Saturday, 16 July 2016

Exploring Political Options for Left Leavers - A Discussion Paper

What options are available for a Left Leaver under current political conditions? The vote was for Leave. It is now fairly certain that, without a significant revolt within the Parliamentary Conservative Party (which looks increasingly unlikely), Article 50 will be triggered by the end of the year. Fast-track negotiations will (with bumps along the way) result in a Brexit by the end of 2018 to be followed by a General Election in which calls for a Second Referendum would be distracting, futile and (unless there is a serious economic melt-down) probably electorally counter-productive for whoever took that position. This is the best working model for the near future.

On the other hand, the Left Leaver finds that his or her impulse for democratic socialism is directly challenged by the the Remain or Second Referendum positions of nearly all the official Left political organisations in the country - the Labour Party, the Greens, the SNP, Sinn Fein and the Liberal Democrats. In other words, although large numbers of working people voted to Leave, those parties that appear to represent the progressive impulse have effectively imposed their pro-EU position on their constituencies and now expect anyone of the Left to be automatically pro-EU and for re-entry. This redefinition of the Left as by its nature 'for the European Union' is assumed despite the facts of the existence of Left dissidents at every level, from MPs through activists in the trades unions and constituencies through members and on to the voters, increasing in proportion the further you go down the scale away from closeness to power. So, to quote Vladimir Ilyich Ulyanov - 'what is to be done?'

Let us start with some basic definitional ground rules. The first is that a Leaver is someone who places absolute personal political priority on national Parliamentary sovereignty and maximal economic sovereignty but is here unconcerned with cultural issues. If you do not accept this position as a reader, this note is not for you and your comments will simply be deleted because this is a discussion for and between only those people who accept those two political principles absolutely and without equivocation. This is not a debate for emotional Remainers - they have chosen already.

Superimposed on this absolute set of political principles (including the negative one that cultural nationalism is of no interest here) are divisions between people who are more or less revolutionist and reformist and more or less Left or Right in social and economic policy. So, a further refinement of the position is to say that a Left Leaver is one who is a democratic socialist, that is, they seek the decentralisation of power, the redistribution of power and resources within a national commonwealth, inter-nationalism based on purely defensive military arrangements, anti-imperialism and the promotion of peace, secularism and individual freedom subject to the elimination of social harms and so forth. The only difference from a Left Remainer who is also a democratic socialist is that the Left Leaver sees these positive outcomes as best achieved between co-operating nation states rather than through supra-nationalist arrangements and, further, that positive harms will arise from acceding to supra-nationalist economic arrangements. 

However, the national question is an existential one. In a conflict between Leaver values and Left values, the position here is that Leaver values always trump Left values so that there is no question of a 'true' Left Leaver compromising to preserve the Left by accepting supra-nationalism or imperialism of any sort no matter how superficially benign. In strategising about futures, this means that such a Left Leaver cannot reasonably support a Labour Party that is controlled and led by either Angela Eagle or Owen Smith, both of whom are so committed to the European Union that they would also commit to a Second Referendum in a Party Manifesto under conditions where the Party apparat which they will lead has a track record of suppressing dissent on the European issue. If the so-called rebels in the PLP win the current struggle in the Labour Party, there is no future within that Party for sincere Left Leavers with any integrity. They may dream of transforming the Labour Party to a Leave position but the dream would be self-deluding and futile, certainly within the time frame that encompasses the 2020 Election and probably the 2025 Election. By remaining within such a Party, they would have stated clearly that being Left was more important than the National Question and so would cease to be Leavers except as a posture and in terms of a futile hope or unwarranted belief. So where does this leave us? What decision-making algorithm takes us from our situation today through to a fixed political position by the end of the year which is the probable timing of the triggering of Article 50?

