It’s a mistake to allow ruling class divisions on the EU to be refracted onto our side, argues Lindsey German
The Tory rows over Europe, resurfacing this time over whether to remain in the customs union, are further evidence of the air of unreality which now grips British politics. Firstly, there is the incredible mismatch between Tory rhetoric and the combination of bumbling incompetence and cringing acceptance of compromise with the EU which marks the whole negotiation. It’s as if David Brent were in charge of the operation. Then there is the determination of the right wing Brexiteers to recast the debate in terms of ludicrous right wing rhetoric about Churchill and Dunkirk. Finally, on the Tory remain side, there is the continued attempt to pretend that the vote hasn’t happened and to negate any effects of it. This latter are now focused on the question of whether Britain should or shouldn’t stay in the customs union, which would ensure close trading with the EU and would limit trade deals with other countries. It is this which has sent the pocket Churchill, Jacob Rees-Mogg, into such a spin.
Theresa May’s trip to China, heralded as the future in terms of trade, turned out to be no such thing. Instead, the trip served to act as a backdrop to further domestic turmoil, with talk of a new leadership challenge to May, and open warfare over the customs union. The hard Brexit faction has relaunched its attack on chancellor Philip Hammond, while Tory remainers are talking further parliamentary rebellion.
You almost feel sorry for the wretched May on a personal level - or at least you do until she opens her mouth. This week she declared an intention to further restrict the rights of EU nationals who come here during the ‘transition period’ of two years from 2019. This is just petty and mean politics, geared towards throwing a sop to the hard Brexit right wing and their echo chamber in the media. It also has the effect of reinforcing the anti-immigrant sentiment which is all too close to the surface in some sections of British society.
Gary Younge made the interesting point last weekend that many politicians associated with UKIP and the far right have roots in colonial-era Africa. There’s a surprisingly high number, given how small this section of British society is, but includes former MP Douglas Carswell, Aaron Banks and present UKIP leader Henry Bolton. Certainly, nostalgia for empire rather than accurate historical assessment of Dunkirk, which would have to account for the appeasement of most Tory politicians, motivates many of the Tory right wing. Not only is the world not going back to direct rule from London, the Indian Raj, New Zealand butter and lamb, and an empire on which the sun never set, but nostalgia for this time also hampers any serious attempt to create a fair and democratic society in Britain.
Yet this nostalgia clearly plays well in terms of Tory politics, and divide and rule among sections of the wider population. The Tories’ dilemma - and at the heart of May’s problems - is the fact that this is totally out of sync with the wishes of the majority of British capital and its representatives. They backed and campaigned for remain in 2016, they would love to reverse the decision, and are determined that if it goes ahead it makes as little difference as possible to the smooth operation of big business. Hence the push for soft Brexit, which is bringing them into conflict with sections of the Tory party right up to cabinet level, and hence May’s terminal weakness.
It looks to me that the knives are well and truly out for her. We’ll see where this ends.
It would be foolish for Labour to take sides in this debate. There is yet again pressure on Jeremy Corbyn to move further towards the position of Anna Soubry and Chuka Umunna, this time over the customs union. He should not. Instead, he should maintain a people’s Brexit position. Even Tory MP Johnny Mercer made the point the other day that people on the doorsteps aren’t talking mainly about Brexit. They want answers to the NHS crisis, the housing crisis, the outsourcing crisis, the education crisis… and all the others. Only a party that gives answers to those questions can cut through the Tory-framed debate and begin to fill the hole in British politics.
The NHS: it needs more than love bombing
I missed the London NHS demo on Saturday because I was speaking in Newcastle. It sounds like it was a very good day, and congratulations to the People’s Assembly and Health Campaigns Together who have now organised two major demos together. This demonstration was built from below, from grassroots campaigners and socialists, trade unionists and health workers. The main health workers union, Unison, was not much involved at an official level, although obviously loads of Unison members were there. Ditto the various professional bodies for health workers. There was also a lot more that Labour could have done to build the demo, which should have been a central priority. It was very good that Jon Ashworth was there and spoke, and there was a message from Jeremy Corbyn. A few more Labour MPs, including John McDonnell, were also on the demo, which is great, but there should have been more.
