Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party poses a threat to the rule of big business. This much is clear from the panic currently gripping the establishment, both inside and outside of the Labour Party.
But what is also apparent is that, so far, the establishment has lacked a coherent strategy for removing him. Indeed, the harder they try, the more he is lifted up by his supporters, and the more entrenched in his position he becomes.
This is in part because the very heavy-handed way in which he has been attacked. The Blairites, the representatives of capitalism in the Labour Party, have orchestrated two anti-democratic coups against his leadership. They have openly briefed against him in the Tory press. They also continue to expel members simply on the grounds of being socialists.
At every stage in their ruinous campaign, the Blairites’ intentions have been obvious and their tactics predictable. (NB: the term “Blairite” is not intended to refer to anyone who is pro-EU, just those who support Tony Blair and his more cynical reasons for remaning in the EU.)
But recent history has forced some of the more thoughtful Blairites to adopt a more sophisticated strategy. This is partly because the open approach to removing Corbyn has, time and again, only served to consolidate his position. But it is also because Labour’s excellent results at the general election have forced the Labour right onto the back foot: to openly oppose the leadership at this stage could be considered a treachery too far!
So rather than attack him directly, the capitalist establishment, hoping to make Labour safe for big business again, is attempting to divide Corbyn’s support through appeals to the pro-EU sentiments of a section of his supporters.
This was seen when 51 Labour MPs and MEPS moved an amendment to the Queen’s Speech guaranteeing membership of the single market. It was also evident last week, when the London Mayor Sadiq Khan was reported as saying: “What could trump the referendum result is us having a manifesto offer saying, we would not leave the EU, or we would have a second referendum.”
So why do the Blairites fetishize the EU in this way?
It is in this sense that the Blairites betrayal is most stark. They are attempting to dress up pro-capitalist policies in the language of internationalism – in effect, to use the progressive sentiments of many pro-EU Corbyn supporters to further policies which would act as a serious obstacle to a socialist government. (For those who claim that the existence of nationalised industries in the EU contradicts this, these arguments have already been refuted.)
Free movement for workers or for capital?
Free movement is a contentious issue in current debates over Brexit. This is in part because of ongoing attempts to conflate the way it applies to individuals and the way that it applies to undemocratic corporations.
In a recent interview with Andrew Marr, Corbyn stated that although Labour would guarantee the right of EU nationals to remain in the UK, “what there wouldn’t be is the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions, particularly in the construction industry.”
This has been met with outcry by the political establishment – in and out of the Labour Party.
“Corbyn is a hard right Brexiteer”, writes Lib Dem leader Vince Cable – before describing himself, without a hint of irony, as a progressive. Baron Livermore, a former political advisor to Tony Blair and a representative of just about everything that was wrong with New Labour, complained that “Labour now has the same immigration policy as UKIP and a harder Brexit policy than the Tories”.
And yet any close scrutiny reveals that Corbyn’s criticism of free movement is as far from hard right as you can get. Corbyn’s opposition to the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers” is actually a criticism of the free movement of capital rather than workers – a common view in the progressive, and international, trade union movement.
One of the main reasons for this is that the European Court of Justice (ECJ), when called on to resolve labour disputes, has consistently come down on the side of big business, putting the free movement of big business ahead of the right of workers to strike.
Some of the most prominent examples of this came in the 2007 Viking and Lavalrulings.
In 2007, Viking Line Apb (Viking) was the thirteenth largest passenger shipping company in the world and the owner of Rosella, a passenger and cargo ferry that traded between Helsinki and Tallin.
Previously the Rosella operated under the Finish flag with a mainly Finnish crew, but when the company announced that the vessel was loss-making and announced plans to replace the Finnish crew with Estonian workers on worse pay and conditions, the Finnish Seamans Union (FSU) threatened to strike – an action protected under Finnish law.
This action was also supported by the International Transport Workers’ Federation (ITF), the global body to which the FSU is affiliated, which called on its affiliates to show solidarity with the Viking workers, by refusing negotiations with the Rosellashould it go ahead with “reflagging” to Estonia.
The European Court of Justice, however, found that the actions of the FSU, supported by the ITF, infringed on Viking’s right of free movement, in particular the right of establishment under Article 43 of the EC Treaty and the right to provide services.
The ECJ acted to outlaw strike action if it infringed on the right of big business to move its national base in order to maximise profits.
Just one week later, workers’ rights were delivered yet another devastating blow through the ECJ in the Laval case, which held that Swedish trade unions could not take industrial action to compel a Latvian builder operating in Stockholm to observe the terms and conditions of collective agreement.
