John Foster and Vince Mills of Radical Options for Scotland and Europe ROSE argue the return of legislative powers from Brussels to the governments of Scotland, Wales and the English regions could lead a revival of regional economies once State Aid bans imposed under EU competition law are removed
This summer workers in Glasgow’ s Caledonian Rail workshops repaired their last train and walked away. This once mighty centre of Scottish industry closed. After dominating global rail manufacturing for over a century, ‘The Caley’ was cast adrift by rail privatisation, sold on by a series of venture capitalists until the business ended up in the hands of a German holding company, Mutares AG.
Despite pleas from trade unions either to take the railway workshops into public ownership, or provide state aid for worker management, the SNP government claimed it was powerless to act.
The same story can be repeated for dozens of other workplaces in Scotland, Wales and England’s regions. State aid, other than in exceptional circumstances, violates EU competition law. As does public ownership if seen to threaten ‘free competition’ and the rights of private businesses.
Now, however, change appears possible. Withdrawal from the EU provides the opportunity to regain such powers at regional and national level. But this restitution of powers won’t happen automatically. Our Labour movement must fight for powers to be returned to our peoples now.
Theresa May’s ‘Withdrawal Agreement’ incorporated EU prohibitions on democratic intervention in the economy by accepting EU Single Market competition terms. Almost certainly, any EU exit involving trade deals with the United States negotiated by Boris Johnson will do likewise.
Only Jeremy Corbyn has identified the key demand to accept health, environmental and employment rights aspects of the Single Market, but not those restricting democratic control of industry. Corbyn’s spelt this out in his 2018 Coventry speech on regional industrial policy and has done so repeatedly since.
The link between Brexit and regional (and national) industrial policy is critical. There can be no true revival of the economies of Scotland, Wales and England’s regions without ending bans imposed by EU competition policy. Nor can there be any real power for regional assemblies or the parliamentary institutions of Wales and Scotland unless economic powers are returned.
This is why delegates at this year’s Scottish TUC Congress in Dundee unanimously agreed a resolution from Clydebank Trades Union Council calling on the STUC to lobby the Scottish government to ensure that, as part of an EU withdrawal deal, these powers should return to the Scottish Parliament.
“Return” is important. Because under the terms of the 1998 Scottish Parliament Act all powers not specifically reserved for central government, are vested in Scotland. These include most aspects of industrial policy including public ownership and state aid. If people regionally and locally are to have real power to change lives, these powers must be returned.
So also, must powers to invest in infrastructure, save declining industries and invest in new ones. Labour’s spending plans would transform the Scottish economy, principally through a proposed National Investment Bank. A two term Labour Government would see an additional investment of a transformative £70 billion in Scotland. EU State Aid rules, however, call into question whether the proposed NIB could even be set up in the first place.
This return of powers is critical for democratic renewal in Britain and particularly for progressive federalism defined, as it has been in Scotland, by the Red Paper Collective and Pauline Bryan.
It is progressive because it is designed to change the balance of power between capital and labour giving people the power to exercise democratic control over regional and national economies, combined with a strong central parliament at British level that can challenge the power of big business and ensure more equitable distribution of wealth between Britain’s component nations and regions.
In Scotland this campaign is currently the focus of ROSE (Radical Options for Scotland and Europe). ROSE was established in 2016 and has affiliations from a majority of Scotland’s trades union councils and several major trade unions. Its object has been to bring together both Leave and Remain supporters to campaign for an EU withdrawal on democratic terms that serve the needs of working people.
This month ROSE campaigners have been out on the streets of Scotland with a petition to the Scottish parliament putting the demand s of Clydebank’s STUC resolution. People readily understand the need for powers to halt the loss of jobs and the need to regenerate regional and national economies.
This is why ROSE also agreed at its aggregate meeting this month to support the work of Leave-Fight-Transform: the LeFT Campaign calling for a Left withdrawal from the EU. On it depends the future of our democracy.
John Foster and Vince Mills are joint secretaries of Radical Options for Scotland and Europe (ROSE)
As Boris Johnson and the Tories cling to power, many people
could be forgiven for wondering what is going on in the Labour Party. Having
rightly had a stated policy of prioritising a general election these last two
years, it has now turned down the chance to have one twice in under a week.
Furthermore, its stated reason for doing so the first time – the need to ensure
the bill forcing the government to seek a further extension of Article 50 and
prevent no deal passed – had evaporated by the time it refused an election on
Why is this?
There is no answer to this question that makes any sense
other than seeing this as an another retreat, as evidence of the tack
rightwards, and of the balance of forces pushing Labour away from being
anything resembling an insurgent movement and back to being a party of
moderation and accommodation.
What we are seeing then in Labour is a further shifting in the balance of power within the party towards those forces that are against both the left and honouring the 2016 EU referendum. Labour went into the 2017 general election with a policy of enacting a People’s Brexit. By the end of that summer, this had started to slide, first via an announcement that a transitional deal would be sought, followed by the phrase ‘People’s Brexit’ leaving the Labour lexicon, to be replaced by a ‘jobs-first Brexit’, then the fudge agreed at conference in 2018. Since then, after huge pressure from the pro-remain (and anti-Corbyn) majority, this has become a policy of putting any deal that a Labour government could get back to the people with remain on the ballot. There has even been talk this week of potentially putting May’s deal, with a tweak or two, up against remain. While Jeremy Corbyn’s speech at the TUC today was welcome in its criticism of what the Tories plan to do after Brexit, as was his emphasis on class, trade unionism and Labour’s plan to extend workers’ rights, he did also confirm a referendum on a deal vs remain as Labour’s policy.
This slide has had other pit stops along the way, but that is
a general summary of what has happened. While there are many socialists who
support remain and a radical, transformative government under Jeremy Corbyn, it
is not them who are calling the shots. Labour has got itself into an alliance
with the Lib Dems, the SNP, the Greens, Plaid Cymru and a rump of rebel Tories.
