Monthly Archives: February 2016

Democratise Europe! 
- More Sloganizing from the Left?

This Thursday, 9th February in Berlin, sees the launch of yet another reforming movement for the EU. DiEM25 hopes to build a broad based movement which will lead to a left wing reform of the EU. DiEM stands for Democracy in Europe Movement and their key message is that the EU will either be democratised or it will disintegrate! 
 Their snappy slogan is Democratise Europe! The main impulse for this new movement is our old friend Yanis Veroufakis, the former Syriza minister. We wish DiEM well, but fear that at this stage it is little more than a slogan.

You can find the DiEM website here, where you can download their manifesto. This is a bit long on assertions, especially about how bad and undemocratic the EU is. Their actual proposals for moving forward seem mostly a bit vague.  Anthony Barnett on Open Democracy has helpfully put together a shorter version, which you can read here.  The really short version seems to boil down to two immediate demands:

(A) full transparency in decision-making (e.g. live-streaming of European Council, Ecofin and Eurogroup meetings, full disclosure of trade negotiation documents, publication of ECB minutes etc.) and

(B) the urgent redeployment of existing EU institutions in the pursuit of innovative policies that genuinely address the crises of debt, banking, inadequate investment, rising poverty and migration.

Now A is long overdue and would be most welcome. Not clear though just why the various EU institutions would agree to do this right now. These are after all immediate priorities for DiEM. Somehow I do not think that the 28 governments of the members states are quivering in their boots at the prospect of DiEM meeting in Berlin. For any change to the way the EU works requires at the very least a large majority of the governments of the member states to agree. It may, possibly, require unanimity. A fact of the EU that DiEM seems to just ignore.

As regards B, these have little or nothing to do with democracy per se. This is a wish list of issues that DiEM would like to see tackled in a left wing, progressive way. However, these issues could be addressed in a left, progressive way just now. The only reason that this is not happening just now is the rather inconvenient fact that the overwhelming majority of democratically elected governments in the EU are pretty right wing in their approach to everything.

DiEM also has a medium-term goal. This is nothing less that the establishment by 2025 of a full-fledged European democracy. This goal will be achieved via a constitutional assembly. It seems that the key feature of this European democracy will be a sovereign Parliament that respects national self- determination and sharing power with national Parliaments, regional assemblies and municipal councils. 
(my emphasis)

This goal seems to be even more out of touch with reality that the two immediate goals. What decisions will this sovereign parliament take? Is it meant to replace the council of ministers? If this parliament is to be sovereign, what is meant by sharing power? Either you can take a decision, which is what sovereign usually means, or you cannot. If you need the approval of other parliaments, then you are not sovereign.

My main worry for DiEM is that its analysis of the EU is very weak and full of misconceptions. Another recent article in Open Democracy, by Lorenzo Marsili, offers an alternative view of the EU. As he puts it:

We need to stop portraying the EU as an all-powerful behemoth impeding any real change at national level. This rhetoric is false and only benefits supporters of the status quo. Failure to achieve progressive national policies is not due to the EU. It is due to the incapacity of the progressive field to win popular consent.

This cannot be said often enough, especially on the left. Much can be done to reform the working of the EU, but this will only happen in a progressive way, when and if, the left can once again win popular consent. It will not do so by diverting time and effort into grand sloganizing and attempting to bypass the current EU institutions. The Council of Ministers is where real power in the EU lies. To reform the EU means that the left needs to enter government in a clear majority of the member states.

I agree very much with Lorenzo Marsili when he writes that the attacks on the EU by the left have more to do with justifying their political failure nationally than opening up a new field of action for their countries. Grandstanding on the European stage is no doubt satisfying and good for the ego, but it misses the target. This remains as ever, the need for the left to win power in the various national parliaments. DiEM would do better to focus on this challenge rather than issue a grandiose manifesto.


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Labour’s 1p tax is not anti austerity

Labour’s latest wheeze, to increase income tax for Scots by 1p, has attracted a fair bit of attention. It has not been universally welcomed and I am as yet unpersuaded. Others have gone into some detail about the proposal and how it might work, or not work as the case may be. I want to raise some fundamental objections to the proposal.

Contrary to what many from Labour have said, this is not an anti austerity measure. Cuts to public services are not the only way to impose austerity. Austerity is essentially taking money out of the economy.  Cutting the income of workers has the same effect. And raising income tax does precisely this – reduce the income of working people. It does not raise the amount of disposable money in the economy. If this money is then given to local authorities, there has been no effective change in the economy at all. It is simply a variation of robbing Peter to pay Paul. Now you may think this is a just way to preserve public services, but it has nothing to do with challenging, let alone reversing austerity.

Missing from Labour’s announcement is any mention of who is responsible for the austerity and the cuts to public services – the Tory government at Westminster. As a Unionist party, Labour clearly does not want to blame the Westminster government too much, as it would raise some awkward questions as to why Labour supported the Union. Much easier to blame it all on the SNP, ably supported by the media.

