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No2EU and the fight for a workers' party

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The European elections in Britain have traditionally been the stomping ground of the political right, who use them to whip up jingoistic and nationalist feeling against "Brussels bureaucrats", cheered on by the tabloid media. Luke Cooper asks whether a new trade union led platform will change things this year.

Back in 2004, the UK Independence Party (UKIP) - a de facto right-wing split from the Tories that calls for Britain to leave the European Union - polled 16 per cent of the vote, pushing them into third place ahead of the Lib Dems. Because the European Parliament has very weak powers and successive British governments have established opt-outs from EU laws and regulations, historically turnout here has been quite low. But nonetheless the European elections have been used by voters to "send a message" to the incumbent government by voting for opposition parties, sometimes minority ones (the Greens, the Lib Dems, UKIP and, for anti-immigration racists, the BNP). The radical left has failed to make much use of this opportunity.

Surely this year's European elections could be different? With the global economic crisis deepening, the potential to popularise working class, socialist and anticapitalist politics couldn't be more apparent.

The Labour government has been forced to part-nationalise the banks to save the financial system from complete collapse and is now similarly compelled to raise taxes on the highest earners to stave off a major crisis in the state's coffers. Could there be a better time to argue for a punitive tax on the rich and for a single state bank channelling money to where it's needed, such as schools, social housing and hospitals? Could there have been a better time to demand a huge programme of public works to absorb the 2.1 million unemployed and to call for the repeal of Thatcher's anti-union laws which blocks workers from fighting for their jobs with effective strikes and factory occupations?

Unfortunately, there will be no nationwide challenge at these elections raising answers such as these to the global economic crisis. Despite 10 years of a Labour government that never repealed the anti-union laws and took privatisation much further than Thatcher had ever dared, no new mass working class party has been founded from the trade union and labour movement to stand as an alternative to Labour.

A series of projects, which adapted to non-working class forces and ideas in an attempt to find a short-cut to a new mass party, have failed. There was Respect, which adapted to local Muslim businessmen, and the Scottish Socialist Party (SSP), which adapted to Scottish nationalism - both of these inevitably fell apart. This has left many activists demoralised at the prospects for building an alternative to Labour. But, on the other hand, workers' anger with Labour - as they see bankers bailed out while Labour does nothing to stop the jobs massacre hitting working people - is probably now greater than ever. Even Brown's small increase in taxes for the top one per cent won't change that feeling significantly.

It's a real shame that the transport workers' union RMT, which has been expelled from Labour and has long been one of the more militant unions, has chosen to set up a new force called "No to EU - Yes to Democracy" for these elections.

For years the union's leadership has talked about the need for a new party but has never taken any action to match these words. Now they have, but on a set of policies and an overarching message that points workers in completely the wrong direction. They're not standing on anything like a socialist platform but are stealing the clothes of UKIP. Instead of saying we need to fight the bosses, both in Britain across all of Europe, and unite with our brothers and sisters abroad, the No2EU platform focuses all its criticism on Brussels. They attack the anti-trade union decisions of the European Court of Justice - but without acknowledging that British anti-union laws are the most restrictive in all of Western Europe!

The EU does not govern in the interests of the workers, but the bosses. Of course the socialists and workers need to resist all attacks from European governments and the EU. But why on earth should working class candidates focus all their campaigning efforts against foreign bosses without directly laying blame on British capitalists, British bankers, British anti-working class legislation and the British government? If it looks like a cop-out, that's because it is.

Does the British parliament act any differently from the EU? London, like Brussels, is a big centre of the global capitalist system. No2EU sends the wrong message out: at a time when we should be saying the enemy are all the capitalists, it targets one lot of "foreign" capitalists and peddles the lie they're somehow worse than the rest, somehow worse than "our" British businesses and "our" British capitalists.

In fact, Britain under Margaret Thatcher blazed the trail for anti-union laws, privatisation, running down of council housing and other public services. Then Blair led the way in breaking up and dragging the market into education and health.

It was Blair who pressurised Germany, France and Italy to follow suit and carry out sweeping pro-market reforms (Lisbon Agenda 2010). Meanwhile, when some progressive measures were passed in Brussels, such as the social charter, the minimum wage, the convention of human rights, the maximum 48 hour working time directive - thanks to pressure from what became a stronger and more militant labour movement on the continent - Blair and Brown demanded that they be watered down or that the UK is exempt from them.

Of course the EU eventually adopted a programme of pro-market, neoliberal reforms and all of these should be opposed. But most of these had been trialled in the UK a decade or more before. Therefore, the call to "get out of the EU" - or break it up in favour of a return to separate national states - would be no step forward whatsoever. It would not even make the class struggle easier here in Britain. By separating us from our French, Italian, Germany brothers and sisters, it would actually weaken our struggle.

Does that mean we want to keep a capitalist, imperialist EU? No, of course not! We want to replace it with a federation of workers' states in Europe - a Socialist United States of Europe. This means creating the closest unity now by linking our struggles against the crisis. Car components workers on strike at Visteon can link up with car workers across Europe; we can link up with the rebellion that has led to mass general strikes in France and Greece; we can work together as a class across Europe, fighting every one of the national capitalist governments. The goal has to be not to retreat to a patchwork quilt of disconnected capitalist countries, but to link the mass resistance to the effects of the crisis with the fight to overthrow the capitalist governments and replace them with workers' governments.

