The balance of class forces after the Brexit vote

Issue section: 
(416)

The world changed a little after Britain voted to leave the EU. Socialist Review spoke to Charlie Kimber, editor of Socialist Worker, about the new challenges revolutionaries face in the current period.

In the run up to the EU referendum in June we argued that a leave vote would create a crisis for our ruling class, particularly for the Tory party; that it would be a crisis for the EU project itself; and that therefore a Leave vote could provide an opportunity for our side to strengthen the fight against austerity. How much do you think we’ve seen those predictions borne out?
The referendum result was a political earthquake and the aftershocks will take time to work out. The vote represented a revolt by ordinary people against the elites. It’s contradictory; it’s many sided — some voted against the EU on racist grounds, but that was not the central and defining aspect of the vote.

It has weakened the EU project. One of the first tests of the EU after the leave vote was whether it would enforce on the Spanish and Portuguese governments fines for exceeding their spending targets. This it declined to do. The Portuguese left had made it clear that it would push for a referendum there if the fines were imposed. The EU remains committed to enforcing austerity but it took a battering from below from the leave vote. That’s wholly positive and there will be more examples where insurgent forces in Europe will be able to say, “Don’t think that there isn’t opposition to the role that the EU plays; look what happened in Britain.” This is why large sections of the European left welcomed the vote in Britain.

In Britain we must face the reality that there was an increase in racist attacks in the immediate aftermath of the leave vote, and however people voted on 23 June it remains an absolutely central project to contest and confront racism. It’s not our argument that such attacks didn’t happen or that they are irrelevant. However, racism didn’t start on 24 June. There’s a long history in Britain, not just from the Tory right and UKIP but from all the major political parties, of using immigration and racism in order to buttress their political positions. It’s actually remarkable that so many people reject these arguments.

UKIP, far from prospering in the immediate aftermath of the referendum, is in terrific trouble. Nigel Farage stood down as leader and a ragtag of candidates has presented itself. In every council election since the referendum, bar one, UKIP’s vote has remained static or gone down. Some people said David Cameron would cling on after the result — but as we predicted, he had to go within hours. Then people said Boris Johnson would be the next leader — well he isn’t; he was stabbed in the back by Michael Gove, and then Gove was forced out too. Theresa May was ruthlessly imposed and undoubtedly will have a honeymoon period. However, the Tories have two big issues in front of them. One is the need to continue to impose austerity. The new chancellor Philip Hammond will present his autumn statement which, despite May’s talk of looking after working class people, will likely include a continuation of austerity.

The second issue is the EU itself. The Tories are divided between two pressures. One is the pressure of big business and the banks to get as much access as possible to the single market. The other pressure is that of the Tory right, of UKIP and so on, to slash immigration. Big business would prefer to make concessions towards freedom of movement which the EU demands in order to have access to the single market.

It’s very important that the left in Britain finds its own position on Brexit and the demands it wants — more freedom of movement, more rights for migrants, full rights for EU nationals, and so on — in order to enter that debate.

My expectation is that soon the gloss will come off the Tories and May will be faced with difficult decisions. Maybe she will be tempted to go for a swift general election, but it’s a risk. She may be in the clear for the moment but in the longer term the issues for the ruling class are returning and there is no sign of a fundamental improvement in the economic situation which underpins these difficulties. The European economy is not leaping forward; the British economy is essentially stagnant — not because of the leave vote but because for a long time now the problems of low productivity and lack of investment have continued.

You mentioned the left putting its own demands about how Brexit happens. The SWP was part of Lexit: the Left Leave campaign, which was very small in terms of impact but did put an argument inside the left. How do you think those divisions before the referendum affect the left’s ability to shape events now?
As long as the working class is divided between those who want to overturn the vote and those who want to respect and implement it, it will be much harder to campaign. You can see this in the Labour Party leadership election. Owen Smith is for a second referendum or a general election which defines whether or not Britain leaves the EU. Jeremy Corbyn has quite rightly said the result needs to be respected and implemented. Our view is that the left as a whole has a real interest in saying we understand the democratic vote, we’re going to respect it, and now we need to define issues that we can unite on. The Left Leave campaign, the Scottish Left Leave campaign and the Tusc campaign around the referendum were important, not in shifting millions of votes, but as a demonstration that it was possible to be against the EU on an anti-racist, anti-capitalist, internationalist basis.

