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This time they are attacking Corbyn indirectly, by renewing their commitment to an institution which would act as an obstacle to the implementation of his socialist manifesto.
That institution is the single market.
Nationalisation and the EU
The prospect of a Corbyn-led government coming to power over the course of the next year is now a distinct possibility. Socialist ideas are being popularised in a way unseen in decades.
But any government committed to nationalising major industries would do well to consider what membership of the single market would mean for such plans.
If Corbyn is elected on his manifesto, then he will quickly find that his plans to nationalise energy, rail, post, and water must be carried out in defiance of the single market, which has cuts and privatisation in every one of their directives.
This is why the Blairites are moving to block any kind of exit from the single market.
First Rail Directive
One particularly salient example of this is the First Rail Directive which was introduced by the EU in 1991 with the aim of creating a more efficient rail network by breaking up “national monopolies.” Its effect has been to undermine the economic basis for a nationalised railway system, run for human need rather than profit, by selling off contracts to the lowest bidder. This has led to spiralling customer costs, deteriorating services, and an environment hostile to workers’ rights.
More recently, what remained of the national rail network was been carved up for private interests through the Fourth Rail Package which, as the document details, plans “to remove the remaining barriers to the creation of a single European rail area. The proposed legislation would reform the EU’s rail sector by encouraging competition and innovation in domestic passenger markets”… whatever this means.
In 2013, the Rail, Maritime, and Transport (RMT) Union described the Fourth Rail Package in plain English as a “set of regulations… that aims to impose privatisation on domestic rail passenger services in every EU member state.” They continue:
“Currently, on the whole, every EU state has the freedom to choose which way it wants to run its passenger rail services. These measures will remove that freedom, imposing a model of fragmentation and privatisation that has been an abject failure in the UK.”
Because of this package, we have already seen East Coast Rail, one of the most profitable nationalised rail lines in the country, being sold off to Virgin Trains.
Not to worry though, because within the EU there are supposed to be safeguards (Public Procurement regulations) that stop publicly owned industry being sold off to the lowest bidder. The most recent (2014) form of these regulations state that “to prevent a ‘race to the bottom’ in outsourcing public services” contracts are awarded on the basis of social criteria such as commitments to living wages and energy efficiency.
And yet, as a 2016 UNISON union report explains, “the UK government… decided not to take the EU opportunity to mandate the use of social (employment) criteria and ‘price only’ still remains in the UK public procurement regime despite its detrimental effects to quality service provision and workers.” The government is free to do this because of “opt-out” clauses.
In addition to this, the depth of the EU’s commitment to environmental issues was demonstrated last year when it was revealed that Volkswagen had fraudulently fitted eleven million diesel engines with “defeat devices” to rig pollution tests… with the full knowledge of the EU regulators! This has caused nearly one million tonnes of lethal air pollution a year – equal to the UK’s combined emissions for all power stations, vehicles, agriculture and industry.
So much for safeguarding!
There are many other examples of the EU’s commitment to market liberalization, i.e. privatisation. Most recently, the privatisation of Royal Mail was carried through with the backing of EU Directive 2008/6/EC, which called for the postal sector to be fully open to competition by 31 December 2012. This has already led to the, now private, 400-year-old company cutting staff and service in efforts to boost profits.
Socialists against the EU
Much of this explains why, historically, Corbyn has always maintained a principled opposition to the EU. In the 1975 referendum, for instance, on Britain’s membership of the European Economic Community (EEC) – forerunner of the EU – Corbyn voted for Leave.
Corbyn has also taken a principled opposition to the many anti-worker amendments that have been forced through since then. Corbyn voted against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993, stating that:
“It takes us in the opposite direction of an unelected legislative body—the Commission—and, in the case of foreign policy, a policy Commission that will be, in effect, imposing foreign policy on nation states that have fought for their own democratic accountability.”
More recently in 2008, Corbyn voted against the Treaty of Lisbon – an international agreement which was widely understood as providing an EU-wide legislative basis for the privatisation of public services, and facilitating attacks on the wages, conditions, and rights of workers.
Article 188c, for instance, helps to remove the ability of states to veto trade deals involving health and education, opening up the prospect that financial speculators could, as a right, intervene and cherry pick the most profitable aspects of health and education.
The Lisbon Treaty was opposed overwhelmingly by delegates at the Trade Union Congress (TUC) – the main organising body of the British trade union movement. Irish workers rejected the Treaty outright in a referendum.
Prior to his election as Labour Party leader, Corbyn was unequivocal in what the EU was about. In 2009, he wrote:
“The project has always been to create a huge free-market Europe, with ever-limiting powers for national parliaments and an increasingly powerful common foreign and security policy.”