This is important because Labour is a mass organisation and what it does to build events matters. It is also important because we know the NHS is suffering from under-funding, privatisation and inadequate staffing. This winter has been the worst ever. We need shows of strength to demonstrate that opposition to these policies is there, and we are prepared to act to change things. We also need movements outside parliament to back up Jeremy and his allies and to put pressure on government. Jeremy became leader in part because of his role in the movements over many years and his grassroots campaigning record. It marked out him and a small number of other MPs. While scorned by Blairites, it actually showed Labour MPs on the right side of history in an era of neoliberalism.
Labour has been radically changed by the election of Jeremy Corbyn as leader, but power has never resided mainly in parliament. Nor is it the case that the NHS will be turned round simply by a vote in parliament. That’s why demonstrations, industrial action, lobbying, campaigning remain as central as they always did.
The war wants something to do with you
It was surprising to say the least to hear General Sir Nick Carter, the head of the British army, quote the Russian revolutionary Leon Trotsky approvingly. Trotsky was leader of the Red Army during the Russian civil war. When told by some peasants that they wanted nothing to do with the war that was enveloping them, Trotsky replied ‘but the war wants something to do with you’. Today the British army is using the adage to promote potential war with the Russia of Vladimir Putin (about as far removed from Trotsky as one could imagine). What Trotsky was arguing is that in certain situations you can’t escape the effects of war, however much you might want to.
I was reminded of it when I spoke at a meeting in Newcastle on why we need an anti-war government. We were lucky to be joined by Laura Pidcock, MP for north west Durham, by two excellent representatives of Young Labour, and by CND chair Dave Webb. There are people even on the left, who want to put their heads in the sand and pretend that we can just do domestic issues - at least in the run-up to and in the first term of a Corbyn-led Labour government. I think everyone there realised that isn’t possible, even if it were desirable. There are too many vested interests, too much influence from the military, too many people who make the case for war, to just concentrate on health and education and hope that we get a free run.
An example of the influence of the military is the Ministry of Defence’s pleading for another £20 billion to cover a ‘shortfall’ when we have a nuclear weapons system which will cost well over £100 billion to replace and two aircraft carriers, built at huge expense, which have no aircraft. Contrast the treatment this and the calls for more money for the Marines receive in the media with the constant criticism of teachers and failure to properly fund schools, for example, or the penny-pinching over the NHS.
Britain has a long history of empire and war, which as we know has created levels of nationalism and racism in British society. In many senses, foreign policy is domestic policy.
Some are more equal than others
It’s official, the BBC is not guilty of gender discrimination. How could it be? It’s pure coincidence that all its top earners - or talent as it calls them - are men. After all to discriminate against women doing the same job would be, well, illegal - and has been since 1975, so there is no real excuse of not being up to date with the law. Carrie Gracie has shown determination and I guess some courage to pursue the BBC managers over her pay. Apparently, one result is that some of the male presenters - who are all overpaid in my opinion - will have to take a pay cut. The whole system is in any case preposterous. Surely if people watch the BBC news it is because they want to watch the news, not because Huw Edwards is the presenter?
While few of us will shed tears over these men taking a pay cut, it’s not a principle I would like to see spreading. Women suffer from a gender pay gap across the board, and the solution to raising the pay of women who are cleaners, hairdressers, teachers, admin workers, cabin crew and all the rest, is not for men in the same or comparable employment to take a pay cut. It is to raise women’s wages to the level of men’s and then to fight for higher wages for everyone.
This is going to become a very hot issue in 2018 as companies with over 250 employees publish their gender pay gap figures. Already the BBC and EasyJet have been embarrassed into pay cuts for overpaid men at the top. But genuine pay equality will be very costly for companies and they will try to avoid it. One antidote to this is union organisation. The National Union of Journalists has a big equal pay claim with the BBC. That’s what needs to be done across the board, backed up with action to force employers to pay up.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
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