Weekly Worker editor Peter Manson argues for a vote for No2EU – provided its leading figures can shows us they are opposed to little British nationalism and favour republican democracy
The Socialist Party in England and Wales has made a reply – of sorts – to the Weekly Worker’s attacks on its uncritical participation in the left nationalist ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ bloc which is contesting the June 4 European Union elections.
Writing in the Socialist Party monthly, SPEW’s deputy general secretary, Hannah Sell, describes No2EU as a “huge step forward” and continues: “The programme of ‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ is very limited. Nevertheless, it seeks to oppose the European Union (EU) from a working class, non-nationalist standpoint. Far from being nationalist, it has ‘Yes to international solidarity of working people’ as one of its demands. What is more, in his public statements, Bob Crow has had a clearly internationalist approach – for example, saying that ‘We want a workers’ Europe, not the bosses’ EU’, on the BBC’s Daily politics show.
“‘No to the EU, Yes to Democracy’ has a vital role to play in offering an alternative to nationalism. In one sense, it is more developed than many of the anti-EU … campaigns of the past, because, far from blocking with the capitalist anti-EU parties, it is an attempt to provide a left alternative to them. It is not a coincidence that most of the same organisations that dismiss No2EU as nationalist also made the fundamental mistake of opposing the Lindsey oil construction workers’ action, an all-out unofficial strike which won a tremendous victory, on the completely false grounds that it was nationalist.”1
So not only is No2EU not nationalist: it has “a vital role to play in offering an alternative to nationalism”. And the ‘evidence’? SPEW managed to have “Yes to international solidarity of working people” inserted amongst its bullet points. The Morning Star’s Communist Party of Britain – whose comrades had drafted the platform and persuaded Bob Crow, general secretary of the RMT union, to front the campaign – was happy to add this platitude. All left nationalist formations – the CPB being a prime example – are perfectly capable of mouthing such abstract slogans, but that does not stop them upholding socialism in one country as their goal and the nation-state as the vehicle for achieving it.
Similarly Bob Crow (although probably not the CPB) is perfectly capable of making the abstract call for a “workers’ Europe”, while at the same time campaigning in practice for so-called British sovereignty and withdrawal from the EU.
Without naming the Weekly Worker (which other “organisations that dismiss No2EU as nationalist” is she referring to?), comrade Sell effectively lumps the CPGB with those that opposed the Lindsey strikes. As she well knows, the CPGB offered the strikers critical support, despite the ‘British jobs for British workers’ slogan that was prominent at the beginning of the action.
We have pointed out, however, that, while SPEW comrades played a generally positive role in winning the Lindsey strikers to a progressive, internationalist set of demands, within No2EU they are doing precisely the opposite, claiming that the campaign makes no “concessions” to “nationalist prejudices” and even aims to “cut across … national … divisions”!2
As I said in a previous article, the very name chosen for the campaign should surely alert us immediately to the contrary. Would comrade Crow, SPEW and the CPB ever dream of entering an election campaign under the banner of ‘No to Britain’, for example?3
In that article I examined all the statements on the No2EU website, to which SPEW has signed up, and demonstrated conclusively that the platform is thoroughly nationalist. But comrade Sell does not bother to deal with the actual arguments, merely asserting that black is white and expecting everyone to believe her.
To remind readers, as well as “Yes to international solidarity of working people”, No2EU’s bullet points contain: “Defend and develop manufacturing, agriculture and fishing industries in Britain”; “Repatriate democratic powers to EU member-states”; and “Scrap EU rules designed to stop member-states from implementing independent economic policies” – all three clearly stressing the centrality of national sovereignty for the campaign.4
Interestingly, comrade Sell reproduces these bullet points in her article, but makes no comment on them whatsoever. And it goes without saying that she does not refer at all to the detailed policy statements written by the CPB and displayed on the No2EU website. For instance, the section entitled ‘The economic crisis and the EU’ is pure, ‘official’ communist, ‘socialism in one country’ chauvinism:
“Nation-states with the right to self-determination and their governments are the only institutions that can control the movement of big capital and clip the wings of the transnational corporations and banks ….