The effect of such alliances is to subordinate the left’s needs to those of
capital, and that is exactly what is happening here. Witness the relative praise
coming out of the serious capitalist press this last week or two. Of course,
the vast majority of capital wants to remain, and would cope with a defanged
Labour government far more than a no deal Brexit.
Last night in parliament, endless voices from the so-called ‘rebel alliance’ were asking for a second referendum having just refused a general election. The Lib Dems were talking about revoking Article 50 while calling for political change. Labour’s current position is politically incoherent and, we should suspect, can’t hold. No party can expect to be taken seriously going into a general election saying they will allow their own front bench to campaign against their own negotiated deal. Moreover, when Kier Starmer sits down in Brussels, those across the table from him will know that he will himself campaign against what he is trying to achieve. That is a negotiating position that makes Syriza’s in 2015 look like a card sharp holding a Royal Flush. Therefore, the logical conclusion of this drift is to go full remain and simply go into the election promising to hold another referendum.
In the context of a Tory party presenting itself as anti-establishment and for the people against an obstructive, rump parliament, a left movement of insurgency and transformation at a time of great crisis cannot hope to resolve that crisis in its favour by returning to its position as the second party of capital. That is what the establishment has wanted since 2016. At times when the Tories cannot function as the first party of capital, in this case because it cannot resolve the contradictions that Brexit has caused for it, the ruling class looks to a right social democratic Labour party to maintain its interests. Jeremy Corbyn in the leader’s chair had put paid to that. They couldn’t unseat him in 2016. Manufactured crises have had little effect on the polls. Therefore the tactic has been to push the party over time towards positions that stymie the ability of a Labour government to affect radical change. This has led to a situation where John McDonnell is saying that Labour is putting ‘country above party’. What this really means is country above class. There is no national interest. There are our interests, and there are theirs.
Despite all this, sections of the Labour left are acting like
the leadership are playing an intricate game of chess. Wishful thinking and
hopes and dreams will get us nowhere. Politics is concrete, and based on
material reality and the balance of forces. There must now be the greatest
pressure put upon Labour to go into the election promising to campaign for a
deal that will benefit the working class and allow it to implement a radical
programme free from EU rules and regulations. The confrontation with British
capital and the establishment will be tough enough, without also having to take
on the EU in legislative and judicial terms.
LeFT says this to the labour movement:
If you want a radical, transformative government, whatever
your views on Brexit, it cannot be achieved by siding with people who’ve spent
the last four years trying to destroy the growing left in the UK.
They don’t want what we want.
They will attempt to subordinate our politics to theirs. This
is already happening.
As soon as the election comes, they will tack even more
Labour need to distance themselves now and go into the coming election arguing for a Brexit in the interests of working people. Only by doing that can it free up space to talk about everything else.
Since the coronation of Boris Johnson, the British state crisis has reached a new peak. This has revealed all the morbid symptoms of the systemr that socialists have, for years, insisted lies behind Brexit. The conspiracy theory of a Machiavellian elite faction bent on ‘disaster capitalism’ has lost credibility (among those paying attention) with every dire turn in the Brexit story.
The repeated defeats of Theresa May should have put paid to this tired concept. The rise of Boris Johnson and his senior adviser Dominic Cummings gave it new life.
Many on the left are so traumatised by decades of defeat that they view every blunder of the rich as a power-play. Every squalid manoeuvre and failed initiative to emerge from Downing Street in recent days has been heralded as part of a long game that doesn’t exist.
The undead conspiracy theory took another bound into irrationality with the notion that Johnson’s threat to prorogue the parliament represented a ‘coup’. This misunderstood both the class character of the British state and the position of weakness currently occupied by the ruling class, including the ramshackle faction around Johnson.
The commitment to prorogue parliament did not indicate the overturning of the constitutional form of the British state. What it did indicate was both the elevation of that constitution to its natural anti-democratic height, and simultaneously its point of essential dysfunction.
The British constitution could be thrown together so haphazardly through the formative history of British capitalism because the state could rely on a hegemonic party – the Conservative party.
That party has been able, in every generation (with a few key Labour interventions), to construct a bloc sufficient to rule British capitalism through the travails of the international system and internal class tension.
What we are witnessing is an historic moment in the collapse of that party’s cohesion and therefore of the whole functioning of British politics.
The diverging strategic orientations which have presented themselves to the Corbyn project and wider left throughout its development are now presented again in the most blatant terms; is the left’s mission to stave-off the crisis and restore order to a battered system, or to ride the tiger of the crisis and assert a radical programme that favours the working class?
There are worrying indications in this regard. The business press is warming to Labour, and this was preceded by a more co-operative tone from John McDonnell towards the City, and promises to secure the independence of the Bank of England.
In a fit of self-delusion, some on the left are telling themselves and anyone who will listen that the Overton window is shifting, a new Bretton-Woods settlement is in the ascendancy, and the radical left is hegemonising the centre via a ‘Popular Front’ – or some other flippant nonsense, armed with the lowest kind of historical analogy.
The more accurate description of these dynamics is the most obvious; it is the left that is being incrementally hegemonised by the centre.
Right now British capitalism is like a man falling down the stairs. With the Tory party no longer by his side, he lashes out a hand to grab something, anything, to break his fall.
If what he finds is the Corbyn project and wider layers of leftwing opinion, then the radical potential of those forces will be rapidly spent.
What then follows in the wake of the Conservative party’s decline is not a radical social alternative, but a reactionary alternative.
Corbynism must attack the political system with a demand for a general election which will be a referendum on the entire social order. Socialists must tell the country in plain English that the current state of affairs cannot continue and that sweeping change on every front is urgently required. The politics of the defence of institutions, from the parliament to the City to the EU, will result in certain failure.
David Jamieson is a writer, socialist, editor @ConterScot and @TheCommonSpace and a signatory of the LeFT Campaign’s Founding Statement. This article was first published on Conter.
