves by the SNP to push for an independence referendum in order to remain in the EU, the questions related to such a decision would be what currency to use if they succeed; and whose budget rules would apply – Holyrood or Brussels? Whatever the SNP decision, they face the same dilemma as Syriza: they must break with the pro-banker austerity that is embodied in the EU and euro zone rules. The alternative is to impose austerity like Syriza is now doing. The promotion of neoliberalism by New Labour has handed UKIP a mass working class base. The SNP could inadvertently do something similar in Scotland if they are not prepared to break EU rules.
Whatever one’s views on the tactics of British socialists in the referendum, we in Ireland are fortunate that there is no significant explicitly anti-immigrant political group here. But the Brexit lesson is similar: if the Left does not provide a serious anti-capitalist, pro-working class, feminist and internationalist alternative – other forces to our right will propose xenophobic solutions. Already it is noticeable that an anti-immigrant ‘look after our own first’ argument is more frequently made: I have have it put to me, with regard to housing, more explicitly in the past month than in the previous six months.
In the post-Brexit public debate the SF call for a border poll, supposedly to allow the 6 Counties to remain in the EU and thus avoid the creation of a ‘hard’ border, has had some resonance. In my opinion this avoids the key issue: a real fight against austerity that could attract protestant workers away from unionism and create the social conditions for unity.
Even if a border poll was agreed by London and Dublin, what would convince a majority of the 865,000 protestant population, the vast majority of whom currently vote for unionist parties, to vote to become part of a united Irish state in which all of the major parties implement the austerity measures required to protect the bankers under the rules of the EU? Any Irish government (or party) that wants to reverse the impact of austerity must break the EU Fiscal Treaty rules that restrict state investment in housing and other services. SF does not mention this (for example in its support for the recent Housing Report by FG and FF).
In the unlikely event that some unionists were to vote to leave the UK in order to remain in the EU as part of a united Ireland, the unwillingness of SF to really challenge the inequality that exists in Ireland and break the EU rules that sustain inequality, North and South, means it is highly unlikely that a big majority of working class protestants would break from unionism.
The fact that the new finance minister in the North is from SF – and has already been dubbed the minister for cuts, since a 2% per year cut in public spending until 2020 has been agreed – will do nothing to convince Protestant workers that they would have a better future in a united Ireland, where the same austerity politics would apply. Likewise the support by SF to cut corporation tax in the North to 12.5% – thus reducing the funds available for public services. Why would working class Protestants warm to this race to the bottom – advocated by the apparent embodiment in the 6 Co’s of the politics of the 26 Co’s and a united Ireland in the form of SF?
If a referendum in the 6 Co’s resulted in a small majority in favor of a united Ireland but the vast majority of working class protestants were not politically broken from support for loyalism to the British state, would SF demand that the British and / or Irish governments use force to suppress militant loyalist resistance to the ending of the 6 Co state – to be replaced by a government with a nationalist majority in a unified Irish state?
The problems of the North cannot be resolved within the North, or within the legal parameters that sustain social inequality in Ireland North and South. I support the right of the people of Ireland as a whole to make the decisions on their political future, free from British intervention. But there remains the question of a significant minority wishing to retain British institutions of state in Ireland – despite the disappearance of the sectarian privilege that sustained that loyalism in the past.
Working class protestants are very unlikely to break from loyalism and support a united Ireland if their experience of island-wide politics is what life is like under the Stormont administration of which SF is part, for example the benefit cuts and 20,000 job losses in the ‘Fresh Start’ agreement; or by the willingness of SF to participate in a FF coalition government – given the record and politics of FF. The dynamic of the Fresh Start cuts is likely to be a clientist approach to protecting their own supporters on behalf of both the nationalist parties and their unionist counterparts.
The only way to break working class Protestants from loyalism is to demonstrate a real willingness to fight for a better future in a united Ireland – which a ‘green’ capitalism cannot deliver. Demands for a border poll mask the lack of a real commitment to fight for the social change that would demonstrate, in practice, a commitment to social equality – rather than simply an end to the border but continued poverty and inequality North and South.
To begin to create the social conditions for a unified Irish state the approach should be to break the Fiscal Treaty rules – both in the North and the South – in an island-wide fight against austerity and as part of a Europe-wide social alternative. That alternative should include repudiation of the bankers’ debt; demands state investment in housing and public services; and a fight for unionization of all workers (migrant and native) and repeal of anti-union laws, for a raising of all wage rates to the higher levels of the various trades.
