The left and the coup: side-stepping the issues

Submitted by AWL on 5 September, 2019 - 9:58 Author: Rhodri Evans
swp coup

The Communist Party of Britain (Morning Star) claims that Boris Johnson’s shutdown of Parliament was really the fault of the anti-Brexiters in Parliament. Other left groups and papers which have backed Brexit have been less off-the-wall, but maybe more confusing.

Socialist Worker essentially calls on its readers to shout other slogans so loudly as to drown out all thoughts about Brexit.

It writes: “There was fury at Johnson [at the anti-coup protests]. Beyond that people came with a range of views.

“A substantial number had EU flags or anti-Brexit placards. But others were focused on fighting the Tories and getting Johnson out”.

The sly suggestion that anti-Brexiters don’t care about fighting the Tories was just a device to indicate that those who do want to fight the Tories shouldn’t care about Brexit. After quoting an anti-Brexit voice, Socialist Worker approvingly cited another protester:

“Health worker Annette said, ‘I don’t really care what you think about Brexit. For me I think this is our chance to get the Tories out and to end their rule. We have to stop Universal Credit and the attacks on EU nationals’.”

As if the shutdown of Parliament is actually a good thing? Because it generates “fury” and thus a “chance to get the Tories out”?

Socialist Worker did not call for resistance to Johnson’s ploy to override Parliament as such. Instead it said:

“Neither the EU nor the British parliament are examples of the democracy we should fight for”.

Maybe SW was comparing Parliament unfavourably to the democracy of workers’ councils, with delegates recallable at any time, with an end to the privileges of officials, and with the merger of legislative and executive. Or just to a better parliamentary system, in which for a start the parliament and not an unelected monarch decides when it does or does not sit.

I don’t know, because SW did not explain to readers what democracy it would fight for. The reference to a higher democracy served in the article only to “prove” that today’s limited democracy is not to be fought for against Johnson.

What then? In another article SW said that protests must be “for driving the Tories out and for a general election”.
OK. But how does SW square its call for a general election — to today’s Parliament, not to future workers’ councils — with the line that the ability of that Parliament to control the executive is not worth fighting for?

And now that Johnson looks like going for an election, does it think “job done”? That getting an election, somehow, has been the big issue, while opposing Johnson’s suspension of Parliament was not a big enough issue to bother about (it’s just parliament, not workers’ democracy), and the best attitude to Brexit is “don’t care”?

In an early general election Brexit will be central. That’ll be the “real” Brexit looming up, the Tory-right “no deal” Brexit, not the “left Brexit” which Socialist Worker fantasised about in 2016.

Will Socialist Worker recommend that Labour follow SW’s example and say in the election that it “doesn’t really care” about Brexit?

Tory minister Priti Patel is keen to “end free movement” on the dot of 31 October (procedural difficulties may stop her being quite that brutal). SW did call for defence of existing freedoms of movement across borders, though not explaining how that fits with the “don’t care about Brexit” line. Other left groups did not.

Like SW, the Socialist Party argued that protests should not mention Brexit. They should only demand that Johnson call a general election. (So, again, it’s “job done” now?) The SP did say what it wants Labour to advocate in that general election... a hard Brexit!

“Jeremy Corbyn and the trade union movement need to urgently launch a mass campaign to demand an immediate general election...

“Labour could win by a landslide, provided that it adopted a fighting socialist programme...

“A pledge to renegotiate Brexit in the interests of the working class — refusing to accept the EU’s pro-privatisation, pro-austerity laws — would form an important part of such an approach”.

Johnson’s “no deal” Brexit would take Britain out of the scope of all EU rules, including the budgetary rules and the “competition” rules. But EU rules do not drive privatisation and austerity in Britain, and quitting them will not reverse privatisation or austerity.

The record over decades has been of British governments pushing the EU to more pro-privatisation and pro-austerity rules, and the EU, if anything, pushing Britain into some limited social safeguards which Johnson will want to trash.

So far as Corbyn’s “better Brexit” is clear at all, it would take Britain out of EU rules to a much smaller degree than Johnson’s. It would keep the UK in the Customs Union, or at least a Customs Union, and at least partly within the Single Market.

