Out September 15th: “Syriza – Inside the Labyrinth”

syriza_ovendenBy Pluto Press (200 pages | 5 x 7 3/4 | © 2015).

With a Foreword by Paul Mason.

In January 2015, Syriza, the Coalition of the Radical Left, became the largest party in the Hellenic Parliament, winning 149 out of 300 seats and badly defeating the then-ruling conservative New Democracy party. In Syriza, Kevin Ovenden presents an in-depth analysis of the political events leading up to this seemingly sudden reversal of political power in Greece, exploring the origins of the turbulent Greek political climate, from the beginnings of the Communist Party of Greece and the Greek workers’ movement following the First World War, to the brutal civil war that shook the country in the aftermath of the Second World War; the rise and fall of the Panhellenic Socialist Movement and the growth of radical politics in the 1970s; and finally the crushing austerity demands following the debt crisis of the 2010s.

Ovenden also examines the far-right movements in Greece as well, focusing in particular on the negative impact that the xenophobic and nationalistic Golden Dawn party has had and continues to have to this day.

Syriza’s victory in Greece is a central event of the twenty-first century, whose ramifications are sure to be felt for decades.

Go to Pluto Press to order your copy.

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Jeremy Corbyn and the shock of the new


Another council by-election in Hackney, London, last night showed a large swing to Labour. At the same time a recent poll put Labour 11 percent behind the Tories in national voting intention.

An earlier poll put Labour ahead on the raw figures and just one point behind when the figures were adjusted, weighted, to take into account turnout and how that impacted differently on different parties in 2015, when it hit the Labour vote.

But how can it be that Labour is winning a number of council by-elections handsomely but still we get these polling results?

It is important not to cherry-pick results to suit our own wishes. There are ongoing serious problems for the polling companies, which got the 2015 election badly wrong, when it comes to weighting their raw figures.

The problems are greater now than they were before this year’s referendum. Pollsters had developed methods of weighting their results to factor in the turnout, and the differential turnouts between parties, of the 2015 election when 66 percent of people voted.

But the turnout at the referendum was 72 percent. A extra 2.8 million people voted compared with last year’s general election. The turnout was the highest since 1992.

No one really knows what a general election result would look like if that number of people participated in the future.

That said, the polls cannot be simply discounted. Or rather, the standard polls of voting intention cannot be discounted; we now have also a series of propaganda interventions masquerading as polls over other things.

That was the case recently with a YouGov “poll” which purportedly showed declining support among members of Labour affiliated unions for Jeremy Corbyn, but which on inspection could not even show that it had asked actual union members for their opinion of him.

I should add – nor should council by-election results be discounted either. It is symptomatic of a certain pathological pessimism in parts of the movement that positive evidence is disregarded in some quarters.

So there is something of a mismatch between actual electoral performance by Labour and national polling figures.

One reason for that is that they tend to measure two different things.

A council by-election is an actual choice between parties (candidates play a minor role in most cases, except in smaller highly contested wards) but usually with little direct consequence.

National polling intention for the major parties – the Tories and Labour, and the SNP in Scotland – normally is an index of who people want to form a government.

And it is here that the sabotage of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party can have an effect on Labour’s standing in the polls.

There is no evidence that the kinds of values, policy thrust and actual policies promoted by Jeremy Corbyn are unpopular. Quite the opposite. Even on Trident, where there is still minority opposition, there is no evidence that that plays any role in voter switch away from Labour.

If anything, there is strong evidence that even where people say they do not agree with Corbyn there is a lot of support for the idea that he is honest, says what he thinks and is not just spinning like a “normal politician”. That is one reason why friends who think that the way forward is to come up with a series of fudges over those issues where the left is not in a majority are mistaken.

While we need to persuade and win support on those issues, they are not the reason why Labour is suppressed in some of the polls.

The question of who you would vote for if there were a general election tomorrow connotes a series of issues, in a very conventional way, to do with government, party in parliament, leader and so on.

While Britain has a parliamentary system supposedly of cabinet government, it has for 30 years been quite presidential in the role ascribed to party leader and prime minister. That began under Margaret Thatcher and was deepened under Tony Blair.

One of the most powerful attractions of Corbyn in last year’s leadership contest and this is his channelling not just of new policies – declaring that Labour is an anti-austerity party – but a new politics. That is – a challenge to the conventional idea of what politics is.

That remains attractive. But it runs up against the ingrained idea of what a leader/prime minister, a party and a government should look like.

That is where the right wing assault is honing in. At its most sophisticated it concedes that Corbyn is honest and full of political integrity. But it maintains that he cannot be a “real leader”.

On a limited level, there’s some truth in that. A radically democratic break with the old politics is also a break with the manicured, spin doctored, conventional conception of Westminster leadership.

In this thinking a proper leader is “able to communicate” because they are an entirely accepted part of the microcosm of parliament and its surgically attached London media.

Of course, the charge of lacking actual leadership capacity and the ability to communicate is wholly misplaced. There’s an implicit acknowledgement of that when Owen “Pfizer” Smith complains that Corbyn’s support for democratic reselection of MPs is tantamount to him being a “bad boss”.

So which is it? Is Corbyn a gentle soul incapable of strong leadership, or Alan Sugar on steroids?

The “bad boss” line did not originate with Smith. Theresa May used it at PMQs on Wednesday. That was where one Labour renegade after another stood up to congratulate the Tory prime minister over the Trident renewal vote.

That takes us to the central political issue behind the polls. For all the hollow talk of “real opposition to the Tories” the hard right of the PLP are, quite simply, engaged in an extended operation to provide support to the government and to undermine their own party. It began with Hilary Benn leading the pro-war Labour MPs over the Syria vote last December.

Partly it is about suppressing Labour’s polling support. The capacity of the media to move people directly against Corbyn is limited. But it does have the power to amplify the voices of one Bitterite MP after another savaging the Labour leader and pronouncing that the party is imploding.

It is little wonder under those circumstances that polling which is asking whether you want a Labour or a Tory government shows Labour trailing. Most people may never have heard of the Labour MP in question vituperating against Corbyn, but they do know that to form a government Corbyn would need to have Labour MPs supporting him.

The hope is to demoralise Corbyn’s support, play on the deep, conventional view of what it takes for a party to win a general election, and thus to topple him in the leadership election. Then, we can get back to business – big business – under Mr Normal as leader.

But it runs deeper than even the next two months of the leadership contest.

The political collaboration from the Labour benches with the Tory government is firmly rooted. The Labour right shares the essential view of the Remain Tories, as illustrated in the official Remain campaign in the referendum.

That is not going to go away. The Brexit vote has posed the most almighty problem for the government. It has to come up with a coherent strategy for British capitalism. May has reorganised the government and Whitehall to do that.

By placing prominent Brexiters almost like human shields in the frontline of the negotiations with the EU she has skilfully managed to reboot the government and create an air of unity in the Tory party.

Barring a week in September, parliament is not back now for two and a half months. Angela Merkel has agreed to Britain delaying triggering the formal Brexit process for six months.

All of this buys time. But the fundamental difficulties facing the government will not go away. And with a majority of only 16 MPs the secret to the May government’s stability actually lies in the collaboration of the likes of Hilary Benn and his claque on the opposite benches.

A battle of fundamentals

It is about more than immolating Labour under Corbyn in the hope of removing him. It is about squeezing out of political life the new political surge he represents. That is continuing, as the 183,000 sign-ups in two days this week demonstrated, and in the post-referendum atmosphere of greater politicisation it can become a potent threat to the establishment.

That’s why this battle is so big and will be so brutal. It’s also why attempts to mitigate it by coming up with Heath Robinson ideas about how the irreconcilable forces may be united on the Labour benches are futile.

You cannot have, to use the term as Bernie Sanders does, a political revolution in the labour movement and in Britain at the same time as some old-style Westminster fix.

On one level, everyone this week at least paid lip service to the extraordinary feat of 183,000 paying £25 each to affiliate to the Labour Party. Even the pantomime cynic Michael Crick recognised that there is no precedent in British political history for such a phenomenon.

But then he, and other commentators, return to “normal” with a comforting circular argument: Corbyn cannot win a general election, because general elections are won by normal leaders, of normal parties in normal circumstances. The proof? Look at the precedents.

The challenge for the radical left is to be as radical as the unprecedented reality itself.

That means acting in good faith with the developments before our very eyes. The surge for Corbyn is not something that can be bolted on to an essentially conventional political strategy.

But it is also true that it does not come with its own political strategy. There’s a huge desire for a new politics. Yet it runs up against conventional thinking which is socially rooted.

The radical – and politically coherent in the new circumstances – answer to whether Labour under Corbyn can win entails conducting at a mass level an argument about what it means to win. That is an argument which shifts people’s understanding of their own role in the political process and their capacity through collective struggles to win things now – election or no election.

This is a fundamental question which goes far deeper than whether Labour can be shorn of its worst Blairite excrescences.

It touches on the perennial socialist questions of strategy – whether the pivot for radical change lies more in representation in parliament or the collective struggles of working people, mass social movements which themselves alter the political landscape.

And it has a direct bearing on electoral strategy also. Nearly three million extra voters took part in the referendum. Some of those were young people between 18 and 24, whose participation was 64 percent, not the 36 percent which had been assumed.

All the indications are that their motivation was strongly anti-racist. They voted largely for Remain, but not out of some settled commitment to the EU, more out of a wonderful hatred for Nigel Farage and UKIP.

More of the 2.8 million were older voters of the unskilled and poorer sections of the working class whose voter turnout has, like that of young people as a whole, been low for 25 years.

They mostly voted Leave, largely with what Diane Abbott called a “roar against the establishment”.

These newer voters are but a part of wider demographics which have, until recently, felt more and more alienated from Westminster politics.

Together with the base of Labour’s support they constitute a potential vote which could sweep a general election in England and in Wales.

The obstacle to mobilising that is not that the left is too radical but that it remains too conventional, not radical enough.

Recognising that does not, of course, do away with all the difficulties bound up with the fact that the radicalisation is coming up against the very structures of a Labour Party which has been deradicalised, not just in the Blair years, but for the past 35 years, ever since the campaign around Tony Benn last raised within the party fundamental questions about social transformation.

There remains a full-time Labour Party apparatus which is profoundly undemocratic and whose thinking is closer to Theresa May’s than to Jeremy Corbyn’s or the majority of Labour’s members. There remain the right wing Labour MPs, and alongside them some “soft left” MPs. Both groups see politics as about what politicians do.

Confrontations and schisms lie ahead. The left needs to understand that and why they are inevitable. Tactical good sense can lead to more favourable outcomes to those confrontations. But it cannot prevent them.

A movement for radical change is developing. It will not win by playing the conventional game. The path to victory lies through political confrontation.

For radical change to win, the other side has to be beaten.