The left has to keep putting forward its views around this but in truth we don’t want the British working class movement to be divided around this question. We’ve always said that we have far more in common with someone who supports Jeremy Corbyn but voted remain than someone who voted leave but supports the Tories or worse. That has to be carried into concrete demands so everyone on the left should agree that EU nationals in Britain should have their full rights guaranteed. That’s a campaign that Stand Up to Racism (SUTR) has taken up and everyone on the left should support. We believe that freedom of movement should be guaranteed; indeed we want open borders. Not everyone who was part of the Left Leave campaign would agree with that but it’s an argument that we want to raise.
It’s in the interest of the whole of the left that we raise issues such as what trade union rights will be guaranteed as part of the leave negotiations, but we should go further than that and demand the removal of the Trade Union Act.

We shouldn’t be defensive about voting leave; we think we were right to do so and events so far have generally confirmed that as well. At the same time we have to unite the broader left — and Corbyn could play a crucial role here if he were to put forward, say, a charter of six demands we want from the EU negotiations that the left could unite around.

This summer, thanks to the right forcing the issue, we’ve had a rerun of the Labour leadership battle, complete with massive rallies for Jeremy Corbyn around the country. How do you think things have changed for Corbyn over the last 12 months?
It’s the central issue of British politics at the moment. And it’s incredibly exciting to see the enthusiasm of those who attend the big Corbyn rallies. The thousands of people coming out demonstrate the latent political feeling that’s been there for so long in British society.
It is different from 12 months ago, partly because Corbyn is the leader now. A year ago he was unexpectedly on the ballot paper and suddenly discovering this immense support. Last time he was standing against three essentially right wing candidates, Yvette Cooper, Andy Burnham and Liz Kendall. It’s a measure of what Corbyn has achieved that he is now being challenged by someone who says, “I don’t really disagree with Jeremy about policy, I just don’t think he’s electable.” Owen Smith is lying about his policy positions, but it’s very interesting that he can’t put forward the sorts of views that Kendall or Cooper or Burnham did because he wouldn’t have a hope of winning.

Corbyn’s first year is very interesting because he tried to compromise with the right in lots of ways. One of his earliest decisions was that he would campaign for a remain vote in the EU, for example, which I think was a wrong decision that weakened him. Corbyn and McDonnell didn’t come out in the early stages and say they were 100 percent behind the junior doctors’ strike. They were disciplined by the shadow cabinet over this question. Corbyn and McDonnell did later come out and lead a demonstration of the junior doctors and teachers who were also in dispute in April. That was very important.

What we’re seeing now is the intransigent opposition of not just 172 Labour MPs who voted no confidence in Corbyn but the mayor of London, Sadiq Khan, the leader of the party in Scotland, Kezia Dugdale, and some trade union leaders. The historic pattern of the Labour Party has been that the forces which have corralled and disciplined the insurgent membership have been the leader, the MPs and the trade union leaders. Now we have the leader aligned with a vastly increased and radicalised membership taking on the MPs, and the trade union leaders in their majority supporting Corbyn and the radical members, for now at least.

Corbyn’s most important union backer is probably Len McCluskey of Unite. McCluskey has made pretty sure that the Labour Party will not oppose Trident because of the wrong argument that this is protecting Unite members’ jobs. So he comes with overheads and a price. Nonetheless something new has happened within Labour Party politics.

Let’s hope Jeremy wins on 24 September. If he is elected what will then happen? It is unknowable to some extent what the Labour right will do about it. I say the Labour right — it’s not just Blairites that we’re talking about here. Indeed some of the Blairites are not very happy with Owen Smith because he is too left wing. But there’s a much bigger section of the centre of the Labour Party which has come out against Corbyn. I find it difficult to imagine how this can be stitched back together again in a harmonious way.

The question for Corbyn is whether he’s going seek to compromise with the right or whether he is going to carry through the democratisation of the Labour Party and squeeze out those who are committed to an entirely different project to the one in which he is engaged. Our view is that he must continue the movement inside Labour to radicalise and to push the right out, but crucially he must also encourage mobilisation on the streets and in the workplaces.

Some people who support Corbyn have talked about the Labour Party becoming a social movement. Is that a reality in terms of what Corbyn would be able to do assuming he wins?
There’s no doubt that the Corbyn phenomenon has some aspects of a social movement. You can’t go to those rallies and think that this is just a normal Labour Party situation. It has aspects of a social movement in the sense of we are tens of thousands, hundreds of thousands of people who are determined to support Corbyn because of the policies he represents. It’s not really a commitment to the Labour Party as such, and that’s actually very positive.