As the world economy slides towards recession, tension with existing international trade arrangements grow and the economic order that has led to the downgrading and downsizing of jobs is looking increasingly shaky. These changes at a global level combined with the vote to leave the EU all point to a recomposition of the global economic order as we know it This presents positive opportunities for workers and environmentalists.
Globalisation has led to unsustainable increases
in global carbon emissions which were 67% higher in 2013 than 1990. These
massive increases in emissions map directly to the growth of the integrated
trading networks over this period. Unless we change the way society produces
and trades goods we are going to experience runaway climate change. The
challenge for the radical left is to make sure this current crisis leads to
change that starts to reverse the growing carbon emissions and benefits working
In this emerging situation there will be an
enhanced role for the nation state. It will no longer be good enough for
politicians to fob off working class communities with the idea that
globalisation is an unstoppable force of nature against which they are
powerless to act. A greater possibility could exist for the powers of the state
to be used to retain and direct jobs to social and green ends. The idea that
inequality, industrial decay, runaway climate change and stagnant living
standards are something we have to suck up won’t wash any more. But if the left
doesn’t challenge the status quo then people will increasingly look to the
radical solutions of the right.
The vote to leave the EU must be seen in this
context of deep seated problems for the world economic order. The left needs to
urgently develop an agenda that aims to put the climate and working class
communities front and centre with the environment, jobs, migrant rights and
workers’ rights to the fore.
Whatever your perspective on leaving the EU, the
left needs to work out how it deals with a no-deal Brexit. The looming prospect
of no-deal provides both threats and opportunities for the labour movement. On
trade, migration, fiscal policy and the integrity of the United Kingdom itself,
no deal could have profound consequences. We need to establish what this will
mean for the labour movement and prepare accordingly. The LeFT campaign wants
to help develop alternative solutions for each of these issues and we will
highlight how the labour movement can try and take the initiative as Britain
leaves the EU.
One of the major issues with a no deal scenario
will be the increased uncertainty of life and work in Britain. No transition
period means that working people will have to respond immediately to changes
resulting from leaving the EU. There is no clarity, or precedent for what
happens next and whatever occurs will definitely not be predetermined. It will
ultimately be decided by the pressure of contending forces. In LeFT, we believe
the labour movement can make a decisive impact on the outcome to jobs that a no
deal scenario presents.
One of the key areas is the situation faced by
union members whose jobs are currently threatened by the breakdown in global
supply chains. The automotive, aerospace and shipbuilding sectors alongside their
supply chains will be massively affected by any no deal Brexit. In the
automotive sector, investment crashed more than 70 per cent to just £90m in the
first six months of 2019. Additionally, UK car production fell by 20 per cent
during the first half of the year, with June being the thirteenth consecutive
month production has declined. The automotive sector is already in crisis with
or without a Brexit deal.
At the Vauxhall plant at Ellesmere Port about
1000 jobs are being threatened by the employers. The French owners, PSA have
said that they will use alternative plants in Europe in the event of a no-deal
At Honda, the owners have announced plans to
wind down the plant with Brexit cited as one of the reasons for ending 30 years
of production at Swindon. Honda’s decision to close its only UK factory will
devastate the workforce and the entire community. If the closure isn’t stopped
3,500 jobs at the plant will be lost with a further 12,000 or more across the
supply chain and region at risk. So far
the campaign to prevent the closure hasn’t yet created enough pressure to
reverse this decision.
At BMW in Oxford, plans are afoot to build the
electric model of the Mini at the Cowley plant which employs about 4,500
people. However, production is tightly integrated with wheels produced in
plants in Southern Germany. Threats are already being made to shift production
to the Netherlands in the event of a no deal Brexit. Finding a solution that
saves the jobs at Cowley will mean breaking with the neoliberal status quo. If
EU rules make the existing production arrangements prohibitive then we should
assemble all the components here. If BMW decide to move the plant then we
should campaign for the plant to be renationalised.
Throughout Britain, 850,000 workers depend on
the automotive sector. These jobs bring skills, wages and the promise of future
skilled work to communities across Britain. We have to fight for a future for
each and every job. But maintaining skilled, well paid employment on this scale
will need new thinking and a strategy that directly confronts the EU and
Breaking the Impasse
The Harland and Wolff (H&W) shipyard brings
into focus both the problems and potential solutions for manufacturing workers
faced with closure. There has been a long term decline at the yard—from a peak
of 35,000 workers there are now 130 workers fighting to save their jobs.
The men and women, who are members of Unite and
the GMB, can’t afford to look back to the days of mighty ocean liners and
battleships for their future. Instead, they have evaluated the productive
assets of the yards and plan to use them as part of the necessary industrial
capacity that can begin to turn the tide against climate change.
They have combined their technical skills with
their knowledge of the H&W facilities and a vision of how they can
fabricate the wave, wind and tidal units that can harness the vast renewable
resources that can provide clean, affordable and abundant energy.
However, Boris Johnson’s Tory government and
their DUP lackeys, some of whom are constituency MP’s for the workers in the
shipyard, are opposed to the occupation and the workers plans for survival.
They have refused to nationalise the yard which is in occupation. At the time
of writing, the workers have won a guarantee that their jobs and skills will be
protected. The occupation continues to make sure that promises of job security
are realised. The current occupation at H&W is a critical example of
workers fighting for their jobs and a new set of priorities. The occupation
tactic raises the stakes with workers holding ‘hostage’ the yards assets
allowing them to dictate the terms of any outcome from a position of real power
which is already yielding results.
The example of H&W highlights the necessity
of saving these manufacturing jobs with a strategy for conversion to energy
renewables. However, the struggle in Belfast also shows how we need to break
with the failed priorities of the neoliberal agenda with a radical struggle
against the employers, the Tories and their priorities that continue to fail
ordinary workers and the need to combat climate change.