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Immigration, class and racism

Multi Cultural Britain 40 years After Rivers Of Blood Speech

LONDON – APRIL 19: People wait for public transport at a bus-stop in Kingston Upon Thames town centre on April 19th, 2008 in London, England. Tomorrow is the anniversary of right-wing politician Enoch Powell’s “River of Blood” speech. Forty years on Britain is seen as rich in multi-cultural diversity. (Photo by Cate Gillon/Getty Images)

When people express “concerns” about immigration, the actual issue is never immigration.
It is either:
1) A displacement of concerns arising from real issues of economic hardship, lack of public services, jobs, houses and so on, or
2) A code – a choice of apparently more acceptable language – for the acceptance to some degree of real racist ideology about people.
The test for the second used to be obvious. People would say things about Black and Asian newcomers to Britain (or Irish people, when the war was raging in the north and anti-Irish racism more widespread) which they would not repeat about, say, white Americans or the young white Australians who would have their year hanging out in Europe doing bar jobs in places like London.
Of course, the false explanation in 1) can, and historically has been, the basis for the formation of actual racist ideology in 2).
But it is not a spontaneous and direct process. It requires the permeation of racialised, false explanations, of racist arguments and stereotyping, and of direct racist agitation and political propaganda.
It is also fuelled by the segmentation of newcomers into the workforce and into residential areas becoming artificially fixed and demarcated. Employers historically did that in Britain. They pioneered the mechanism of segregation with Irish labour in the 19th century.
After the Second World War the foundries and mills that large numbers of Pakistani workers entered in the north of England segregated their workforces – with Asian men on the night shift, white men and women on the day and back shifts.
It is not just old, private sector employers who did that. Look at the hierarchy of employment in any large hospital, council or public employer. It remains the case that the further down the pyramid you go, the darker the average skin colour and the less secure the residential status of the employee. That is despite the fact that there are many overseas – EU and non-EU – doctors, for example, in the NHS. 
The biggest agency for doing this, however, has been the state across society as whole, and not just as a large employer. It is from the state that the marks of distinction between people of different origins have been imprinted.
That has been through a host of mechanisms – from the differential racial impact of immigration controls (which is why immigration controls really are racist, not just anti-newcomers of all kinds on a kind of “equal opportunity keep them out” basis), to housing policy and access to the same social goods as more settled people, to – hugely – the police and criminal justice system.
To the last factor we can now add the security state apparatus which has grown enormously in the course of the war on terror. This is one reason, incidentally, why the decision taken by the National Union of Teachers in Britain to call for the scrapping of the Islamophobic and authoritarian Prevent policy (a position now endorsed by Labour’s Andy Burnham) was such an important anti-racist step in general.
The fascist National Front in 1970s Britain had at the centre of its slogans – and as the ostensible purpose of its marches such as the one that was spectacularly smashed to pieces by anti-fascists in Lewisham – the myth of Black (African-Caribbean) male criminality, violent, and sexually violent in particular.
That certainly could draw on the creation as a concomitant of the slave trade, and then colonialism in Africa, the racist stereotype of violent “over-sexualised” Black men.
But it was far more than a hangover from the 18th and 19th centuries. The British police themselves created the apparent facts to which those older racist lies could become attached, and thus be given a renewed lease of life.
The police came up with a new category of crime – mugging. The way they policed and reported street crime was the central factor in creating the myth that white people – pensioners especially – were being robbed by “Black muggers” (mugger equalled Black in 1970s policing and the media reporting of policing).
Similarly today, police reports and the media embellishment of them are at the centre of the myths about Romanian criminality, which are often conflated with the false claims of Roma, traveller and “gypsy” criminality. We may add “Albanians”, through ubiquitous references to “Albanian drug gangs” and mafia. That is what really makes Gordon Brown’s intervention today talking about “illegal Albanians” so reactionary.
Only a few years ago there were two near simultaneous stories – one in Ireland, one in Greece – which went international. Both claimed that fair-skinned, light-haired children of Roma/”gypsies” must have been abducted because “everyone knows that such people are dark”.
It suddenly gave fresh life to an old myth about “gypsies stealing children” – a myth which has stretched over centuries from Ireland to the Balkans and Eastern Europe.
It is not just an analytical point to understand how racism is reproduced, and new racisms forged, in this matrix of migration, labour force segmentation, working class exploitation in general and the actions and ideologies of the state, at home and abroad.
It has practical and strategic consequences for anti-racists.
It is vital to stand against the false anti-immigration explanations. But that is not enough when the real issue is never, actually, immigration, but is instead the effects of the class division on the one hand, and racism – both as material disadvantage and as racist ideology and prejudice, institutionalised in the state – on the other.
Two, intersecting things are also required. First – movements which answer the real social suffering for which talk of immigration is a displacement.
Second – an actual anti-racist force in society. It has to be one which can both dispel racist myths and confront effectively the racist political forces (above all, from the state and its associated political parties and politicians). 
The systematic anti-racist political effort has to be undertaken in a popular way, dealing with the actual arguments – not timeless verities – and organically at the base of society, in working class life.
That is not easy. But, while it is true that we would all like them to be stronger, it is untrue that no efforts have been mounted. We have had and continue to have organised movements against austerity and against racism – alongside myriad more local efforts, particular strikes and other struggles or campaigns. 

Multiculturalism shorn of anti-racism

The damage done in the Tony Blair and Gordon Brown years to the capacity of the labour movement to launch those necessary efforts, however, was huge.
Under them, there was immigration. There was also a surge in deportations of asylum-seekers and other non-Europeans. But there was no anti-racist defence of migration by the Labour governments. Instead, migration was linked to the idea of an increasingly business-friendly and deregulated labour market in Britain and in Europe.

The argument “for immigration” was what was good for big business and the City of London. That is not the basis for convincing working class people, who are the victims of the bankers and big business, of a pro-immigration position. 

Worse, it went hand in hand with new forms of racial distinction – introduced from above, and from the government especially. Most obvious, and most powerful, was Islamophobia, the necessary ideology of the war on terror.
It was not just that. Blair and then Brown spoke of “British values”. In doing so, they took the popular understanding of multiculturalism – as in getting along with people of all sorts of “cultures” – robbed it of any anti-racist content, and repackaged it as a new, racialised hierarchy.
The argument went that we are “tolerant” of other people’s cultures. They are entitled to express them – within limits, which meant largely at home and in the private sphere. But we insist that all people coming to Britain adopt a common body of “British values”. A national test was set to enforce this fiction. 
But the “British values” were things like democracy, respect for the other, fairness and so on. They were values or political virtues which are far from uniquely British (they exist around the world). Also, British history is far from universally characterised by them. There is the British Empire, which both Blair, Brown and those who still look to them have tried to rehabilitate.
So universal, good human values became defined as British. And things which are peculiarly British – such as apparently loving an hereditary head of state and harking back to Empire – became redefined as marks of universal goodness and civilisation.
What was then left over were other people’s “cultural values” which were, by definition, not good things like the British ones, both the universal ones that had been nationalised as British and the features of British imperial history that had been universalised as moral goods.
In this way, we could have under those years greater immigration into Britain, but alongside the reproduction of the idea that newcomers, and Muslims of any sort, were inferior – different in a bad way.

The official image – supported by most of the middle class, liberal intelligentsia – was of a highly limited cosmopolitanism. In it, we were all supposed to be enjoying the financial benefits of getting our house done up by cheap Polish plumbers or having a cheap Baltic au pair. Most people did not “enjoy that benefit”.

And while we were all enjoying the smorgasbord of varied international cuisine (more working class people did have access to that, and it thus remains a powerful image of what is good about multiculturalism) the newly refurbished hierarchy of “cultural values” restated that there was a steep curve upwards.

At the bottom was eating with your hands (Bangladeshis eating naan and saag), then with chopsticks, up to the pinnacle of a knife and fork: from primitive to civilised.

There was one great principle, upon which the labour movement was founded and is defined, that offered an alternative to this kind of hierarchical, thin, cosmopolitan veneer upon the ugly subordination of people to the market and big business. It was class.

The basic sense of “them and us” has historically been a powerful counterweight to racism and scapegoating ideologies of all kinds. At least, a potential counterweight. Realising it has meant two things.

First, real struggles by working class people in which that community of interest has been forged. Second, a deliberately internationalist conception of what we mean by “the working class”. It has embraced not only recent arrivals into the domestic labour force, but has argued for a common class interest and identity across the globe.

Crucially, it has meant overcoming any narrow conception of “us” and any sectional organisation of working people which is either hostile to or actually excludes minority or migrant workers. How that has been done, and the role of newly arrived workers at the cutting edge of periods of working class militancy and advance, is beyond the scope of this piece.

The issue of the last 20 years is that the whole New Labour drive was predicated upon the further abandonment of class as the central defining feature of the Labour Party and the key axis around which society and politics is organised. It was more than just a response to the changes under the force of chaotic and destructive economic reorganisation of earlier working class communities.

The very idea of a politics based on class, and of a community of interests of the working class – old and new, was discarded. Indeed, it was extirpated, with a huge political and ideological effort put in to coming up with an alternative grounding of what Labour was. No longer a party of working people, but of Middle England, or whatever the ad man’s slogan of the day was.

With class out the window, but with real class divisions widening, a new sense of “communitarian identity”, as the fashionable theory put it, had to be found. The imagined community was – Britishness.

That Britishness, like everything else under the Blair and Brown governments, was meant to be new. It was meant to be “non-racial”, non-chauvinist and cosmopolitan.

The cumulative impact of struggles against racism – as well as other forms of oppression, such as homophobia (only latterly transphobia) – did lead to considerable social changes. There was an increasing “lived multicultural” reality. That was attested to by all the census data, despite attempts by various people to claim we were “sleepwalking” into a segregated Britain. But the “New Britishness” was only ever a pale, and distorted reflection of that.

And the New Britishness very soon came to assume fully the reactionary features of the Old Britishness. That was for reasons to do with the fundamental nature of the British state, of which Britishness is an ideological articulation, not the other way around.

The wars came. That meant Islamophobia. It also meant the renewed identification of Britain as part of the civilised West, of Britishness and British values as a variant of, or perhaps the apogee of, Western or European values (and by extension, American). For all the talk of newness, Britishness re-assumed the characteristics it had at the time of the British Empire, as an expression of European superiority against The Other. The Other was brown or black. The superior, European Britishness was white.

The second reversion to type was more associated with Brown than Blair, and more with the economic than the military face of British capitalism and imperialism. Brown drove the economic strategy of Britain as a part of the European single market, but seeking to forge a world financial centre based on the City of London. The imbalance in the economy which had long led to a disastrous rate of investment in manufacturing in Britain became worse.

It was already glaring on the eve of the great financial collapse of 2008. It was in 2007 that Brown, then prime minister, made his infamous “British Jobs for British Workers” speech. Despite The City booming whole communities were at best standing still, at worst going backwards as good paying jobs gave way to low-paid and low skilled employment, Brown did nothing seriously to reverse the growing disparity.

Instead of creating good jobs, he introduced a poisonous slogan into society and a part of the labour movement. What it did was give nothing short of prime ministerial sanction to the false idea that migrant workers were taking British jobs.

There was a genuine issue of pro-business European law – the so called Posted Workers Directive –  being a direct mechanism for employers to “post workers” from abroad and exempt them from many domestic employment standards and rights.

A part of EU law, which is today being lionised by the British TUC, was explicitly crafted to undermine trade unions in this way. Worse, it created the conditions for employers, with legal impunity, to operate a two-tier workforce. The result of that was real antagonisms between settled and posted workers.