Even during the 2015 Labour leadership campaign, Corbyn said he was ready to join an “out” campaign if David Cameron trades away workers’ rights, environmental protection and fails to crack down on Brussels-backed tax havens.
Why did Corbyn change?
Once he was elected leader of the Labour Party, Corbyn came under immense pressure from the right wing of the Labour Party – and from the capitalist class – to support a vote for Remain. Shadow Foreign Minister Hilary Benn, before he tried to blackmail Corbyn over Syria, threatened to resign unless Corbyn buckled on the issue of the EU.
Those who claim that Corbyn “changed his mind” demonstrate an ostrich-like unwillingness to face up to facts. Corbyn spent his entire career opposing the EU. He did not change his mind overnight. The EU did not change overnight either. If anything, it is becoming more repressive as the crisis in the Eurozone develops.
The slightly more reasoned argument, at least on the surface, is that Corbyn found himself leading a party machine which was overwhelmingly pro-EU. According to this logic, Corbyn’s compromise on the issue of the EU was done in respect of party democracy.
But what this misses is that Corbyn’s election as Labour Party leader was premised precisely on a break with the politics of New Labour. And, indeed, such a break has been a persistent feature of the past two years, over a wide variety of issues – from the bombing of Syria, tuition fees, to Trident. Why, then, did Corbyn maintain a principled position on war – in defiance of the majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party – and not on the EU?
In any case, what allegiance does Corbyn really owe to the Blairites, who would later stab him in the back – and the front – repeatedly?
Those who claim that the majority of Labour’s new membership backed remaining in the EU so Corbyn had to follow suit fail to grasp the dynamics of the situation. If Corbyn had put forward a socialist leave position, it would have reconstituted the party membership on different lines, possibly winning back much of UKIP’s voter base to a progressive position. Many of the progressive remain voters as well, who see the EU in terms of their own feelings of internationalism, of solidarity with workers and young people in other countries, could also have been won to a socialist leave position. The truth is that Corbyn was bullied and blackmailed by the Blairites into campaigning for remain. He did not need to compromise on this, but he did. It was a mistake that would always come back to haunt him.
What does the public want out of Brexit?
For a start, it is worth pointing out that there is no appetite amongst the working class for a second referendum. This is evidenced by the complete wipe-out of the Liberal Democrats, who staked everything on a hard remain position, in the General Election.
More than this, according to polls only a quarter of voters want a second referendum on the final deal with the EU. The number who want another in-out referendum ahead of that would undoubtedly be lower!
The issue, then, is to define what sort of Brexit we want.
A recent opinion poll by Opinium, published in the right-wing Daily Express, asked people to rate out of ten the most important issues for them in the Brexit negotiations. The highest at 8.31 was “ensuring the UK’s public services are well-funded”, followed by “ensuring jobs are available in the UK” at 8.28.
“Reducing the number of people immigrating to the UK scored 6.88 – so it was an issue. Nonetheless, it was 13th out of the 22 issues listed, and only one place ahead of “ensuring that EU citizens already in the UK are able to stay” on 6.78.
Clearly, the majority of the British public are not interested in punishing EU migrants. And on this issue, Labour’s manifesto was spot-on:
“A Labour government will immediately guarantee existing rights for all EU nationals living in Britain and secure reciprocal rights for UK citizens who have chosen to make their lives in EU countries. EU nationals do not just contribute to our society: they are part of our society. And they should not be used as bargaining chips.”
But the manifesto also talks of “retaining the benefits of the single market and the customs union”.
If it means accepting its neoliberal rules, then this is a serious mistake.
Many working class communities know that – to the cost of industries such as car, steel making and shipbuilding – the capitalist single market doesn’t act in the interests of workers but the multinationals, who want to protect their profits by manufacturing in the lowest-cost economies.
This approach on the EU is hardly surprising given the person Corbyn appointed to negotiate Brexit, the Blairite QC Keir Starmer. In fact, Starmer has written what he calls the “six tests for the Brexit deal”, one of which is that Brexit must deliver the “exact same benefits” as the single market.
Corbyn’s programme made significant gains at the General Election, leaving the Tories without an overall majority. This means that, for now, the Blairites’ have resorted to more creative methods to depose their leader. (To do otherwise at present would be to risk being removed from the Labour Party altogether.)
But although their strategy may be different, their objective remains the same: remove Corbyn, make Labour safe for big business again.
They will use the single market as a tool to sabotage Corbyn’s programme. It is paramount that this is opposed. This means campaigning for mandatory reselection of the Blairite MPs and a Brexit in the interest of the working class.
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