It’s another question what can be “renegotiated” now. In any case, the Socialist Party is in the odd position of demanding that Labour should, for an early general election, change its policy to be more like Johnson’s. (And at the same time, within the next few weeks, become fully socialist... If you’re going for fantasy politics, why not go large?)

Like SW, but with less argument, the SP considers the defence of parliamentary democracy not really an issue.

“Boris Johnson... is using his position to overrule elected MPs. This is one more indication of how big-business politicians are prepared to push aside all their talk of ‘democracy’ when it suits their interests to do so”.

For the SP Johnson is just giving “one more” example of what’s routine, and what he is pushing aside is just “talk”, not substance. It is not even talk of real democracy, but only talk of “democracy” in scare-quotes, i.e. of something called “democracy” which isn’t really that.

Like SW, the SP gives no hint to its readers of what it proposes as a better democracy, or why it thinks that better democracy is so near to hand that the existing limited version is of no consequence.

And it makes its main call for a general election — i.e. the exercise of this same “democracy”, the overriding of which merits only the comment that it shows you what big-business politicians always do.

Socialist Alternative, a group which recently split from the SP, has much the same line as the SP, with two variations.

SAlt says: “No to a Tory Brexit – deal or no deal”. The SP, as we’ve seen, suggests it wants a different sort of Brexit from Johnson. But it ends up (inadvertently, I guess) actually arguing for Labour to make its Brexit formula more like Johnson’s than it currently is. And it doesn’t, unless I’ve missed it, have a specific “slogan”, “no to a Tory Brexit”.

Rather, it tends to suggest that it surely wants Brexit, but would wish Labour to propose a better version.

SAlt’s other quirk is: “the demand shouldn’t be ‘no suspension of parliament’. It should be, Johnson and the Tories out, general election now!...”

To get a general election, Parliament has to vote for it. One of Johnson’s motives in suspending Parliament was to reduce the risk (to him) of a vote of no confidence and a general election called in a context not of his choosing. To counterpose “general election now” against “no suspension of Parliament” makes no sense.

Counterfire, a 2010 split from the SWP, is mostly not visible as a political group, but is of some importance as the “ghost in the machine” of the People’s Assembly, a grouping funded by Unite and other unions which has considerable skills and resources for calling demonstrations.

It has been probably the most Brexiter of the Trotskisant left, but on this occasion started with a website article by Chris Nineham very different from the SW/SP line that the proper response to the coup and Brexit is to talk about other things instead.

“The Government’s attempt to suspend parliament for six weeks represents the biggest attack on democracy since before universal suffrage was won in 1928.

“Faced with this attack on democracy, the whole of the left urgently needs to unite and get back onto the offensive. Parliament has shown its limitations more clearly than ever in the last few years, and much more thoroughgoing democracy is needed.

“But arbitrary rule by Boris Johnson is clearly not the answer to that problem. We need a clear and militant defence of parliamentary democracy including mass rallies and protests”.

A few days later, though, it had shifted.

“Johnson’s reasoning is quite simple: yes, he has shut down Parliament, but he is doing so to finally overhaul the undemocratic stitch-up in Parliament that has prevented the will of the people, expressed in the Brexit referendum, from being carried out.”

And Counterfire thought Johnson has a point: “It would be easy to underestimate the appeal of such a simple message. For it is not just over Brexit that MPs have appeared to be out of touch with the public...

“This is why it would be a basic mistake for the left, especially the Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour Party, to take up the cause of merely defending Parliament or worse being seen to do so in order to overturn the 2016 referendum result”.

No one on the left is “merely defending Parliament”. On the contrary, as we’ve seen, much of the left is saying “don’t bother about that aspect of things”.

Counterfire’s new alternative was more like the SWP’s or the SP’s: “calling for system change and a revamping of all the country’s institutions”.

And again, the talk of a grand new system and grand new institutions was not serious, but rather a device to evade the immediate issue. Counterfire didn’t bother to explain what different system and different institutions it was demanding.

Nor to explain why getting them is so near to hand that Johnson’s “biggest attack on [existing] democracy” fades into insignificance.

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