That did not have to lead to chauvinist calls to “kick the migrants out”. But avoiding that meant either the government saying it would break the EU law, or the trade unions being able to organise and impose the higher standards and pay.

Instead, Brown stuck solidly with the big business logic. And right wing trade union leaders who sought partnership not confrontation with big business followed him down the national chauvinist route. They collaborated with a highly reactionary press in targeting not the “bad employer” but workers from other EU countries.

Forces of the left – particularly within the Unite union – were able to halt the slide towards anti-migrant agitation and chauvinism becoming a major feature of the trade union movement. But the Labour government continued down the pro-business route. Then came the introduction of austerity, which deepened the bitterness and antagonisms in society.

Anti-racism and the radical left

The last six years of first Coalition and now outright Tory government have meant savage austerity. They have also brought deepening racism of various forms.

Cameron’s response to the riots in 2011 was to reheat racist myths about young Black criminality which had largely been declining (or at least eclipsed by the rampant Islamophobia) over the previous 15 years. A number of us had warned that the advance of anti-Muslim racism at the beginning of this century would legitimise other racist, pseudo-explanations blaming other ethnic and racial groups for various social ills.

That is not the same as saying that there is a huge surge in popular racism or that racism is being generated from the mass of people. There is both the acceptance of racist ideas – most obviously against Muslims. And the rejection. London has a Muslim mayor.

But the Tory campaign in London showed that what we are seeing is not just “a lot of racism”. We are seeing the highly political use of racism, by governments and politicians across Europe – of the mainstream, and not only by the far right.

David Cameron sought to organise the Tory vote in London on the basis of anti-Muslim racism. The far right and fascists across Europe also seek to organise their political support on the basis of various forms of racism, while posing falsely as outsider, anti-establishment forces. Fascism does something else. It organises not only its electoral support through racism, it organises the actual murder gangs which racist  politics gives rise to. ultimately

That is what is specific about fascism. And that’s why it is necessary to have a specific political effort to stop fascism from growing and organising.

The main problem and driving force of racism in Britain at the moment, however, is not fascism. Neither is it uniquely coming from the anti-immigration propaganda of the likes of Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage. That is foul.

But it was David Cameron who called the referendum on the back of a deal with other EU leaders whose central thrust was falsely claiming that other EU nationals are milking the British welfare system. That, and a “guarantee” that the City of London would continue to be the loosely regulated centre of the European financial markets.

That deal creates a further, legal segmentation of the labour force in Britain with another category, intra-EU migrant workers, stripped of some rights (claiming benefits for four years). That is a recipe for more super-exploitation of groups of workers, upon which “concern about immigration” can lead not only to out and out racist ideas, but to racist actions against foreign workers. It is also exactly what a race to the bottom looks like.

Cameron has done this. The official Labour campaign – as evidenced by the deployment of Gordon Brown today – is conjoined with Cameron. Not one Labour figure is saying that Labour will rescind the anti-migrant deal that Cameron negotiated.

There is no way that either an anti-racist or pro-migration argument can be advanced seriously inside the working class on that basis.

The issues go way beyond the referendum, upon which the radical left is divided.

Immigration remains both a cypher for real issues of economic hardship and inequality and also a code for racism.

That is going to be met only through the development of popular and militant movements both against austerity and against racism, in all its forms.

Building those requires a radical left which is wholly independent from the establishment politics, which is being seen in the referendum campaign to be so out of touch with vast numbers of people.

It means also seeking to organise those movements and those ideas within the working class, at work, in communities, in unions and elsewhere. That cannot happen if the arguments are connected with “what is good for business” or “what is good for Britain”.

We need a complete break in the labour movement with the disastrous politics of Blair and Brown. Nowhere more so than in reasserting militant, class-based anti-racism – where it is the common struggle of migrant and non-migrant workers which redefines how people think about “immigration”.

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Stopping the far right requires opposing the EU


The revolt against the labour law and Francois Hollande in France 

In this second of a two-part article examining the European crisis and the rise of the far right I look at why the left needs to adopt an internationalist position of rupture with the EU if we are to be most effective in stopping the radicalising racist forces and the processes within Austerity and Fortress Europe which are driving them.

Don’t blame the Easterners

It is now fashionable in Brussels to talk of an “illiberal bloc”, comprising mainly Poland, Hungary, the Czech Republic and Slovakia. Even some commentators on the left have given credence to that idea.

While there are some regional variations and affinities in the emergence of far right and fascist forces in Europe – the four so called Visegrad countries mentioned above and the “Peoples Parties” in Scandinavia, for example – they do not fit into a neat pattern. Certainly not one of the advanced and liberal West versus the backward and authoritarian East. Nor into creditor North versus debtor South.

The Front National began its advance in France in 1983, when the Iron Curtain still divided Europe. Gert Wilders’ far right party is topping the polls in the thoroughly modern European country of the Netherlands. The far right has advanced strongly in Croatia, but not in Serbia. Golden Dawn broke through in Greece, but there is no equivalent in Spain, Portugal or Ireland.

As if to underline that the radicalising right cannot be consigned as an Eastern European problem, Switzerland, which is not in the EU but where the anti-Muslim and anti-migrant People’s Party is the largest in the federal parliament, a few days after the result in neighbouring Austria lifted the ban on the Hitler salute; so long as it is used as a matter of “personal expression”, you understand.

As for the idea that it is a quartet of Eastern European states that is preventing the EU from taking a firm line in defence of democratic freedoms you have only to look at how Brussels responded to the emergence of the first authoritarian government of that supposed bloc, Victor Orban’s in Hungary, to see that the claim is a smokescreen.

Orban leads a hard right party in government. It has similarities with the Austrian FPO. But in Hungary the outright fascist forces are organised separately in the Jobbik Party, very similar to Golden Dawn and, with 21 percent, the third party in parliament.

On taking office a second time in 2010 Orban began a serious clampdown on press freedom, civil liberties and human rights. There were detailed reports from organisations such as Amnesty International. The EU made some noises. Nothing was done.

The only time it seriously threatened action was when Orban looked like he was going to defy the EU’s Fiscal and Stability Pact rules on government spending and when he flirted with forging a closer relationship with Vladimir Putin’s Russia. Brussels stirred. Orban backed down. The EU slumped back to inaction.

Now the same officials in Brussels say that it is the threat of a Hungarian veto that is preventing them from moving beyond a ponderous investigation into the flagrant breaches of judicial independence, women’s rights and the rule of law by the hard right Law and Justice Party that was recently elected in Poland.

Compare all that with Greece and the treatment of its left wing anti-austerity government last year. Within days of Syriza being elected, the EU had moved to throttle Greece’s financial lifeline and to lead the member states in a concerted effort to crush the government in Athens and the popular resistance in Greece to austerity.

The Europe question and the left

Far from countering the far right and authoritarian tendencies, the EU – with its austerity, Fortress Europe, anti-democratic diktats and endemic national antagonisms – is generating those reactionary features: and not only on the far right. 

The EU is fully behind the French government of Francois Hollande. It has suspended basic freedoms under an eight-month old state of emergency and is using the militarised police to batter through new austerity measures passed not by parliament, but by executive decree.

If the EU will not willingly put up opposition to the far right, then perhaps it might find itself becoming some line of defence, if only because the far right will clash with it by threatening to break with the EU, or with the Eurozone, or with their rules?

That appears to be the hope of those on the European left who on the one hand say that they are fully aware of how undemocratic and reactionary the EU is, but on the other maintain that it is nevertheless an obstacle to racism, fascism and war, and that it must be defended against all the pressures to break it up. And then reformed.

This hope rests on a number of confusions. I will focus on just two.

The first is that it accepts the now mainstream liberal-capitalist view that the future of Europe is either preserving the EU and its further centralisation (with reforms – all the leaders talk of those) or its breakup into reactionary national states with resurgent fascism and war. Or, as it is often put, the choice is between rational politics of the centre or “populism” of the “extremes”.

Many commentators, far from the left, now invoke as a parallel a dubious reading of the history of the 1930s in which a breakdown of trade and the global market led almost directly to the Second World War and the Holocaust.

Let us put to one side that peculiar and tendentious history of the 1930s, informed as it is by an ideological commitment to free market capitalism, which makes it all the more surprising that it is endorsed by the Keynesian economist Yanis Varoufakis.

The problem is that it is the very mechanisms of the EU itself, particularly in response to the succession of crises – the banks, the austerity, the refugees… – which are generating reactionary trends such as racism, chauvinism and authoritarian rule.

The far right and fascists give those a particularly dangerous and virulent form. But it was not the far right who did a deal with Turkey to keep out the refugees. Doing that creates the conditions for and necessitates widespread anti-refugee racism to justify the policy. That was the work of Angela Merkel, at the head of the pack of mainstream governments, including Francois Hollande, David Cameron and Alexis Tsipras.

Strengthening the EU does not mean less reaction. It means more, and out of it the potential further growth of the fascist right.

The future prospect is not the EU versus reactionary disintegration. It is an EU of crisis, constantly breeding reactionary forces even as it centralises in order to deal with renewing pressures to pull it apart.

And – the second confusion – it is not the case that the only anti-EU forces looking to break the bosses’ club up are reactionary ones. Nor is it true that the assorted far right and fascist groups in different European countries constitute a single block, each with the same policy of pursuing a national break from the EU.

The spectrum of radical right wing forces varies from racist and chauvinist populists such as UKIP in Britain through to out and out fascists, such as Golden Dawn in Greece.

Racism and Islamophobia are central to all of them. Here is not the place to analyse the structural and other differences between them, nor the specific nature of those that pursue a fascist, militarist strategy. But one difference that is relevant here is their diverse political positions in relation to the EU.

Four examples illustrate that.

UKIP is for Britain leaving the EU. The fascists of Golden Dawn are for Greece staying in the EU – with all sorts of demands for further reactionary policies, for sure: but staying nonetheless.

The Law and Justice Party in Poland is firmly committed to the EU and to its twin, Nato. It is for more aggressive action by both of them against Russia. Its supposedly “Eurosceptic” rhetoric is directed against liberal values and against the Polish left, which it accuses of not being really Polish. On occasion it may sound off against German domination of Europe. But it is not for a rupture with the EU itself.

The Austrian FPO has the position outlined above of staying in the EU, violently opposing Turkish membership, and taking a hard economic line against the debtor countries of the European South (maybe kicking Greece out) and the “backward” countries of the East.

Other far right and fascist forces show similar variations. The fundamental reason for that is that the disparate far right in Europe is not the radicalisation – the taking to extreme – of some kind of “Eurosceptic feeling”, which is sort of floating around the continent.

The term “Eurosceptic” is, in fact, pretty useless for socialists. It was coined to describe British Tory MPs who rebelled against the Maastricht Treaty in parliament in 1992.

Since then it has been a catchall of the pro-capitalist media applied both to the French radical farmer Jose Bove, who attacked a branch of McDonalds to protest against corporate capitalism, and to the veteran French fascist, Jean-Marie Le Pen, who called the Holocaust a “minor detail of history”.

The raw material the far right are scooping up and radicalising is not the poorly constructed journalistic term: “Euroscepticism”. It is from the swamp of right wing and reactionary trends within each of the far right’s own nation-states and national political realities.

