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29 May 2019

Tories smashed in Euros - Now get them out

May ends in June!

Tory prime minister Theresa May is going. With ten leadership candidates announced and rising, the nasty party is tearing itself apart before our eyes.

Once one of the most successful parties on the planet at representing the rich and powerful, the Tories are shattering, reflecting the crisis of British capitalism.

For a governing party to come fifth in the European elections, with less than 10% of the vote, is an utter humiliation.

Millions of working and middle-class people have faced devastation at the hands of Tory governments over the last decade. Pay restraint, benefit cuts and closure of public services have been the norm.

Now we have a chance to get the Tories out. This has to be the overwhelming priority for trade unionists, anti-cuts campaigners, climate strikers and 'no to Trump' protesters in the coming weeks and months.

Instead, however, the establishment media and - criminally - the pro-capitalist Blairite wing of the Labour Party are concentrating their fire not on the Tories, but on Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, arguing that the EU election results prove he has to start campaigning for a second referendum to reverse Brexit.

Corbyn-led government

Many of these MPs - supporters of the Tory-lite policies of Tony Blair - have made clear that they do not want a Corbyn-led government because they fear it could challenge the interests of the capitalist elite.

It is not ensuring the election of a Labour government that motivates former Blair spin-doctor Alistair Campbell - who admitted voting Lib Dem in the Euro-polls - or Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, but defending the interests of big business.

If Corbyn was to follow their recommendations it would severely damage the prospects for a Labour government. The working-class vote for Brexit in 2016 was a cry of rage against the capitalist establishment and the misery being inflicted on the majority in the wake of the 2007-08 economic crisis.

If Corbyn was seen to be acting at the behest of that establishment to reverse the result of the referendum it would finish him in the eyes of an important section of working-class voters.

The only way to cut across the division that exists between working-class 'Leavers' and 'Remainers' is to launch a serious campaign to demand a general election now, linked to a clear socialist programme in defence of the interests of the whole working class.

What do the EU election results really represent?

The reality of the EU elections in Britain is not the same as the simplistic picture being painted in the capitalist press. Clearly many used their vote to express their views for or against Brexit. Nonetheless this was not a second referendum. Firstly it had a far lower turnout. Just over 16.5 million people voted, a small increase on the last EU election, but less than half the number who voted in the 2016 referendum. More than 60% of people expressed their frustration with the whole situation by staying at home. The surges - both to the Brexit Party and to parties that campaigned as pro-Remain - have to be seen in that context.

Nonetheless in a distorted way these elections did give another indication of the deep-seated anger at the capitalist establishment that has delivered a relentless squeeze on living standards. And, in a warning to Corbynism, this time Labour was not able to capitalise on that anger but was punished by it.

The fragmentation of politics and the long-term decline in support for 'traditional' parties has been shown most markedly in European elections. A vote for a distant and largely powerless EU parliament (which the country has now voted to leave) is not comparable with a general election where people are voting for the next government on a 'first past the post' system. You have to go back to 1999 for the combined Tory and Labour vote in the EU elections to top 50%. The 2014 European election was pre-Corbyn, in the era of Ed Miliband's 'austerity-lite' policies. Labour scraped second with 24% of the vote. This time, however, Tory and Labour's combined vote was less than 25%.

Revenge of Remain?

However, the root cause of this is not - as Tom Watson and co argue - Corbyn's failure to take a pro-Remain position. Undoubtedly, the Liberal Democrats and Greens made gains partly by trying to claim the pro-Remain banner. This should not be exaggerated, however. In total 3.36 million voted for the Liberal Democrats, for example, compared to 6.8 million in the 2010 general election. Just four years later, in the EU election of 2014, the Liberal Democrats were all but annihilated - reduced to just one MEP - as voters punished them for their role in the hated Con-Dem coalition government. Both this election and the recent council contests indicate that, unfortunately, enough time has passed for memories of their crimes in government to fade, allowing them to partially re-establish themselves as an acceptable protest vote. Nonetheless, it does not follow that they will automatically have a similar surge in a general election.

On the other side the Brexit Party - who came first with 5.2 million votes - was a protest against all the Westminster parties' failure to deliver for the majority, starting with their failure to 'deliver Brexit'. The Brexit Party is led by Nigel Farage - an ex-Tory, ex-stockbroker who has called for the privatisation of the NHS - the establishment's favourite 'anti-establishment' figure. While its leader is an avowed right-wing populist, however, the party contested the EU elections with no policies at all and tried to pose as the party of working-class people. It is clear that, alongside a large number of Tory voters, there were also traditional Labour voters who switched to the Brexit Party - like the former Labour councillor who lost his job when the Redcar steelworks closed in 2015. The Brexit Party came first in every region apart from London.

