Last weekend, at the SWP’s much-reduced Marxism event, the SWP discussed the forthcoming EU referendum.
Paul McGarr, one of their leaders, put the case for a “socialist no vote”. Having advocated this position in their paper, and — apparently — met significant opposition, the SWP top brass have declared a period of discussion on the question in the run up to their December conference.
Ominously, he declared that this debate would take place, “in the best democratic traditions of the SWP.” And in the spirit of that tradition he began a 35 minute speech in favour of a “no vote”; those advocating “yes” were limited to three minutes each from the floor.
It is not clear that the “yes” supporters found anything unusual about this procedure, although in the AWL the leadership would not be allowed such a privilege, and opposing views would be allocated equal time from a platform.
Perhaps the “yes” supporters were just glad to get some sort of hearing. They were tentative and we got a glimpse of what they might expect as a couple of leadership supporters wound themselves up for rhetorical effect.
McGarr told us the EU was a neo-liberal bosses’ club. He did so in such a way that made me understand he thought the vote would be on a question he’d written. Perhaps the choice in his imagination is: “Neo-liberalism or socialism?” The real choice, in the real world, will be between an existing EU, with all its faults, and a tiny, isolated capitalist Britain with a government led by Tories who are even worse than Cameron and a resurgent UKIP and fascist right.
Why would socialists want to help that happen? Why would we want to help the far right to put up further barriers between the UK and the rest of Europe? Generally the job of socialists is to reduce and remove borders.
McGarr and co. want us to make an equation between the Greek Oxi (No in the recent Greek referendum) and a British No. There are just two problems with this: 1. the questions are different; 2. what is popularly understood by Oxi-No is different.
The 5 July Greek referendum was a vote on whether to accept the harsh austerity conditions advocated by the IMF, EU and ECB. The Greeks voted “no”, which was understood as a left vote made along class lines by the working class (despite some support from some of the smaller right wing parties). The UK referendum will be on membership of the EU (and, given the nature of the campaign, on our attitude to foreigners). A “no” vote in the UK will be seen as a vote for UKIP and the Tory right (despite support from some very small far left parties).
A”no” vote in the UK will produce a big political shift to the right and an across-the-board assault on migrant workers’ rights.
McGarr rubbished this idea, suggesting a possible attack on migrants is of little interest, as the EU is already racist against migrants fleeing Africa in small boats headed for Europe. However, EU withdrawal will do nothing at all to alter EU policy towards African migrants, but will do a great deal to alter, for the worse, UK policy towards Polish and Romanian migrants.
McGarr went on to complain that those who are bothered about a “no” vote producing a racist backlash in the UK have illusions in the “yes” camp. McGarr told us it was absurd to think Cameron is an anti-racist!
If I’d been allowed to speak I would have made a couple of very simple points on this matter. First, Workers’ Liberty has no illusions at all that Cameron is an anti-racist, which is why we told the SWP’s leadership it was wrong to get his signature on the founding statement of Unite Against Fascism. Second, while we have no illusions in the official “yes” campaign, it will be fragrant in comparison to the “no” campaign. All we ask is that the difference is noted.
McGarr then told us his partner and his child are Danish. I guess Copenhagen is not so far away and perhaps he figures after a “no” victory he’ll be able to visit them during school holidays.
Certainly he can’t possibly believe what he actually said: that a “no” vote will be a big blow against Cameron, and one which will throw open British politics and provide an opportunity for the left. Indeed a “no” vote will be a big blow for Cameron; the idea that Cameron’s fall will be to our benefit is fantasy. If Cameron goes after a “no” victory, someone worse will get his job.
Finally, it is not clear to me that the SWP’s famous ability to sniff out the next recruit, if necessary by abandoning tiresome political principles, isn’t failing. As the referendum nears the “no” campaign will become more-and-more rabid.
I can’t see radical students and youth being willing to go anywhere near a “Socialist No Campaign”.