Allan Armstrong why workers should support an active boycott of the Euro referendum

The rise of the populist and fascist Right in Europe

The rise of the populist and fascist Right in the Netherlands, France and England has caused considerable debate amongst the Left throughout Europe. We cannot be complacent in Scotland, just because the far Right is a negligible force here at present. Racism, sectarianism and both British and Scottish nationalism have deep roots in Scottish society, providing combustible material for far Right parties if circumstances permit, or if the Left provides them with the opportunity.

One issue which unites all the Right populist and fascist parties in Europe is opposition to the euro currency. All moves towards greater European integration are anathema to parties whose prime purpose is to promote a single national culture backed by a strong national state. Much of the initial support for the far Right comes from traditional conservatives nostalgically looking back to the glories of their states’ imperialist past. However, whether it be in Rotterdam, Marseilles, the former Red Belt of Paris, or Burnley and Oldham, the far Right has managed to extend its support to working class areas which traditionally gave their vote to social democratic and Labour or even to Communist Parties.

One reason for this is that the far Right parties increasingly address the concerns of workers – the decline of traditional industries, the decay of public housing, the rundown of local schools and community facilities. These were once the concerns of social democratic and Labour parties too. However, both continental social democrats and, in particular New Labour, now openly declare that the only way that such issues can be dealt with is by bowing to the needs of the global corporations and handing public welfare over to private companies. Meeting genuine human needs is a very low priority for the fast-buck, profit seekers of turbo-capitalism. Therefore, not surprisingly, support for the Labour Party is evaporating in its former strongholds. This is where the far Right hopes to make its biggest gains.

The current worldwide anti-globalisation movement still remains most strongly associated in the public’s mind with anarchists, left populists and socialists. However, we are now seeing the spectacle of the far Right opposing globalisation by defending traditional national state welfare measures once associated with the social democratic and official Communist Left. Once this common ground with the traditional Left has gained the far Right a working class audience, they then promote their own distinct theories and policies.

To the far Right, those promoting globalisation are seen as an alien and evil conspiratorial elite. Global conspirators seek to undermine traditional national culture through the promotion of large scale immigration designed to swamp and dilute traditional national cultures, in the process weakening traditional community defences. Thus the far Right makes an emotional appeal, heightening the feeling of insecurity by pointing to the threat from above represented by the anti national globalisers; and to the threat from below represented by all those from different ethnic cultures now living in our state.

The Right against the euro

It is not surprising therefore that opposition to the euro represents a natural stamping ground for the far Right in the UK. Defence of the pound allows the fascists to pose as the opposition to the foreign globalisers and their anti national allies at home. The pound isn’t just seen as an economic symbol, but as a powerful political and cultural symbol too. It conjures up British imperialism’s mighty past, when the pound sterling was the international currency and when Britannia ruled the waves, (as well as waiving the rules lesser states had to abide by!). The monarch’s head also provides a symbol for all the authoritarian Crown powers the British state has at its disposal, putting the Great into Great Britain.

By making such links, the issue of the euro offers the fascists potential allies amongst the populist Right in the UK Independence Party and the Tory Eurosceptics. By joining together powerful City interests, middle-sized companies and many small businessmen, farm and fishing boat owners, the decidedly Right wing nature of the No to the euro campaign can be clearly seen.

Therefore the Left in the UK should take warning from Denmark. Here the SSP‘s fraternal organisation, the Red-Green Alliance, decided to oppose the Euro-bosses and bureaucrats by joining the anti-euro campaign in 2000. They celebrated a No referendum victory by waving their red flags amongst crowds rather ominously displaying many more Danish national flags. When the Danish general and local elections were held the next year, the Red-Green Alliance lost one of its parliamentary and two of its council seats, However, the far Right Danish People’s Party, which had also campaigned vigorously against the euro, increased its parliamentary representation from 13 to 22!

In this country, unlike Denmark, there are major capitalist interests, represented by the Tories, who are also in the No camp. This makes the situation even more dangerous for the Left in the UK. If the Left tries to join this much wider Right on the Nos playing field, they are only going to be small bit players. Any criticisms of the game being played by our team mates are going to be brushed aside.