The far right and fascist parties are a radicalisation of the right wing of politics, and ultimately of the elites, in each of their respective countries.

That is why they do not have a common line on the EU and other questions relating to the divergent national and imperialist interests of their “homelands”.

So UKIP grew out of, and has radicalised, the anti-EU position of the right wing of the British Tory Party. All right wing forces in Greece – along with the whole of the Greek state and ruling class – are in favour of staying in the EU and euro. So, therefore, is Golden Dawn, despite rhetorical sallies against “German domination” of Europe.

The hard right Polish government’s position favouring Nato expansion against Russia and staying in the EU is a radicalised version of the policy of the mainstream Polish right and is the historical position of most of Polish big business. Apart from anything else, the EU subsidies to Poland’s elites, in order to build it up as a state on the frontier of a new Cold War with Russia, have been huge.

The FPO may try to channel the resentment at the base of Austrian society at the way the corrupt political system has further depleted democracy since joining the EU in 1995. But its position on EU membership is not fundamentally different from many on the right of the centre-right OVP.

This does not mean that the radicalising right is simply and directly an expression of the interests and policies of their respective capitalist classes. That is clearly not the case. Three-quarters of British big business are for staying in the EU on essentially the same terms as now. UKIP is definitely not.

But the main political instruments of big business that are meant to represent those interests – parties such as the Tory party in Britain – face a crisis everywhere in Europe. One side of it is in failing to come up with policies to escape the multiple crises: economic, social and political. The other is in their declining social and electoral support.

The bloodletting in the Tory Party over Europe is one extreme example of the consequences. They are not unique to the British centre right: Angela Merkel’s CDU is bitterly divided; the leader of the centre right in Greece recently expelled the entire youth section.

This is the context in which all sorts of far right forces are seeking to radicalise politics found on their mainstream, national right wings – and to grow. They, and the fascist formations especially, pose a particular danger.

They are political actors in their own right. Their demagogic rhetoric against “elites” and “the establishment” can give them inroads into unemployed and working class layers that the crisis-ridden centre-right parties struggle to penetrate.

But however much they portray themselves as independent from the wealthy elites, they require the support of at least a substantial layer of the capitalist class and of its state to advance seriously and to come to power.

So they constantly seek to offer a programme, however utopian and lacking in coherence, that may ultimately win the elites’ political support. They belong to the crisis of the political system and of capitalism’s strategies to pursue its interests. They are independent from neither.

The far right can be stopped

The far right is not the only political expression of European crisis. So too is the radical left.

The run-off round of the Austrian presidential election took place five weeks before the second general election in the Spanish state, after the earlier one six months before failed to deliver a government, even a grand coalition.

As Austria voted, Spanish polling showed that the radical left alliance of Podemos and the United Left held second place on about 24 percent. Whatever the poll movements up to 26 June, there is no far right party arising from the crisis of the Spanish political system.

Portugal is similar, as is Ireland, where the anti-capitalist and radical left broke through in recent elections, north and south.

It is hardly a sufficient answer, however, to the shocking near victory of a fascist in Austria to point to the electoral successes of the left in the Iberian Peninsula, Dublin, Belfast and elsewhere.

And in Germany, where the radical left Die Linke has existed for a decade, the far right AfD, founded only three years ago, has made serious advances. The radical left is on about 9 percent in the opinion polls. The AfD is on 14 percent – with the general election due in September next year.

The mere existence of a radical left party, even where it has parliamentary representation, as Die Linke does, is not in itself an answer to the far right threat. It is critical for the radical and anti-capitalist left to be at the centre of two other, related things.

The first is a mass and militant movement against fascism and the far right, but also fighting against the wider racist climate created by European institutions and governments. For it is that racism which is paving the way for the far right’s advance.

The launch two months ago of the Aufstehen Gegen Racismus (Stand Up Against Racism) initiative directed against the AfD and against the wider racist politics in Germany will, we must hope, encourage those in Austria who organised the magnificent solidarity with the refugees last summer in their efforts to create something similar to confront the FPO.

The second is to seek to situate the fighting left in, and to develop, the manifold struggles against austerity – from strikes and community revolts, to all manner of social movements.

Increasingly, that requires a preparedness to confront head on the forces of austerity, no matter who is in government, and to offer anti-capitalist answers when the movement runs up against the argument that there is no alternative in Europe as it stands.

Nowhere more demonstrates the potential power of the working class and allied movements to marginalise even a powerful and established fascist force than the current revolt in France.

There is very much more to be said about both of those crucial roles of the left. And it is a success of the anti-capitalist and radical left activists in Greece that despite the Syriza capitulation the drawing together of the struggles both against austerity and for the refugees is a major reason why the fascist right has been penned back over the last year.

There is 27 percent unemployment in Greece and there are 50,000 refugees stranded by the EU-Turkey deal. Yet a survey a month ago found that 85 percent of people say, “Greece must help the refugees.” That ought to be impossible according to much fashionable thinking. It was made possible by the movements at the base of Greek society and the initiatives taken there by the fighting left – often taken when they were not in fashion at all.

There is one final point. Austerity Europe and Fortress Europe are two faces of the EU and of the response of the European elites to the crisis.

The struggles against austerity capitalism and against racism are unfolding in each national context. They mean confrontation with governments of the member states of each of the 28 EU countries.

But the semi-organisation of those states and their capitalist interests into the cartel of the EU means that everywhere that cartel is throwing its weight against opposition movements, behind the governments imposing vicious measures and alongside the employers who are demanding more.

That means that for the radical left and for the movements the struggles need to be directed against the EU cartel as well as against the domestic national government.

Failure to do that leaves the space wide open for the far right parties to exploit the bitterness at Europe’s undemocratic and anti-working class institutions and to frame it with their brand of radicalised right wing politics, based on the national antagonisms and reactionary forces the EU produces. The ultimate aim is to serve the respective national elites.

A recent statement from three left wing unions – the RMT, ASLEF and BFAWU  – in Britain arguing for a left wing Leave vote in the referendum put it very well: “We are against a fortress Britain, so we are against a fortress Europe.”

That points to a unifying and fighting position for the left and labour movements across the continent: against the EU of austerity, racism and war. That means breaking it up, and building instead solidarity on an internationalist and anti-capitalist basis.

That perspective can help to develop the struggles against austerity and racism, and to overcome the efforts to blunt them by the failed establishment politicians who tell us to put faith in them and in their club in Brussels – and who wave as a stick to threaten us the very far right forces which the establishments, national and European, are producing and cooperating with as this crisis grinds on, and on.

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Austria, fascism and the Europe question (pt. 1)


On the streets of Vienna against the resurgent far right Freedom Party (FPO)

This is the first of a two part article. It locates the rise of the far right in Austria within the political crisis of the parties of government. That crisis is Europe-wide, and the far right danger is far from unique to Austria. Part 2 will look at the response of the European Union and why instead of providing a barrier to resurgent fascist forces, it is in fact one of main elitist and undemocratic structures which are fuelling their rise.

Europe polarising – Austria divided

The far right Freedom Party (FPO) came within 30,000 votes of winning the Austrian presidency on Sunday. That has sounded the alarm over the potential for barbaric outcomes to the manifold crisis consuming the European continent.

The FPO is a far right party with Nazi origins and a fascist core. Its leader, Heinz-Christian Strache, spent his youth in the fascistic street-fighting milieu. He is seeking to become the chancellor (the prime minister) of Austria at the next general election, scheduled for October 2018.

The FPO candidate for president, Norbert Hofer, has a similar background in one of the German ultra-nationalist Burschenschaften student associations. He boasts that he recently bought a Glock-26 pistol. When it was put to him during the campaign that the office of Austrian president is largely ceremonial, he responded: “You will be surprised to see how much is possible.”

Last summer, the images from Austria were very different. As refugees arrived in large numbers, by train or on foot via neighbouring Hungary, the international media was full of footage of their heartfelt reception in Vienna.

The city mayor – a long-standing figure of the Social Democratic Party (SPO) – instructed the police to assist the arriving refugees. They did.

Pictures of smiling Viennese policemen – many visibly moved by the experience – carrying Syrian infants from the trains arriving at Hauptbahnhof station contrasted with those of their Hungarian counterparts, beating and herding like animals the same refugees in Budapest.

The popular outpouring of solidarity exceeded that improvised by the state. When the Hungarian authorities sought to stop the onward movement, large numbers of often-young Austrians headed to the border with food and water for the refugees, and with cars to carry them onwards to a place of greater safety.

And then, when racist forces began to agitate against the new arrivals, Vienna saw tens of thousands of residents take to the streets. It was one of the largest of the many demonstrations across Europe in late summer 2015 proclaiming: “Say it loud. Say it clear – refugees are welcome here.”

It all now seems a faded memory. The rise today of far right forces in Austria and Europe is frighteningly vivid. When seen through the squint-eyed focus of so much of the European media, and with the determination of the European elites to deny that the radical left even exists, it can leave us thinking that perhaps the movement of welcome for the refugees last summer never really happened at all.

It did happen. So did the near entry of a pistol-wielding fascist into the Hofburg presidential palace in Vienna last Sunday. How can both have taken place?

One was not supplanted by the other. Both continue to exist. That is why the vote in the Austrian presidential election was split down the middle, nearly 50:50 – on a high turnout.

Austria is divided. The clearest expression of that division is between city and countryside/small town. Alexander Van der Bellen, the former Green Party leader standing as an independent, had a clear majority in Austria’s cities. The fascist Hofer won the villages, towns and rural areas.

That geographical split betrays the social and political divide in the country. The FPO attracts support across society. But where it had majority support in the election was in the areas that for decades were the bedrock of the conservative and mainstream right – the Austrian People’s Party (OVP).

That is also where it first broke through three decades ago, when its now deceased leader, Jorg Haider, rose to prominence in the prosperous province of Carinthia.

From that borderland bridgehead he was able to break out. The FPO does now enjoy considerable electoral support among blue-collar workers. Some surveys show that it is the most popular party even among trade union members. But that is not where its advance began, which took it to second place with 27 percent at the general election of 2000 and into government with the centre-right OVP for a few years.

The FPO did not conquer working class support from within. The SPO and the sclerotic trade union officialdom attached to it abandoned their working class supporters. They sold the pass and allowed the FPO to enter from without.

The crisis of the political centre

Grand coalitions of the centre left and centre right have become more common in Europe in the crisis years: Germany and Greece (between 2012 and 2015) being the most prominent examples. They are a response by the traditional parties of government to their declining share of the national vote and of social support.

Such coalitions are not new in Austria. Even on the few occasions since the Second World War when there has not been a formal coalition between the SPO and OVP, they have long governed together nationally, regionally, and in the allocation of state positions, with each benefiting from the lucrative contracts that flow from them.

From the mid-1990s onwards – with the turn to Blairite neo-liberalism and then to the doctrine of austerity following the crash of 2008 – that has meant for the social democratic SPO the sundering of its connections with the working class.

At the last general election the SPO was able to come first and to lead yet another coalition with the centre-right OVP. But on the 80,000-strong May Day demonstration in Vienna this year the then SPO chancellor of Austria, Werner Faymann, and his party elite entourage were booed and jeered off the stage. He was forced to resign shortly after.