There are limitations as to what extent Corbynism can be a social movement, or the social movement that we need. It is limited by the structures and the electoralism of the Labour Party. It would be a profound error, for example, to cease agitation around the question of Trident and nuclear weapons in order to make it easier for Corbyn to compromise with the right inside the Labour Party.

A genuine social movement has to be open to people from all political forces on the left and none — think of the great successes of the social movement of the Stop the War Coalition, which is certainly associated with figures on the left, people like Jeremy Corbyn, but wasn’t a Labour Party project and was the stronger for that.

For a few weeks people will be focused very much on the vote but after a while issues will re-emerge: what is the Labour Party going to do to reverse the assaults on the NHS? What is the Labour Party going to do about racism? What is the Labour Party going to do about the fact that councils, unfortunately many of them Labour councils, are implementing attacks on services? There are very many people in the Labour Party who will want to work with others outside, and that’s extremely healthy.

The Corbyn phenomenon is the latest manifestation of a more general politicisation that we’ve talked about for a long time, whether it was the anti-capitalist mood at the turn of the millennium, or the anti-war movement. How much do you think the organisational forms that this radicalisation takes shape how it develops?
This is a very important question because if the radicalisation is contained within a party that is fixated on parliament and elections it’s not going to develop the sort of movement that we require. There has been this sense in British society for a long time of successive movements that have drawn from one another and have grown as a result of previous experience, so the Stop the War movement was bigger than the anti-capitalist movement in Britain. The political mood has at times been very hostile to the idea of leadership of parties — not just in Britain but internationally. This hostility hasn’t gone away but has reduced in recent years. There’s an argument about what sort of party you need but the idea that we need to organise together to be effective is much more broadly accepted.

You can see the problems if the bitterness in society ends up purely behind parliamentary organisations. Just look at the history of Syriza — how quickly it went from being the great hope for people against austerity and racism across Europe to implementing a harsher set of austerity policies than its Tory predecessor and rounding up refugees in detention camps and expelling them to the brutalities of the Turkish regime. Look at France and the François Hollande government elected in 2012 — a brief period of reform and then implementing austerity and anti-migrant and Islamophobic measures, creating the space for the growth of the Front National.

There’s a real danger for those of us who are revolutionaries to look at this situation and say, “Well I’ve seen this film before; I know how it ends.” What we should say is that we have to ensure we don’t go down that same path. A revolutionary’s job is certainly to point out the historical experience of Labour governments in Britain who said they were socialist, but then to say the key thing that will prevent us going down that road again is the systematic mobilisation of the masses in the workplaces and in the streets, and we will be with you in that. We will share your struggles but not your illusions, as Leon Trotsky put it.

We have to fight at every stage to deepen the radicalisation and to reach out to more and more working class people. What is going to happen to the millions of working class people who voted leave, who are subject to very contradictory ideas? The right is trying to pull those people and the left has to pull those people. It can only do that if it reaches out into working class communities with a programme that says we are for radical change to give you a future and to give your children a future, but also insists that the working class needs unity and that means the struggle against racism and Islamophobia.

Corbyn is actually an important element in this as an obstacle to the right. If Corbyn continues to radicalise and reach out to people he can be part of the process by which the right is held back because people will see a force which can deliver for them.

One of the realities we have had to face for many years now is the historically low level of strikes and the relatively low level of organisation on the ground in workplaces compared to 40 years ago in Britain.
A few weeks ago the strike figures came out for 2015 and they demonstrated that the number of working days “lost” in strikes in 2015 was the second-lowest since records began in 1891, and the number of workers involved in strikes in 2015 was the lowest since records began. So on the one hand there is this extraordinary radicalisation of Corbynism; on the other, the second lowest strike figures since 1891. That’s the incredible contradiction that we face.

The strikes that do occur are very important and generally well supported. The trouble is there’s not nearly enough of them, and because of that you don’t get the strengthening of collective organisation in the workplaces. Could this be because there is such contentment among workers in Britain that there’s not much to fight about? No. The TUC released figures recently which showed that between 2007 and 2015 the average real hourly wages had fallen by more than 10 percent on average. The only OECD country with a comparable fall was Greece.

So why isn’t there more struggle? A large part of the reason is the role of the trade union leaders who have missed opportunity after opportunity to support the struggles that do happen and to broaden them into a more powerful wave. I’m not saying there are millions of workers who are champing at the bit, desperate to get out on picket lines — there is a lack of confidence among wide layers of the class about whether you can fight and win. The point is do the trade union leaders play the role of encouraging resistance, spreading the fights that do take place, or do they hold it back? The truth is for very many years the role has been one of holding things back.