The main issue at stake here was the Posted Workers Directive. An EU report concerning this directive states that
“Member States shall… guarantee workers posted to their territory the terms and conditions of employment… which, in the Member State where the work is carried out, are laid down… by law, regulation or administrative provision.”
In reality, this means that migrant labour could legally be used to undercut union negotiated pay and terms and conditions – and if workers attempt to resist, they will be acting in defiance of EU law.
Workers, in other words, cannot take industrial action against their employer if it is considered to infringe on their right of “free movement”.
These cases were followed in quick succession by the Rüffert and Luxembourg cases, which both backed up the central issues of Laval – prohibiting workers from taking effective action to protect pay and terms and conditions.
In Britain, these rulings have played out in a number of contexts. In 2008, pilots and flight deck employees at British Airways threatened strike action against proposed cuts to pay. BA responded by threatening legal action against the British Airline Pilots Association (BALPA), stating that any strike would be unlawful because of Viking and Laval.
BALPA was effectively blackmailed with an injunction and unlimited damages if industrial action went ahead. BA claimed that its losses, should strike action have gone ahead, would have been £100million per day. Enough to quickly bankrupt the union.
More recently in 2016, construction workers in Rotherham, South Yorkshire, were in dispute with a Croatian firm called Duro Dakovic TEP, who were subcontracted to build a biomass power station. The dispute was caused by Duro Dakovic who avoided paying industry rates to British-based workers by using a migrant labour force which, because of EU free movement legislation, they were only required to pay at minimum wage in the host country (roughly £7 per hour).
This is the sort of thing that Corbyn was talking about when he spoke of opposing the “wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions”.
According to rulings from the ECJ, workers cannot legally take strike action if it infringes on the free movement of capital and the right of establishment for big business.
(What a socialist view of immigration might look like is outside of the scope of this article, but it has been dealt with here.)
Blairites and the EU
The opposite of free movement of capital is not, as is commonly understood, the free movement of labour. It is the right to international trade union agreements.
But Labour right wingers don’t even support local trade union struggles over the rights of big business, so why would they support international trade union agreements over the right of establishment for big business?
The Blairites make a big song and a dance about supporting the EU because, they claim, it protects workers’ rights. But when workers in Britain undertake strike action, you can usually find right wing Labour MPs condemning the action, crossing picket lines, or even coming down on the side of the bosses.
In fact, when the Laval and Viking rulings took place, the New Labour government of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown refused to ensure that collective agreements would take precedence over the free market logic of the Posted Workers Directive. According to a 2009 article in the Times:
“Britain helped to kill moves to force employers to pay foreign workers the same as domestic employees last month when it rejected an update of the EU’s Posted Workers’ Directive.
“Pat McFadden, the Employment Minister, resisted any change to the directive, which says that employers need to pay foreign workers the minimum wage but does not enforce local pay deals – allowing British workers to be undercut. His fellow employment ministers agreed at a meeting on December 17 and the European Commission followed suit this month.”
Blair and Brown came under widespread criticism from the trade union movement for these actions (see the excellent edited volume by the Institute of Employment Rights, “The New Spectre Haunting Europe”).
What next for Corbyn supporters?
Corbyn is correct to say that he does not support Britain remaining in the single market. In response to the hysterical opposition of Labour’s right wing he should go on the political offensive by making clear that the starting point of his ‘Brexit negotiation policy’ would be to implement policies in the interests of the working and middle class. From a £10 an hour minimum wage and the abolition of zero-hour contracts, to public ownership of the banks and the major companies that dominate the British economy – annulling every EU law that was an obstacle to implementing them.
At the same time, he should continue to make clear that a government he led would guarantee the rights of citizens from other EU countries living in Britain. An appeal made on this basis to workers’ organisations across Europe could have an electrifying effect. It would be possible to use the Brexit talks to go on the offensive against the EU’s neoliberal rules and to fight for a socialist Europe.
But Corbyn and his supporters must also address the ongoing internal problems in the Labour Party. A campaign needs to be immediately launched to transform the Labour Party into a genuinely anti-austerity, democratic party of workers and young people.
This requires the introduction of mandatory reselection contests for MPs. The next general election could be at any time, and Labour must not face another election with the majority of its own candidates opposing Corbyn. MPs should have to account for their records, via a democratic process, to Labour Party members in their local area.
This should be combined with the democratisation of the party, including restoring the rights of trade unions, and welcoming all genuine socialists in a democratic federation. These measures could create a party which was genuinely able to bring together all the young people, socialists, workers and community campaigners who are inspired by Corbyn’s message into a powerful mass force.