How Tom Watson still gets it wrong.

Tom Watson’s latest intervention in the Labour Party appears to be an attempt to create a diversionary disunity where none need exist. In calling for a referendum before an election he repeats the strategic mistake he made in his “Proudly British, proudly European ” article for Labour List in June. Tom’s positions have changed on this. In 2016 the main campaign was to pander to anti-immigrant sentiment among leave voters and criticise Jeremy Corbyn for being too soft on freedom of movement. This is what Tom wrote in Labour List in November 2016

“I know some people feel that politicians who campaigned against Brexit are still trying to stop it happening, ignoring the clear decision the British people made back in June. I have to say those fears aren’t completely unfounded.

“The Lib Dems are desperately, openly, shamelessly trying to recover some sort of electoral relevance by coming out as Brexit Deniers. They talk about using a vote in Parliament to stop the Government triggering article 50. They say they will do their best to block it, come what may.

“I can see why it’s attractive to Tim Farron, as the leader of a party on eight per cent, to want to be the party of the 48 per cent. That can never be an option for a party like Labour, that wants to represent everyone. We are not in denial about Brexit. We will not attempt to obstruct the triggering of article 50.”

A continuity of position reflecting deeply held principles is hard to detect. The only sound point in all this is that Labour “wants to represent everyone”, though that should be recast as representing the 99% not the 1%, the many not the few. 

Original blog starts here.

Every week I get an email from Tom Watson (Deputy leader of the Labour Party). This is nothing personal. Were I to write back I would get no replies. His opening section this week is an almost text book example of how to shackle the Labour Party and the people of Britain and Europe to the limitations of their pasts. He starts off promisingly…

Today we are staring down the barrel of a Boris Johnson premiership. In a little over four weeks away, this most self-serving of politicians will likely be handed the keys to the greatest office in the land. With him comes the looming threat of a no-deal Brexit, heaping national humiliation on our country, and a catastrophic impact on jobs and the economy, as we turn our back on our closest and most important allies and friends.

So far so good. But he misses the driving force behind no deal as an immediate threat. This is not a consequence of Boris Johnson’s personality. Johnson is simply opportunistically surfing the wave; on the Disraelian dictum that the first rule in politics is not to betray your principles but to make sure you don’t have any principles worth betraying in the first place. The question is more, what is generating the wave he is surfing?

For the unreconstructed Atlanticist right – for most of the Twentieth century “our closest and most important ally and friend” has been the United States – at least since it put the UK very firmly in its place during the Suez crisis. This was the last time that Britain actually had to face up to its actual position in the world – that it was no longer an independent imperial power capable to projecting its own interests separate and apart from the Pax Americana. The national humiliation was so severe that the British ruling class dealt with it the only way they know how  – a mixture of hard headed calculation and self deluding denial. A strategic recognition that no action could be taken that crossed the United States has been dressed up as a “special relationship”.

This is presented in public as a friendship, at its most extreme a romanticised (and racially limited) notion of Churchill’s “English speaking peoples”, or as a concurrence of economic philosophy “the Anglosphere”; in order to hide the brutal reality of British subordination. In this, the imperative for the British ruling class to go along with whatever the Americans want is presented as  a choice on the UKs part; or as a happy unity of purpose that exists on a sphere more elevated than that of a grubby calculation of interest. In this way illusions about the UK’s power, status and influence can be kept on life support – and all the old symbolism and traditions of Empire survive in a timeless twilight zone –  as though we are doing the Americans a favour by conferring on them our faded sub feudal glamour in return for being their most eager Igor in international relations- as if it was all Harry and Megan. The reality is better expressed  by Tony Blair’s advice to his ambassador to Washington. “We want you to get up the arse of the White House and stay there”. Whenever anyone uses the phrase “special relationship”, that is the image that should come to mind.

The time for disavowal is unavoidably past however- because the United States is actively and unpredictably disrupting the multi lateral institutions that it has hitherto relied upon to maintain its global dominance. In asserting “America first” they are tearing off the veils that disguise the power relationships and throwing out the delusions that went with them.

This is being driven by the brute realities of declining economic power, the stagnation of the US neo liberal model since 2008, the growing challenge of China and the existential threat to humanity posed by climate change – a direct threat to the fossil fuel companies that dominate the US economy. The US is increasingly attempting to assert itself unilaterally and in the process is undermining the multi lateral organisations that underpinned the Pax Americana until recently. There are no friends – only interests.  So, the United States under Trump now aims to break up the EU, the better to control its component countries.

