With the Conservative Party in disarray, can the Labour Party take advantage of the “Brexit moment”– Costas Lapavitsas joins host Paul Jay
PAUL JAY: Welcome back to The Real News Network. We’re continuing our conversation about the Brexit mess. And I have to say, you have to watch Part 1, because we’re just going to continue this discussion. But in Part 1, Prime Minister Cameron I referred to as James Cameron. And I realized why I made that mistake, because James Cameron made the movie Titanic, and that’s exactly what David Cameron launched when he launched the referendum. So now I’m looking like I meant to make a joke, when actually I made a stupid mistake.
At any rate, now joining us again is Costas Lapavitsas. He’s a professor of economics at the School of Oriental and African Studies at the University of London. He’s the author of the book The Left Case Against the EU. Thanks for joining us, Costas.
We talked in segment one a lot about Jeremy Corbyn having to navigate all these minefields. Well, one of the minefields is the internal dissent in the Labour Party. Accusations of anti-Semitism; I don’t know what the number is, last I saw it was seven, eight, or nine members of the Labour Party had left to call this independent group; two or three conservatives had joined. But the person who, when they had their first press conference leading this whole thing off, says the reason, the main reason she left, was anti-Semitism in the party, and then the issue of how Brexit was being handled.
So talk about these fractures in the Labour Party. To what extent is this anti-Semitism a legitimate charge? We know that there are certainly forces, Blairite and other supporters of the right wing of Israel, Netanyahu and such, who want to consider any critique of Israel as anti-Semitism. So what is the anti-Semitism in the party everyone’s talking about that isn’t actually just critique of Israel? Is there such a thing?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: There is. The first thing to say here is that the position of the Labour Party and some of its support has changed substantially in the last three years with Corbyn. Corbyn brought a breath of fresh air. He attracted hundreds of thousands of people to the Labour Party, reinvigorated it, and suddenly the Labour Party emerged as an active and forward-looking political party again, after a long time of inactivity, essentially. And a party on the left. A party that was talking the left language, and from a new generation. That was a positive thing, and that put the fear of God in the British ruling class, the European elite, and also the Blairites within the Labour Party who had run the show for a long time.
So one must start with that. That is not to say that the Corbyn group and the new mechanisms that were put in place for managing the Labour Party are blameless. It appears that some of the people who have been attracted to the ideas of opposing capitalism, opposing finance, opposing the financial interest that is particularly powerful in this country, and so on, have fallen prey to some of the oldest and stupidest notions; you know, the socialism of fools. Anti-Semitism. The Idea that the world is owned by the Rothschilds, or that the Jews are behind everything. It appears that–everything bad, that is. So it appears that some people in the Labour Party have fallen prey to that.
PAUL JAY: Let me just say that when we do stories on The Real News, and they air on YouTube, and we do, like, critiques of U.S. foreign policy, even stories on Venezuela, certainly on the Middle East, but on banking, the number of comments we get that are essentially outright racist and anti-Semitic, somehow supporting what we’re doing–which, I mean, couldn’t be further from the truth. Because while not all criticism of Israel is anti-Semitic, some is. And one needs to recognize that. I mean, every day I have to go through deleting outright racist crap on our YouTube comments. Anyway, carry on.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: No question. We’re talking about the same thing. A similar thing, in any case. Here we are, here’s a party that has taken a left turn, that speaks in anticapitalist language, that attracts people who are new to politics or want to do something about the neoliberal disease that has befallen this country and so many other countries in the world. And you know, it’s easy in the intellectual confusion that prevailed the last few decades to mistake anti-Semitism for opposing capitalism. It’s very easy to make that foolish mistake, to come up with the kind of racist nonsense. It appears that significant numbers of–not significant. Certain people in the Labour Party have done that, and they have addressed themselves to members of parliament with whom they do not agree, who are Jewish, in those terms. Which is, of course, completely unacceptable. Not only stupid, but of course completely unacceptable.
Now, to a certain extent, right wing within the Labour Party, and official Israeli opinion to the degree to which it is expressed this country, is taking advantage of that, and tried to present any criticism of Israel as anti-Semitism. But we know that these people would do that. The truth is there is a problem. It appears that there is a problem. And the Labour Party should have intervened. The leadership should have intervened decisively, should have taken action, should have kicked these people out. And they should have told them that this is unacceptable and no one should fall prey.