There are a series of decisions that drive the Left Leaver logically in a series of stages from Far Left to Centre-Right, at each of which he may stop and say that, in fact, being Left is more important than being a Leaver. Many will make that decision now and simply give up on the issue of Leave, accept the Second Referendum idea (in the hope of winning a second vote), keep their heads down until it is all over and then resurface if and when we are back in the European Union (a Third Referendum is simply absurd from any perspective) or when the Left has finally accepted that the British people have definitively chosen the Leave option once and for all. This strikes me as a possible strategy but also a cowardly, unprincipled and uncertain one. Either one believes in something or one does not and if the belief in the Left (as currently constituted) is greater than the belief in the Nation, then one should stop posturing and switch sides to Remain under conditions where the Left has become absolutely associated with Remain: a point we have not reached but may have reached as early as September. That would be the brave and honourable think to do. 

So, the first choice, before we look at our decision-making tree, is the simple one whether one is truly Left or Leaver first and foremost. If the former, then the rest of this note is not for you. I have thus whittled us down, as discussants, to Left Leavers who place Brexit as a precondition for democratic socialism as a matter of both analysis and core values. What are our options? What do we do? The trajectory that I wish to explore in this context is expressed in a series of fundamental questions:-

1. Given the impossibility of the Left Leave position being adequately expressed in a Labour Party led from the curent PLP, would it be reasonable to believe it could be expressed in a Party led by Jeremy Corbyn (or John McDonnell)

2. Given the assumption in 1. above and the possible construction of an alternative Party of Democratic Socialism on the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn, could the Left Leave position be adequately expressed within such a Party?

3. If the defeat of Jeremy Corbyn does not result in a new Party of the Left, can Left Leavers safely cross over to become the Left of UKIP if a new Leader of UKIP recognises the importance of changing the culturally right-wing assumptions of that Party's hitherto dominant Right?

4. If there is no place for Left Leavers on the Left (and there is no Left Leave Party) or as equal partners in a National Populist operation that is viable and non-fascist, then is all that is left is a transfer of allegiance to the Conservative party as its advocate for a fairer society, redistribution and peace within the only Party committed to national Parliamentary sovereignty and maximal economic sovereignty - at least until the Left accepts reality and no longer struggles to reverse the decision on June 23rd.

I have made the assumption throughout that total withdrawal from politics is not an option and that it is a matter of personality and duty for a Left Leaver to be engaged in the national political process and to avoid strategies of complete marginalisation in working with fringe parties or engaging in marginal futile blogging and policy wonking that is unconnected to one of the three central political networks available to the English and Welsh - the various forms of centre-left, the national populists and the Conservative Party. Let us look at the options.

A Corbynista Official Left

A decision on commitment cannot be made until the Labour Party Conference in the early Autumn because we do not know who will command the Party until then. This has the advantage of allowing Left Leavers plenty of time to consider their position. In this particular case, the decision tree is fairly simple - if Corbyn loses, then Labour wishes to become a European Socialist Party, a potential subsidiary of a European Socialist Party putting up pan-European Presidential candidates in due course in mimicry of the American Democrats, a party of triangulation and power over principle. The chances of this being reversed at any level of the Party would be minimal. Our decision is made for us. We have to move on immediately to the next possible option.

If Corbyn wins then the decision that arises for Left Leavers is not based on absolutist principles. It has to be recognised that a formal majority of the Labour Party will be pro-European in the political sense (and this will have increased since the Referendum Campaign) and that struggle on this issue will continue. All that can be laid down at this point are some reasonable red lines that enable participation in the Labour Party by Left Leavers and these have to be clear by the time of the Re-Election of the Leader. These are:-
  • That the right to dissent on the European Union is recognised as legitimate as an issue of principle and that bullying by Party officials of dissenters (on the basis that X is party policy) comes to an immediate end
  • That the Party does not commit to a Second Referendum but accepts the result of June 23rd insofar as it is the will of the people and legitimately seeks to critique the withdrawal negotiations from the perspective of democratic socialism.
In principle, this would not be difficult in theory for Jeremy Corbyn, for John McDonnell and for Momentum (which is relevant for the next option) but political pressures during the campaigning period for the leadership and pressure from the liberal-left media may result in the Corbyn element back-tracking on McDonnell's immediate post-vote position which is aligned with the second point above (the first point may be assumed from the second).
 