“To return to an economy based on manufacturing requires massive investment and, where appropriate, protection of home industries. It is the only way to ensure jobs and a decent, safe future for the peoples of Britain.”
So what does comrade Sell think about the demand for “self-determination” in relation to the EU for imperialist powers like the United Kingdom? Does she agree that classless “nation-states” and “their governments” are “the only institutions” capable of controlling capital? What about the international proletariat?
And is she happy to be part of a campaign that advocates “protection of home industries”? British-based corporations are in competition with those in the US, Europe, Japan, China, etc. No principled socialist sides with their ‘own’ industries by erecting barriers to keep out international rivals, just as no principled socialist would regard it as acceptable to “ensure jobs and a decent, safe future for the peoples of Britain” at the expense of the “jobs and a decent, safe future” for peoples elsewhere.
How about the section of the No2EU platform headed ‘Stand up for workers’ rights’? Does comrade Sell agree that the “social dumping of exploited foreign workers in Britain” results from the “so-called ‘free movement’ of labour” within the EU, with the strong implication that it must be restricted? The CPB for its part is openly against the free movement of labour. For instance, the 2007 pamphlet Workers of all lands, issued under the name of the CPB economic committee, was plugged as a counter to the demands of the “ultra-left” for open borders.5
So does SPEW go along with this now? Of course, we know that general secretary Peter Taaffe once explained to his comrades in the pages of the internal Members Bulletin, that, although the Socialist Party is for the abolition of passports and borders, if it were to openly back the call to end all immigration controls, the workers ‘would not understand’. In effect SPEW finds it too embarrassing to come out openly for the free movement of labour, but I am afraid it is just one small step from keeping your ‘principles’ secret to opposing them in practice.
The CPB wants to abolish only those “immigration, asylum and nationality laws which institutionalise racism”.6 It actually favours the right of the “nation-state” to ‘control its borders’ by keeping out unwanted migrants – ie, in practice those which local capital does not require. The CPB explicitly opposes open borders in general and the ability of Polish, Italian, Portuguese, etc workers in particular to come to Britain if they so choose. That is why it is grossly hypocritical of No2EU to condemn the “deeply racist Fortress Europe, which would increasingly exclude people from outside the EU”. The CPB is instead for Fortress Britain (complete with ‘humane’, non-racist border controls).
To give comrade Sell her due, while she completely shies away from No2EU’s nationalism, even going so far as to pretend the platform is internationalist, she does edge towards making a very mild criticism of the CPB’s interpretation of the phrase, ‘yes to democracy’ (which is clearly informed by the latter’s nationalism in any case).
She writes: “There is also a danger that, while correctly attacking the lack of democracy in the EU, some supporters of the campaign can fall into giving the impression that the UK parliament is the alternative.”
Some supporters? Who could they be? Not those who set the campaign up and determined its politics, by any chance? And I am glad we are only talking about a “danger” of “giving the impression” – I would hate to think that “some supporters” actually believe that the UK parliament is “the alternative”. The advocacy of “nation-states with the right to self-determination and their governments” in opposition to the EU has nothing to do with their respective parliaments, of course.
Comrade Sell, by way of warning, has a few words to say about the shortcomings of UK parliamentary democracy: “A constitutional monarchy with an unelected second chamber, Britain is no model of democracy. Neither the House of Lords nor the monarchy is just a harmless tradition …”
But before she has the chance to tell us about the kind of democracy she positively favours, the argument is diverted into SPEW’s main gripe about the campaign – the fact that the CPB and Crow had already decided before SPEW came on board that any successful candidates would not take up their seats: “Appearing to present the British parliament as democratic is one of the possible potential pitfalls of the position of the campaign that victorious candidates would only nominally hold their seats and would not sit in the European parliament.”