A recent in-depth article in the German news magazine Der Spiegel captured well the sense of alienation in working class and popular Austria:

“We are being steamrolled by globalisation; nobody is listening to us; and the market economy benefits others.”

The article continued: “But the FPO is listening and is quick to offer simple solutions: Close the door. Shut out the migrants.”

How is it possible that that simplistic and false solution could gain such a hearing when not one year earlier much of Austria demonstrated in words and deeds the opposite?

The answer is not that the far right crafted some Wunderwaffe – a miracle weapon of anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism – and then put it into the hands of small-town Austria to shoot the gates of the presidential palace nearly off their hinges.

Rather, the SPO-led government itself embraced the racist turn, opened the gates to the fascist barbarians, and dispersed the demoralised guards who had taken to the streets in their tens of thousands only last summer.

Former SPO chancellor Faynmann this year reversed his policy of allowing in the refugees. He did it as part of the push by Angela Merkel’s government in Berlin to stop the refugee flows as a whole into Europe.

One result of that was the EU-Turkey deal of shame. It depends upon the authoritarian government in Ankara using the monopoly of legal violence of the Turkish state to stop people fleeing to Europe.

The second consequence is the continuing unrolling of razor-wire fences and the re-establishment of militarised borders within Europe. They include between Austria and Slovenia, and between Austria and Italy – which the refugees are now trying to reach via the even more perilous route from Libya across the southern Mediterranean.

The third result – painfully obvious in Austria – has been to breathe fresh life into and to legitimise all the far right forces across Europe. They were unable to take to the streets in large number last summer when the refugees were arriving.

They were reduced instead to attacks on refugee accommodation or upon Muslim places of worship and property at night.

The refugee arrivals did not trigger the latest advance of the far right. The turn to anti-refugee measures by the EU and governments did that.

The establishment and the far right

What, then, is the effective barrier to the further rise of the far right?  We cannot look to the Austrian establishment and its political forces. That includes the incoming president Alexander Van der Bellen.

He was the candidate of the Austrian political establishment in the run-off election. And the twin establishment parties in coalition government show little sign of changing the approach that paved the way to the FPO’s near victory on Sunday.

The SPO’s Christian Kern has taken over from Faynmann as chancellor. He was the boss of the Austrian national railway. He is committed to the same path of austerity and of Fortress Europe as his predecessor.

There is a ferocious argument within the SPO, which like the OVP managed just 11 percent for its candidate in the first round of the presidential election. Left wing voices who rebelled over the anti-refugee turn by Faynmann are pointing to the example of Jeremy Corbyn in Britain as an alternative for the party.

But there is a big right wing bloc in the SPO. They argue that Faynmann did not go far enough down either the austerity or the anti-refugee tracks.

One of its most prominent figures is Hans Niessl. He has been governor of the impoverished eastern province of Burgenland for 15 years. Last year he clung on to office by going into coalition with the FPO.

His response to the decline of working class support for his party will be familiar to anyone who has listened to the right wing of the British Labour Party, the German SPD, the French Socialist Party or their equivalents across Europe. It was to talk vaguely of “listening to people’s concerns”. But by that he did not mean the bitterness at being left behind by big-business, capitalist Europe and then trampled by austerity.

He meant listening to the popular echo of the anti-migrant and anti-Muslim racism pumped out by the mainstream right and by the far right, with the volume turned up by the corporate media.

The “clever” coalition deal in the eastern province was meant to stymie the far right last year; but it has proved disastrous. The near victorious fascist candidate Hofer is himself from Burgenland. It is from that base that he appealed across the country this year.

Austria’s most senior trade unionist has endorsed the “Burgenland line” saying that the centre left should accommodate to the FPO as an alternative to resisting it. Not by confrontation but by cooperation will the SPO win back those workers the FPO has beguiled. He says, “You can’t just shove the 35 percent who voted for Hofer into the right wing.” His solution is to shove the SPO sharply to the right.

This failed course has led some of the progressive, urban opinion in Austria to look instead to the new “pro-European” president in combination with the EU to provide a solid barrier to the far right taking national office in the coming years.

Van der Bellen made all sorts of concessions to the far right during the election campaign, saying on several occasions that he agreed with “Mr Hofer” and parading his patriotism by echoing in his slogans the far right’s deployment of the term “homeland”.

He has said that he will use his limited constitutional powers to oppose the FPO. But when asked if he would swear in – which is within his power to refuse – an FPO chancellor should the far right come top in a general election, he said that he would: with one condition.

If the FPO threatened to leave the EU, then he would not swear in Strache or any other far right candidate as chancellor.

That is a doubly disastrous position. First, it in practice means that he has said he will sign in any future FPO government. Second, the stipulation that membership of the EU is his red line will in fact make a victory of the far right in a future Austrian general election more likely, not less.

The FPO’s relationship to the EU

The FPO’s position on Austrian membership of the EU has vacillated wildly over the years. It was opposed to Austria joining in 1995. But it raised no objection to EU membership when it was in government with the centre right five years later.

Its current position is for staying in the EU unless Turkey is allowed to join. Then it says it would push to leave.

Mainstream Austrian politicians have said a similar thing. Virulent opposition to Turkey joining the EU is part of the thinking of the Austrian establishment, of the OVP and (largely) of the SPO.

Nearly a decade ago the then Austrian foreign minister invoked the “spectre of 1683” and the defeat of the Turkish army that year at the “Gates of Vienna”, a rallying cry today for fascist Islamophobes across Europe and North America, in killing the Turkish bid at the time to join the Union.

Van der Bellen’s feeble condition can easily be met by any FPO would-be chancellor. The condition itself also casts the fascist right as little different from Austria’s establishment and mainstream politicians in the shared attitudes of all of them to the EU and in their hostility to Turkey and Turkish migrants (but not to Erdogan enforcing the anti-refugee deal).

Furthermore, the EU is even less a barrier to the advance of fascism in Austria and elsewhere than is the country’s newly elected president.

EU officials and politicians said as much in the week running up to last Sunday’s election. In anticipation of a possible far right victory they said there was no appetite at all to issue diplomatic or any other sanctions should the fascist Hofer become the president of Austria.

That contrasts with the short-lived, and limited, diplomatic cold-shouldering of Austrian ministers at European gatherings when the FPO joined the coalition government 16 years ago. The EU and its national governments then felt forced to respond to the public shock in Austria and across Europe at the entry of veteran fascists into governmental office in Europe for the first time since the Second World War.

What has happened in the intervening decade and a half, however, is that the EU has not only accommodated to the entry into government of hard right forces in Europe, it has through its imposition of austerity helped to bring down elected governments in favour of unelected leaders and, on their coattails, fascist ministers.

This is what the EU did in Greece five years ago when it helped to force out the social democratic government of George Papandreou. An unelected banker took over. In his coalition was the LAOS party – not dissimilar to the FPO. A veteran fascist was given a junior ministry.

In the elections that followed in 2012, the neo-Nazi Golden Dawn broke through to gain 18 MPs. An explosion of anti-fascist resistance has forced the Greek parliament to cut off funding to Golden Dawn for the last three years. Its leaders are now on trial for running a criminal conspiracy.

The Expo Swedish anti-fascist monitoring group revealed two weeks ago, however, that the EU, via the European Parliament, has continued to fund Golden Dawn throughout that period to the tune of hundreds of thousands of euros.

The excuse trotted out by EU officials as to why they would be unable to take measures had the FPO won is that a number of hard right and increasingly authoritarian governments in the former Eastern Europe would veto doing so in the EU’s Council of Ministers.

It is a convenient excuse, which is even given credence on parts of the European left. But the reason for the EU’s inaction is not down to the peripheral states of the former Eastern Europe. It flows directly from the nature of the EU itself as one of the central forces driving the growth of racism and authoritarianism in Europe, and thus the advance of the far right.

We will turn to how and why that is happening in part 2 of this article.

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France in the streets: against the government and EU


This column first appeared at Counterfire 

There is a ferocious battle taking place in France to defend workers’ rights and wages against the new labour law.

It pits working people and youth against the government. The government of Francois Hollande is implementing the new law, and the employers are demanding that the government goes even further.

If you want to understand what the EU is, then look at its intervention today (18 May 2016) – with teargas on the streets of French cities and mass strikes planned for the rest of the week.

It has published its Spring Reports and Recommendations for each of the 28 EU countries.

The one for France contains a call to cut the minimum wage and slash labour protections. It is not just a direct intervention backing the Hollande government against the unions, workers and students.

It actually reads very similar to the bosses’ “analyses” and list of demands which go further than what Hollande is pressing*.

This is the role of the EU right now in Europe in the face of those struggling against austerity and racism.

Some people in the referendum debate in Britain have argued that the potentially explosive struggle in France has nothing to do with the EU because it is a French government passing an anti-worker law through the French Parliament.

But the EU does have a major role. It is to provide additional political pressure to ensure that the French centre-left government does not back down to the trade union and youth resistance, but in fact acquiesces to the French bosses’ demands.

And the pressure is backed by threats of economic measures should the French government not proceed and thus risk breaching the austerity targets for holding down spending which are set in stone in the EU’s rules.

The EU’s role, shown today, in enforcing cuts to workers’ rights and the minimum wage in France is important because the French government is in a weak position.

It did not have a majority in parliament to pass the new law. So it relied on authoritarian methods of rule by presidential decree. That has intensified the revolt.

So the EU’s intervention is central. It is not only backing the government’s assault, it is also echoing in almost identical language the programme of the main right wing candidate to replace the centre left in the presidential election next year – Alain Juppe. It has today given him a boost in the French media.

The EU is compounding Hollande’s interference with and abrogation of basic parliamentary democracy.

This is exactly what the EU did in Greece. Only then, for the first seven months of last year, in order to promote the interests of big business – Greek and European – it had to directly clash with the Syriza government and break it by “crucifying” the Greek delegation to Brussels in July.

The EU country reports today show the same pattern across Europe – pressuring every country to remain on a path that suits European and their own national capitals. There is some variance in the nature of the EU Commission demands (“recommendations” which cannot be refused). But that is only because there is variation in the size and competitiveness of the different national economies.

Portugal has a centre-left government, supported by agreements with radical left parties in parliament. The EU roundly condemns the Portuguese government’s plans to lift the minimum wage. In doing so it uses almost identical language to the Portuguese business association and the centre right who were kicked out at the last election.

The bosses’ party was defeated in the Portuguese election. Membership of the EU means that Portuguese bosses have the European Commission to turn to in order to help stop any policies they don’t like and make this government behave as if it was the one the bosses voted for.

It is not just in some hoped for future when a British left wing government led by Jeremy Corbyn clashes with the EU that workers are pitted against Brussels. It is not even when you have a radical left government like Syriza, which has been battered into submission.

It is in France and Portugal (led by people little different from Gordon Brown) and in every country where there is any struggle against austerity.

And that is already happening now in Britain. British bosses are looking to EU and European political support to help win the result they want in the referendum but which a weakened Tory government risks failing to deliver.

That is why it is wrong to think that the EU anywhere in Europe is an alternative to nasty national bosses and their governments. It is the additional enforcer for those elites.

The French appointee to the EU Commission is Pierre Moscovici. He is responsible also for Economic and Financial Affairs, Taxation and Customs.