PAUL JAY: So why didn’t they? They know better.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: They miscalculated. Now they’re doing it. They’re doing it much more than they did before. They miscalculated. They got caught up in the internal debates and in the internal–the balance of internal power and opposition, and they miscalculated. I mean, I have no doubt that personally Corbyn and his advisers and so on are completely blameless when it comes to racism. It’s not the case at all that Corbyn is a racist. Of course. All the people around him, these are solid socialists who understand how the world works, and do not suffer from any kind of racism.
But they made a mistake. They mishandled it. They misunderstood, I think, and that became a major problem, gradually, because some of the Jewish members of Parliament were indeed subjected to sustained verbal harassment, racist harassment. That’s a terrible thing. You know, the woman you mentioned, Luciana Berger, I think her name is, who became independent, she’s Jewish. And she does seem to have been subjected to–I mean, I don’t know the details, but it looks like she has been subjected to some terrible stuff.
So the Labour Party should have come out very clearly; should have understood that for the Jewish community in this country, and in any country, really, any talk of this type is dynamite because of the history of racism against the Jews. So they were, they were late. They were slow, and late, and they’re paying the price.
PAUL JAY: OK. Let me ask you–again, the left case against the EU, and the left vision of what a Brexit should be, is Corbyn and the Labour Party articulating that?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: No.
PAUL JAY: So what are they articulating, and what’s wrong with the way they’re doing it?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Like I said to you originally a a few minutes ago, Corbyn is navigating a minefield.
PAUL JAY: I get the politics of it, but in terms of policy, what do want to see that you’re not seeing?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: What they want–what they’re advocating at the moment is a situation in which Britain would form a new customs union with the European Union–not the existing one, but a customs union with a European Union–and will maintain close connections with a single market. That’s the vision they’re officially taking. I think this is problematic. I’m not in principle against a customs union, personally, if Britain would have a say in how the customs union operated in the future, as well, not passively be part of that, because obviously a socialist government in Britain would want to strike its own trade deals, of course. And a customs union might constrain us from doing it.
I certainly would not be in favor of Britain maintaining a close relationship with the single market, however, because the single market in Europe is the most rigid mechanism for the imposition of neoliberalism across Europe. I think the Labour Party is making a mistake on that.
PAUL JAY: Just for people who are maybe a little new to the term neoliberalism, just a couple of specifics.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Neoliberalism is the idea that the market knows best; private is best, public is bad. State intervention is bad. The world should be run in the interest of private entrepreneurs, who are the ultimate deciders of everything and should be so. This is the kind of basic understanding of the economy runs that has caused the world to become what it is in the last 40 years. The disaster that’s now all around us.
The Labour Party in this country is the best chance we have of delivering a blow at this. The Labour Party is very important right now, and a Labour government is of paramount importance. Because if it comes to power, I don’t know if it’s likely, but if it comes to power and ddelivers a radical program such as the one that I know that they’re working on, if it does that, and it applies it, and it hits neoliberalism where it should be hit, between the eyes, as it were, and we have a program that is actually implemented, the benefits across the world would be enormous. There would be–it would be a concrete demonstration that you can go against this ideology, you can hit the rich and the financial elites where it hurts.
PAUL JAY: Which includes a real buildout of the public sector, and certain nationalizations, and really structural changes to the economy.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: What is necessary in this country, which the Labour Party understands, and it had it in its manifesto, the electoral manifesto in 2017, and I hope that the new manifesto, whenever that comes about, will be more radical, what this country needs is–in this order–active industrial policy that will basically change the balance between finance and the rest of the economy, strengthen industry and manufacturing to create good jobs with the strong productivity growth. That will not happen without industrial policy. That must go hand in hand with public property, public ownership of the significant areas of the economy. In other words, in particular, railways, energy, water. There is a strong majority among the British public for that kind of thing. Public ownership of that. And also it should go hand in hand with public ownership of key banks, the formation of a national investment bank, and controls over the other banks, the private banks, including capital controls so that people cannot take that money freely in and out of the country and speculate on the backs of everybody else.
That package is fundamental to transform the economy in a green direction, may I also say, because the policy such as this will be capable of being environmentally friendly the way we want it to be.
PAUL JAY: And is possible within the–if Britain were to stay in the EU, can you have this program?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Absolutely not. That’s exactly the point. Absolutely not. The EU will not tolerate that. They will not tolerate that, because it will have–it will have restrictions on the degree to which the state can intervene and how the state can intervene in terms of public property, in terms of state aid, in terms of public procurement. These are fundamental mechanisms allowing the public interest to manifest itself in the economy. The EU will not allow that. The EU is in favor of competition, so they will not facilitate that at all. And, moreover, the EU, of course, will not allow for capital controls, which are necessary, because the EU believes in free movement of capital. And it enshrines it in the single market.
