The European elections 2014 – a pending disaster for the Left?

By Dave Parks, Exeter Left Unity Coordinator (personal capacity)

This article was written following a debate on this subject on the TUSC Facebook page. I would like to thank the participants in that debate for the comradely nature of the exchange.

The biggest electoral test before the 2015 general election will be the European elections which are scheduled to take place on 22nd May 2014. The local elections will almost certainly take place on the same day. It now looks increasingly likely that the Left will be resurrecting the reactionary NO2EU in some form to contest these elections. These elections could be a carnival of reaction with the UKIP bandwagon rolling on and no-one pointing out that our real problems are caused by capitalism. The elections look set to be dominated by nationalism, xenophobia and racism.

What is NO2EU?

No2EU was an electoral coalition that stood in the last Euro elections in 2009. NO2EU involved the RMT (Rail, Maritime & Transport union), SP (Socialist Party), CPB (Communist Party of Britain, who produce the Morning Star newspaper) and the AGS (Alliance for Green Socialism). The electoral platform was perhaps best described as Left-nationalist. This varied from concerns about EU legislation negatively effecting workers rights to a “no to Brussels” agenda that echoes UKIP in a more Left wing way.

The NO2EU website illustrates nicely the kind of problems that are involved with such an anti-EU campaign. The website has not been updated for quite some time but this allows us to look back at the kind of presence and agenda that NO2EU had a few years ago. The website prominently promotes something called the People’s pledge. There is a link on the main menu bar of the site and prominently at the bottom of the front page. It takes you to a website where you are invited to sign a pledge:

“I am voting for an in-out referendum on EU membership. I will use my vote to help secure a majority of MPs in Parliament who support an EU referendum”.

At the time this was basically getting most voters to pledge to vote euro-skeptic Tory or UKIP. Today it is essentially a call for a UKIP or Tory vote in a general election. Do we really want a Left agenda confused with this stuff?

The RMT, TUSC and NO2EU Revived

After that election the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC) was formed with support from the RMT and the SP. It has stood candidates on an anti-cuts platform in elections ever since. Independents that support TUSC have formed an Independent Socialist Network (ISN) which is represented on the TUSC steering committee. The SWP has more recently joined and has a representative on the national committee.

The RMT has long had a vociferous anti-EU position and is the main party to supply funding within TUSC. Despite being involved with TUSC the RMT is seeking talks with the former NO2EU coalition partners to discuss the next EU elections. According to the ISN website TUSC was floating possible electoral titles including ‘Trade Unionists and Socialists Against Cuts- No2EUNo to Austerity’ as an alternative to reviving NO2EU. (See: TUSC National Steering Committee makes a number of key decisions – report from March and May SC meetings).

According to the ISN report: “Concerns were raised about the racism likely to be engendered during the Euro Elections, and this should influence our campaign and electoral title. The RMT suggested we make clear our socialist objections to the EU. There was a danger of being seen as being in agreement with UKIP with a ‘No2EU’ label”.

It would seem talks are underway and it is not yet clear whether we will end up with NO2EU or TUSC-NO2EU. What is clear is that the primary focus of the election campaign will be anti-EU.

The EU is a capitalist club so isn’t it right to be anti-EU?

Well that is a debatable question but it is certainly true that the dominant Left perspective is anti-EU. This perhaps goes back to the Bennite Left in the 1970’s that saw the Common Market as being an obstacle to bold socialist measures being carried out by a Labour government. The UK had joined the EEC in 1973 under the Tories. In 1974 Labour stood for election with a manifesto commitment to nationalise the top industries – a commitment that was ignored. The Bennites saw the EU as an obstacle to a reformist parliamentary road to socialism. The referendum on continued EEC membership took place in 1975 with 67% of the electorate voting to remain in. Since the 70’s the Labour Left has remained euro-skeptic as have the bigger groups such as the CPB, the SWP and the SP. There have been other voices on the Left that have rejected this perspective some of the smaller groups such as the CPGB (Weekly Worker) and AWL (Alliance for Workers Liberty).

Of course it goes without saying that in a capitalist world all the institutions are capitalist. It is true that the EU is a bosses club but we are not faced with a choice between socialism or capitalism when it comes to the EU – we are faced with the choice between British capitalists or European capitalists. The EU does indeed have some thoroughly reactionary anti-worker regulations and yet it also has some protections for workers which the Tories and UKIP hate. The one thing we can be sure of in the short term is that if we leave the EU it will be under a Tory government or worse a Tory/UKIP government and the main thing they will drop is the elements in the EU that are in workers’ interests and they will keep any of the anti-worker bits.

The previous NO2EU campaign pointed out that there are some measures such as Mode 4 which will allow big business to bring in cheap skilled labour from poor countries to undermine wages. There is an element of truth in this although it turns out that Mode 4 is more of a bilateral agreement between the UK and India. When the UK has left the EU it will not be the RMT negotiating bilateral trade agreements – it will be a Tory government with probably the most vicious anti-working class agenda ever.