Where plant, jobs and communities are threatened
in manufacturing with no deal and the break-down of global supply chains there
should be no reason why these plants can’t be nationalised. If we allow them to close they will be gone
forever. Today we see the possibilities for real change. The Scottish
government has recently added to an original £45 million investment by taking
steps to nationalise the threatened Clyde Ferguson Marine shipyard which it
sees as a vital industrial asset. Ferguson is the only yard in the world with
the technology to build hydrogen powered vessels that are free of carbon
emissions. So, saving Ferguson Marine becomes a priority not just for the 350
permanent and 60 agency jobs – as well as the local community- but for their
state-owned assets to become world leaders in the development of alternative
technologies that can help us cut carbon emissions.
On the left, it’s understood that nationalising
assets for the ‘public good’ is forbidden under EU competition and state aid
rules. So what’s going on?
The EU allows for temporary ’emergency’
nationalisations, or where there is no private firm willing to bid for a
service (like East Coast Main Line). What is forbidden, partly under the
competition laws, is ‘ideological’ nationalisation on the grounds of public
interest. In this case, the Scottish Government was already the main creditor
of the private business. According to the SNP Cabinet Secretary for Finance,
David MacKay, EU state aid rules meant that the Scottish Government could not
simply bail-out the private company – as this would be to show preference for
it on an arbitrary basis. So the Scottish government’s ability to nationalise the yards
depended on the fact that most of the private yard’s business was coming from
the Scottish Government. However, EU state aid rules could make it difficult
for the yard to compete for future contracts.
So, in these unique circumstances where private
capital isn’t ‘threatened’ by the takeover, EU rules will permit government
intervention. Clearly, different rules will apply to any radical government
looking to renationalise utilities or transport infrastructure.
While union reps will continue to do all they
can to save existing jobs, we can see how the employers’ priorities aren’t the
same as ours and we need to develop alternative strategies to protect our jobs
and fight for our own interests. If we are to drive electric cars in Britain,
then we should build them in Ellesmere Port, Swindon and Cowley. At H&W,
the yard should be nationalised and reps’ plans to build renewables should be
developed in partnership with workplace committees.
In the LeFT campaign we want to work with others
to build a movement in workplaces and communities that campaigns for threatened
plants to be nationalised with plans developed to retrain and retool workers,
plant and machinery. This approach could protect jobs while allowing them to be
incorporated into strategies that will make the Green New Deal a reality today.
The LeFT campaign wants to see the immediate repeal of all anti-trade union
legislation and the beginning of an urgent debate on how best we increase
working class democracy with workplace committees having direct involvement in
the governance of nationalised assets under public ownership and controlled by
working class people.
The election of Johnson means the stakes are
high for all sides. The ruling elite are split about the Tory leadership and
Brexit; however, there is also a sense of paralysis on the left. A radical
challenge must come from outside of the establishment to break the impasse. The
question facing the movement, no matter how difficult it may seem is to try and
work out how we resolve the political crisis in favour of the working class and
the labour movement. The prospect of a
potential Corbyn government without the constraints of the EU is a nightmare
scenario for the British ruling class. Yet, the Corbyn project is coming under
increasing pressure to adopt a Remain position and support a second referendum.
Instead of moving towards Remain, Labour should be supporting workers fighting
job cuts and closures today while highlighting how any potential Labour
administration would protect workers from the likely impact of Brexit – deal or
As a general election looks increasingly likely, the LeFT campaign wants
to work with others in the labour movement to help prepare the working class
movement to take advantage of the new situation and freedom of action a future
Labour government would have outside of the EU. It’s time we gathered our
strength and took advantage of the weakness of the establishment. The fight to
turn any no deal Brexit into a Tory nightmare should begin with building
solidarity with the workers occupation at H&W who are demanding that it’s nationalised.
Messages of support to H&W workers can be sent to Susan.firstname.lastname@example.org
Ray Morell is a Unite Rep in the Aerospace and Shipbuilding sector.
A recent article in the
Irish Times reported retired Irish diplomat Sean Ó hUigínn quoting Edmund
Burke’s remark that the English have only one ambition in relation to Ireland,
which is to hear no more about it. Undoubtedly, with the Brexit backstop
causing turmoil in the House of Commons, senior members of the Conservative
party would very likely secretly share that view. Many in Ireland might well
suggest that had the English acted on Edmund Burke’s observation and left
Ireland way back then, they might be experiencing fewer problems at the moment.
However, we can’t change the past and the Irish question has returned to
Whatever about history, the
Brexit debate does not follow the same line of argument in Northern Ireland, as
it does in Britain. Local protagonists make different, although paradoxically
related, calculations when deciding their position on this issue. Moreover,
London and Dublin are also playing the Ulster card, yet more often than not
they both conceal the entirety of their reasoning for doing so.
Underlying every political
issue in Northern Ireland is the constitutional question of whether the area
should continue to be governed from London or have sovereignty transferred to
Dublin. Magnifying the importance of this now are two crucial facts. In the
first instance there is the perennial fixation on changing demographics, which
are indicating the inevitability within the coming decades of a majority in
favour of ending the union. This is compounded by the obvious failure of the
Six Counties to function as a normal political entity.
It is not that people in
Northern Ireland are unaware or indifferent to Brexit. It is however the case,
that for the most part, they see it as secondary. A contributory factor to this
outlook is the attitude of the British and Irish governments with the former
speaking of the need to preserve the precious union and the latter raising
alarm over a hard border. Unsurprisingly therefore, the two major local
political parties, the Democratic Unionist Party (DUP) and Sinn Fein have
focussed on the constitutional impact of Brexit.
The DUP favours the hardest
of withdrawal options in the hope that it will result in creating maximum
divergence between north and south and thereby reinforce the partition of
Ireland. While this position wins favour in Unionist heartlands (and among the
European Research Group), it has caused concern among some middle-class
Unionist supporters who fear economic disruption. Nevertheless, the party’s
greatest fear is losing its niche as the principal defender of ‘Protestant
Ulster’ and therefore feels obliged to persist with its policy.