If this back-tracking takes place or, equally possible, the Corbyn leadership is ambiguous about the Second Referendum in a Labour Party context and/or actively proposes to put in the Manifesto a negotiation for re-entry into the European Union (and we cannot flaff around waiting to be politically raped with a fait accompli in the run-up to 2020) then even a Corbyn-led Labour Party becomes an utter waste of space for a Left Leaver. Left Leavers face their key existential decision once again - whether to be more of the democratic socialist Left or more of a national political and economic sovereignty advocate. I am of the latter persuasion so I would move on to the next option or jump to the third option (see below) while you may now be leaving the discussion at this point.
 
An Alternative (Democratic Socialist) Left Party
 
One scenario is that Corbyn loses the Leadership election fairly or unfairly and that, instead of accepting the result, he becomes the centre with McDonnell and others of a new Party based on the resources of Momentum or the failure triggers an alternative Party of the Left in which the Campaign Group has no role but which still sees a flow of disappointed Party members and others move sideways into a British version of Die Linke.
 
There are two separate questions to answer here: would such a Party be a natural home for Left Leavers? and  would such a Party be viable electorally and organisationally? Engagement by Left Leavers would be dependent on positive answers to both questions.

In the case of it being a home for Left Leavers, we should not be naive - many of the liberal, young socialist and green supporters of Corbyn are also idealistic if naive Remainers. Practical politics suggests that such a Party unless constituted specifically along McDonnell lines (acceptance of the result and a move towards 'democratic socialism in one country in practice, European socialism in theory') will gravitate towards pro-Europeanism along 'Varoufakis lines' which is not acceptable in itself to intelligent Left Leavers (stupid Left Leavers may leave the discussion now). 'Trimming' in this area is tantamount to opening the door to later support for any Official Labour Party unification strategy for a Second Referendum and re-negotiation.

However, if the Left Party (which we assume to be a democratic socialist party in all essentials) adopts the two principles laid out above in the event of a Corbyn Labour Party, then the balance of organisational power shifts to Left Leavers if existing Left Leaver organisations join it as activists and organisers simply because they might be a larger proportion of the Party activists than they would be in the Labour Party. There is a chicken and egg situation here - the new Left Party will be interesting if it can be restrained through activism and organisation from crossing 'red lines' but the new Party will have to have a Constitution that gives an equal voice to Leaver members over and against Remainer members at the individual level with appropriate guarantees embedded for free discussion and political education. After all, theoretically, all Left Leavers might suddenly become Europeanists if the structure of a new democratic socialist European Union met their otherwise absolute political and economic sovereignty requirements - a Union of Free European States may not be the same thing as the currently structured European Union.

This is all somewhat academic unless and until Corbyn loses the Leadership, then chooses to encourage a new formation or a new formation is created regardless of the Campaign Group where the Constitution of the new Party is fair-minded and constitutionally robust, with the Left Leaver 'red lines' clear and intact within the Party programme.

The second issue - viability - is far more problematic. The further Left you go in the Labour Movement, the greater the degree of activist neurosis and sectarianism. The inability of leaders to let go of sufficient power to permit open debate and political education is as prevalent on the Left as on the Right. There are the issues of the 'social forces' behind the Party, its funding and organisation. There is also the problem that many of the people most inclined to such a party are also those who are most inexperienced in policy, most idealist (which is a disadvantage when you realise that ideals are dysfunctional and it is values that drive effective politics) and least experienced in practical organisation or willing to give their time to the drudgery of organisation and any campaigning that does not involve clicking on something online. The only social force with the muscle to fund and create such a Party is the Labour Movement which will be reluctant to split under any circumstances. It will work hard to sustain the Labour Party and create some sort of practical reconciliation between factions - in which case, one of the first casualties will be the Left Leave position since the Left Remainers are more numerous and aggressive (as well as dirty players when necessary) than the Left Leavers.