By the way, although comrade Sell insists that “A discussion on how to proceed on this would be made by a national convention of the forces involved in the campaign, if candidates are elected”, one of the four main headings on the No2EU website still reads, as it has from the beginning: “Our candidates will nominally hold the title ‘MEP’, but will not board the notorious EU gravy train by taking their seats.” Obviously no-one has got round to telling the webmaster that this statement is no longer accurate.
Comrade Sell is very understanding, however: “One of the main reasons for the campaign’s position is the fact that the European parliament is accurately seen as a gravy train – MEPs will be earning nearly £80,000 a year after the June elections.” Mind you, this article was written before the huge scandal around MPs’ expenses and the Westminster “gravy train” – some of the honourable members’ claims make those of MEPs seem like moderation itself.
However, I too risk being diverted from the main question – the Socialist Party’s position on both nationalism and democracy. I think we should be told why SPEW believes the slogan, ‘No to the EU’, along with everything I have quoted above, is not nationalistic. We should also be told what exactly the comrades understand by ‘Yes to democracy’.
These are hardly irrelevant questions, since in three of the 11 EU regions in Britain the top candidate on the No2EU list – the only one with even a theoretical chance of being elected – is a SPEW member. They are Dave Nellist (West Midlands), Roger Bannister (North West) and Keith Gibson (Yorkshire and Humberside).
Let us imagine that they are elected. What position would they take not just on Fortress Europe, but on Fortress Britain? Would they stick to the platform and come out against the free movement of labour? And what kind of democracy would they advocate in opposition to EU bureaucracy?
The CPGB will therefore recommend a No2EU vote only if the top candidate in a given region comes out publicly in favour of two conditions. These are:
1. No to Fortress Britain as well as no to Fortress Europe. In other words, for open borders – the right of workers to live and work wherever they choose.
2. Yes to republican democracy. For the abolition of the monarchy and second chamber; for annual parliaments with recallable MPs on a worker’s wage; for an end to the secret state; for a popular militia and the constitutional right to bear arms.
What we are trying to do with these conditions is give some principled content to the campaign’s two main slogans. It is all very well opposing Fortress Europe and mouthing internationalist platitudes, but it is essential to oppose nationalism in practice.
As for the ‘democracy’ which No2EU upholds, it is clearly of the sort which Britain “‘enjoyed’ before joining the Common Market. The democracy which allowed imperialist Britain the right to self-determination without ‘interference’ by Brussels (in reality, of course, it is the major EU powers, including the UK, which dictate EU policy). If SPEW opposes the UK constitutional monarchy system, as comrade Sell states, it needs to spell out its own vision of democracy – and come out openly against the understanding of it carried in No2EU’s statements, which merely pits British sovereignty against the EU bureaucracy.
In our view it is tactically incorrect to give No2EU unconditional support, either critical or uncritical. This ranges from SPEW itself, through Respect’s Nick Wrack and Pete McLaren of the Socialist Alliance to Dave Craig in last week’s Weekly Worker. Comrades Wrack and McLaren, both No2EU candidates, may occasionally state their reservations (Pete McLaren, for instance, admits that the platform may have its ‘weaknesses’), but will publicly strive to show No2EU in the best possible light – comrade McLaren is its West Midlands press officer. Comrade Craig openly criticises the platform, but says we should vote No2EU unconditionally.7
The CPGB’s Provisional Central Committee discussed the possibility of doing the same – voting for No2EU while holding your nose, as one comrade put it. It would, of course, not be unprincipled to do so. But it would be tactically misplaced.
Let us look at the forces involved. Firstly, there is the CPB. It has achieved quite a coup in not only winning Bob Crow to front a campaign based on the unadulterated anti-EU politics of the British road to socialism programme of ‘official communism’ (since the 2001 version renamed Britain’s road to socialism), but in getting the Socialist Party Trotskyists to tailing along behind it (not to mention doing most of the work on the ground).
