The Momentum leadership’s decision, reported in the Guardian, to evade the Europe issue for two months and to focus on getting the Labour vote out in the May elections is not without its difficulties. I suspect that the pressures to change that stance will be acute come mid-May, a month before the referendum vote.
One way to deal with them would be to put at the centre not only Labour’s electoral effort, but serious work to develop popular campaigns over the refugees, the NHS, tax avoidance by corporations, the junior doctors, defence of welfare benefits, Trident and opposing the wars, and opposition to the trade union bill.
Those political campaigns are firmly of the left, anti-Cameron, unifying, but are also not conducive to the mainstream Remain campaign.
And herein lies the strategic problem for the left Remain position, which encompasses broadly two categories.
First, there are individuals on the radical left and some of the smaller socialist groups – both including a number of friends of mine – whose identification with the Remain position is either a personal statement of where they feel more comfortable (out of total rejection of UKIP, which is for a Leave vote) or a judgement of where best they can make socialist propaganda (in the non-pejorative sense).
They are not postulating any kind of major political effort or activity over the referendum.
Second, there are friends across the “progressive left”, and some from the radical left also, who are proposing a serious political effort to win votes for the Remain position. Those who are putting a lot of work into the “Another Europe is Possible” campaign, or into some of the trade union Remain campaigning, are in that category.
They are distinguished from the first in that they are aiming to affect the political outcome. When you do that, you have a different logic and priorities from simply propagating left wing ideas.
Caroline Lucas – the Green MP – expresses that logic well. The traction of a progressive Remain argument is not with the overwhelming majority of the Remain campaign. That is centred on big business, David Cameron, the right wing of the Labour Party, the TUC, and every European government and EU institution.
For those who reasonably point out that the left Leave position is far from dominant on the Leave side, there must also be a recognition that progressive arguments do not in any way dominate the Remain side either.
What a progressive Remain campaign can bring is some reach into the urban, young and left-leaning demographics which Cameron cannot reach. But there’s the rub.
The Guardian reports the observation by professor Matthew Goodwin that these layers may well be less likely to vote in the referendum than those who are, according to extensive surveys, set to vote Leave. Why?
I don’t think it can be put down to tired verities about young people being less political. This is the social layer – the now fabled Millennials – who are powering the Bernie movement in the US, who constituted much of the Corbyn surge last summer, are a big chunk of formations such as Momentum, and were disproportionately active last year (and now this) over such politically contested campaigns as Stop the War and Stand Up To Racism.
It is not that those of that generation are inactive or unpolitical. It seems more that their sentiments and ideas are to the left of, for example, the TUC and Labour pro-EU campaigns. These are the kind of people who rallied to Greece in its battle with the Troika last year and who strongly identify with the refugees trying to make a life in Europe.
They may voice to pollsters a visceral reaction to Little Englandism. But they are not strongly pro- the EU, which many of them recognise as part of the problem: antithetical – like all the elites – to their experiences of life, and populated by an out of touch political class.
This is surely why there is no overwhelming desire among Momentum supporters to make campaigning for the EU a priority. In the US it is why there is a still open debate over whether the enthusiasm for Bernie’s campaign can simply be carried over into supporting Clinton at a general election.
All that leads to a sharp strategic debate on the left between, broadly, those who seek to take that sentiment further to the left and to build oppositional and insurgent, durable formations on that basis; and those who seek – with lots of talk of “the balance of forces” and “strategy and tactics” – to persuade it to be active in a non-insurgent, quite conventional campaign to deliver a Remain vote.
The arguments which are developing on the left in Britain are not to do with some fissiparous nature of the left. They are not about people being “sectarian” or “opportunist”. They are not really about “principles” or “abandoning” them (though such may become the case as a result of certain political choices).
They are above all about the strategy for the radical left. Friends in Britain should realise that theirs is but a version of the strategic debate on the left which was so sharply posed by the Greek referendum result last July and by Alexis Tsipras’s subsequent capitulation – in the name of the need to “stay in Europe, in order to reform it”.
It is also clear that that kind of left Europeanist argument will have zero impact on Cameron. Should he win the referendum, he will reassert his control over the Tory party by trying to accelerate the assault on working people and migrants – just at the point where we may well be heading towards another recession.
Instead, the left Europeanist argument will be played out to its left, seeking to answer the perspective of those who have an insurgent left strategy and to try to persuade those who make up the base of the mobilisations against austerity, racism and war to vote Remain on the basis of the perspective offered, in its most articulated political form, by the contemporary Syriza government in Greece.
In all this, it would be a mistake to inflate disagreement over the referendum into bitter schisms. (Here, I really hope we see no more speeches from Caroline and others which are aligned with what the Labour right is saying in criticising Jeremy Corbyn for not being enthusiastic enough about the EU.)
It would certainly be a disaster to split the mobilisations against austerity, racism and war along a “Leave/Remain” axis.
At the same time, the debate cannot be avoided within those united mobilisations. And it does go further than the referendum – which is why trying to say it is merely about a tactical judgement is neither convincing nor is a line which anyone is holding to, de facto, in the actually existing political arguments.
This is about what kind of left we seek to build in Britain, in Europe, and beyond. And it is about strategy: insurgent and anti-capitalist, or what was once called “the long march through the institutions”.
Among people under the age of 30 in Europe now there is a considerable radicalisation. It goes beyond the old dilemma of the social democratic and Communist left, which may be summed up as: left sovereigntism versus left Europeanism. I for one am not indifferent to that dilemma. It has contemporary political consequences.
Whatever one’s criticisms – politically and theoretically – of the left sovereigntist position, we should remember that those holding to that strategy did v0te in Greece in the parliament to oppose and did campaign in the streets against the Third Memorandum. Those holding to a left Europeanist perspective are trying to implement the Third Memorandum, against the social resistance of working people and the poor.
In that social resistance is precisely the viewpoint which informs the sentiment of so many young people radicalised in the crisis years.
It is anti-capitalist and internationalist in outlook. It is upon that, and with strategies flowing therefrom, that I argue in my book on Syriza that the radical left should best build.
All these different strategic perspectives will be present in the social movements in Britain over the coming months, as they are in Greece.
And the first test of them will be to what extent each of them offers a way forward for the movement as a whole.
On 19 March day of action for the refugees, will the tactics, slogans and demands to take the movement forward flow from a left, insurgent perspective of rupture with the institutions, including the EU, or from the perspective outlined by Yanis Varoufakis – who is now across the continent the main figure associated with this view – to save the EU from itself, to strengthen it, with a view to reform through its institutions down the line?
The more these questions are based upon the actual social struggle, the healthier the debate on the left, the more it has some reference in reality rather than a succession of personal opinions, and the more – I suggest – the left in Britain will be more truly European.
For that arises not from party or institutional relations from above, but through struggles and political generalisation from below.