We should also promote international solidarity action by workers’ organisations to combat the multinationals that try to play off one country against others by seeking tax breaks or reduced protection of workers’ rights or of the environment: open the books of the multinationals.
Ending regional inequality in Europe, the driving force of mass migration, requires planning production – what is produced, how much of it and where – in order to move towards a more balanced geographical distribution of economic activity and end regional unemployment. This requires a challenge to the private, profit-motivated ownership of production and services – a challenge primarily to ‘our own’ capitalists and pro-capitalist parties but also to the rules of the EU.
It also requires an understanding that a Europe-wide approach is necessary – aiming towards the creation of a European socialist federation in which political and economic democracy, social need and environmental protection are the priority.
While advocating that the anti-social rules of the EU should be broken, we should acknowledge that some measure of agreed regulation is better than unbridled national inter-capitalist and inter-state competition. The fact that all current regulation in the EU – for example the standardization of safety / quality regulations, environmental protection, worker protection, etc. – is limited and contradicted by the priority of profitability should not blind us to the merit of trans-national European regulation, even within the framework of capitalism. Indeed it illustrates the necessity for regulation that is not premised on profitability of private enterprise and for economic and social planning – and for a socialist, European federative framework to facilitate that.
The current EU treaties, or indeed any national constitution or legal framework, are a codification of the existing social relations. Thus the Irish constitution, the legal system and the practice of the state ensures that private ownership and the profitability of the financial and industrial system takes precedence over social and environmental considerations.
The recent Anglo trial – with the revelations of collusion between the Central Bank, the Financial Regulator and senior bankers to protect private banking, followed by blanket state guarantees to pay the debts of the banks and thus keep the speculators in business – is as clear an illustration of the role of the state and of the constitutional / legal system as we could possibly get. Likewise the revelations about NAMA’s knock-down sales of assets, from which vulture-funds will make huge profits and pay little tax. The bank bailout and NAMA are a social transfer of wealth from poor to rich – carried out by the Irish state in a fashion that is legal and protected by the Irish Constitution.
The same applies to the treaties that are the framework of the EU: they give primacy to the needs of big capital. The European Commission is a huge bureaucracy that attempts to stand above the individual interests of national capitalists and the national states which promote the interests of their ‘own’ capitalists, in the interests of european-based capitalists in general. The objective is to promote the competitiveness of European capital against the US, China in particular; and to mitigate against inter-state pro-capitalist competition at a European level – part of which is EU opposition to state aid for domestic enterprises.
But the defining difference between the EU and its own member states is that the EU does not have an enforcement apparatus – a police force or army – which each member state does have. Thus the member states can enforce the laws that sustain profit and private property through the threat and the actual use of force: imprisonment or seizure of goods; police and / or army breaking strikes; the imprisoning of protestors, etc. The EU does not have the physical capacity to do that: it can only impose fines to the degree that the member states agree to pay them.
So if a member state government decides to break the Fiscal Treaty rules (by spending to build housing or hospitals), or refuses to abide by the requirement to submit its budget for pre-approval to the European Commission, the EU can only threaten to levy fines. It is not possible to impose them by force. In situations where a member state needs to borrow, the EU / ECB has a powerful lever. This was the case with Greece. But in the absence of the threat of refusal to provide a loan, the EU / ECB is something of a paper tiger.
The question is whether a government is prepared to challenge the primacy of profit and the private ownership of land, buildings and enterprises – on which profit-making depends. This immediately entails a challenge both to national and to EU rules – which also enshrine private ownership. It is then a matter of how the EU responds.
Currently the EU is holding back from imposing sanctions on Spain and Portugal for breach of Fiscal Treaty rules on budget deficits; and Italy has had it’s deficit limits extended. It is highly unlikely that the EU would attempt to impose a fine on Ireland if the state does not impose water charges – which clearly it cannot do on account of mass non-payment. If it did so and the Irish government refused to pay, the enforcement mechanism could be to suspend agricultural or other payments. But in the context of Brexit the Commission will be wary of spreading disillusion with the EU.
So what should we do now? For the Left in Ireland, Brexit is as much a wake-up call as an opportunity. Brexit and the water charge victory strengthen the position to demand that the government should breach the EU rules that restrict state spending (e.g. on housing and healthcare). While we should raise the demand, we are not in a position to repudiate the debt.
An immediate political step would be for the Irish left to publicly support Jeremy Corbyn in opposition to the Blairites – and support a campaign for Blairite MPs to be deselected as Labour candidates. This would help move the British Labour Party towards being a party that fights for the interests of working class people – and be a source of solidarity with struggles here and elsewhere.