The day after a referendum, any victory for the ‘No’ camp would reaffirm the independent power of the Bank of England, of powerful City interests, along with those Tories competing with Tony Blair to be even keener advocates of a US/UK imperialist alliance. It would do little good for the Socialist Alliances and the SSP to wave their red flags, claiming we fought the campaign for better wages and conditions. Our voice would be drowned in a sea of union jacks, whilst those few remaining worker’s rights would come under an immediate and increased attack by an alliance of Right wing politicians and bosses, who would feel their day had arrived. No, the only other winners would be the fascist BNP, who would have waved their union jacks even more furiously and shouted their loyalty even more loudly than the Tories. The BNP can also look to their No camp allies in the European populist and fascist far Right, who, in Austria, Denmark, France, Germany and Spain have all made opposition to the euro a central issue. Le Pen travelled to Brussels to make an anti-euro speech days after he came second in the first round of the French Presidential elections.

Left nostalgia gives succour to the Right

However, it isn’t the populist Right and the fascists’ intentions to confine their appeal to traditional conservative supporters. They want to construct a Right-led popular front, which reaches deep into the working class, splitting us on ethnic lines and dividing the Left. And there can be nothing more corrupting of and demoralising for the Left than to be drawn on to the rocks of defending the national state and culture.

This is why the BNP is openly challenging the Left on its own declared territory by claiming to be the defendants of the post-1945 Labour welfare state and working class communities. When fascists link their defence of welfare provision to defence of the state, it has indeed found the Achilles heel of much of the Left today. This is why it is most disturbing to find powerful supporters for a No to the euro campaign amongst the ISM, SW and CWI Platforms (as well as supporters of Socialist Outlook) in the SSP, and outside their ranks in the SLP and Morning Star camps.

All these Left forces like to wear the cloak of old Labour in public, proudly displaying their post-1945 Labour welfare state golden days colours. Yet, it was always the case that Labour leaders’ commitment to welfare reforms was part of a social imperialist deal with the British ruling class. For thirty years, the British ruling class was prepared to accept the welfare state on condition that Labour promoted British imperialist interests in the world. From Greece, India, Malaya and Palestine, to Rhodesia and Ireland and now in the Gulf, Kosova, Afghanistan and Sierra Leone, Labour leaders have faithfully kept to their side of the deal, long after the British ruling class has reneged on its part.

Today global corporations, British included, have largely escaped the one-time constraints imposed by national state governments. They are in the process of creating new transnational institutions to advance and defend their interests – the WTO, IMF and NATO and new regional power blocs such as the EU and FTAA. Therefore the old deal has collapsed. Guaranteed pay rises and improved conditions have given way to labour flexibility. Welfare has given way to austerity and permanent war.

Even in the heyday of old Labour’s social imperialism, welfare was very much the junior dependant. However, with an organised British national Labour Movement it was possible to extract real concessions from a British national ruling class. But Old Labour, whether in office or as her majesty’s loyal opposition, was completely unprepared to fundamentally challenge a British ruling class which offered it some small slices of the imperialist cake. Today New Labour has accepted that its bargaining power is limited to squabbling with other states over the crumbs that fall from the global corporations’ tables.

Indeed, having an organised Labour Movement is counter productive for New Labour. The new global corporations, unlike the old British bosses, can up and off if they feel they are being put upon. Therefore the former, very British deal between the representatives of British Labour and the British ruling class has been abandoned. Now we have New Labour’s give-aways and knock-down offers to the US, Japanese, German and, of course, British global corporations. This is done in a desperate attempt not to be left out in the worldwide Dutch auction of pay and conditions.

Just as workers can not conjure up the days when (a limited number of) Victorian local employers showed paternalist and philanthropist concern for their workers, neither can we just conjure up the days of old Labour’s national welfare state (which were also decidedly limited, particularly if you were a woman or black).

To construct a national welfare state behind a protectionist wall in today’s global capitalist environment means promoting national austerity when the cost of necessary imported goods goes through the roof. It means promoting heightened ethnic conflict as migrant workers are locked out and targeted minority cultures are scapegoated. It means large-scale repression of all internal opposition. It means moves to war to control access to needed raw materials and to impose strict military discipline on society. Fascists of course are prepared to do all of these things, even if they are coy at present in spelling out the logic of their politics in public. Whatever temptations there may be for today’s Left to nostalgically invoke the golden days of old Labour, it should be clear that the terrain on which we fight the global corporations can not be defence of the national state or its institutions, including whatever currency it sponsors. Today the Tories may loudly defend the pound in your pocket, yet at all other times they try their damnest to ensure it is only pennies in our purses!