Disappointingly for those
on the left who wish to rupture with the EU, Sinn Finn has changed its
long-time opposition to the EU. Instead of highlighting the neo-liberal threat
from Brussels it now takes the flawed ‘Remain and Reform’ position. With a 55%
majority in the Six Counties in favour of remaining, Sinn Fein is making the
obvious case that London disregards the will of the Northern Irish. The party
has also led a campaign that focuses on the possible, albeit greatly
exaggerated, difficulties posed by a hard border.
Meanwhile the British and
Irish governments are spinning their own self-serving tales around Brexit.
British Prime Minister
Johnson rejects the backstop option claiming this is because of his deep and
abiding affection for the union between Great Britain and Northern Ireland. In
reality, this love affair is based firmly on Commons arithmetic. To stay in
office and fend off a general election, the Tory party has had to retain DUP
support. Nor is the Irish government completely frank either with its
statements about the impact of Britain leaving the European Union. Dublin has
focused greatly on the threat that this poses to the Good Friday Agreement in
general and to the maintenance of peace in particular.
Alarmist claims about a
return to the pre-1994 ‘Troubles’ are overdone. In spite of the recent death of
journalist Lyra McKee, there is little evidence of any real appetite for a
return to the widespread conflict of previous decades. If anything, the tragedy
illustrated the depth of opposition to armed groups. Moreover, it should also
be born in mind that Britain leaving the European Union will not, in itself,
alter the constitutional position of Northern Ireland within the UK whether
there is a withdrawal deal or not.
Let’s not forget either
that both the British and Irish governments have stated categorically that they
will not create infrastructure along the border. Boris Johnson has repeated on
several occasions that the UK it will not impose tariffs on goods moving
northwards. This means that any checks that may arise from a no-deal Brexit
would be carried out in the Republic and there is every indication that these
will take place well away from the frontier. Incidentally, since the island was
partitioned almost a century ago there is no record of republicans ever
attacking a southern Irish customs post.
In a nutshell, the Brexit
debate in Ireland, North and South, has largely missed the essential elements
of the argument. Northern Ireland is one of the poorest regions of the United Kingdom.
Average income is 8.5% less than in Britain and average disposable income is
less than 40% of that in London and the economy is in ongoing decline as
evidenced by the difficulties faced by the once iconic Harland & Wolff
shipyard. The economic situation in the Republic appears to be infinitely
better. However, this disguises an increasingly unequal society with tens of
thousands homeless, a two-tier health service leaving the less well-off at a
major disadvantage and increasing number of workers in either low-paid or
On both sides of the border
the answer to this lies in breaking with free-market capitalist economies,
whether controlled by neoliberals sitting in London or in charge of the
European Union. This in essence is the left wing case in relation to Brexit and
applies to Ireland as much as it does to Britain. Instead of working people
discussing the necessity of having democratic socialist control of the economy,
the powers that be have diverted attention towards a highly unlikely resumption
of armed conflict, export delays and possible traffic jams at border crossings.
Above all else, clarity and
transparency around this issue are essential here in Ireland as well as in
Britain. The LeFT campaign is therefore not just timely but very necessary and
is entitled to all the support we can give it.
Tommy McKearney (@Tommymckearney) is an Irish socialist republican, political activist and writer.
As the clock ticks ever closer to Britain’s deadline for leaving the EU, people might be forgiven for wondering why a new socialist group pushing for the importance of getting the UK out of the EU is required. However, a quick look around at the political environment should make it clear that the socialist case has not made it into the majority of workplaces, trade unions nor our mainstream media.
The referendum in 2016 was presented as a battle between two
opposing wings of the establishment: a Tory right high on post-imperial
delusions versus a pro-EU establishment supported by the vast majority of big
business, the CBI, the Bank of England and the Treasury. The working class was
talked down to by both sides, with the assumption being that reactionary
positions on immigration were the key to victory. When exit polling showed that the principal concern of
leave voters was sovereignty, this made no difference to the narrative being
The reality is that in June 2016, for a multitude of reasons, the EU was rejected in the biggest democratic exercise in the UK to date. It was the first time citizens could vote for or against membership. In June 1975 no such vote was allowed, only a confirmatory vote to ‘stay in’, where membership was already locked in. During that first vote, the left strongly argued the case against remaining in. LeFT draws on that tradition and the case for a Left leave has never gone away.
Many argue that Leave is a lash up between right wing forces.
How then to account for the millions of Labour voters who voted leave?
Thousands of these had spent decades fighting austerity, to save the post
office from privatisation, to stop pit closures, and to keep open a local
library, or nursery. LeFT believes there was a strong left element to the Leave
vote. But this voice was stifled by a near monopoly on media and a skewed
democratic process that stopped alternative voices from being heard.
Yet as soon as the opportunity for a real vote appeared, a majority of the working class voted to get out. Scare stories of shortages must not be allowed to spread panic and force us into hasty choices that do not suit the interests of working people. We remember only too well, the food mountains and wine lakes, and the throwing of excess dead fish stocks back into the ocean, whilst price hikes took such items out of reach for families facing austerity.
Once we leave there is a national debate to be had about the type
of trade we engage in and with whom. LeFT intends to play an active part in
arguing for a new kind of trade, especially with developing economies and
advanced countries such as China, Russia, India and Brazil, that previously was
funnelled through EU institutions, rules and regulations. It is possible to
trade in a way that is different from EU trade treaties that are all too often
It is in the interests of leading fractions of capital, tied as they are to markets in the EU, to suggest that the 17.4 million people who voted Leave did so because they were ignorant, or manipulated. But the picture is more complicated. Millions of Remain voters also had an intense distrust of the EU but were frightened by the consequences of a Leave vote, did not like some of the forces arguing for Leave (also true of many Leave voters) and thought that a Leave vote would align them with racists.
