Why Paul Mason is wrong on Brexit and Labour

Why Paul Mason is wrong on Brexit and Labour

When he came under attack earlier this year from George Osborne for his one-time membership of Workers Power, Paul Mason countered quite heavily, asserting that he is now a “radical social democrat” who had comprehensively critiqued Bolshevism in his latest book, Postcapitalism. But while we may obviously quibble on this or that aspect of his assessment of the Marxist left, his recent articles and blog posts have also given me cause to wonder what exactly a “radical social democrat” thinks and does in present circumstances to make them radical; and what it is that makes them a democrat.

In particular, I think Paul throws out a lot of proposals which sound neat on the face of it, but aren’t properly thought through, or at least not properly elaborated – either in terms of the potential pitfalls, or in how they can take shape as a living strategy for the Labour movement to mobilise around, as opposed to just a hand of cards for the top tier of a [putative] Labour government to hold during negotiations.

The idea that the UK can “remain inside the European Economic Area” is technically correct, but in practice it won’t be so simple. Membership of the EEA is only open to member states either of the European Union, or alternatively of the European Free Trade Association (EFTA). Having decided to leave the former, to stay in the EEA we would have to join the latter. This association of peripheral European nations which allows Iceland, Liechtenstein, and Norway access to the single market was actually co-founded by Britain in 1960. But Norway’s European Affairs minister has poured cold water on the idea of re-admitting Britain, suggesting that they may veto the proposal in order to maintain the current balance of power (which favours them) within EFTA.

Paul also chides left and right alike for their “wariness […] born of the assumption that if you commit to the single market, you must accept free movement of labour.” This is actually more than just an assumption – as any Swiss socialist could tell you, if they can spare a moment from battling their own rising tide of Euroscepticism and xenophobia.

Having voted in 2014 by a tiny margin to restrict freedom of movement (in a referendum which is legally binding and has an implementation deadline of 3 years), Swiss politicians’ desperate attempts to reach a compromise with Brussels have fallen on deaf ears. Through an accident of bad timing, Brussels has determined to make an example of Switzerland for Theresa May’s benefit, and said in effect that they must choose between “Hard Swexit or no Swexit” – i.e. restricting immigration will cause them to lose their access to the single market.

What exactly does Paul mean when he says that Labour should “seek a deal on free movement that gives Britain time and space to restructure its labour market”? No matter which way one reads that proposal – and no doubt it includes a raft of progressive labour market reforms such as outlawing zero-hours contracts and the like – the idea that Britain can only restructure its labour market while “temporarily” sheltered from EU migration can’t help but sound like a shamefaced re-hash of “British jobs for British workers”.

And there’s the rub – Paul Mason’s basic proposition is that a series of compromises should be made in order to safeguard important EU-related rights. But in this scheme, the right to free movement for working class people is a sacrificial cow, not a right that Labour’s front bench should trouble itself with safeguarding. Never mind that the evidence available suggests that on the whole, immigration doesn’t actually depress wages – according to Mason, we have to reduce immigration (“temporarily”, of course) because a lot of working class people have been misled and think that it does. If the Labour Party can’t uphold a principled position on such a crucial issue and seek to clarify facts rather than bow to prejudice, then what hope do we have of dispelling other poisonous untruths – for instance, the perception that excessive welfare spending caused the recession?

In a similar vein, we might consider as one example the plight of EU workers who emigrated here alone, planning to lay the foundations for a better life, and be joined at a later date by their families; their right to private and family life is also apparently not a “red line”. Being able to sleep without fear of dawn deportation raids will be reassuring in the short term, but hardly masks the stench of wasted opportunity and loss of rights that a retreat from freedom of movement will bring.

If this all sounds a bit too bleeding-heart liberal, then consider in cold material terms the massive difference that could be made by the integration of a million more EU migrant workers into the trade union movement, where they could be enlisted to fight against the force in society that actually does depress wages – private ownership of industry. They may not have been able to vote on Brexit, and can’t cast a ballot for Labour MPs – but let’s not treat them as passive people without a voice, who at most can hope for kind words and a promise that we won’t treat them as a bargaining chip.