Of course, the welfare reforms, securer employment, better working conditions and rising living standards won after the Second World War and in particular, during the late 60s and early 70s, should be widely celebrated by the Left. Yet, despite the many false claims, they weren’t really the gift of Labour politicians, but were largely won through hard fought class struggle. Indeed, it was always at the points when our class left it to Labour politicians to deliver reforms, that they were either diluted or snatched away. The UK state exists firstly to defend British ruling class interests, so our class’s needs are always going to be a low priority. Yet, it is precisely to this state that social democrats and later the official Communists, with their British (state) road to socialism always looked for their reforms.

This is why those in the SSP and Socialist Alliances, who wish to create a new, Old Labour Party, could lead our class to serious defeats. The populist and fascist Right are competing on the same national state grounds as this traditional Left. The former want to use the state to impose their counter-reforms, the latter to introduce its proposed reforms. Despite all those loudly ringing warning bells, whether from Denmark, Austria, France or closer to home, in Lancashire, it is nostalgia for old Labour and the British welfare state, which is still pushing many socialists into the camp of the Right in defence of the pound.

Some on the Left, of course, will insist on separate campaigns, refusing to join Right wing platforms. But on referendum day the only issue being voted on is for or against the euro or the pound. There will be no box to mark an X for better wages and conditions!

The false arguments of the No and Yes groups

Now, if willingness to adopt old Labour clothing goes a long way to explain how some on the Left end up giving succour to the Right, what possible arguments can they use to justify this?

The starting point for their reasoning is correct. Those promoting the euro, including Blair’s New Labour government, are acting on behalf of existing and would-be European global corporations. They seek a strengthened European Union to pursue their global interests, seeing the existing European national states as too small for effective competition on the world market. They also see the significance of the EU‘s Maastricht Convergence Criteria which imposed a 3% of GDP limit on supporting governments’ deficit spending. This is meant to force governments to cutback on welfare spending. Labour costs are then lowered and new opportunities for further privatisation measures are provided.

However, despite the claims of some on the Left, Blair doesn’t want the UK to join the eurocurrency zone to enforce these measures over here. He doesn’t need to! This was achieved by the Tories and has been massively reaffirmed by Gordon Brown. Indeed Chancellor Brown went further, showing his commitment to meeting the City’s requirements for financial stability and spending discipline above all else, by ending government control of the Bank of England and handing it over to Eddie George.

Yet there is a division of opinion in the City over the pound versus the euro. The City has been able to make large profits out of growing European monetary integration by offering itself as an off-shore tax haven for euro-finance. From this point of view, the City benefits both from the growing strength of the euro-zone and by remaining outside it – a bit like the Isle of Man in relation to the UK! However, others in the City see that the Frankfurt, Paris and Milan finance centres are not going to accept this British offshore status for ever and may encourage EU bureaucrats to take retaliatory measures. Those in the City taking this view realise that their interests may be better advanced by joining the euro and using the City’s considerable expertise to capture a greater share of the increased business inside an expanded eurozone.

There is obviously a similar division amongst British industrial and service companies. Some would have preferred Blair not to have signed up to the EU‘s Social Chapter, so that British labour costs could have remained lower, the better to undercut German, French, Italian and other businesses on the mainland EU market. Others, also looking to the EU market, want to be on the inside, the better to deal with the challenge of US and Japanese corporations.

Blair’s appeal to British companies with sizeable European operations doesn’t lie in seeking their support to impose criteria which have already been met. He wants their support for a joint offensive, alongside his new Right wing allies, Italy’s Berlusconi and Spain’s Aznar, to undermine the Social Chapter and lower labour costs from within the eurozone.

Now there is a small group inside the SSP, including ex-Labour Lefts, Allan Green and Hugh Kerr, who appreciate that, in general, social provision in most EU member countries is considerably better than in the UK. A welfare gap has opened up between UK and French, Italian and German workers, after years of old and new Tory rule particularly since the crushing of the Miners’ Strike. Whilst Blair immediately signed up to the Social Chapter when New Labour gained office in 1997, this was a political ploy. Acceptance of the Social Chapter was mainly to gain access to the inner corridors of EU power. No inspectorate has been set up to ensure that superior European employment laws are implemented at work over here – they all still have to be fought for, workplace by workplace, industry by industry. Blair wants to work from inside the EU to dismantle these.