Effectively what Labour are proposing is that Scottish workers pay extra tax in order to ameliorate the cuts imposed by Westminster. Remember this extra tax is only to try and reverse the Tory cuts from Westminster. It is not to raise additional money for public services. As working people in Scotland, as in the rest of the UK, have already suffered years of frozen or stagnating wages, it is far from clear why we should be further burdened.

My final objection is that this proposal, if enacted, will set a very, very dangerous precedent. The one person rubbing his hands with glee about this will be George Osborne. If this goes through and Scots are willing to pay more just to offset Tory cuts, then why would he not make further cuts to the block grant? He will have had confirmation that his Unionist pals in Labour are only too willing to pass on the bill to working people in Scotland.

These cuts come from Westminster and any opposition to them must include opposition to Westminster.  Only independence ensures that we will have austerity imposed on us from elsewhere. Weren’t we supposed to be Better Together? Seems very much like Worse Together.

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What’s the point of a pro-indy majority at Holyrood?

Quite a lot has been written, and no doubt will continue to be written, about how best to achieve a pro-independence majority in the Scottish parliament. Should independentistas vote SNP on both the constituency and the regional votes? Or should they give their regional vote to one of the other pro indy parties – Greens, RISE, Solidarity? With the SNP still riding high in the polls, some argue that a regional vote for them will be wasted. So it would be better to vote tactically for one of the other pro indy parties. Others argue that tactical voting for the regional seats is just impossible. No one can really know in advance, and certainly not at this stage, just how well or poorly the SNP will actually do in the constituencies.

I find most of this to-ing and fro-ing a tad irritating. Just for the record I will cast my regional vote for the Greens. Nor out of any attempt at tactical voting, but because I am convinced by (most) of the policies offered by the Greens. On the other hand if you prefer the SNP, you should vote SNP both times. What is missing from all of this is just why a pro indy majority in the parliament is so important?

Again, to be clear, a pro-indy majority is important as only a pro indy majority can initiate another referendum. However is that all there is to it?  Another referendum may be a necessary requirement for independence, but the main challenge in the meantime is to persuade as many of the 55% who voted No, to change their minds. Having a  parliamentary majority to hold a referendum is not much use if we have not at the same time succeed in persuading a majority of the electorate to vote Yes.

My concern is that none of the pro indy parties are coming up with ideas on how to move forward. What can the next Scottish parliament and government do to move the debate forward? I would suggest there are at least four key areas in which the parliament can take the lead – a constitution, the transition to independence, the economy and international recognition.

An independent Scotland will need its own constitution. There is no reason why work on this cannot begin now. In Catalunya, their new parliament with its pro indy majority has established a study commission on a constitution. We could follow this line and set up a select committee of the parliament to prepare a draft constitution. An alternative would be to set up an independent Commission to develop a constitution. In both cases, an essential part of the remit would be to involve the public as actively as possible in the generation of the constitution. Any final decision would be taken by the parliament as a whole and then by the public in a referendum.

The transition to independence following a Yes vote in a future referendum will involve significant legal changes and some intensive negotiations with Westminster over important matters such as the national debt etc. The White Paper for the referendum outlined the range of issues that would need to be resolved. However the White Paper, necessarily, was just the proposals of the SNP. There is a broader pro indy movement, and it would be good to see all of this movement involved in discussing and preparing for a future transition to independence. Again this could be via a select committee or an independent Commission.

The economy was by broad agreement the area were the YES movement made least progress. This covered worries about the affordability of pensions, the importance or not, of North Sea revenues and the currency issue. Too many voters were unconvinced by our arguments and were more inclined to be swayed by the assertions of doom coming from the No side. Before any second referendum we must have first convinced a clear majority of the soundness and long term stability of the Scottish economy. Work needs to begin now. And this work needs to involve as many people as possible. Parliament and the government need to establish how this work will be done and to oversee it. This will ensure the work has credibility. Much preliminary work has already begun, but it needs to be brought together in one process.

International recognition was another area in which the YES side failed to convince a majority. Doubts about Scotland’s continuing membership of the EU in particular dominated much of the campaign. What I found most surprising was that the YES side had not managed to get any significant support from EU bodies nor from other member states. I find it hard to believe that everybody in the EU parliament or in all the governments and parliaments of other countries were adamantly opposed to Scottish independence.  After all in 2006 all the EU member states, including Spain, recognised the independence of little Montenegro, after its independence referendum. Not only that but newly independent Montenegro was almost immediately accepted as a candidate for EU membership. Unanimously, which means that Spain also voted to accept Montenegro.  It still seems incredible to me that we allowed to go unchallenged this notion that the EU would welcome Montenegro with open arms, but would reject Scotland. We need to find a way of establishing and maintaining formal and informal links with the EU parliament and the parliaments and governments of the other member states. The objective is to get at least some of the other states to publicly state that an independent Scotland would be welcomed within the EU. Similar links should also be established with other countries, especially with the USA and Commonwealth countries. It should not be too difficult to persuade the many countries that have become independent from Britain to support the wishes of the people of Scotland as expressed in a referendum.

I am strongly of the view that the new parliament, if there is a pro indy majority, needs to quickly get moving and establish select committees, Commissions or whatever, to carry out the necessary preparatory work for establishing an independent Scotland.


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