BNP and nationalist danger
No2EU may well pick up a few protest votes, but for all the wrong reasons: people with nationalist ideas won't be broken from them by a party with a clear set of socialist policies, they will just have (another) nationalist platform to vote for.

A big danger in these elections is the fascist British National Party (BNP). With the global economic crisis deepening and discontent bubbling over, workers won't always look for progressive answers. The BNP have already done well out of the past 10 years. Labour's wars in the Middle East, attacks on workers at home and systematic campaign against Muslim people and asylum seekers have been gifts to the far right.

This election could mark a major breakthrough for the BNP. The fact that there will be a union platform in the elections that doesn't raise a radical socialist alternative to the BNP won't hurt their votes, but many workers will see the nationalist arguments as similar and No2EU will only give them more prestige. And there is no getting around the fact that racist and nationalist ideas are getting stronger in Britain - fomented by the Sun, the Star, the Mail, etc, but also endorsed by union leaders such as Unite's Derek Simpson who go along with slogans such as "British Jobs for British Workers". Even some of Britain's left wing groups, such as the Socialist Party, are foolishly backing the No2EU campaign, covering up for it in the same way they did for the reactionary "British Jobs for British Workers" strike at the Lindsey Oil refinery.

In fact the task of socialists is not to cover up these reactionary ideas or take them up ourselves - it is to openly challenge them. A bold socialist campaign could do this - it could show how these rotten ideas divide workers and weaken our resistance to the bosses. It could speak out for migrants and minorities victimised every day in the press, rallying huge support from multiracial working class communities across our big cities. It could show how international unity strengthens the working class, helping workers to sense the confidence that comes from being part of a six billion strong army across the world, and could point the way forward - not back to the past of isolated states, but forward to the future of international socialism.

Labour must break from the bosses
To stop the jobs massacre, Labour would need to do more than slightly raise taxes on the rich. When a capitalist economy starts shrinking, the question is posed point-blank - who should pay? Should it be the rich through nationalisation of industry without compensation and steep taxes on their unearned wealth, or should it be the already hard up workers through job losses, mass unemployment and unpaid reductions in working time? And, of course, having preserved "the most restrictive (anti-) union legislation in Europe", Brown and co will use it against workers such as those at Visteon trying to save their jobs.

While millions of workers' union subscriptions are being used to fund this rotten Labour Party, the working class should step up calls on Labour to stop serving the bosses and to act in workers' interests.

Across the country, workers and our unions should be demanding that Labour stops bailing out the rich and instead bails out workers' jobs. If they can nationalise the banks to take billion-pound losses off the bosses' hands, they can nationalise companies declaring redundancies and stop unemployment rising to its predicted level of three million this year. They should reverse all privatisation in the public sector, cancel all planned cuts in public services and repeal Thatcher's anti-unions laws.

It's not about waiting quietly for Brown to do any of this - it's about building a mass movement to force him to or to bring him down. We have to mean it when we say that we won't be made to pay for a crisis. Labour must be forced either to give way to our demands or give way to a workers' government - one based on local assemblies of delegates from every workplace, every housing estate or scheme, and every working class community.

Many trade union leaders are still members of the Labour Party. They argue that by staying in Labour they gain "influence", but for 10 years these back door deals have won workers little or nothing. Just as we demand the Labour government should stand up for workers not the bosses, so too must we demand our union leaders turn their words into action on the streets.

A fighting party
Millions of working class people are furious with Labour. We need a different type of party - a working class party that builds struggles from below and fights with the union leaderships where possible and without them where necessary.

Its members should be the militants who fight in the workplaces and the communities to defend working class gains - such as the workers who occupied their plants at Visteon, and the parents occupying schools in Glasgow and Lewisham. There are tens of thousands of such people across Britain, and they can and should be brought together on the basis of a programme, not of nationalism, but of action to fight the capitalist crisis, to make sure we do not pay for their crisis, to show that we have the solution to the economic mayhem the billionaires have created.

The fact that no new party has been formed over the last 10 years doesn't take away the desperate need for it. Even Labour left MPs, such as John McDonnell, describe each attack of the government as the "last straw" for Labour. Rumours are rife that the RMT and its No2EU backers are considering launching a party on the back of the EU election campaign. Despite its utterly misguided political content, this shows that the pressure is still there from below to break with Labour. The problem is that Bob Crow, George Galloway, the Morning Star, the Socialist Party, etc don't want an anticapitalist and internationalist workers' party - they want the nearest they can get to Old Labour, even if it's wrapped in the union jack rather than the red flag.

Labour doesn't deserve our vote, but neither does the RMT's alternative. If the BNP do very well in this election, it must ring the alarm bell for the left and the working class as a whole - not to look for an alliance with "progressive" Tories, Lib Dems, bishops and actresses, footballers, pop stars and other assorted celebs - but to create a fighting alternative to fascism and the "respectable" political parties. The unity we need is working class unity, not unity with bosses. At its heart must be a new, fighting, anticapitalist working class party.