Well who would have believed it: in the United States we have an overtly racist multi-millionaire president who holds office partly because sections of the working class believed him when he said he was anti-establishment.
Not to be outdone, in the UK an old Etonian who has made xenophobic and anti-working class utterances is now prime minister and don’t doubt it, if Boris manages to present himself as the saviour of Brexit, displacing, or in alliance with that merchant banker, in both senses of the term, Nigel Farage, then there is every reason to believe that he could win the next General Election, and continue as Prime Minister. Unless we stop him.
What we need, facing the growth of the might of international corporate capital that the populist right is representing, is a genuine progressive alliance to defend and advance working class interests. By ‘progressive’ I mean an alliance of forces likely to take us closer to a form of socialism that recognises the role of the state in achieving social justice; an alliance that includes the unions, environmental activists, liberation groups and youth and student movements. I think it is fair to say that the Party most likely to deliver a progressive Britain in the sense I used it is the Corbyn Labour Party. But what the EU elections reveal is that right across the UK there was and remains a profound split in the very forces that are needed to build that alliance; no doubt contributing to the exceptionally poor performance of the Labour Party.
It is worth remembering what Labour’s position was when it went into the EU elections. The Labour party campaigned to honour the result of the 2016 referendum.
Labour also wanted to pursue an alternative plan for Brexit, based on a customs union with a UK say on the rules. And Labour wanted alignment with the single market, a guarantee that Britain would match EU workers' rights standards, and the protection of peace in Northern Ireland.
It was only on the basis that it couldn’t win support for its alternative plan, or if the government tried to leave the EU with No Deal and it couldn’t secure a general election Labour supported a second referendum.
Of the other parties that might be considered to have members looking to radical change in Scotland, the SNP and Greens both took uncomplicated positions in support of remaining in the EU and for a second referendum. So how did our potential progressive alliance do in the elections.
Many traditional Labour voters especially in the North of England and midlands voted for the Brexit Party, as did many, mainly working-class supporters of the SNP in Scotland. The Trade Unions mostly advocated a vote for Labour, even although they varied in their enthusiasm for Labour’s position. Nevertheless, many union members voted for the Brexit party.
On the other side of the equation, there were Labour voters who voted for the Lib Dems or the SNP in order to register their support for remaining in the EU. As did many middle class supporters of radical causes. There is certainly evidence, according to Professor John Curtice, that some Remainers who previously voted no to independence are now considering voting for independence as the best way of securing membership of the EU.
But that is not the end the splits and divisions in progressive forces. There are those on the left of politics, some of them in leading positions in the Labour Party, who believe that the EU is indeed an impediment to progressive politics but believe we can change it. They want to remain in and reform the EU.
So, can we sort this mess out and get some clarity for the way forward for the working class and progressive movement. It is not even the nature of the EU that is the source of the main disagreement between our potential alliance.
For example, who wrote this: “The EU is effectively a regional arm of the globalisation project. Its unswerving adherence to liberal markets, deregulation and privatisation is to the detriment of the interests of working people throughout Europe…The EU is a bureaucratic, largely undemocratic organisation with a largely powerless parliament. As presently constituted, it cannot and will not serve the people of Europe”
It was John McDonnell in Another World is Possible, 2007.
John believes in remain and reform. Let us ask two questions: is John right to be so critical of the EU? If he is, is a remain and reform position feasible?
What will happen if we remain in the EU. Can Labour deliver a radical programme.
The former British Airways chief executive Keith Williams, who is leading the Government-commissioned Rail Review has suggested the possible return of a body similar to the Strategic Rail Authority, which existed from 2001 to 2005. But the Shadow Labour transport secretary Andy McDonald dismissed that suggestion.
"Instead, we should bring the track and train together in a single company in public ownership but, critically, at arm's length from Government and removed from Government interference and micromanagement."
But how can we do that if, as we would be, we are obliged to accept the EU’s Fourth Railway Package? This package, which has to be in place by 2020 includes opening up domestic passenger services to on-rail competition in all member states – exactly as we now have in the UK except it will be right across the EU.
Or what about Labour’s manifesto pledge to “Regain control of energy supply networks through the alteration of operator license conditions, and transition to a publicly owned, decentralised energy system. And “Reiterates pledge to reverse the privatisation of Royal Mail at the earliest opportunity.”
Under Article 106, of the Treaty on the Functioning of the European union (TFEU) the EU prohibits public monopolies exercising exclusive rights where this violates EU competition rules.
Or what about state aid to industry. At Bifab 500 jobs are at risk because EDF want to give a contract to a company in Indonesia. Scottish Labour calls for procurement to be used to save the jobs and the SNP government says it can’t. And so does the British government in response to demands by the Labour Party that 5000 jobs at the Roislin facility in Midlothian should be saved by nationalising the plant. This is because Article 87 (1) of the Treaty, tells us that “any aid granted by a Member State or through State resources in any form whatsoever which distorts or threatens to distort competition by favouring certain undertakings …Therefore, procurement … may be prohibited if they qualify as State aid.”
The argument John McDonnell would no doubt come back with is that we can reform the rules of the EU by winning support from the left across the whole of the EU.
There are two problems with this. The first is political. The Left, especially the left as we have described it – the progressive left – is very much in a minority in the EU. The socialist group, and the word ‘socialist’ here is used very loosely, has 154 MEPs of the 751 seats, and the United Left and Green Nordic Left 41. Together they comprise just over a quarter of the seats. In any case it is with the individual nation states that power lies in relation to the treaties through the Council and Commission and it is currently very difficult to identify a single, serious left wing government in power in the EU, never mind one committed to radically reforming the EU. I exclude Portugal, although perhaps it is unfair to write off the likely coalition between Spain’s PSOE and Podemos who could be running Spain soon.
However, even if the Left were in a majority in the Council and Commssion, which is not going to happen any time soon, the second problem is that the EU is designed to be resistant to radical change. The legal basis and political perspective of the EU is enshrined in the treaties on which the EU is founded. The most important of these are the Maastricht Treaty, which hard wired a neoliberal perspective into its operations, (eg debt and deficit proposals) and the Lisbon Treaty, which functions like a constitution. These treaties would have to be changed in order to effect any fundamental transformation of the EU. So how do we change them.
There is a tortuous 8 stage process which not only means that all of the member states have to agree with the final text, but even to have a change discussed at least half of the member states, 14 or have to be in agreement. Taken together with the political make-up of the EU, this makes the chances of significant change close to zero.
I want to finish on this point, however. It may well be that to focus on remaining and reforming or as in Labour’s election position, focussing on a new agreement with the EU is utterly irrelevant. The EU appear to be refusing to budge on the deal they offered Theresa May. A deal which will not be accepted.
I think it is now clear from what Boris Johnson and Jeremy Hunt have been saying, the Tory Party believes that without achieving Brexit it is bound for the dust bin of history. The vast bulk of the Tory Party is therefore hell bent on Brexit – deal or no deal - and may well achieve it.
If that is the case, then surely what we should actually be focussing on, and fighting for, is the kind of Britain that is going to emerge from that Brexit. How do we ensure workers’ rights, acceptable levels of pay, appropriate standards in food and goods, proper services and more importantly keeping control of Health and other services?
This, I believe is where the movement must turn its attention. Away from parliaments, although they cannot be ignored, and back towards forming the progressive alliance we talked of, but this time we must build in the abandoned schemes of Glasgow and the betrayed workplaces of Fife and the neglected streets of Dundee. That is the way to get Labour back into power, not the echo chambers of Westminster and Holyrood.