And in addition to that, of course, politically, the European Union will oppose any radical left government. You can rest assured of that. There is no doubt at all. The experience of Greece teaches us that if a radical left government such as the one that we want Corbyn to form, such as the one this country needs, if that was formed, and he confronted the–it was within the European Union, the European Union would oppose it tooth and nail. Anybody who doesn’t see that doesn’t understand the European Union.
So a socialist program such as Britain needs, a radica programs such as Britain needs, and actually a program against neoliberalism, cannot be implemented within the European Union. It just cannot. The fact that the left cannot see it is astounding to me. But then, that is the state of the European left. That’s exactly the problem of Europeanism that I mentioned. That’s the disease that’s afflicting much of the European left.
PAUL JAY: Now, the Blairites in the Labour Party, I would assume, hate this program as much as any of the other elites hate this kind of a program. But is Corbyn–I’m asking this out of ignorance, because we just don’t get to hear the politics there as closely as one could. But is Corbyn and the Labour party campaigning on this vision? And when they talk about Brexit, and why they’re for Brexit, is this front and center in their discourse?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: No.
PAUL JAY: Why?
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Because Brexit is dynamite. Let me explain. So what Corbyn and his group, the leadership group, have done is to put forth a radical program along broadly the lines that were summed up for you. Maybe with difference here and there, but broadly that’s what they’re talking about. And that’s why they did very well in the election in 2017, because of that kind of manifesto. And I genuinely believe that they want an even more radical program. And it’s a matter of debate, how radical.
PAUL JAY: I mean, they came close to winning.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Yes. Yes. I mean, I have no reason to believe that the people who run the Labour Party right now, the leadership, do not sympathize and do not support a program of broadly that type. Again, with differences. We can discuss these differences. It’s a matter of debate; obviously there’s no person who knows everything about these things. I’ve got no reason to assume that.
The problem is–and that kind of program has broad support within the Labour Party, among the British people, and so on. The problem is when you combine it with Brexit, when you tell people that you’ve got to leave the European Union to do it, they don’t listen to you. The argument is been lost. People have–it’s a contradictory situation. People have got it into their heads that they can stay in the European Union and implement a program like this.
So the argument is remain and reform. That tends to be the argument among the left. Believing that because this is Britain, because it’s a bigger country, because this is a major party such as the Labour Party, it’s complete [voluntarism]. But they believe that because of that they will go to the European Union and they will do–implement their radical socialist program, and it will be OK. They don’t know what they’re talking about.
PAUL JAY: It’s very interesting because of this sort of disarray in the process that the political elites who don’t want to leave Europe, the commercial elites. But because of this fractured moment–again, somewhat similar to the United States where the sort of Trumpian kind of section has caused a sort of disarray–it creates a moment where maybe you can have a kind of breakthrough of such a progressive platform under these kinds of conditions, because the elites are so at each other’s throats.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Absolutely. That’s exactly the importance of Brexit. And that is what people who advocate a left Brexit, such as myself and others, have been arguing. Brexit is an incredible historical opportunity which has been created by the British working class by the poor of this country, who for their own reasons, for their own half-understood or instinctively understood reasons, decided to give the ruling class a black eye. And they did. It is a massive popular vote against the interests of the ruling class, which had made those interests clear. And the workers and the poor of Britain decided to give them a black eye. And they did.
And they handed this over to the left. The left doesn’t know what to do with that. It looks at it and doesn’t know how to handle that. It’s a tragedy, for the reasons I’ve explained to you, in terms of the Labour Party. It is the same problem that the whole of the European left faces. Of course, they don’t have a Brexit moment. But the confusion within the European left on issues of Europe is phenomenal. It’s of historic dimensions, and that is one of the biggest problems we face.
One more point, if I may, on this, because we’re talking economics here, and social interests, which I think I’ve told you what I believe they are. There is, however, also a fundamental problem of polity. A problem with democracy here. And in some ways the Brexit issue after this social discussion, discussion of social forces, is a political issue in the deepest sense because, because it’s also a matter of democracy. In the end of the day, 17.4 million people in this country voted for Brexit. It was 52 percent in favor of exiting. That’s a fundamental exercise of democratic rights.