He was also central to securing the surrender of Alexis Tsipras in Brussels on the night of 12 July last year – turning up to the hotel room unannounced with half a dozen other, mainly French, officials and telling the Greek delegation they were on their own and would have to submit to the hard German line of the centre-right government of Angela Merkel.

French-led European social democracy trussed up the Greek Paschal lamb to sacrifice on the altar of the Berlin-organised European centre right.

Something else happened today. The force that is driving down on the Greek government and Greek people is called the Troika.

One part of it is the International Monetary Fund (IMF) the other two are bureaucracies of the EU.

Wolfgang Schaeuble the right wing German finance minister who drives much EU policy, told German media that Berlin will flatly reject any easing up on austerity measures which are set to tip Greece into a true humanitarian catastrophe, if they are implemented.

The IMF had called on Monday for some easing of debt repayments. The EU says no.

The IMF’s austerity programmes in the Global South in the 1980s became a byword for famine and mass poverty across Africa, Asia and much of Latin America.

George Osborne’s friend, Schaeuble, and the EU have just said that the IMF is soft when it comes to screwing down pensioners and children in Greece, 40 percent of whom are below the poverty line in a European country where “Third World” diseases are reappearing.

All due to eight years of vicious economic policies, enforced – as if in a mafia film – by men in sharp suits.


(*) For those who wish, here is recommendation 10 of the report Commission’s report into France:

“In the current context of high unemployment, there are risks that the cost of labour at the minimum wage hampers employment of low qualified people… Because of the minimum wage indexation mechanism, here are feedback loops between increases in average wages and changes in the minimum wage, which delay the necessary wage adjustment in response to a weak economic situation.”

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We cannot win the middle ground by moving to the middle


(This piece originally appeared in Counterfire)

Across Europe the political space of the centre is continuing to collapse. Labour-type parties that remain committed to occupying the discredited and rejected positions associated with Tony Blair and similar figures are spiralling deeper into trouble.

There are a few flickers among European social democrats of the need to reconsider and reposition. But in Britain, a voluble section of Labour MPs are not just bent on fanatical opposition to Jeremy Corbyn and the party leadership. They seem hell-bent on returning to the politics which elsewhere is leading to electoral oblivion.

A general election in the Spanish state has been called for 26 June. The political fragmentation arising from the last one six months ago has led to no coalition being formed. The combination that would have produced a seemingly stable parliamentary majority would have been between the centre-right PP and the centre-left PSOE.

That was the coalition many establishment and business figures in the Spanish state favoured. But the Spanish social democratic party PSOE took a good look at the outcome that kind of arrangement has led to in Greece, the European country whose political history and party system in the last 40 years is most similar to Spain’s.

The grand coalition in Greece from 2012 to 2015 saw a decline in support for both the traditional parties of government that came together to form it, but especially for the social democratic Pasok. It went from being the party that had largely governed Greece for the previous 35 years to now polling about 5 percent.

That was a key context for the rise of the radical left Syriza party to be the main political expression of the sustained social opposition in Greece to austerity and to racism and fascism. The Spanish radical left Podemos polled just behind PSOE last year. A grand coalition would create very good conditions for it to totally eclipse the social democrats.

PSOE and its leader Pedro Sanchez have seen the fate also of the SPD in Germany. Its participation in the grand coalition with Merkel’s CDU – from which it has become increasingly difficult to distinguish – has seen support for both traditional governing parties fall to just over 50 percent over the last three years. With a general election due next year, the SPD is on just 19.5 percent.

The grand coalition has also been the key political context for the rise of the far right AfD, which is now polling 13.5 percent. This process was well under way before last year’s refugee flows. The radical left Die Linke, while it has hit a plateau, continues to occupy a place to the left of the SPD.

In Ireland the two traditional parties of government (two and a half, if we include the Labour Party) have also seen a slump in support with a rise of both the radical left, Sinn Fein, and the anti-capitalist left, the AAA-PBP. The mainstream parties face the dilemma of whether to form a grand coalition, some other arrangement or to head for new elections, as in Spain.

Decades of collaboration and frequent coalitions between the centre left and centre right in Austria saw the combined vote of their candidates for the presidency slump to 23 percent a week and a half ago. The far right FPO polled 36 percent. The second, run-off round is in three weeks’ time.

Just new bottles, or new wine as well?

Financial Times columnist Wolfgang Munchau is one of the most astute mainstream journalists commenting on the politics of the European crisis. He fears that if the German elections in September of next year produce a second grand coalition – which they will do, on current polling figures – then the AfD will be the main opposition and in a strong position to enter government four years after that.

He talks of the “the extremes”, lumping together the radical left with the radical or far, racist right. But his fear is much more that the far right will break through into either governing alone or heading a government, not the far left. He suggests that that is now going to happen in Austria. He is absolutely right to fear that.

If not as the solution, then as a part of one, he suggests that social democratic parties in Europe need to break with the politics, or rather at least the style, of the Blair era. They need to move to the left, not to the centre. Munchau is a mainstream journalist, and cannot be dismissed as some leftist ideologue.

It was not just Tony Blair. Two decades ago Greece’s Costas Simitis, France’s Lionel Jospin, Germany’s Gerhard Schroeder and Italy’s Romano Prodi all went down the Blair road of taking the centre left so far rightwards that it was barely distinguishable, particularly on economic policy, from the centre right. Britain had New Labour; Greece, New Pasok; Germany, Die Neue Mitte – the New Middle/Centre.

It seemed to be the panacea for electoral success. In fact, the electoral advances of the centre left in the latter half of the 1990s had much more to do with rising disenchantment with the effects of neoliberalism, which even in the boom years led to downward pressure on wages, longer working hours and the unpicking of the social safety net of the 1960s and 1970s.

So in Britain, for example, the Tories were already heavily behind Labour before Blair became leader in 1994. In Greece, an upsurge of working class militancy shattered the Mitsotakis government.

But in any case, the old Blair/Bill Clinton political template has broken down. Referring to the malaise in the SPD in Germany, Munchau writes:

“Its leadership clings to the view that it can only win elections from the centre. That worked for previous SPD leaders — Helmut Schmidt in the 1970s and Gerhard Schröder either side of the millennium. But this is no longer true when your coalition partner already occupies the centre ground. The smart strategy for the party would be to appoint a leader of the left, somebody who is ready to forgo ministerial limousines.”

He does not say it, but I am sure he has in mind the two well known left wing politicians who eschew limousines: Bernie Sanders in the US and Jeremy Corbyn in Britain (remember the picture that went viral of Jeremy during the leadership campaign heading home on a night bus after a long day’s campaigning). Or there is Alexis Tsipras, who was famed in the run-up to the January 2015 election in Greece for living modestly, unlike the old political leaderships.

It is a modest proposal. It is for a change, primarily, in style: a leader who comes from the left with the popular touch. That certainly is proving attractive on both sides of the Atlantic. But what about the policies to be pursued? What of the politics? We need new bottles. But is it old or new wine that is to be poured into them?

Presentational technique can only get you so far. Having a leader who comes from the left and is not of the multi-millionaire set is one thing. But are the parties that they lead also to stand on left wing policies?

Alexis Tsipras and Syriza did. But then they reached a crisis point and abandoned the central anti-austerity programme they had been elected on. The collapse in support that has resulted is masked by the continuing crisis of the old parties. Though the centre-right New Democracy is not simply going to tip-toe away, and is trying to stage a recovery under its new supposedly telegenic leader.

Podemos saw its support decline when its leadership made great play of not being “of the left”. It recovered in the run-up to last year’s election by swinging back and burnishing its left wing credentials.

More importantly, what is all this for? That is a question in Britain for the whole of the labour movement, for the trade unions, progressive organisations, people of the left – whether or not they are actual members of the Labour Party or affiliated to it.

Is it mainly about calibrating very carefully the precise position to occupy in the public imagination, in the widespread “anti-billionaire, anti-tax avoidance” mood, in the considerable space that exists between the old Blairite/centre-right consensus and the kind of left wing politics that Corbyn represents?

If that is so, then some political resting point may be found significantly to the right of Corbyn or Sanders, with them – or with someone like them – pulling the left wing, anti-establishment sentiment behind largely on the basis of a reputation for being on the left, sincerity, life-style and political style.

Now – there is no doubt that the radical left faces a big task in popularising our ideas and politics. Nowhere is that more sharply seen than over racism, migration and Islamophobia. The hardened racist right remains a minority. But so does the clear, anti-racist left. And in most countries it is a smaller minority than the equivalent on the right.

There is a vast middle ground. The permanent pumping out of anti-migrant, anti-Muslim propaganda and themes from the mainstream of politics and the media means that the racist right have a big advantage in influencing that middle ground.

Positions of the radical left over issues such as the tax avoidance exposed by the leak of the Panama Papers are very widely held in Britain. The same is true over support for the junior doctors’ strike. But not all of our positions are so popular. This is not a new situation. The radical left and the movements that have been central to the anti-establishment swing leftwards have had to deal with these contradictions for some years.

The Iraq War remains enormously unpopular in Britain. It is the reason why Tony Blair, who I am sure would love to be leading the pro-EU Remain campaign, is sidelined. Anyone who wants to win that campaign for British capitalist interests would be mad to allow him off the subs bench. It is also the reason why publication of the Chilcot inquiry into the decision to go to war is being delayed until the normally quieter days of summer.

But the bombing of Syria is not as unpopular as the Iraq war. People are pretty evenly divided – though there is no strong support. So the Stop the War Coalition and opponents of the Syria intervention – and of the probably forthcoming second intervention in Libya, which may involve ground forces – have had to develop arguments, strategies and initiatives to bridge that gap. Their aim has been not just to win public opinion but also to have political effect in finally breaking from the 15-year cycle of the War on Terror.

The anti-racist movement and a range of refugee charities and NGOs have had to do the same for years now over the gap exposed by the fact that most people do not consider themselves racist but do buy in to one degree or another to anti-refugee and anti-migrant arguments. A great deal of this work has been done in localities, particularly those where – thanks to government dispersal polices and refusal to plan for population changes – there have been rapid and sudden changes in migration patterns.

The experience of the movement so far

Given the weight of the right wing media offensive, there is a huge amount to do to counter its impact and win support for the left more effectively. But it is important to recognise two things.

The first is that it is not the case that we start with a blank sheet. It has not been true that the last 10 to 15 years have been characterised by the radical left being content to have its pure arguments and not trying to find ways to win the middle ground.

Recently, disability activists have been both very radical and have led the way in winning now majority opinion against the government’s welfare cuts. It is only this year that the polls have shown that more people are opposed to them than support them. The argument in support of the Palestinians has gone from the radical left deep into the mainstream. That is why there is such concern by the Israeli government and frenzied efforts to halt and disrupt that shift.

We can always do better and do more. And we need to, concerting all the collective efforts of the left. But we do that best by building on the very considerable efforts so far, which have had some successes. The fact that there have been diverse movements and organised groupings of activists – campaigning and political – means that there is an additional challenge to draw together the experiences in a spirit of openness and unity. Movements such as the People’s Assembly and the widening Stand Up To Racism initiative are proving to be good mechanisms for doing so.