One of the achievements of the EU has been to position itself
as a defender of liberty and anti-racism. Yet a look at its Fortress Europe
policy, its dirty deal with Turkey and its 800 kilometre wall to incarcerate
millions of Syrians fleeing conflict suggests different. Then there is the use
of ECJ rulings to provoke mass movement of working age citizens, the gutting of
local economies and the make-up of its institutions and staffing, which actively
discriminates against BAME citizens: all paint a very different picture. We
recognise there is a job to be done to expose this reality.
If activists want to challenge neoliberalism and its symptoms, a task that can sometimes appear monumental, then a good place to begin is with a struggle against the EU, which alone in the world, as Tony Benn pointed out, enshrines capitalism in its constitution in a state-like organisation, but one without a mechanism for political contestation. Remain and Reform is an empty slogan. There has been forty years to try that approach and year on year, the centre has grown more powerful, democracy has been eclipsed, and austerity imposed in exchange for bail-outs, most strongly within the Eurozone.
No deal, soft deal and hard exits are false choices. None of
these terms existed prior to the vote in June 2016, and were introduced into
the language by a capitalist class seeking to limit the damage to itself that
the Leave vote could bring about. LeFT seek a clean break, which is what people
voted for. The pressing need is for a change of government so that a new left
politics can govern the future pathway: based on investment, sustainable jobs,
high skill, socialised medicine, health and welfare services and a radical
change to the pension system. There must be a policy of peace and support for
progressive governments abroad.
We cannot allow a position whereby the main force in opposition
to privatisation and austerity, militarism and imperialism is divided into
Remain and Leave. This is not the divide in our society, and we will not give
credence to such vapid notions as culture wars, promoted by both the far right
and the liberal centre. LeFT exists to bridge the growing gap on the left and
bring the movement back together, to understand our common interests and
concerns so that it can apply itself to transforming political alignments in
Britain (and across the globe) in order to provide the threat of a good example
to the working class everywhere. We are committed to creating places where
working class remain and leave voters can discuss, understand and re-forge
Democracy is essential to any future. And democracy has been
hollowed out in a number of ways in the last 40 years. One of these is the EU
taking on more and more power while allowing for less and less contestation.
The working class has to be united because in a class society, only the united
strength of workers can keep the power of capital at bay. Once we leave the EU,
that unity becomes more important as we seek to change the politics of the
country in a radical and new direction.
Threats to this possibility come in a number of different
One is the threat of a ‘government of national unity’, which is being trumpeted within the Westminster bubble and by a pliant media, with has-beens from the right and centre such as Ken Clarke and Harriet Harmen being suggested as figures to ‘bring the country back together’. In reality, in the context of having Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition, this is nothing but an anti-left wrecking operation. The events of the last few weeks, in which the most anti-Brexit forces in the land – the Lib Dems, for one, as well as the Greens – have refused to back Corbyn’s attempt to prevent a no deal Brexit, should have made it clear that the principal aim of the People’s Vote brigade is to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour government, in or out of the EU. We deeply regret the extent to which Corbyn and those who respect the referendum result in Labour have been forced into a corner, perhaps fatally damaging its chance of winning the general election that is just around the corner. We also unreservedly oppose any attempt to set up a national government. It would have a similar impact on Labour as did the Ramsay MacDonald National Government of 1931, from which it took a generation and a war to recover. We say to Labour, before you go down that road, check the batteries on your smoke alarm.
After the exit from the EU politics will realign again and
again. This will reflect class struggle and the relative balance between opposing
classes. The return of an element of sovereignty, especially in Scotland and
Wales, but also to Westminster will put those who want to go back into the
bosses’ club on the back foot. Space will appear to bring larger numbers
together for a politics of change.
Institutions that the EU had hollowed out into little more
than debating chambers will become relevant again and susceptible to mass
action, protest and pressure. This is what many MPs in Westminster, Holyrood
and Cardiff fear. It’s a huge opportunity for our labour movement.
Unions, which in some cases had been so weakened that they looked to Brussels for a veneer of legislation and aid, have come badly unstuck. EU grants have been used to shift jobs around, and – true to its origins – EU policy and institutions have speeded up the destruction of manufacturing jobs, while its ‘competition’ laws inhibit state intervention to rescue ailing companies and sectors. Whole communities have suffered as a result. With the power to act and intervene returning to government, unions can focus campaigns and struggle on new laws to protect workers and new initiatives to create jobs and sustain existing ones.
Attempts have been made to put the left case for leave in the past. In LeFT we wanted to gather the different forces from trades unions, large working class constituencies, local labour parties, and a range of socialist organisations to develop a coherent, principled left-wing perspective on the Brexit conjuncture. And we wanted to bring new forces in. Ours will not be a debating society. Nor will it have elaborate policies that all have to sign up to. It will include a high degree of exchange of views, but the emphasis is on campaigning and fighting for change.
We are a campaigning organisation, with an agreed set of core values and politics, enshrined in our founding statement. The aim is to build the power of the working class so that we can ensure the decision to Leave is implemented in the interests of the working class. We will campaign in working class communities for political change, to ensure there is no going back in. We invite you to campaign with us. Set up local groups. Hold public meetings and go into the market and city centres, and onto estates and workplaces and make the case for Leave – Fight – Transform.
In this process of struggle for change, we will ally with and extend solidarity on the basis of internationalism. But this will not be limited only to those in struggle within the EU. Africa, Latin America and the Middle East face an ongoing onslaught from the power of the EU, and our solidarity is with the communities standing up to that.
We urge you to read our founding statement. Take it into work with you. Discuss it in your community groups, education establishments, and in any place where people congregate. If you agree with it, let us know. Sign up! And join the struggle to Leave – Fight – Transform.