Why do the trade union leaders hold back struggles? Is it just a habit they’ve got into?
There’s no doubt that some of them have entirely got into the habit of not fighting. When those strike figures came out some of the trade union leaders said, “Well, this just shows what a marvellous job we’re doing. You don’t need anti-trade union laws — we’re doing the job for you!”

But I think there are two factors really. One is that the trade union leaders responded to the defeats of the 1980s by accepting that major national struggle was doomed to failure, and they were contemptuous of their members, who they thought didn’t want to fight.
So the way the trade unions could survive was to make deals, to amalgamate if necessary to boost numbers, and to work within the new politics of market relations.

The fundamental basis of the trade union leaders is to balance between the employers and the workers, and the pressure coming from the bosses was very strong, while the pressure coming from the base was hampered by the low level of struggle, and they were pulled further and further to the right.

There was also pressure from the Labour Party leadership, with which most trade union leaders are aligned, to avoid strikes. Obviously this was true under Tony Blair and Gordon Brown, but it was also true under Ed Miliband. It’s one of the refreshing things about Corbyn that in general — though not in all cases as unfortunately strikes against Labour councils don’t get this treatment — he will align himself with workers in struggle.

If we don’t get more struggle in the workplaces there will be limits to how far the political radicalisation will develop and how much change there will be in society. This is one of the reasons it’s very important that revolutionaries attempt to encourage resistance from below, to solidify working class organisation and to support all those struggles that do take place. However, anyone who tries to organise in the workplace simply around the immediate issues at work, or even solidarity with other workers, will be limited. Taking up the political questions around anti-racism, the debates in the Labour Party, climate change, and so on, is crucial.

How do we, as a relatively small group of revolutionaries, put pressure on the trade union leaders and at a wider level in society?
Firstly we need victories; we do not need any more glorious defeats. The more that people get the message that if you fight you win — or at least you win something — the stronger will be the argument with other groups of workers. We should take the question of solidarity extremely seriously.

Secondly, even when people win, no one hears about it. That’s one of the reasons we have Socialist Worker, to spread the good news. There are plenty of people who will spread the bad news about the trade unions: whenever there is a defeat everyone will be told about it by the mainstream press.

We have to fan the flames wherever we can in our individual unions. When the Trade Union Act is fully implemented there will be a very important argument in the trade union movement that this makes national action impossible for the big unions. We will have to mobilise people around challenging that. We have to build up confidence and try to build wider networks of solidarity, which some of us along with others in Unite the Resistance have been part of. The stronger the political networks around other issues the easier it will be in the workplaces.

If we look at everything we’ve been talking about in terms of the balance of class forces, it looks like we are saying there are quite big weaknesses on both sides.
We are always very aware of our own limitations, but actually the other side are not that confident. There will continue to be political and economic crises which open the opportunity for a resurgence of struggles from below. For a long time it has felt like there is a class war going on but only one side is fighting it. Will Corbynism change that? If the hundreds of thousands of people who have joined the Labour Party are drawn into battles in the workplaces and in their communities that will be a serious long-term shift in Britain, but none of that is inevitable.

One of the dangers of Corbynism is it becomes a substitute — we either don’t need to fight or we can’t, so we get behind Corbyn. There are some trade union leaders who will try to use it in that way: “Jeremy’s been re-elected, the next question is the general election, which could come at any time up to 2020, so that’s where we have to put all our efforts.” That would be disastrous — firstly because if it’s not till 2020 the Tories will have ripped up services and jobs and living conditions and intensified racism, but also because if Jeremy does want to win the next general election the best guarantee of that would be more struggle in society raising the confidence and combativity of workers.

How do we create a movement which is outward looking, works with as wide a number of people as possible in action, but is not fixated on parliament and elections? We have to push the focus of radicalisation onto struggle from below, which can both be the most effective way of dealing with those questions of austerity and racism but can also lay the basis for a serious challenge to the bosses and the state.

There is a phrase which Corbyn and his supporters use: “Austerity is a political choice.” On one level that’s true — you can decide to spend £135 billion on Trident or you can spend it on the NHS and education; you can decide to spend money on tax concessions to the rich or you can use it for the interests of the majority. But it is also true that capitalism in crisis is not simply going to sit there and allow money to be taken away from the rich and the corporations without a challenge. We know this from British history and from world history.

The Corbyn experience both poses new questions and challenges for revolutionaries’ understanding of the world and underlines the necessity for the continuation of the project of independent revolutionary organisation.