What we’re witnessing now, shenanigans and machinations at the top of the political tree, to subvert that vote. To negate it. To lead to elimination of that decision. That is not atypical of the European Union, and the European elites in the last few decades. In fact, we’ve witnessed that time and again. The European Union has referenda once or twice a month, until you get it right. Until you get it the way they want it to be. And that is part of the so-called democratic deficit of the European Union, which is enormous. People misunderstand the European Union. They think it is somehow an alliance of democracies. Well, it might be an alliance of formally democratic states. But the way it works is completely undemocratic. Comletely.
PAUL JAY: But a second referendum, which now the Labour Party supports, doesn’t that make sense in the sense that when people voted the first time, nobody knew really what the heck this thing was going to look like. And certainly it would be democratic, whatever it does look like, and nobody actually still knows what it looks like. Certainly people should have a chance to vote again.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Not really. My own view is that people should–if you really want an exercise in democracy right now, you should have a general election. That’s what the Labour Party is calling for, and I believe it’s right. You should have a general election where all the issues will be put on the table. The complexity of the questions will be thoroughly laid out. People will be able to see what’s involved. It will not be another binary choice, yes or no, which is what happened with the previous referendum. That was also a democratic exercise. It arrived at a result. It has never been applied. It has never been tried. That’s a negation of democracy. There’s every reason, I understand, to vote again, if you try to implement the result of the first exercise. It didn’t work out, the results were bad, so you vote again. That’s not what happened.
PAUL JAY: So there should be a general election before there is a finalization of whatever the heck Brexit is, whatever that next government is the one that should conclude.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: I personally–and that’s also what the Labour Party is saying, that’s the official position of the Labour Party, there should be a general election. The Tories have made a complete hash of things, right. It’s obvious. It’s obvious, because of the split that I outlined for you previously, and because of the split in the ruling class. The Tories have made a complete hash of it. They’re incapable of running the country. The country malfunctions. It needs a radical program. It needs a new broom, a new party to manage things. For that–it also needs to discuss Brexit-
PAUL JAY: By new party you mean new government, at this stage.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Yeah, a new party to form a government. And for that, it means a general election. I don’t think that any sane person who looks at the situation and tries to think of a democratic way out would say no, a general election is not the way. That is that way, because what would another referendum solve? Let’s suppose you’ve got another binary choice which goes the other way, so instead of getting 48-52, you get 52-48. Because that’s what’s it’s going to be, at best. So what would that resolve? Why will that settle it? So what are we going to do, we’re going to have a third one after that? How is it going to be? And that-
PAUL JAY: Well, actually, today in Parliament when Corbyn spoke, he called for a public vote. He didn’t use the word referendum.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: That’s a very careful–that’s a very acute observation, of course, because I don’t believe that there will be parliamentary support for a second referendum, for the reasons that I pointed out, and for an additional reason. The working class people, the poor and others who voted to Brexit in 2016 take their vote very seriously. Another referendum, before the first one will have be implemented, will look, and it will be, a direct negation of democracy. It will be a direct subverting of democracy. They will have been told your vote counts for nothing. In that context, the only political current that can benefit is the extreme right. And they’re there. They’re there. They’re already active. They speak the language of working people, because the left is-
PAUL JAY: So let me just add, there’s a movie on Netflix right now. I think it’s actually called Brexit. And it’s a breakdown of how the Trumpian far right, much of it American election technology, was brought to the UK to help run the referendum campaign, the exit referendum campaign. It’s all the same tactics and language of the Trump campaign.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: But now it’s actually getting worse, because now we’ve got, I mentioned already, Steve Bannon, who’s been active here. But there are actually now out and out fascists who are organizing actively. They call for a defense of democracy. They call for a rejection of politicians and politics in the sense that these politicians and official politics, democratic politics, are maneuvers used by the rich, and they’ve got nothing to do with the poor, and so on. You know, the usual fascist stuff. And they’re finding an audience. If there is a second referendum, which I hope there is not, there will not be, the extreme right and the fascists will have a field day. They will be the only ones who will benefit in the medium to long term from this. It will not be a good outcome.
PAUL JAY: All right. We’re going to–we’ll let some more events transpire over the next week or two, and then we’ll, I hope, pick this up. Thanks very much for joining us, Costas.
COSTAS LAPAVITSAS: Thank you, Paul. I hope it was useful for you and the audience.
PAUL JAY: Very. Thank you.
Thank you for joining us on The Real News Network.