Martin Hall is a trade unionist, socialist and founding member of LeFT; Phil Katz is Designer, Author and Eastern District Secretary of the Communist Party.
This article by Sean Shirley-Smith, a founding member of the LeFT campaign, was originally published by Labour Hub.
Leave – Fight – Transform, or LeFT, is a grassroots campaign aiming to give voice to those on the left that desire a clean break with the European Union, to fight neoliberalism, and transform society. Founded by trade unionists, socialists, and community activists, it seeks to present a genuine alternative to the hard-right narrative of a Tory Brexit, as well as to the impossible demands of the ‘Remain and Revolt’ camp.
The vote to leave in 2016 was a vote for a fundamental change in society, as working-class people across the country uprooted the status quo of the old neoliberal economic model embodied by the European Union. The privatisation of our public services, and the brutal austerity implemented in the aftermath of the recession, may have been carried out by a Conservative government (enabled by the ever willing Lib-Dems) here in the United Kingdom, but it was in no way mitigated by the EU. Indeed, in regard to privatisation the EU has only sought to encourage it, as seen through the Fourth Railway Package that alters regulations in an attempt to create a single rail area and prevent the nationalisation of that industry.
It is for that reason among others, organisations such as the trade union RMT called for a vote to leave in 2016, and continue to advocate leaving the European Union today. The left’s failure to seize this crucial moment in history has seen us falter, with the argument to leave being dominated by a xenophobic and inward looking right, and the argument to remain dominated by liberals and centrists that are content with the pre-referendum status quo. Neither option is acceptable to any socialist, and it is why now more than ever we need a radical and transformative alternative.
The reasons to support a clean break with the European Union from a left-wing perspective are innumerable. From the long history of left Euroscepticism across the labour movement, at least until that fateful Jacques Delors speech at the Trade Union Congress in 1988, to the racist policies of the EU through its ‘Fortress Europe’ and imperialist customs union. The European Union is not a democratic structure; with its treaty-based obligations to impose regulation on state aid and competition in the market. It is not a reformable structure; with unanimous agreement needed from every EU member state to amend treaty law in order to remove the explicit pro-market and pro-capitalist ideals. It is not a progressive structure; with its willingness to ignore abuses of human rights in Hungary, Poland, and yes, the UK until very recently with its failure to do anything about the archaic abortion laws in the north of Ireland.
Many in the labour movement will know these terrible faults of the European Union, though the media often chooses to ignore them in favour of stoking anti-migrant hostilities or backing the status quo. Despite that, the dominant narrative at least on the national stage has been leaving the EU is regressive, anti-migrant, and dangerous. That is why LeFT is campaigning for an anti-racist, progressive, and socialist alternative.
The political reality means that come the next general election it is likely we will have already crashed out of the European Union with a Tory Brexit or ‘no deal’ situation. The Left and by extension Labour cannot simply campaign to immediately re-join the European Union, in what would be an affront to democratic principles. Instead we must enter an election pledging to utilise the greater latitude given to a government outside the constraints of the EU’s neoliberal order, to end austerity once and for all, to fundamentally transform the economy.
In 2017 the Labour manifesto pledged to renationalise the rail industry, to create a National Investment Bank, and to bring utilities under public ownership. Outside of the EU these pledges would actually be possible, unlike under EU membership as outlined by LeFT’s Alex Gordon and Jonathan White in the Morning Star back in 2017.
If by the time of the general election we remain in the EU despite Conservative promises to have left, there is an extraordinary opportunity to enter an election campaign pledging to exit the European Union on left-wing terms, assuaging the fears of many who are not unsympathetic to our cause but fear any exit under a Conservative government. A radical and transformative manifesto pledging investment in all nations and regions of the UK, alongside diversification of the economy and an end to a legal regime that privileges the rights of capital over people, would not only give hope to millions of working-class people, but ensure that the old logic of neoliberal capitalism was at last ended.
An election is coming, and the left needs to decide what it will do when that time arrives; whether in or out of the EU. Leave – Fight – Transform is not a negative campaign seeking to promote old memories of imperialism or narrow English nationalism. It is instead a positive and transformative campaign seeking to build something new. Capitalism is in crisis once again, class politics is back, and a new generation are determined to build socialism in our lifetime. Join our campaign to leave the EU, fight neoliberalism, and transform society.
This article by Sarah Cundy, a spokesperson for the LeFT Campaign, was originally published by LabourList
‘Democracy is the most revolutionary thing in the world’ – Tony Benn
The capitalist world order is in crisis. The politicians we were told to trust with our planet and its people have engineered a situation of wage stagnation, spiralling debt, and a growing sense of powerlessness – a widening gap between the people and those who govern them. Throughout all of this, the imperative for constant growth has undermined the very ecosystem in which we exist.
The European Union is fundamentally an organ of this world order. Within its boundaries, irreconcilable conflicts between the nations who have organised the EU along the lines of their own economic and political interests have pushed the Euro towards collapse as internal crises are shifted onto their own periphery nations – often the ones hit hardest by the 2008 crash. As these internal crises weigh upon the people subject to them, the policy of Fortress Europe enforces inhumanity on the refugees on the Union’s own Mediterranean border.
Here in the UK, successive neoliberal governments have pursued this economic war on the working class in tandem with the EU: they have gutted our industries, housing and public services, and slashed rights for workers, migrants and the unemployed. These governments decided that prolonged suffering by working-class communities was a sacrifice worth making for the preservation of their system. As the government led by Margaret Thatcher speculated on the prospect of a “managed decline” for working-class communities across the country, ordinary people were left to pick up the pieces.
To the astonishment of the ruling class, the working class has demonstrated a desire for change, which is reflected both by the Corbyn movement and the vote to leave the EU in 2016. As socialists, it is our job to lead the way for a truly transformative programme, overcoming neoliberalism and working towards a radical, democratic, environmentalist and socialist agenda.