There are many, many thousands of people who are active on many fronts (not enough, but still…) and who have good ideas arising from real experiences of these different struggles.

One of the things that proved such a powerful attraction in Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership campaign is that it articulated very well the desire not just for new policies but for a new politics. That is, for a new way of doing politics, different from the machine parliamentarism of leaders, who come up with the policies, and activists, who hand out leaflets containing them or percolate the links through social media.

That was a great gain last summer. It led to the formation of the Momentum initiative in the Labour Party. It is paramount that the “insurgent politics” – which is radical in the way people participate, not just in its policies – is developed.

Ed Miliband and the path to the 2010 defeat

The second thing to recognise is that there is a world of difference between the left rising to the challenge of convincing the middle ground, and the left abandoning its positions to move to the middle ground. The latter is not new. And it has not worked before.

After Labour’s election defeat in 2010 a section of the party’s right wing – styled at the time, Blue Labour – endorsed the idea that it was principally because Gordon Brown had not been sufficiently “hard” over (ie anti-) immigration. There was scant evidence that immigration played any significant role in actually shifting votes from Labour to the Tories. Central was the overwhelming feeling that Labour had abandoned working class people in the Blair and Brown years.

Brown’s successor, Ed Miliband, did not agree with the Blue Labour diagnosis and tried in a small way to undo some of the damage of the previous leaders. But he was under constant pressure, from the beginning, from a section of the Labour Party to speak out over immigration – to address people’s “real concerns”.

What the Labour right meant by these “real concerns” were the prejudices that a lot of people had absorbed from the Tory media. They did not mean the real issue of, for example, planning by central government and local councils – particularly in areas which had had up to that point a declining population, such as North Lincolnshire – for new arrivals.

Miliband made three major speeches on immigration. The first was not bad at all. He reminded people that he was the son of a Jewish refugee from Europe who fled the advancing darkness of Nazism in the 1930s. Diane Abbott – now playing a leading role in Labour’s shadow cabinet – fleshed out Miliband’s case that the way to deal with employers super-exploiting migrant labour and undercutting existing wage rates was through rigorous enforcement of a living wage and through strong trade unions.

The response, predictably, from the right wing media was to highlight Miliband’s background. We actually saw some real, serious, anti-semitic innuendo directed against “the Jewish” Labour leader by papers such as the Daily Mail. That backfired. There was widespread support for Miliband. In the row with the Tory media a wider number of people began to see that its obsession with immigration was not about Britain “being full” or about “real concerns” but was about racism.

But that was not where powerful forces in the Parliamentary Labour Party – where Miliband had got only minority support in his leadership election – wanted to be. They wanted the resting point to be further to the right, more accommodating of the racist, anti-immigration sentiment pumped out by the Sun and Mail.

So the next two speeches moved further to the right. And so did Labour’s shadow Home Secretary Yvette Cooper. She sought to attack the Tory/Lib Dem coalition for not doing enough to “control Britain’s borders”.

The result did nothing either to help Labour win the election or to provide a principled and popular opposition to the Tories whipping up of racism. The Tory lesson drawn from that can be seen in the full-on racist campaign they are running in London now.

What started as a reasonable effort to craft arguments to win the middle ground against the rabid, racist right ended up losing that ground and giving confidence to the racists.

How the left can win the centre ground

There is a great lesson from that experience for today. It is absolutely right to find all sorts of imaginative arguments and initiatives to engage the swathes of people who are to the right of the radical left on issues where the right wing are strong.

One of the great things about the immensely popular junior doctors’ strikes is that on all the picket lines and protests they have been pointing out that many of them – and large numbers of NHS workers generally – are migrants or the children of immigrants.

But you can reach out to your right only if you are absolutely firmly anchored to the left and to core principles and policies of the left. Diane Abbott has done a great job in doing that over refugees and migrants. Miliband was not so anchored, and the left was weak.

Reaching out to the right became, under pressure from inside the Labour Party and from a media onslaught, moving to the right. That strategy failed badly. It failed for Labour at the general election. It failed in pushing back racism in society.

It is out of the failure of that strategy that Jeremy Corbyn soared to win the Labour leadership with the overwhelming support of Labour Party members – leading to a huge influx into the party and a rising left as a whole. That presents the great challenge, and opportunity, now of how to move from there to win wider layers. That involves two separate questions.

The first is how to win wider public support. The second is how to win wider support among Labour MPs, who in their great majority opposed Corbyn’s victory. The two are connected. But they are different.

The reason is that, thanks to the accumulated impact of the Blair and Brown years – only modestly reversed under Miliband, the Parliamentary Labour Party over many issues is, in its majority, to the right of not only solid Labour supporters but in many cases of majority opinion also.

So while majority opinion was turning against the Tories’ welfare cuts, the vast majority of Labour MPs last year did not vote against them. Public support for the junior doctors’ strikes is overwhelming. When visiting picket lines, Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and others are firmly with majority public opinion. But there are lots of Labour MPs who are not and who refuse to support the strikes publicly.

Other issues are not as clear-cut. Renewing Britain’s nuclear weapons is one of them. But even here, public opinion is very divided. There is a large – and very committed – minority opposition to Trident renewal. There is a middle ground. And there is a large number who say they think Britain needs nuclear weapons.

But there’s no evidence that a significant number of people will not vote Labour on principle if it is opposed to nuclear weapons. There are less people proportionately in society who are as fanatical about keeping them as a lot of the right wing of the Parliamentary Labour Party are.

So there is a real challenge for the left to win public opinion. That is not news – least of all to the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament, which has a significant base of very effective activists. Its campaign against Trident renewal has been successful in gaining support – far wider than the established left – over the last two years.

There is still a way to go to win majority opinion. But opinion has been shifting our way over the last three years – before we had a Labour leadership that is opposed to nuclear weapons. Does it really make sense for the left to move its fundamental position in the opposite direction now?

That was the proposal made recently by my friend Paul Mason. I think it was mistaken, and for this main reason. Paul surveyed the positions of Labour MPs and those trade unions that have members in the arms industry, where the argument against nuclear weapons and for producing other things instead still has a long way to go in winning the majority support of workers.

He concluded that the only position that would enjoy consensus among Labour MPs was to go along with spending vast amounts of money on new nuclear weapons. He tried to give what he described as a left wing case for them.

But there is no left wing case for nuclear weapons themselves. What Paul really outlined was a tactical case for the minority of Labour MPs who share Jeremy Corbyn’s left wing politics or who support him to navigate the hostile majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party on the issue of Trident.

I do not agree that the proposal to drop opposition to Trident is a sensible way to do so. But we should be clear that convincing the Parliamentary Labour Party to support the leadership is a different thing from convincing public opinion to support the policies of Jeremy Corbyn and the left. And ditching a policy is not the same as finding the right language and arguments to explain it convincingly.

The average of Parliamentary Labour Party opinion is on so many issues to the right of the average of public opinion. Not only that, it is more fixed than public opinion, which is pretty volatile. That is shown by the reckless behaviour of various Blairite MPs who would like to launch a coup against Corbyn following this Thursday’s elections.

Their position on things like Trident, supporting every military action by Britain and the US, and as defenders of the Israeli government is not about what they think might be electorally popular. It is what they ideologically believe in and will fight for – to the detriment, if necessary, of electoral success. That is what they have done for the last week.

That, after all, is what their hero Tony Blair did when he went to war on Iraq, despite public opinion.

The key battleground

While different, there is of course a connection between the left winning public support and the left wing leadership of the Labour Party winning at least sufficient support from MPs to stop attempts to destabilise it.

The rancour and division inside the Parliamentary Labour Party does hurt Labour electorally. And because it is directed against Jeremy Corbyn, John McDonnell and other left MPs, it undermines the left, the labour movement and all of our efforts to fight the Tories and win radical change.

That is what it is designed to do. The Labour right in the early 1980s was prepared to split the Labour Party, to lose the Bermondsey by-election and to see Margret Thatcher re-elected in 1983 to conduct the most destructive period of her rule. The whole of the left and the working class movement suffered huge damage.

Everyone who has the interests of the labour movement truly at heart is supporting the Labour leadership in its efforts to find ways to quell the hardcore Blairite opposition. That battle is taking place in every arena – in and outside of Westminster.

It is important to recognise the nature of the terrain. In the Parliamentary Labour Party and the machine inherited from the Blair/Brown/Miliband years the Blairite ultras, with some others, can feel very confident to pressure the left.

The kind of compromises which centrist MPs – the kind of people who supported Ed Miliband – can feel need to be made are way to the right of the kind of tactical shifts or compromises which may be necessary in the wider movement. So while the left needs to engage in and win those battles in Westminster, it is a mistake to make those the starting place for engaging in them.

Outside of Westminster, and the closely attached London media, the left is often much stronger and its ideas are much more in tune with what people are thinking than the Labour right’s are. This is the great difference between the situation now and back in the early 1980s, when the Labour right last ran amok.

It is there that we need a huge collective effort. It is both about building the direct struggles against the government, such as the junior doctors and the teachers’ and parents’ campaign to save state schooling.

And it is about developing the arguments, the effective strategies and alliances which can win people to the ideas of the left and present them in ways that can appeal to the vast mass of those who are angry with the Tories.

It is that way round that the pressure on the Labour right can be best brought to bear in Westminster, forcing them into some kind of compromise with the Corbyn leadership, at least enough of one to leave the irreconcilable Blairites totally isolated.

But if it is attempted the other way around – starting with appeasing right wing Labour MPs, and confusing polishing the presentation of left wing positions to a mass audience with abandoning those positions to meet the demands of that small audience of MPs – then the left will end up on very weak ground.

The electoral fortunes of the Labour Party are also likely to suffer. That is the lesson of both the Miliband era Labour Party and of its counterparts right now across the European continent. It has been born out in the London election campaign also.

The move by Sadiq Khan to distance himself from Jeremy Corbyn and to run a conventional, centrist campaign left the base of Labour members and others in London distinctly underwhelmed.

Zac Goldsmith’s campaign was even more underwhelming. It was the Tories’ vicious racist strategy to turn that around, in the last week especially, which changed that.

Its BNP imagery was designed to motivate the hard, racist Tory core and win the election on a low turnout. That has also given the tens of thousands of Labour Party members who joined the party on the Corbyn surge, and the left as a whole, a reason to fight in a way that Khan’s electoral platform did not.

Let’s hope it is enough to win on Thursday. Whatever the result and the outcome of the immediate frenzied efforts of the Blairites to create a coup atmosphere, the pressure to move sharply to the right will not go away.

It is not arising mainly from the serious, strategic and debateable questions of how the left can win majority public support, and improve the clarity of our arguments and the presentation of our policies.

It is coming largely from the demands of Labour MPs – including those such as Liz Kendall who polled just 4.5 percent in the leadership contest – to move not towards “public opinion”, but towards their opinion and the Westminster consensus.

That is the kind of consensus that has shrunk Labour’s counterpart in Germany to under 20 percent and has all but destroyed its Greek equivalent.

The whole left should welcome and contribute to the discussions about how we win the kind of mass support needed to beat the Tories.

And the whole left should resist the pressure from the Labour right to abandon the positions for which we hope to win that support, which are needed to bring radical change for working people and which constitute the radical left in the first place – that is: what we are actually fighting for.