The key task for Irish socialists however, is to construct a new, mass party that will take the side of workers and the oppressed in any conflict with capitalists, the Irish state or the EU. A party committed to that would have to be willing to mobilise to challenge the rules when the needs of a struggle require it – and not restrict itself to proposals in the Dáil. Crucially it would also have to reject, in principle, coalition with the parties of Irish capitalism – FF and FG. Coalition with them leads to betrayal – like Labour has done.
Despite its protestations, SF is not that new party. Recent events make that clear. SF refused to champion non-payment of the water charge – a mass challenge to the law and the reason for the government retreat. The SF reliance on parliamentary votes rather than mass civil disobedience shows that in any real challenge to the bosses or the state, SF will not lead the self-organisation and mass action needed to challenge the legal protection for the wealth and privately-owned resources of the rich minority.
Fighting for state investment in housing and other public services that would break the EU Fiscal Treaty rules, while mentioned in the past, has disappeared from the SF agenda. Likewise the evident willingness of SF to form a coalition government with FF (or FG) – which would mean implementing pro-capitalist austerity policies. That said, I think socialists should work with SF in united-front campaigns where possible. The participation of SF in meeting a delegation from the zionist Likud – one of the parties responsible for the oppression and dispossession of the people of Palestine – shows they are willing to play the diplomatic game.
A possible source for a new party is from amongst trade unions. The recent positive initiative by some trade union officials in the campaign against the water charge – Right 2 Water – raised the issue. The union-led mobilisations facilitated mass protests that were essential for victory. But the possibility of a new political project – mooted in the formation of Right 2 Change as the pre-election embodiment of Right 2 Water – came to nothing and had no impact in the election. There were organizational reasons for this: R2W had no branch structure or means of collective decision-making such as delegate meetings, out of which a new formation could grow; as one of the union officials involved put it, R2W was essentially an event-management grouping. But the primary reasons were political.
R2C was the pre-election transformation of R2W. It was conceived as a progressive umbrella that would promote support for all candidates and parties who supported abolition of water charges – as well as a range of other demands. In continuity with R2W, it did not call for a boycott. And on the question of government it did not reject coalition with FF or FG.
In the run-up to the election there were two concrete question being discussed in the movement: would it be possible to ‘vote them out’ and get a (left) government elected that would abolish the charge; and what should people do with their water bills – pay or not pay.
Everybody who participated in R2W leadership meetings knew, prior to the election, that a left government (however defined) would not emerge from the election; and that abolition of the charge could not therefore, come from a vote in the Dáil.
So flowing from that the question was whether candidates or TDs from the water charge movement could be a political focus for resistance by championing a boycott – the way to make the charge unworkable and ensure its abandonment.
If a big majority had paid, both FG and FF would have retained the charge – despite the protests. It is mass non-payment, and the realization by FF that taking people to court to get attachment to earnings would be impossible and cause uproar, that has caused it’s suspension and effective abandonment to a future government. Continuing the boycott will remain essential in stopping the re-introduction of charges by a future government.
The refusal by R2C to champion non-payment led to what everybody knew was a hopeless strategy of relying on a left majority in the Dáil to abolish the charge; and likewise the wind-down of mass action after the election – when the focus would again have been non-payment because the electoral tactic had proven to be ineffective. It was the outcome of the general politics of the union bureaucracy: to remain within the legal limits and not promote mass civil disobedience when necessary. This was bolstered by the unwillingness of SF to champion civil disobedience in the form of non-payment – a position that would probably have increased their working class support.
R2C also refused to reject coalition with the parties of Irish capitalism – FF and FG. This was partly an accommodation to SF, which does not rule out such a coalition. But it was also because coalition between the left and FF was considered by some in the union and water charge movement as an acceptable way to achieve abolition of the charge – as became clear after the election.
Coalition with FF or FG entails implementing the measures that preserve private wealth – whatever local or particular concessions are gained – as Labour has done in the past and the Independents in the current government will do. A party or TD cannot oppose austerity while participating in a government that is imposing it.
While R2C did not pose itself as a possible new party, the political approach matters. A new workers’ party would need the support and participation of trade unionists. But if a new party restricted itself to the politics of the trade union bureaucracy, it would become a variant of the Labour Party. It will have to be willing to mobilise to overturn anti-social laws when a struggle requires it: otherwise it will become part of the problem – like Labour.
