Robert Griffiths analyses recent elections and the EU referendum campaign
At its 53rd congress late in 2014, the Communist Party said that the following two years would probably determine whether the Labour Party could be reclaimed by and for the labour movement.
Under Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour was inching back towards social democratic policies, but not quickly and boldly enough to meet the needs of the moment. It was left to trade unions, the People’s Assembly and other campaigning organisations on housing, disability rights and peace to mobilise, challenge and inspire.
They could not prevent a Tory victory last May, but their activity provided the basis for Jeremy Corbyn’s subsequent victory in the Labour Party leadership election.
Since then, the political class struggle in Britain has intensified on two important and inter-related fronts: externally, against the right-wing policies pursued by the Cameron government; and internally, against neoliberalism within the Labour Party itself.
Jeremy Corbyn has been attacked ferociously and relentlessly on both fronts, too, by those who oppose the very notion that Labour should be led by a socialist who advocates left-wing and anti-imperialist policies.
He and his supporters have been accused of holding back women in the party, shielding pedophiles, befriending terrorists and anti-semites and threatening the very security of the country.
The imbalance of forces within the Parliamentary Labour Party means that the new leadership has had to make compromises, such as the free vote on bombing Syria – although there is no free voice in the Shadow Cabinet on Britain’s membership of the European Union.
The internal conflict over vital questions such as nuclear weapons and Trident renewal has yet to be resolved.
But there have also been significant advances. Labour’s shift to an anti-austerity stance, steered by Corbyn and Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell, has helped force Tory U-turns on tax credits, disability benefits and academy schools in England.
At least once a week, it is predicted that Corbyn will fail some new test and face a leadership coup.
In particular, we are told that he is an electoral albatross around Labour’s neck – especially when it comes to working class voters in traditional Labour-supporting areas.
Yet not only did Labour retain its parliamentary seat in the Oldham West & Royton by-election last December – its share of the poll rose from 59 to 62 per cent.
In the two largely unreported by-elections on May 5, Labour’s winning share stayed constant at 53 per cent in Ogmore and increased by six points to 63 per cent in Sheffield Brightside & Hillsborough.
In the English local elections that same day, Labour defended 1,344 seats following its high-point in 2012. The net loss amounted to just 18, while the Tories lost more than twice as many seats as they finished behind Labour in terms of total votes.
Labour won the mayoralty back from the Tories in London and an independent in Bristol, while keeping the post in Salford and Liverpool.
In the Welsh National Assembly elections, Labour lost only one seat after administering four years of Tory-imposed cuts. However, its share of the constituency vote dropped alarmingly from 42 to 35 per cent. The media that so gleefully reported Corbyn’s supposed exclusion from Welsh Labour’s campaign cannot now blame him for this decline.
Rather, Welsh Labour’s timid manifesto did nothing to counter UKIP’s dishonest protrayal of itself as the pro-working class alternative.
Alone of parties campaigning across the whole of Wales, the Communist Party argued strongly for public ownership of the steel, energy and transport industries, an Economic Plan for Wales and a radical redistribution of wealth within a federal Britain.
Apart from our election broadcasts, we were almost completely shut out of the mass media, although our total vote remained constant at around 2,500.
In Scotland, too, the Communist candidates campaigned for a class-based federal solution to the national question in Britain.
A federation of equals, combined with wealth redistribution, may be the only basis on which working class and progressive unity can now prevail. Labour’s unwillingness to embrace this approach was a major factor in Kezia Dugdale’s failure to overcome the disastrous legacy of her Blairite predecessors.
The further slump in Scottish Labour’s share of the poll from 32 to 23 per cent presents the party with a formidable obstacle to victory at the next General Election.
Much has been made of UKIP advances in England and Wales, although the latter were more substantial than the former. The Faragists are undoubtedly benefiting from the predominantly reactionary character of the EU debate so far. They thrive on the concentration of media coverage on issues of immigration and Islamist terrorism.
UKIP also wins many working class votes because Labour refuses to oppose the EU and its basic treaties which expose workers and their communities to the full force of ‘free market’ monopoly capitalism.
EU rules allow companies to shift capital and jobs to anywhere else in Europe and the world without let or hindrance. Commercial subsidies to steel and other strategic industries, whether in the private or public sectors, are banned. No action can be taken against imports from elsewhere in the EU.
Through its pro-EU stance, Labour is missing an historic opportunity to prove that it defends working class interests.
Indeed, some Labour and trade union leaders are so desperate to support the EU that, in effect, they rubbish the past achievements of the labour movement in Britain. In arguing the pro-EU case, they seem to attribute almost all past progressive reforms in the workplace to the EU.
It’s as though the industrial action and mass campaigning for trade union recognition, collective bargaining rights, the right to strike, equal pay for women, a national minimum wage and higher standards of health and safety never happened. Did not Labour governments pass the Employment Protection Act, the Health and Safety at Work Act, the National Minimum Wage Act, the Trade Union Act and much else besides?
EU treaties, on the other hand, expressly prohibit any EU action to enforce trade union recognition, the right to strike or a statutory minimum wage.
Furthermore, an extraordinary silence has descended over the series of anti-worker and and anti-trade union judgments from the European Court of Justice.
Again, it is as though EU court rulings outlawing industrial action and regional and national legislation to enforce equal treatment for imported or ‘posted’ workers have never happened. Yet the British and European TUCs had plenty to say against them before the referendum campaign began.
Britain’s communists must reject the erroneous and defeatist view that EU membership somehow guarantees protection against the erosion of trade union and employment rights.
The EU has never lifted a finger to protect workers against anti-trade union laws, because its priority is to support big business, austerity and privatisation across the continent. Whatever the result of the forthcoming referendum, workers and their unions in Britain as elsewhere will have to continue relying on their own strength and solidarity’.
In the meantime, the Communist Party is putting all its efforts into Lexit – the Left Leave campaign, alongside all those socialists and trade unionists who understand the need to unite in a left-wing and anti-imperialist movement against the EU.
Sharing platforms with Tory and UKIP nationalists who oppose immigration, support NATO and don’t want to attack ‘Fortress Europe’ or the monopoly capitalist character of the EU spreads illusions and confusion.
We insist upon equal rights for all workers, whatever their nationality. We stand for international solidarity against the EU, as well as for popular sovereignty against it here in Britain.
Inflicting a popular defeat on Cameron, Osborne, the CBI, the Institute of Directors, the IMF, the Pentagon and NATO on June 23 should be the top priority for communists, socialists and trade unionists.
It would clear the way for the downfall of a divided Tory regime and the early election of a Labour government free to pursue left and progressive policies.
Robert Griffiths is Communist Party general secretary and a contributor to 21centurymanifesto
This is based on a recent report to the Communist Party’s political committee.