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Letter to a young activist


Over 100,000 people demonstrating in London in 2014 against Israel’s attack on Gaza

This is a (tidied up) email I sent to a school student relative of mine who is just coming into the movement.
Dear         ,
Trying to answer your list of questions about the row going on about Israel.
You are absolutely right, and we have talked a lot before, that opposing what the state of Israel does and its ideology, Zionism (or more precisely, political Zionism), is not equivalent to being anti-Jewish, being anti-semitic.
But you asked if it is is possible to be opposed to Israel for “wrong and dodgy reasons”.
In other words:
Being anti-Zionist – which is a way (not often the best way) of saying you think there is something fundamentally wrong with Israel – does not make you anti-semitic.
But can some people who say they are “anti-Zionist” or “anti-Israel” also be hostile to Jewish people, be anti-semitic. The answer is yes – but it’s not simple, and we need to know some of the background.
Let’s go back a bit…
In the course of the 1980s it became less acceptable publicly to use racist terms about Black people (by which in this context I mean African-Caribbean people) in Britain.
Racism still existed of course. And so did outright racist language, but there was a decline in its acceptability compared with the 1970s – it was really quite nasty then, though it feels like that again today regarding Muslim people.
One result was that some people 20 or 30 years ago who wanted to say something which was racist about Black people (whether they intended it maliciously to be racist or whether it was what we used to call “casual racism”, often arising from ignorant stereotyping) would turn to other words than those which were no longer considered at all acceptable.
The racist prejudice and intention were “re-coded” into a different language. Like you do in computing.
When I moved to London in the late 1980s you could find some white people who would talk about “Brixton” in a certain way. What they really meant was “Black people” – or even, for those who were deliberately and maliciously racist, “n***ers”. At the time Brixton was considered a “Black area”.
So they would say something like: “Ours is a nice area, not like Brixton.” What they meant was: “This is a white area. And that’s why it is nice. Keep the Blacks out.”
Overt anti-semitic language and stereotyping is (thankfully) also less acceptable in public life than it was in the 1970s, just as anti-Black racist language is.
So similarly it is perfectly possible for anti-Jewish racists – anti-semites – to use another word when they really mean “Jews”. And that does happen.
That’s what was going on when you asked me about some racist Trump supporters putting a strange emphasis on Bernie Sanders coming from Brooklyn. When he was born there, it was a strongly Jewish area of New York City.
When the Trump supporters said “Brooklyn”, they meant “Jewish”. One reason they don’t like Bernie is because he’s Jewish (and even more because he’s a socialist). They are anti-semitic.
The “Brooklyn” trick, or code, works if you are in America, but most people in Britain wouldn’t get it. People in Britain generally know nothing about Brooklyn: they have heard of Israel.
So it is possible for anti-Jewish racists today – like the anti-Black racists in the 1980s “minding their language” and talking about “Brixton” – to talk about “Israel”, or “Zionists” when what they really mean is “Jews”, and holding negative opinions about “them”. That is the definition of a racial prejudice.
But it is a bit more complicated than that.
The great majority of the growing number of people who have negative views of Israel or speak angrily about it or argue that it is based on a fundamentally wrong principle (which is to be a racially exclusive, segregated state with similarities to apartheid South Africa) do so because of the very real oppression directed at the Palestinian people.
You know this from how you and your mates feel when you saw those pictures of the Palestinians being shot by soldiers.
When you say “Israel” you mean it like the big majority of people who support the Palestinians mean it. They do *not* mean “the Jews”. They mean the Israeli state with its army, laws and practices, which have robbed another people of their homes and are oppressing them.
And, of course, there are a lot of Jewish people who are not only just as supportive of the Palestinians and against Israel, but also do a lot of the organising for protests and the boycott campaign and all the other stuff we’ve talked about. They tend to be socialists also. (Check out the Jewish Socialist Group – that’s some of them.)
It was much simpler in the case of the anti-Black racist who used the word Brixton as a code than it is over Israel.
The reason for the difference is that Brixton did not go and occupy Camden driving its inhabitants off to Barnet. It has not put the people of Pimlico under a siege.
There was no good reason – only a hidden racist reason – to use “Brixton” in the negative way it used to be used. (That’s true, even if it is in south London – that’s a London joke🙂 )
There are very good reasons – not only *not racist*, but actually *anti-racist* – for being negative about Israel. Israel is not like Brixton.
Still, some people can and do sneak in their racist prejudices under the cover of widespread legitimate anger and opposition to the Israeli state.
Now, people like the Israeli government and its supporters want to stop all criticism of Israel and to stop the growing movement in solidarity with the Palestinians. I would want to, if in their shoes. But I never want to be in their shoes oppressing another people.
They have given up on stopping all criticism. Loads of people can see that there is something really wrong with Israel, its treatment of the Palestinians and the way that the Western governments back all that up as part of trying to control the Middle East and its oil.
So the Israeli government and its supporters want to police the criticism to say what is and what is not acceptable.
A few stupid ones want to say that any criticism of Israel is anti-semitic. But the smarter ones say it might be ok to criticise this or that, but not the fundamental question of Israel being built on land stolen from the Palestinians.
Ok to criticise Israel, but not to campaign against it in the way we campaigned against apartheid South Africa – not ok to say that it must be fundamentally transformed, like South Africa was when Nelson Mandela became president.
The main thing they want to stop is the growing campaign, though they would like to limit even criticism to the tiniest level possible. But wherever they draw the line, they want to be the people who decide where it is drawn and say that what is on the wrong side of the line is “anti-semitic”.
One of the really dangerous things that flows out of the confusion they are spreading is that it makes it harder to oppose the real anti-semites.
If the definition of racism is set by what a government and state decide on the basis of trying to stop people criticising them or trying to change them, then the definition constantly shifts.
It can seem like there’s no clear idea of what is racist, what is anti-semitic. And that’s a good environment for people who want to spread anti-semitism. Confusion and ignorance are the greatest allies of racism.
The confusion created by the Israeli government ends up helping the anti-Jewish racists. And the anti-Jewish racists provide ammunition for the Israeli government and its defenders to sow further confusion.
They use the fact that a small number of people mask their anti-semitic intent by talking about Israel or Zionism when they mean “Jews” to say that everybody who opposes Israel is doing the same thing and for the same reasons. But that is obviously illogical.
To give a bit of a trivial example of that kind of stupid logic: a few people say they don’t like curry because, really, they are horrible, bigoted racists and won’t eat “foreign muck”. But there are quite a lot of other people who just don’t get on with spicy food.
If someone says they won’t eat curry because it is “Paki food”. They are a racist. If someone says they don’t eat curry because they are allergic to chilies, then they are not racist, just really unfortunate to miss out on some nice food!
But what you asked me about is not trivial. It’s really serious.
More and more people are opposing Israel for the same kinds of reasons huge numbers of people came to oppose apartheid South Africa. Because it is a state racially excluding and oppressing another people.
Defenders of Israel say that it is being singled out for special condemnation. But when you point out that it is similar to how South Africa was, and that was when the last big boycott campaign happened, they try to say that it is nothing like South Africa.
It is another illogical argument – saying, at the same time, that Israel is being unfairly picked on and denying it is anything like all the other cases where people have campaigned in much the same way against the same kind of oppression of one people by the state and government of another.
By the way – the anti-Jewish racists hiding themselves with talk of “Israel” don’t like the comparison being made with South Africa either.
That’s because they are *not* motivated by the anti-racist principle of opposing one group and its army oppressing another. They are motivated by racism – against Jewish people – and many of them are from the far right, and hate Black and Muslim people also.
Just as with anti-Muslim racism, anti-semitism is not only on the far right or among people like those Trump supporters you asked me about. It is wider than that. But most of the nasty stuff is either coming directly from the racist right or is versions of memes and stuff like that which originated there.
There is also some evidence that very desperate supporters of Israel are themselves spreading images and propaganda which are anti-semitic but masquerading as just opposition to what the Israeli government, army and the right wing settlers are doing. .
They hope that this will spread around and discredit the pro-Palestinian movement and reinforce the false claim that any fundamental criticism of Israel is anti-Jewish. You know how people share mad stuff online sometimes – like the one about the “ice cream” which won’t melt in a furnace. It’s not, of course, ice cream. (Thanks for sending me that – it was funny.)
They are not the source of the anti-Jewish racism. But it is an extreme example of how they are recklessly creating a climate where that can grow by creating confusion.
The defenders of Israel really want to confuse and break up the growing movement supporting the Palestinians. That *is* logical!
Anti-Jewish racists want to exploit anything and everything – not just people’s justified anger at Israel, but other things – to spread their poison, which is usually connected to some way-out right wing party.
If someone is determined to spread racist views, they can be really ingenious in their choice of language and false images and snide comments.
The Tories in London right now are not saying directly that no Muslim can be trusted to be the mayor. But they are cunningly trying to say that Labour’s Muslim candidate, who is a lawyer, is sympathetic to blowing up people on the tube and buses.
Bankers are really unpopular. Quite right too – bankers and big businessmen, with their bonuses and tax havens, are living off the backs of the rest of us. They caused the crisis that has led to all the austerity which you marched against down in London last year.
But the link you sent me and asked about is, indeed, dodgy. It’s anti-semitic. When it speaks about “bankers”, it is using a code for “Jews”.
How can we tell? Well the only bankers that it named were “Rothschild”, “Goldman Sachs” and some others which had “Jewish” or “Jewish sounding” names.
The biggest three banks in the world are Chinese. The fourth biggest is sort of British, but is closely linked to China – the HSBC – the Hong Kong and Shanghai Banking Corporation.
The article is a repost from a white supremacist site in the US, a clever one – as it is not immediately obvious that that is what it is.
It is not opposed to banks, greedy big businessmen (like Donald Trump) or capitalism. It is opposed to Jewish people, or is using anti-semitism to win people to its racist and right wing project.
We shouldn’t let the fact that that is what it is trying to do stop us, of course, from saying what we want to say about the banks, the bosses, Google not paying its tax, the Panama Papers and capitalism.
Perhaps there are “Bankerists” somewhere who might come up with the cunning plan that they can confuse people protesting over austerity by saying that criticising bankers is anti-semitic! That’s a bit of a joke – but maybe we shouldn’t give them ideas🙂
But we do need to watch out. There are these racists out there. They are not yet that strong. That’s why they have to hide their views, use code and be like parasites when it comes to how loads of people feel about all sorts of things.
We see it over Israel. And it’s a similar thing over them trying to wheedle their way in over things like the behaviour of the banks.
The best way to spot it and deal with it is to inform yourself and to think for yourself.
The best way to do that is with other people whose principles you can come to trust and who you can judge over time. That’s what things like the People’s Assembly demo you were on, the Palestine demos, groups like the Palestine Solidarity Campaign, Stop the War and others are partly about.
It’s the same online. The online stuff from those kinds of people, and the socialists – like the Jewish Socialist Group – is really good.
And feel free to ask, over anything. The people who are spreading confusion want us to stop asking questions, stop thinking, stop acting and stop being angry.
So we shouldn’t let them do that.
Hope that helps. Gook luck with the exams…
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