But the CPB is deeply divided. One wing still holds to the BRS theme – Labour will be ‘reclaimed’ and eventually national socialism will be legislated into existence in Britain by a series of more and more leftwing Labour governments (aided and abetted by a growing number of ‘communist’ MPs). The other wing – led by general secretary Rob Griffiths himself, believes that things went too far under New Labour, so instead union leaders will eventually have to be persuaded to break with Brown and form a new “party of labour”. The BRS will have to be put on hold in the meantime.
This line is pretty similar to SPEW’s vision of a “mass workers’ party”. For Taaffe, Sell and co the creation of such a party is the main strategic question today. The role of ‘revolutionaries’ like themselves is to persuade union left bureaucrats to establish a halfway house formation with the help of the Campaign for a New Workers’ Party and then beaver away inside it. At some time in the distant future the revolutionaries will either take over this Labour Party mark two or lead a mass split from it. But at what point the revolutionaries will stop pretending to be reformists and how they will be able to manage the metamorphosis is never explained.
SPEW believes that in some vague way the No2EU electoral campaign is a step towards achieving a replacement Labour Party – a “huge step forward” in fact. This is unlikely, to say the least. No2EU will surely receive very poor votes indeed, which, if anything, will hold back any impetus towards a new party. The post-election convention – if it takes place – will surely be another rally-cum-talking shop.
However, if I am wrong – let us imagine that No2EU does reasonably well and a new party is formed – the politics on which No2EU is based would surely be carried into the new formation. That would be a disaster: a Labour Party founded on open nationalism of a sort that merges with the extreme right would in this respect be worse than the existing party.
The argument for a No2EU-based party is that it claims to be for workers and is supported by a major union. But the problem is, almost all the other main unions are still affiliated to Labour and show no sign of abandoning it. Despite being totally dominated as never before by openly pro-imperialist worshippers of the system of capital, Labour remains a bourgeois workers’ party. In other words, there is a still a job to be done within it.
The job that needs doing is not that of persuading left union leaders to be more assertive. To be honest, a party based on the union bureaucracy is by its very nature one that will seek compromises with capitalism and the UK state – union bureaucrats are forced towards acting as intermediaries between labour and capital – and that would apply just as much in any new formation led by the likes of Bob Crow, Matt Wrack or Mark Serwotka.
According to Dave Craig, “The CPGB … continues to believe that Labour remains some kind of workers’ party. The old 1920 formula that Labour is a bourgeois workers’ party is still in place. The CPGB does not therefore call for a new workers’ party when there already is one.”8
No, comrade: the CPGB does not call for a new Labour Party, period. The job of communists is not to either bring back to life old Labour within the existing party or try and recreate it in another one. Our job is to win workers to break with Labourism, not sow illusions in it. That does not mean we would refuse to engage with any left split from Labour, of course – not even one which encapsulated No2EU’s politics. But we must also continue to engage with the existing party – in order to win workers, not least members of affiliated unions, to accept the need for the only formation that can really serve their interests: a Marxist Party.
If No2EU leaders, particularly SPEW members, meet our two conditions – to come out openly in internationalist opposition to Fortress Britain and for republican democracy – that would demonstrate their intention to break with Labourism. If they refuse to do so, thus signalling their intention to recreate Labour on the basis of overt nationalism, workers might just as well vote for the genuine article on June 4.
1. Socialism Today May.
2. SPEW statement: www.socialistparty.org.uk/articles/7070
3. ‘Socialist Party in denial’ Weekly Worker March 26.
4. See www.no2eu.com
5. This pamphlet is unavailable online, but a review carried by the Morning Star gives a flavour of its contents: www.morningstaronline.co.uk/news/culture/books/the_reality_of_workers_on_the_move
7. ‘No2EU-UK, yes to a European republic’ Weekly Worker May 7.