What would a ‘Yes’ and ‘No campaign look like – choose your poison

The logic of the SSP‘s pro-euro camp is to form an alliance with the small group of Left Europarliamentarians, to defend and extend the Social Chapter. The scope of such a campaign is likely to be fairly limited – a few public meetings with distinguished international parliamentarians and polite lobbies at Holyrood, Westminster and Brussels. The SSP‘s pro-euro Left like to pretend the EU flag already has sixteen stars (one for Scotland) on a radical red background, rather than fifteen stars on a conservative blue background. Hugh Kerr goes along with this illusion, drawing some comfort from the Alex Neil’s shrinking social democratic wing of the SNP which entertains similar illusions. In the meantime, the free marketeers of the growing SNP Right, led by John Swinney, join with the European bosses’ pro euro advocates, dropping more and more old social market baggage as they go.

The logic of the SSP‘s anti-euro camp is to seek unity and make an agreement with the Right over a division of labour in the campaign. This would be the best way to maximise the No vote and therefore to defeat Tony Blair. Back in 1975 when a then Labour Left and CPGB alliance led the Left opposition to Common Market membership, we saw the walls of trades councils adorned with union jacks behind a platform of trade union officials, Labour and Tory politicians. This unholy popular front extended from Tony Benn and Michael Foot to Enoch Powell and Teddy Taylor! It was but a short step from this unity behind the national flag to that disastrous pact in the national interest between the Labour government and trade union leaders – the Social Contract (soon to be termed the Social Contrick).

Indeed we don’t have to go so far back to see a trade union and labour movement campaign following the full logic of such nationalist thinking. When British Leyland’s Rover plant at Longbridge was threatened with closure; instead of strike action, occupation and the seeking of wider solidarity, the campaign decked itself out in full red, white and blue colours, looking for a patriotic employer to save the day. Despite a few face-saving red flags, any No campaign would be similarly swamped with union jacks and ultimately provide as little real comfort for workers.

An argument used by both the SSP‘s pro and anti-euro groups is that we must take sides. However, the anti-euro camp claim that many more workers are instinctively against the euro, so that is why we should join the No camp. The weakness of these arguments should soon become apparent. It took a hard political battle to persuade many socialists that it wasn’t necessary to automatically side with Labour in general elections, even though many workers still instinctively voted for them. The SSP was built by standing against both Tory and New Labour (as well as the populist SNP). It is precisely these two parties which are leading the No and Yes campaigns and whoever wins, neither has the slightest intention of improving our pay and conditions.

Then our No and Yes camps fall back on their last ditch defence. So, you are arguing for an abstention campaign, they say. Who will be listening? Now, an abstention campaign would actually be better than a political campaign which helped to build the hard Right or Blair and the Eurocrats. However, what socialists should really be arguing is for an Active Boycott Campaign.

An Active Boycott Campaign – the recent European experience

Here, the recent developments in Europe are most instructive. When Le Pen won the first round of the recent French presidential election, the Left – not only the Socialist and Communist Parties, went into a panic. How was Le Pen to be stopped? The French ruling class, which currently does not want a Le Pen victory, pushed out all the stops to ensure a Chirac victory. The Socialist Party and CPF quickly obliged by offering their support against the fascist danger. Yet the slogan, Better a thief than a fascist proved to have considerable pulling power over the revolutionary Left too. As a result they gave out mixed messages in the run-up to the second round play-off.

The problem with recommending a Chirac vote is the reason Le Pen beat Jospin in the first round is that the revolutionary Left gained an unprecedented 11% of the vote, much of it from the Socialist Party. Yet the revolutionary Left were quite right to offer an alternative to all those voters disillusioned with the Jospin-led government. However, if you later accept that the main priority is to keep out the fascist, then the logic is that the revolutionary Left shouldn’t have stood in the first place – something that many French Socialist Party members are openly saying! Now the rise of the National Front vote in France is indeed disturbing, but there was no real threat of a fascist takeover – or even a Le Pen presidential victory. His National Front did not have control of the streets and was not ready to March on Paris. The only real political gain for Le Pen was to be seen as the only remaining opposition to the establishment when the second round election took place.