At the same time, the most adventurist fraction of UK capital is seeking leverage up the proportion of national wealth taken in profits by as dramatic an assault on wages, security at work, social benefits and public provision as that forced through by Thatcher in the 1980s (when this went up from 40% of GDP to 45%). This requires a break with EU regulations and adopting the US model. They are well aware that going out of the EU without a deal is needed to do this. The threat this poses to most of us is real. They are talking about not only slashing tax further for companies, setting up free trade ports and enterprise zones (a development strategy used by emerging third world economies desperate to attract investment – any investment) and aim to pump wealth upwards by reducing workers rights to those in force in the US. Consider just two of these.

  • The US is the only advanced economy not have have paid maternity or paternity leave as a right. There is only 12 weeks unpaid leave; and this only applies to those at a company of at least 50 employees who’ve worked for at least a year and work a minimum of 25 hours per week.  That excludes 41% of Americans. Lets spell that out. Four in ten Americans have no right to ANY time off if they have a baby.
  • In the EU there is a minimum 4 weeks paid holiday, in the US “the law does not require employers to grant any vacation or holidays, and about 25 per cent of all employees receive no paid vacation time” Wikipedia. Lets spell that out too. One in four American workers have no paid holidays at all.

During Donald Trump’s state visit, the President – with his big black motorcade travelling at speed and stretching from one end of the Mall to the other and his evil Osprey helicopters roaring over central London’s airspace – was acting like a new proprietor measuring up the curtains for when he takes over. He was quite explicit that the Health Service will be on the table in the Trade Deal he envisages after the UK crashes out of the EU with no deal. This very helpfully concentrated enough minds in the Peterborough by election to help Labour prevent Trump’s tools in the Brexit Party winning their first seat.

No one in the UK (apart from Nigel Farage) wants the American health care system. Conservative politicians fell over themselves to say that they would “rule it out” of discussion – as if they’d have the power to do that.

All of this makes uniting everyone who opposes no deal in a campaign ferociously against it an imperative. The argument between those who want to remain in the EU and those who believe that the referendum in 2016 requires some form of conscious decoupling from it while retaining a close relationship is a real one, but a second level disagreement when you put the consequences of no deal for people’s lives up front.

What does Tom argue instead?

That is why these last few days I have been making the case for Labour to come out as an explicitly pro-Remain, pro-reform party…. we will have the opportunity this coming week at Shadow Cabinet to take the historic decision to campaign to remain in the EU.

This draws the dividing line in politics between everyone who wants to remain in the EU as it is and everyone who wants to leave, whatever the reasons for that and whatever form they imagine it might take. It is – bluntly – the wrong place to draw the line. The balance between leavers and remainers is still fairly even. Polarising on that line gives the no dealers a larger hinterland and gives them a chance to get their project over the line. Campaigning instead on the consequences of no deal for everyone’s quality of life could produce a dynamic campaign of mass mobilisation capable of defeating them, throwing the Conservatives out of office, changing Britain and having a political knock on effect into the EU itself. Instead of pushing for such a campaign, Tom substitutes a series of assertions about values that are supposedly already British, Labour and embodied by the EU.

…  I said that “our members are Remain, our values are Remain, our hearts are Remain. We need our Labour party to be true to who we are”.

I argued that the core values of the EU – Internationalism, Solidarity, Freedom – are British, Labour values…

The patriotic choice for Britain is to Remain.

This misrepresents the EU and Labour.

  • The EU itself says that its core values are “respect for human dignity and human rights, freedom, democracy, equality and the rule of law”, so “internationalism” and “solidarity” do not appear in the list. Meatloaf sang – two out of three ain’t bad – but ONE out of three Tom? It, more fundamentally, would be hard to make a case with a straight face that the EU as it stands actually lives up to these values. Just consider the human dignity of refugees; the camps along the Greek border and the use of the Mediterranean Sea as a moat with 597 deaths so far this year. The UK of course – is as complicit in this as every other EU member and would be inside or outside the EU. So no shining city on a hill there – in so far as we want these values in the EU or UK, we have to fight for them and not assume they are already there.
  • Many of Labour supporters support continuing EU membership without delusions that the EU as it stands represents any of those values in the way we’d wish it to.

More importantly this minimises the range of support for a campaign against no deal by driving a wedge between everyone who is prepared to be a cheerleader for the EU as it currently is – neo liberal warts and all – and everyone else. In that he is seeking common ground with the Liberal Democrats on their terms. It locks us into a polarisation in which the limits of political possibility are either Trumpian crisis capitalism or the politics of the 2010 -15 coalition – austerity inside the EU.

On the contrary – the campaign against no deal has to be the basis on which both of these limiting – and doomed – options are challenged and overcome. We shall…

Postscript two and a bit month later. It is really gratifying that this is exactly the line that Jeremy Corbyn has led on since the middle of August.





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