To summarise, a theoretical alternative option for Left Leavers if Corbyn does not win the Leadership and accept the 'McDonnell position' as a red line, is a new Party of the Left but if and only if the new Party is non-sectarian, accepts the 'red lines', has a Constitution superior to that of the Labour Party in terms of transparency, accountability and fairness and has the basic infrastructure to make a significant mark in British politics (which we would consider to be no less than 50 seats in Parliament by 2025) and pull votes from Labour to limit the appeal of the Second Referendum and renegotiation.

Left-UKIP

Let us now assume that the entire Official Left (including a new Democratic Socialist Party) is fully committed to a Second Referendum and re-negotiation of re-entry back into the European Union and that it is probable that the latter will be Manifesto commitments designed to create a Remain coalition in Parliament prepared to abandon the Brexit model after 2020. At this point, we have now completely parted from those who place being Left ahead of being a Leaver. Those who are Left first will now be a part of the inexorable drive to negotiate a centre-left re-entry into the European Union and other conditions (economic probably) may yet make this feasible. Yet the Left Leaver of integrity is absolutely (not relatively) committed to this not happening. Where do committed Left-Leavers go next if there is no realistic likelood of a viable independent Left-Leave Party for all those reasons implied as problems for a new Party of the Left and given the lack of support from the official trades union movement and no viable source of funding from elsewhere?
 
The one Party that exists and is apparently viable (though unstable) and which unequivocally meets the red line conditions outlined in the previous two sections is UKIP but, to a Left Leaver, it creates new red lines to consider. UKIP is certainly not going to do anything other than fight for national political and economic sovereignty and it is (despite the slanders of its opponents) absolutely democratic, excessively so in the eyes of radical centrists, but it is not of the Left - the formally socialist part of the equation is definitely missing. 

And yet UKIP potentially meets one Left requirement - it is interested in representing the interests of the English and Welsh working class (but so are the Tories and at least some elements of the Labour Party) at a time when most of the intellectual Left is dismissive of and patronising about that class. In addition, its right-wing populist Leader is standing down and a leadership election has to take account of working class UKIP members who are committed to welfarist and redistributive strategies as well as respect for their particular culture. If the Left completely fails the Left Leaver, there is a brief window of opportunity, in parallel with the struggles within the Labour Movement, for UKIP to adjust to the fact that Left Leavers exist and are increasingly being cut out of any influence or respect on the official Left (the Labour Party). They may have no place to go by the end of the Autumn of 2016. A new UKIP leadership sensitive to this new potential vote could theoretically create the conditions for a transfer of votes and activism from the Labour Party to itself if the Corbyn Leadership falls or stumbles and if there is no viable Left Party standing by the time UKIP has presented itself as the 'one nation' defender of the Leave 'street'. 

But we cannot be naive here any more than we could be naive about the Labour Party. The dominant strand in UKIP is culturally conservative and economically libertarian and both these positions are problematic for those who consider themselves of the Left. In addition, even if a new Leader was able to establish a sufficient bridge from UKIP to the working class Left, that Leader would be placed under constant pressure to row back from his position by cultural conservatives and economic libertarians alike. The shift of a Left Leaver to UKIP would be a very cautious matter with a great deal of room for distrust on both sides. The 'red lines' for the 'national' democratic socialist that may be too much for UKIP to bear:-
  • The Constitution of UKIP must enable fair and open debate between equals
  • Taking UKIP's commitment to democracy as read, a UKIP that tolerated racism, white nationalism or Islamophobia would not be tolerable to a Left Leaver so the first red line would be a Leader who drew his or her own red line between the Party and radical nationalists.
  • The Party's economic programme would include defence of the welfare state, redistributive strategies, commitment to education and training and poverty alleviation within the context of restraints on free movement of labour.
If these three conditions are met, especially if the cultural war on migrants as opposed to the political war on migration policy failures is ended, then it is possible that Left Leavers might reasonably consider participation in UKIP against both a Labour Party that has become embedded in the European Project and a Tory Party which may not be trusted and which has adopted a class-based approach to policy, at least until the arrival of Theresa May (see below). The problem is that UKIP itself, even if it did accept these red lines, would not be easy to trust (especially in relation to economic and welfare policy) given the inordinate internal power of its right wing funders and the tight clique around former Leader Nigel Farage who may never actually let go of influence even if he lets go of formal power. For Left Leavers to join UKIP would be an act of faith but also an act of partial despair since the Left Leaver is likely to feel pushed out by the Left rather than attracted by UKIP as it currently stands. Nevertheless, if UKIP can move itself to the centre in cultural terms and share economic policy-making equitably between the Left and Right, it might be possible to see the emergence of a viable Red UKIP capable of defeating Euro-socialism in Labour areas and offering a viable alternate opposition within the Brexit framework to the Tory Party. Reports from those who have dabbled in this area prior to the Referendum are not encouraging.