Another argument often cited by anti-EU socialists is that we should look at Greece and Spain to see the havoc inflicted on them by the EU. It is true that the troika (the European Commission, European Central Bank and International Monetary Fund) agreement imposed on Greece was a disaster for the Greek working class. The level of anger against this agreement nearly led to the Far Left Syriza winning the last election. Meanwhile in Spain there is astonishingly an unemployment rate of over 25%. However, Syriza remain opposed to leaving the EU which is also the case for the equivalent formation in Spain, the United Left. Would Greece or Spain fair better outside the EU with right-wing governments dealing directly with the IMF? Maybe, maybe not, it is hard to say. Of course the problem is not which set of bosses we have, the problem is capitalism itself. The other side of that is building internationalism – will the trade union and socialist movement have stronger or weaker links across Europe if we are outside the EU. The common interest of being within the EU must surely strengthen those links.

It is perhaps worth mentioning another issue relating to the EU and that is the issue of climate change. We need transnational institutions and cooperation if climate change is to be tackled and unless we achieve global socialism tomorrow that means cooperation between capitalist nations. Is this agenda strengthened or weakened by the UK leaving the EU? Indeed, on many other wider issues the logic of a socialist outlook is transnational cooperation – the reverting of the UK back to a small island mentality outside of the EU is not a step forward.

Elections 2014 and beyond – a carnival of reaction?

Which ever position we take on the EU the key question is how we approach this issue given the current situation of the rise of UKIP and the prospects of a general election the following year. How do we frame the debate? (See: Reframing the Debate: UKIP and TUSC)

UKIP and the Tories will be whipping up an unprecedented chauvinist environment around these elections. They will be saying to workers that their problems are caused by foreigners (the EU) and immigrants.

The Left should be firmly giving an alternative narrative and should be pointing out that the problem is capitalism! Yet, we are going to end up echoing the agenda of UKIP.

So TUSC/NO2EU successfully persuades some workers that they should be anti-EU. Very few of these workers will have the opportunity to vote for an anti-EU socialist candidate in the general election so the logic of this dynamic is to encourage workers to vote Tory or UKIP at the next General Election.

The meteoric rise of UKIP has in fact been taking place over a few years. In 2009 UKIP came second in the Euro elections receiving 2.5 million votes, a share of 16.5 % of the vote cast (they obtained 11 of the 73 UK seats in the European Parliament). In the recent local elections they received 25% of the vote on average in the wards where they stood although it should be pointed out that the European elections use proportional representation, which favours smaller parties, where as the local elections are first past the post which is a big barrier to overcome for smaller parties. The other interesting aspect of comparing these results is that the anti-immigrant BNP received 6.2% of the vote in 2009 (added to the UKIP vote that totals to nearly 23%) where as their vote has comparatively collapsed recently going no doubt to UKIP. One thing is sure and that is UKIP look likely to get between 20-30% of the vote next May and they may even come first. This vote will not necessarily translate into major gains in the parliamentary elections in 2015 because first past the post makes it difficult even for third place parties to win a lot of seats – but they could hold the balance of power in a hung parliament. However, with a nationalist and racist anti-immigrant agenda firmly established the prospects will be very bad indeed electorally for the Left.

It is perhaps worth considering why UKIP is doing so well. There are a number of factors at play but the central cause is the deepening crisis of capitalism which is causing a crisis for all the mainstream capitalist parties. This is especially so for the social democratic parties. The deepening crisis of capitalism no longer allows the space for these parties to offer crumbs from the table of the bosses. The rhetoric of being moderate socialists has been replaced with an assurance that they will kick workers in the teeth slightly less hard than the Tories. This political discourse no longer allows a space to question whether there is actually something fundamentally wrong with capitalism and whether or not we should be looking for a planned economy in its place. This has caused an erosion of class consciousness within the working class and beyond and consequently it is easier for the chauvinists and nationalists to pose as the alternative.

What way forward for socialists?

Well I would argue that we should have no part in any anti-EU campaign. Instead our focus should be on two things:

  1. Rebuilding class consciousness. This means attempting to get an alternative narrative on the agenda. Our problems are not caused by Brussels or immigrants they are caused by capitalism. To resolve this problem requires class struggle politics
  2. Rebuilding the labour movement. The labour movement has suffered decades of defeat. We need to be rebuilding structures such as trade unions, tenant organisations, anti-cut groups and so on. A large proportion of the workforce has now never been in a trade union – we need to get organised as a class.

The prospects of this happening are unfortunately very low. The Left presence in the Euros will almost certainly be some variant of NO2EU. The question is how bad it will be – if TUSC stands with leaflets headed “Austerity = Planned Poverty” or some such slogan and the anti-EU element is secondary then it will be less damaging than if leaflets are headed “No to the EU”. The RMT clearly want the later and the SP may well prefer the former but the RMT have the funds! The problem for the Left standing candidates (whether as TUSC or Left Unity or Left Unity as part of TUSC) in the local elections is that any class message is going to drown in this poisonous swamp and then before we know it we are into next years general election with class politics even further off the agenda.

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