by Nick Wright
Last June a claque of Open Britain protesters disrupted that summer’s Labour Live event. They waved a Stop Backing Brexit banner and chanted over the closing sentences of Jeremy Corbyn’s speech.
The Monday 18 June Morning Star leader commented: “Labour should be sharper, however, in its criticism of the ‘Open Britain’ elitists who are dedicated to thwarting the democratically expressed view of the electorate to leave the EU, which Labour insists must be honoured. The demand for a people’s vote, as though the 2016 referendum votes were cast by machines or extraterrestrials, amounts simply to a rejection of democracy because they didn’t like the decision.”
In a tweet from an unexpected source, the journalist and writer Paul Mason said: “It’s rare I agree with the Morning Star but they are right on this. I am sick of these astroturf elitists… it’s all prep for a millionaire funded “centrist party” that will unleash illegal wars, benefit cuts + drive wages to the bottom.”
But now, where last year Corbyn’s pledge to honour the Brexit vote was an exemplary defence of democratic principle today it must be abandoned. The latest issue of the New Statesman carries Mason’s new plea for “a second referendum in which Labour should vote Remain.”
Beyond that the liberal left’s Mr Wobbly wants the trade union affiliates to Labour, constituency parties and Momentum to aid the Parliamentary Labour Party in challenging the party’s conference policy and Corbyn’s judgement.
It is hard to imagine a ploy more disruptive of Labour’s strategy or more likely to offer Theresa May’s Tory government an easy escape from its present difficulties
Mason is discombobulated by the ‘realpolitik’ response of Labour MPs, including many from the various right-wing and centre-ground tendencies in the PLP, to clear indications that if it abandons principle Labour’s growing working class vote bank — won back from all parties and from abstention — is at risk. And worse, that whatever emerges from the grim cocktail of far-right and fascist factions currently courted by UKIP, would revive as a real electoral challenge.
In his piece, in the Staggers Paul Mason directs his fire against US blogger Greg Godels after the Morning Star carried his magisterial verdict on the performance of his country’s anti-capitalist movements.
Zoltan Zigedy, as Greg Godels styles his widely read blog, draws on the rise and collapse of recent movements like Occupy – and analyses the ‘spontanaeist’ semi-anarchist ideas that animate them — to make a convincing case for a disciplined and organised revolutionary party of the working class.
It is quite a big step to draw from this unassailable argument the conclusion that the Morning Star carried the piece solely to instruct its readers “in the fine art of crushing democratic dissent” in the Labour Party.
In fact, far from suppressing dissent, the Morning Star – which is guided by an elected management committee that includes representatives of many of Britain’s trade unions — has provided a platform for all legitimate Labour movement opinion in the Brexit debate.
Contrary to Mason’s insinuations, Greg Godels manages to reach the end of his piece without encroaching on the Brexit anxieties of the British. Indeed his focus on broader questions of revolutionary theory and insurgent political practice provides welcome relief from the obsessive efforts by Britain’s bourgeoisie — and its liberal, social democratic and ultra-left outriders — to subvert the referendum result.
Mason is not the only pundit flitting about the labour movement with advice on how Labour’s elected leadership should deal with the complex politics of the moment. He is not even the most inconsistent although he has now displaced Owen Jones from pole position.
We have a solidly, even intransigently, Remain prime minister compelled by circumstance and electoral commitment to give a surface impression that she wants to bag a Brexit deal. That the Brexit-lite confection she has contrived with the EU Commission gets the support of neither Remain or Leave tendencies in each of the parties is the clearest sign that this crisis will not be easily resolved in the interests of either side of our divided ruling class.
We have a Labour leader whose fidelity to the traditional Labour and trade union stand against the federal European superstate is a matter of record while his consistent opposition to the various manifestations of this neo-liberal project — including privatisation, marketisation, PFI, arbitrary spending limits and imperial war — was the popular basis of his repeated election as party leader.
He leads a party that, for the moment, is made up of people who substantially, and in most cases from pretty positive impulses, found the bourgeois Brexiteers’ campaign insufferable and thus, the Brexit vote, unpalatable. Corbyn has resolved this contradiction by the unswerving application of policy decided at the party’s conference. Not in this alone he stands in marked contrast to most of his predecessors.
If the balance of opinion is broadly for Remain among the Labour Party’s individual membership, in the trade union affiliated membership it is much less so. Among union members generally and working people as a whole the balance tends more to Leave.
This is a political problem that cannot be resolved by a sterile repetition of the arguments, or by constant appeals to rerun the vote and it cannot be allowed to displace all other political issues in the considerations of a party that aspires to form a government for the many, not the few.
Corbyn tried to recalibrate the debate in his Wakefield speech. He argued that the real division is not between Remainers and Leavers but between the 99 per cent and the one per cent.