Becoming a Radical Left Tory

The options are reducing section by section so we come to the point where the Left Leaver has made his or her decision that Leave represents absolute prior values, has no place in the Official left in any of its forms and either distrusts UKIP or finds that its cultural conservatism is impossible to square with a self-identity as part of the Enlightenment Left. It is at this point that the Left Leaver finds themselves with the final choice - whether to withdraw from political life entirely (the 'quietism of the Jacobite') or to follow the logic of an absolute commitmitment to national political and economic sovereignty to its bitter end. That bitter end has to be (if there is to be no quietism) a more or less passive or active engagement with the Tory Party that has emerged after June 23rd on the following grounds:-
  • The commitment to Brexit is now as absolute as it is ever likely to be in any major political party that is not UKIP - there will be no Second Referendum under the Tories and no renegotiation unless Tory Remainers force a General Election and commit political hari-kiri for a principle. This leads one to suppose that for dedicated Left Leavers the mission of ensuring that a Tory Government remains in office for at least as long as it is necessary to secure Brexit logically becomes a political necessity. This may not apply once Brexit is secured and there is no reasonable prospect of a Left coalition coming to power on a commitment to renegotiation but the committed Left Leaver, left with no alternatives, is at the least committed to supporting the Tory Party in Parliament until the Brexit result is secured.
  • The May Government has shifted direction towards working class concerns because it understands that its primary threat to the Right (UKIP) can outflank it by attracting the working class Leave vote that is becoming disenchanted with metropolitan and cosmopolitan Labour. This means that, although it is still the Party of the propertied and the State, the Conservative Party may paradoxically be in a position to do more for the English and Welsh working class than a Labour Party that is rapidly travelling up its own nether orifice. It could reform welfare in order to preserve it in the long term, maintain the NHS (after all NHS pre-privatisation strategies emeged under New Labour), investing in infrastructure (signally neglected under New Labour), taking some account of working class concerns over the free movement of labour (ignored by Labour) and (post-Brexit) being more open to an industrial strategy (abandoned by New Labour) and to housing (ignored by New Labour): there has already been a turn away from a radical approach to austerity.
  •  The Conservative party is undoubtedly democratic but it is also anti-racist, now committed to respect for the gay community and has adopted a broadly social libertarian stance (with caveats). It seems to have more talented women in high office than the second rate make-weights of the Labour Party. It is also internationalist in its commitment to global trading and cultural exchange and it would seem that its new Foreign Secretary appears to have a pragmatic and sensible view of the Syrian and Ukrainian flashpoints.
Of course, none of the shifts of the May Government towards the needs of the working class in a fairer (rather than rhetorical) 'one nation' strategy changes two truths. The first is that the Tory Party is the Party of the propertied and the State and, second, that the most working class-sensitive Tory Party possible would never be a patch on a true democratic socialist Party. It used to be reliably said that the worst possible Labour Party (we think of Labour under Blair) would always be more progressive than the most progressive Tory Party and so anyone who cared for the working class position in society would accept even the most liberal middle class Labour Leadership in preference to the hooray henries and jumped up car salesmen of Middle English Torydom. But, considering the matter coldly, will that honestly be the case in the next decade if a) the Labour Party persists in either being unelectable or being little more than the Party of choice for the urban middle classes or both together and b) the Conservative Party starts to take seriously its rhetoric of 'one nation' operating in and against an unstable world. 
 