Only a reading of the situation which subordinates all strategy to the aim of getting a Labour government and therefore disregards those without a right to vote could neglect the potential strength of the movement in this way. In a similar vein, we can see how the deadly hush over Trident is intimately connected with an unwillingness to upset leaders like Len McCluskey who have done a decent pugnacious job of defending Corbyn in the press. But are we seriously meant to pretend that the movement will never produce a better leader than “Red” Len – one who might dispense with the absurd idea that we should maintain Trident for the sake of 30,000 jobs? To put this another way: that leaning on the Labour leadership to ensure continued production of weapons capable of wiping out humanity is preferable to contemplating a socialist policy, i.e. a plan for those workers to own and run their industry collectively and for some better social purpose. Carrying forward the transformation of the Labour Party into a mutually beneficial transformation of the labour movement (one of our logical next steps) would surely make this sort of compromise more awkward in future.

The one group that apparently shouldn’t have any say in this wizard wheeze are Labour Party members. This slalom-like approach to policy is proposed essentially as a Machiavellian manoeuvre to be implemented by Labour’s front bench team – while taking care not to frighten the horses and adopt positions so backward that members couldn’t be persuaded to to “go on the doorstep and fight” for them. A “significant, temporary retreat from freedom of movement […] means – and my colleagues on the left need to accept this – that the British people, in effect, will have changed Labour’s position on immigration from below, by plebiscite.” By plebiscite! Anyone with a right-wing Labour MP will have seen how readily they ignore the new anti-austerity agenda because their mandate from their constituents supposedly trumps their responsibility to the party. This is where the idea of policy-making “by plebiscite” leads to.

Similarly, the recurring demand that Labour hitch itself to the Greens and “progressive nationalist” parties in a so-called progressive alliance is conceptualised in effect as a pole with which to vault over Downing Street’s security gates and into Number 10. Even supposing such an alliance were desirable – and in my view it is not – how could it even begin to function other than through protracted friendly contact and co-operation, not to mention the interminable discussions of which the left is so fond? With the current state of intra-party relations, the inaugural meeting of any ‘progressive’ alliance north of the border would be variously reported as a joint conference of “Red Tories”, “Tartan Tories”, and “Tories on Bikes”! Such an alliance would be as disastrous for the Labour Party (but especially for the reinvigorated left of the party) as was Ramsay MacDonald’s secret pact with the Liberals in 1903, because it would subordinate the keystone traditional object of the Labour left (democratic control over policy) to a top-down deal for the sake of short-term electoral gain.

In any case, we can safely assume that even if Labour were to commit itself to Devo-Max, voters would be sufficiently savvy to choose the real SNP rather than pale imitations. This has certainly been the experience of RISE.

What I think is implied by all these supposed panaceas is a Labour leadership prepared to chop and change at short notice, willing to sell out people and principles it should be defending for the sake of tactical expediency, and insisting that labour movement activists defer to a glib and reactionary reading of what “the people out there” want. We have seen this managerial style of politics somewhere before (albeit applied to different political ends), and Scotland is a cautionary tale as to the parlous state in which it will leave us if not nipped in the bud.

There will never be any shortage of people wanting to set themselves up as gurus of one kind or another. From prospectors carving out little local fiefdoms, to the next sub-Marxist Mandelsonian wild child, everyone has a shopping list for what they think Jeremy and John should do in the next eighteen months. Others like Owen Jones are so paralysed by pessimism that they seem to be channelling the persona of Marvin the Paranoid Android. It seems to me that the more interesting – and urgent – questions facing our movement are not those which can be resolved by artful deals hammered out between committees of a few dozen leaders, but rather great questions of strategy, of principle, of political orientation and programme which belong properly to half a million members and supporters.

The left’s current leadership of the Labour party is not an end in itself; not some precious thing to be cosseted and sheltered. The Corbyn phenomenon has raised questions and ideas within society which only recently were regarded as the preserve of a loony fringe. But in order to capitalise on our gains and stand a realistic chance of achieving the radical social change which has so far only been hinted at, we all as members need to mount a vigorous campaign to defend the leadership and fight for our interests from below.

That necessarily implies that we approach the major political questions of this decade always with one eye on what will make our movement stronger, more dynamic, more capable of expanding even further than it already has done. Cutting corners and making peace with conspirators who can’t be trusted will mean that we are neither audacious enough to make such gains, nor actually better able to defend our current position in any meaningful way from further attacks.

The Cardsharps (Caravaggio)

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