Typically for him, he put the question in human terms: “… if you’re living in Tottenham you may well have voted to Remain. “You’ve got high bills rising debts. You’re in insecure work. You struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit, and forced to access food banks. You’re up against it.
“If you’re living in Mansfield, you are more likely to have voted to Leave. “You’ve got high bills, rising debts, you’re in insecure work, you struggle to make your wages stretch and you may be on universal credit and forced to access food banks. You’re up against it.
“But you’re not against each other. People across the country, whether they voted Leave or Remain know that the system isn’t working for them.
“Some see the EU as a defence against insecurity and hostility. Others see the EU as part of an establishment that plunged them into insecurity and hostility in the first place.
“But it’s the failed system rigged against the many to protect the interests of the few that is the real cause of inequality and insecurity whether it’s in Tottenham or Mansfield.”
It was a brave try and has vastly greater resonance in working-class areas than in the parliamentary Labour Party or among the liberal media. It also gets a good response from Labour activists and rank and file members whose opinions were tested in the recent Economic and Social Research Council survey. This showed that while less than three out of ten individual Labour Party members oppose Corbyn’s position, one in twenty are undecided and just about half support it.
Setting himself against this majority Paul Mason casts himself anew as the tribune of political reality. He says that Lexit is as much a fantasy as hard Brexit.
“If the UK had a left government, which clashed with the EU as it tried to enact nationalisations, state aid and reforms to the labour market, that government should defy the Lisbon and Maastricht treaties. That’s Lexit. The problem is, it is not on the agenda.”
He seems to have missed the point that with a Labour government in office and Britain outside the EU there is no need to defy the Lisbon and Maastricht treaties. They no longer bind us.
Instead of confronting our ruling class entrenched behind the barriers to democracy that the EU can deploy we would face them on territory staked out by a democratic mandate gifted by a radical Labour manifesto.
Of course, any post Brexit agreements devised during Monsieur Barnier and Madame May’s clandestine entente cordiale will need to be replaced but Britain’s negotiators would be armed with a powerful new mandate.
Casting millions of working people as among the “almost entirely reactionary” social forces supporting Brexit Mason asserts that such voters “have aligned themselves with the Tories.”
That should go down well in the many solidly working-class constituencies upon which Labour relies or indeed to the millions of Labour voters in less proletarian parts of Britain who have fallen into abstention or have unhappily compromised by voting Lib Dem or whatever on the ‘lesser evil’ principle.
Having abandoned any pretence at a Marxist approach to the current issues which might entail an examination of the class and economic forces at play Mason compares the current debate to an “incipient culture war” on a US model.
This superficial approach, from any class conscious standpoint, is highly unsatisfactory. The defining characteristic of the liberal take on the Brexit issue — one shared by that section of the left most affected by ‘infantile disorder’ — assigns to Boris’s bourgeois Brexiteers the entire burden of representing the essential interests of our ruling class. It thereby absolves of sin the economically and politically dominant coterie of bankers, bureaucrats and big business whose interests the Tory Party represents. By such comparisons, the interests of this haute-bourgeoisie are deemed to be less inimical to the working class than those of Rees Mogg’s sorry bunch.
Hobbled by this analytical blind spot it is inevitable that left liberals fail to see the European Union and its allied institutions as the key drivers of neo-liberalism even though they rail against the iniquities of privatisation and PFI (driven by Maastricht), imperial war (sanctified by the NATO EU accords) and austerity (embodied in the EU treaties and the Stability pact).
Even where they admit that the EU is less than the perfect model of social harmony and human progress the liberal left rests its hopes in the illusion that the EU is capable of progressive transformation.
By whom and how are questions that await convincing answers.
The danger is — that if this unholy family of interests has its way in the Labour Party – very substantial sections of the working class will cease to take Labour seriously and the field will be left open to whatever demagogic opportunist finds a common language with the most oppressed and exploited.
Zoltan Zigedy – who carefully parses the contending forces in US society and forensically examines the class dimensions to his country’s convoluted crises — is a more reliable guide to US political reality than is Paul Mason.
By way of contrast, Mason has remembered enough of his adolescent adherence to one of Britain’s more dogmatic Trotskyite sects to easily find a common language with the right in attacking the Communist Party’s insistence that the Brexit vote be respected.
To say as Mason does that “Thousands of us in the rank-and-file know, both by experience and from the history books, that British Stalinism has the unerring ability to destroy every political project it touches” joins ignorance to malice and invites derision.
A privileged position as a TV pundit does not qualify him to speak on behalf of a Labour rank-and-file that has repeatedly made its choices on which leader to follow.
Paul Mason’s target is not the British communists who have committed their modest forces to Labour’s renaissance but to the people that Labour’s mass membership has entrusted with the responsibility of leadership.
He simply lacks the courage to state this plainly.