Moreover, if the Labour Party adopts a position that is tantamount to that of the US Democrat Party under Clinton - the party of the liberal middle classes and identity groups - and presents those interests trans-nationally to the utter neglect of the English and Welsh working and lower middle classes, then surely there is nothing in that party for the sincere democratic socialist. If the 'national' democratic socialist finds that all parties of the Left are intent on selling out the nation to supranationalism, undertakes a cold analysis that the Varoufakis option (that the European Union can be turned into a democratic socialist state through democratic means and persuasion) is a pipe dream and that UKIP represents an unacceptable commitment to cultural conservatism, then the last man standing over the next decade is the Tory Party. Left Leavers, beaten from pillar to post by their own side's bullying and disrespect, may at least represent a voice for working class self-determination and the preservation of the welfare state amongst relatively competent administrators who appear to have captured a hegemonic position for at least the next three years and probably (given the piss-poor quality of the Labour Party's leading figures) for the next decade. The role (to put it in the words of a Labour economist friend) of being the radical left-wing of a modernising national Tory Party suddenly appears not merely to be least worst option but filled with theoretical possibility.

The Numbers Racket

We have undertaken a logical review of possibilities for Left Leavers that has taken us in stages through the Labour Party and the Left, through national populism and on to the old enemy, the Tory Party, but the main message is that nothing need be decided for some months. A series of high level operators will create the conditions for Left-Leaver decision-making - first a decision whether Leave is as existential a commitment as the Left Leaver thinks it is and, second, if it is, whether he or she is forced into a trajectory that will reposition him or her in ways not seen since the creation of the Labour Party or the shifts of commitment during the eras of Peel, Disraeli and Chamberlain. Let us run through these decisions and put possible numbers of votes at stake under a series of conservative assumptions. 
 
We broadly know that 30% of Labour voters de minimis (probably higher as working class Labour voters in Northern England, the Midlands and Wales) voted Leave. 2015 (a not notably good year) saw 9.3m people vote Labour. Let us postulate that one third of 30% of these feel strongly enough about Leave not to vote Labour automatically in 2020 - let's call it conservatively 900,000 voters. Failure to meet the red lines (and we are not counting on those fed up with the weak leadership of the party or its internecine warfare or the fear of further uncertainty) might mean a loss of these votes and let's assume that half of those are initially available for a new Left Party that takes a strong anti-Second Referendum line (450,000 - although such a Left Party would also get an accretion of Corbyn radicals so we might imagine an initial vote of 900,000). Let us imagine that 450,000 (not necessarily the same people) might move to UKIP if it got itself sorted and it was the only non-Tory force committed to Brexit: this would push UKIP well over the 4 million mark if the 2015 vote held and reduce the Labour vote to something closer to the 2010 result. Let us imagine that all this happens but that 30% of the Left Leavers find UKIP's cultural politics unacceptable driving around 130,000-140,000 Labour people who consider themselves Left into the Tory Party in a more decisive way - not significant in terms of total election results but significant in terms of new blood and ideas and representing a bloc bigger than the SDLP or the Ulster Unionists. More to the point, such a conservatively assessed bloc would help pull the May Government sufficiently to the Left on some issues that it could create a credible base for attracting further formerly Labour voters if the Official Left persists in its Euro-Socialist pretensions after 2020 despite polling failure or UKIP fails to correct its trajectory towards a harsher European-style national populism. There is thus something at stake in the following:-
  • The Labour Party fails to resist becoming an overtly European Socialist Party and threatens to make a 'Second Referendum' and re-negotiation manifesto commitment
  • A successor Party fails to create clear red water between it and the Labour Party on Second Referendum and automatic re-negotiation
  • UKIP fails to shift itself to away from radical extremist rhetoric and fails to embrace sufficient welfarism and corporatism to attract Left Leavers alienated by the Official Left.
So there we have it - a set of decisions for Left Leavers that do not need to be made today but will need to be made at some stage between the resolution of the Labour Leadership struggle (September) and the formal triggering of Article 50 (December). By January 2016 Left Leavers will have had to have made some existential choices that will dictate their political trajectories for the next decade.