However, elections are just one form of political action, which actually demand relatively little from the voter. Street mobilisations are another more significant form, particularly when they put strict limits on the fascists’ room for manoeuvre.

And it was precisely this alternative which exploded with elemental force from the hour the Le Pen vote was announced on April 21st. It began with thousands in the streets on that night and culminated, on May Day, in a 400,000 demonstration in Paris (with hundreds of thousands elsewhere), which dwarfed the National Front march of 10,000. But there was clearly an alternative to voting for Chirac. What if the revolutionary Left had thrown its whole weight behind a refusal to vote for Chirac, increasing the abstentions significantly, and hence increasing Le Pen’s proportion of the vote, what would have been the real effect? First, hundreds of thousands of workers, students and others actively mobilised is a much more potent force than even millions of passive voters. Many of those most angry were young people with no vote. What was their opinion? The Sunday Herald reported that one 15 year old declared that, If Le Pen becomes president, it’ll be a civil war… and I think I’ll fight in that war (28.4.02). And given the relative strengths of the Left and the Rights’ mobilisations over this period, there can be little doubt that Le Pen would have been forced to retreat, particularly since the French ruling class don’t support his anti-EU policies.

However, the revolutionary Left could have gone further and suggested an alternative combination of direct action and voting tactics. Whilst continuing mass mobilisation on the second round election day itself, they could have encouraged people to spoil their ballot paper. They could have provided No to Le Pen, No to Chirac or No to Thieves and Fascists stickers for the ballot papers. Interestingly, even without such clear guidance, 1,738,609 voters (or 4.4%) spoiled their ballot papers. An organised Left campaign could have built on this, but more importantly it could have shown those people disillusioned with the establishment parties, that there was indeed a real alternative, helping to deprive Le Pen of being the sole claimant to this mantle.

This is what an Active Boycott Campaign would look like. But our SSP No and Yes campaigners may still object – the UK and even Scotland isn’t France. This only shows how little they have appreciated the significance of anti-globalisation/ anti-capitalist mobilisations, not least in Genoa and Barcelona.

Making the European Socialist Alliance a real force

Let us look to what we can all agree on in the SSP and Socialist Alliances – workers’ rights are under attack throughout Europe; the campaign for a 35 hour week first initiated in the late 70s has floundered, particularly in the UK; racist sentiment designed to divide and weaken workers’ organisations is being whipped up against asylum seekers everywhere in the EU. It shouldn’t be difficult to draw up a common platform with our European allies. Indeed, the framework for this already exists in the RCN-initiated, CWI supported and SSP Conference voted resolution on a European Socialist Alliance. We should write to all our fraternal European socialist organisations proposing a meeting to organise a campaign, including international mobilisations to advance an agreed platform.

At present, the front line of the defence of employment rights lies in Italy. Here the Berlusconi government is trying to end laws which protect workers in small workplaces. On 23rd March a million demonstrators marched through Rome in protest. Our fraternal organisation, Rifondazione Communista was central to this.

The Left in Italy appreciate that Berlusconi has firm allies in Aznar and in Blair (and probably soon in Chirac too!). It should not be difficult to persuade them of the virtue of a series of international demonstrations, as part of their ongoing campaign to defend workers’ rights. If we could make solidarity with the Italian working class part of the European Socialist Alliance platform, then demonstrations in say, Madrid, London and Paris, would seem to fit the bill. When it came to the London demonstration, we could march from the Bank of England to the EU Commission Offices to show our opposition to both sets of bosses, and their New Labour and Tory backers.

In the run-up to any referendum, it would also be good to be able distinguish ourselves from the blatant, red, white and blue trimmed British chauvinist posters of the No campaign; and the liberal pacifistic, No more wars in Europe – lets all be nice Europeans or Shop easier on your European holiday paid hoardings of the Yes campaign. Our street posters could have their main slogans in several languages, whilst our demonstration platform speakers would be drawn from different countries, but all united before a forest of red flags. Lastly on the day itself, we could produce suitable stickers to register our protest in their false choice ballot. Such a campaign would raise the Left’s profile much higher and would certainly avoid the pitfalls of the other alternatives on offer – tailing either the Tory or New Labour No and Yes campaigns. An Active Boycott Campaign would involve us in a far more serious campaign than merely abstaining but the potential gains would be so much greater. We would also be building on firm internationalist principles.