The potential is there in Labour’s left-wing programme – the fact that we are besieged by the representatives of the ruling class on a daily basis is evidence of this. Our programme has the potential to unite the working class in the fight for a truly democratic economy, and to combat the racist nationalism of Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson by preventing them from cynically appealing to a disaffected working class with their disaster capitalist agenda.
In the pursuit of these aims, we must refuse to align ourselves with a so-called “progressive alliance” alongside the cheerleaders of austerity, or to abandon our transformative potential through a “government of national unity”. Instead, we must unshakeably lead on leaving the EU and building a mass movement for a radical alternative.
The success of our programme and our movement depends on us not abandoning the working class, and on holding true to our promise to deliver a democratic, worker-led economy when in government. This requires a break from the economic and constitutional infrastructure of the EU – a break from the ‘four freedoms’, a break from the preservation of economic competition over economic justice, and a break from the undemocratic authorities that impose these restrictions on member states.
Leave – Fight – Transform was formed to champion this cause. We are a grassroots network of socialists, trade unionists and community activists committed to democracy, internationalism and socialism.
This article, written by two founding members of the campaign, was published in the Morning Star on the 10 August 2010 to coincide with the launch of Leave – Fight -Transform: The LeFT Campaign.
The Brexit conjuncture is about so much more than
the UK’s membership of the European Union. The referendum called in 2016 to
resolve internal power struggles in the Tory Party exposed a series of fissures
in British society and revealed the desire of millions of people for a break
with the status quo.
In this sense, the vote to leave the EU is a
symptom of a much deeper malaise: namely, the slow, crushing breakdown of
neoliberal capitalism. For thirty years prior to the Brexit vote neoliberal
orthodoxy reigned supreme – and it produced declining real wages, attacks on
workers’ rights, the gutting and commodification of public services and the
hollowing out of democracy at every level. These morbid tendencies were
exacerbated after 2008, with the imposition of brutal austerity, the
proliferation of precarious work, homelessness and food banks (the latter
greeted with applause by dead eyed Tory MPs).
As people’s living standards collapsed, and
inequality rose to levels not seen since the Victorian era, political elites
increasingly withdrew from the people they purported to govern. Representative
politics became managerialism and democracy was reduced to empty pageantry – a secure
career path for ambitious, mediocre Oxbridge graduates. The arrogance with
which Tory Prime Minister David Cameron used a national plebiscite to resolve
internal party strife, represents just the tip of the ice-berg of a decayed
In all its complexity, the Brexit vote represents
a rejection of this status quo ante. It is a rejection by working class
people of the precarity, insecurity, inequality and injustice of a system that
they know to be stacked against them. It is a
rejection of zero-hours contracts, agency work and the absence of collective
rights in workplaces across Britain. It is a rejection of the retreat of the
modern state seen in a decade and more of closures of public institutions from
libraries, to fire stations across this country. Working class people saw these
changes and on 23 June 2016 they seized their opportunity to reject the
complacent system that produced them.
Of course, grasping the character of the Brexit vote
is no simple thing: both the mainstream Leave and Remain campaigns during the
referendum were explicitly racist, though often expressed through the “respectable”
racism of the middle classes. The longstanding paeans to “legitimate concerns”
about immigration, the fostering of a culture of Islamophobia, and support for
imperialist interventions around the world, produced fertile soil for more
While working class people on both sides of the
Brexit divide are crying out for an alternative, the British political class
is, unsurprisingly, incapable of delivering it. Instead, having wound the clock
of the Brexit vote, they wish now to cover their ears and block out the tolling
of the bells. Faced with efforts (whether in the form of a “People’s Vote” or a
so-called Government of National Unity) to overturn the first real say people
have had in their lives for decades, the allure of the reactionary right will
increase if the left positions itself as defenders of
the status quo and loyal cheerleaders for the political
It for this reason that the left in the UK has to
be at the forefront of the unfolding rupture with the status quo. While
the crisis of neoliberalism produced the conditions for the Brexit vote, it
also produced the Corbyn moment, a surge in support for a left-wing Labour
Party and a manifesto promising democracy and the transformation of the
economy. To deliver on this, the left has to spearhead the project of rupturing
with the EU, and in so doing build the mass movement for the sort of radical
alternatives in ownership, public services, workers’ and migrants rights and
democratic participation that people are demanding.
Sections of the UK left who have not, or will
not, grasp this central truth, instead throw themselves into delusions of
remaining in the EU and reforming it. For anyone with even a modest understanding
of the nature of the EU, it is clear that “remain and reform” is really just
remain, with the meaningless slogan of reform tacked on as the spoon full of
sugar to help the medicine go down.
While these sections of the left capitulate to
Thatcher’s dictum that there is no alternative, grassroots trade unionists,
socialists and community activists have come together to form a new campaign: Leave
– Fight – Transform: The LeFT Campaign, to lead the fight for an
alternative Britain, Europe and a transformed international order. For anyone
serious about tackling inequality, advancing workers and migrants rights,
rolling back the rise of the reactionary right, and beginning to seriously tackle
the climate crisis the course is clear: we must rupture with the EU, which
constitutionally enshrines neoliberalism’s dictatorship of no alternatives and the
structural racism of Fortress Europe; we must fight for a transformative left
government in the UK, that can deliver a program of radical change, and we must
do this while reinvigorating the genuine internationalism of the working class.
Given the ongoing crisis of capitalism, the
rejection of the status quo by working people, and the spectre of a
resurgent right, the left has to offer a genuine alternative. An alternative
that is as radical as the crisis that confronts us and an alternative that has
as its lodestone the interests of the working class, in all of its rich
complexity. In the current conjuncture, we have to say no to austerity, no to
neoliberalism, no to the EU, and yes to radical working class action to
transform society. Rather than accepting the narrow terms set by the decaying
middle classes, we say boldly: neither Boris nor Brussels, but the
international working class.