This is not a new phenomenon. In the 2014 EU elections Ukip topped the poll with 4.3 million votes, 27.5% of the vote. It was not, however, able to make significant inroads into Westminster. This time the rump of Ukip, which had moved in a more openly racist direction, was reduced to 3.3% and losing all its MEPs, showing the extreme instability of right-wing populist forces. The far-right racist 'Tommy Robinson', aka Stephen Yaxley-Lennon, lost his deposit in the North West.

A big part of the vote for the Brexit Party was previous Ukip voters, but this does not mean that the workers' movement can write them off. On the contrary, around a million of those who voted for Ukip in 2015 are estimated to have voted for Corbyn in the snap election of 2017. No doubt the majority of them voted for the Brexit Party last Thursday. Working-class anger at the capitalist establishment is looking for an effective outlet. Particularly where there is none available on the left, sections of the working class can, as in other countries across the EU, vote for right-populist forces.

On the other side, in this election, there were undoubtedly sections of working-class Labour voters who - alarmed by the right-wing nationalist rhetoric of Farage and many Tory leadership contenders - voted for explicitly Remain parties in order to show their opposition to Brexit.

On several occasions Corbyn has made correct points about the real divide in the country being between the 'many and the few' not how you voted in the EU referendum. In general, unfortunately, these speeches are not heard above the voices of the pro-capitalists who make up the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party and who are now, as Unite general secretary Len McCluskey has correctly warned, using the EU election results to ratchet up their offensive against Corbyn and his left policies. The woeful performance by the arch-Blairites who split to set up 'Change UK' is likely to encourage their co-thinkers to stay in Labour, at least in the short term, and work to undermine Corbyn from within.

And it will never be possible to cut across the divisions in the working class on Brexit with some 'correct' speeches. It is necessary to show that you are prepared to lead a serious struggle in the interests of working-class people against all the forces of the capitalist establishment, including those in your own party!

Transform Labour

Had Corbyn set out from the beginning to transform Labour under his leadership into a workers' party with socialist policies it would be seen very differently today by workers who are now becoming disillusioned. Doing so would have required transforming the structures of Labour so that it was brought under the democratic control of its working-class members and supporters, particularly via the trade unions, and a return to the kind of federal structure Labour had when it was founded.

This should have been combined with a campaign to replace Blairite MPs and councillors with those who were prepared to stand up for the interests of the working class. Crucially it would have meant demanding that Labour councils cease implementing Tory austerity and instead stand up for their local communities and refuse to implement cuts. It is no coincidence that in the recent local elections all of the 21 councils where Labour lost five or more seats were in heavily Leave-voting areas. It reflects both the scepticism of many Brexit-supporting workers to Labour's approach, and the deep-rooted anger at Labour councils cutting services, which was part of the fuel for the Brexit referendum fire in the first place. Imagine if a series of Labour councils were now carrying out a policy of mass council housebuilding, as Liverpool City Council did when Militant, forerunner of the Socialist Party, played a leading role in it during the 1980s? Enthusiasm for affordable, secure council housing would undoubtedly be uniting leave and remain voters in a way that correct speeches cannot.

Unfortunately, up until now Corbyn and the left Labour leadership have mistakenly prioritised compromise with the pro-capitalist wing of the party, rather than fighting to transform Labour into a workers' party. The fighting socialist programme of such a party would include a clear commitment to negotiate a Brexit in the interests of the working class. This would have meant 'red lines' of opposing all pro-privatisation anti-working class EU laws and making an appeal for solidarity to workers across Europe.

It would also mean pledging to nationalise British Steel and Honda Swindon under democratic working class control, with compensation paid only on the basis of proven need, along with any other companies who carry out closures and job cuts in the name of Brexit or otherwise. We argue that such measures would need to be combined with nationalisation of the major corporations and banks to take the levers of power out of the hands of the capitalists, who will inevitably attempt to sabotage a Corbyn government.

The EU elections are a serious warning of the risks Corbyn and McDonnell are running with their 'strategy of compromise' that could squander the potential opportunity their leadership has created. Nonetheless, despite everything, a Corbyn-led government could still be in power within months as a result of the meltdown in the Tory Party, particularly if Corbyn fights a general election on a radical left manifesto. If Corbyn was to win a general election it would send shockwaves through the capitalist classes of Europe. Winning at the ballot box - however - would only be the beginning. A Corbyn-led government would face major Brexit disruption, a likely global economic crisis, and - above all - a capitalist class determined to prevent it acting in the interests of the many not the few.

All of those problems could be overcome but only on the basis of building a fighting, democratic workers' party armed with socialist policies. That must be the main message to draw from the May elections.