The reason for this is not the personal qualities of union officials or the views of individuals, but rather the social role of trade unions. Unions are essential for defending pay and conditions. But union officials operate and negotiate within the existing ownership relations and legal framework: they look for better pay from the owners / employers; they do not advocate that workers should end their exploitation by the take-over of enterprises.
The labour bureaucracy accepts the capitalist legal and political structures – including accepting the laws that restrict union activity – partly due to the threat to their own jobs that sequestration of union funds could entail but also because of their social role as negotiators for reforms between capital and labour. Political parties that adopt the same approach inevitably end up as managers of capitalism – especially in a crisis – as Labour and its European sister parties have done.
But the rest of the left is not, as yet, taking seriously its responsibilities. The AAA-PBPA bloc exists only as a link-up in the Dáil – there is no substance to a joint formation outside the Dáil. Some of the responsibility for this lies in the earlier unwillingness of PBPA to participate in the formation of an organised non-payment current in the water charge movement, which would have led to joint work across the left and created conditions for more real co-operation. But there remains an unnecessary competitiveness between the left groups that is a hindrance to the establishment of a significant new formation.
Other left TDs / groups are currently unwilling to work with the left groups – for historic and / or personal reasons. So while the movement against the water charge has won a significant victory in forcing the abandonment of the charge at least for the duration of the current Dáil, no real gains have been made with regards to the creation of a new workers’ party as an outcome of that mass struggle. All of us on the left need to think seriously about how to change that for the future.
An immediate opportunity to work together however, will be to build solidarity against the legal attacks on the Jobstown protests. If the state succeeds in jailing a socialist TD, two councillors and other working class activists it will not only strike a blow against the left, but will also set a draconian precedent with the threat of imprisonment against any future protest movement – be that around housing and opposition to evictions, hospital closures, student loans or other issues. The entire left and water charge movement should publicly unite in support of the Jobstown protestors.
In the medium term, a discussion should start on presenting a left, class-struggle slate for the next general election, which will probably happen in the spring of 2018, followed by the local elections in 2019.
The creation of a socially progressive alternative at the EU only come if it is rooted in real struggles for such an alternative at the national level, extending to the international: a real struggle against austerity including breaking the Fiscal Treaty rules and fighting for immediate investment in socially useful projects; a public audit of the debt – with a view to repudiating the majority of it; solidarity with migrants and refugees – no cap on migration or leaving people to drown; action to stop climate change – end the carbon trading sham; solidarity with the peoples of the Middle East – action to stop / end European and US military intervention; action to stop / end the plunder of Africa by European capital and ex-colonial powers.
These are a few of the issues on which inter-state co-operation, or trans-European solidarity movements, could begin to construct permanent co-operation in parallel to the EU – with a view to transcending it and making a progressive withdrawal from its institutions. Once we begin to look at the changes needed, it is obvious that international co-operation and socialist planning is essential.
‘National’ solutions are an illusion: the failure of the capitalist EU to provide trans-national solutions should not make us think otherwise. For those who think an exit from the EU will – of itself – lift the burden of austerity, a glance at working class life in Tory Britain shows this is not going to be the case.
David McWilliams recently argued for the Irish state to poach financial service companies to come from Britain to Ireland – using lower tax and EU membership as bait. This is the nationalism that is also present in the Tory / UKIP politics that McWilliams supposedly opposes. Likewise SF supports cuts to corporation tax in the 6Co’s – to compete for FDI against the 26 Co state.
In my opinion socialists must trenchantly oppose this race to the bottom, as states compete to undercut one another to boost the already huge profits of multinationals by reducing tax and regulation. Low tax on profits means higher tax on workers and fewer welfare services (the Tories have made clear that reduced corporation tax in the 6 Co’s will require funding to come from other sources – a euphemism for public spending cuts).
What is needed is a social solidarity alternative, as against nationalist capitalist competition and the neoliberal anti-social politics of the EU and its member states. While joint campaigning across the left and social movements is vital, the creation of a new workers’ party that will mobilise in a fight to take power is essential if such an alternative is to be implemented on both the national and international planes.
Brendan Young is an Independent socialist councillor on Kildare Co. Council.
Latest posts by Brendan Young (see all)
- Brexit and Other Issues: Comments on the Current Situation - August 29, 2016
- Principles for a Left Alternative - May 28, 2015
- Agree to a Left Slate: Response to PBPA ‘Alliance’ Proposal. - April 8, 2015
- New Hope in Ireland - May 20, 2011
- Building the ULA: Reflections on the Past and Proposals for the Future - January 9, 2011