The referendum on whether or not Britain should remain in the European Union was called in response to demands from the right wing Eurosceptics in the Tory Party.
If Cameron’s plan was to heal long standing divisions over the European Union within his party, it is clear – and was always predictably so – that it is having absolutely the opposite effect. The Tories have been tearing strips off each other in a very public fashion. Whatever the vote on June 23 it’s difficult to see how people who have essentially been calling each other liars and charlatans will be able to work together in government.
In terms of the polls, remain has a small lead but there is certainly no room for complacency from those of us arguing for remain. The grassroots of the leave campaign is more motivated and it might be that their supporters who don’t vote in other elections, and are less likely to participate in surveys turn out on this occasion. In contrast the lead for remain is strongest amongst young people – but the likelihood of voting at all is lowest amongst this group .[i] There is a lot left to fight for.
The referendum campaign took off after local and regional elections on May 5. Those arguing for Brexit, including Boris Johnson, who has cast off his comic slightly apolitical persona and is clearly positioning himself for the forthcoming Tory leadership contest, focus on the question of migration, in a deeply xenophobic and racist way.
Their latest focus is the question of Turkey’s presumed accession to the EU. The spectre of this large country full of Muslims ( for which read all the bile of the vitriolic campaign against Sadiq Khan for London Mayor multiplied many times) is dangled at the electorate who have been told that zero hour contracts and benefit cuts are the lot they have to put up with.
The Brexiters made headway in the polls after a ridiculous intervention from Cameron in which he claimed “World War 3” could result from Britain leaving the EU. That sort of catastrophism which has also been wheeled out over the economy is counterproductive – and raises the memory of Project Fear. The SNP’s Nicola Sturgeon was right to complain that Cameron’s arguments about the economic consequences of exit risk alienating people.
The campaign is moving political discourse to the right – in particular generating levels of overt racism in the media that have not been seen since the 1970s.
The left is split over how to vote in the referendum – and over the analysis of the surrounding situation.
For Remain there is the left-wing campaign – called Another Europe is Possible (AEIP) – which includes Left Unity and the Greens, some on the left of Labour including Shadow Chancellor John McDonnell and a range of individual trade unionists and campaigners. Socialist Resistance supports this campaign although our critique of the European Union is sharper than that of many other AEIP supporters . We call for a vote to remain and a detailed explanation of our position is here.
AEIP is organising a major tour of public meetings across Britain to put the case. AEIP supports staying in on a different political basis to the Cameron campaign; for a social Europe, a Europe of the people and arguing for greater democracy. The left wing Fire Brigades Union also voted through a position of ‘stay in Europe to change Europe’ at its national conference in May and indeed the majority of individual trade unions as well as the TUC support remain.
The position being put by Jeremy Corbyn for Labour is very similar. Corbyn spoke powerfully at a Labour rally in which 3 signed up members of AEIP were on the platform with him, in which he turned his fire on Cameron and the Tory government.
There was speculation when Corbyn was elected as Labour leader that he would support an exit vote in the referendum given his long standing opposition to many of the policies and actions of the European Union. Then the suggestion was that when he said he was supporting remain, this was not his own position but one which he was just taking to quell arguments within the Labour Party.
There are two threads to this confusion. The mainstream media and commentators approach the referendum debate from a totally binary point of view, that you either have to be a Euroenthusiast and therefore support remain or a Eurosceptic and support exit. Then there are those on the left who are arguing for exit today, who do so on the basis of arguments from the 1970s as if the context and the consequences of a particular decision are irrelevant. They assumed that Corbyn would have the same approach and can’t accept he has a different position.
It is interesting that Jeremy Corbyn Is more trusted on the EU than Cameron – and at the same time his view is more important to Labour voters than that of any other figure[ii]. This mirrors the experience that we have had putting forward Socialist Resistance’s position – meeting people who instinctively wanted to vote to remain but felt concerned that they were being soft on the EU institutions and the damage they wrought – in Greece for example. They have been relieved to see there are others with the same view.
For exit there is the campaign – supported by the Communist Party of Britain, the Socialist Worker’s Party and some other smaller groups which calls itself ‘Lexit’, whle the Socialist Party have their own exit campaign through TUSC. Indeed it’s probably the case that a majority of those that identify with the radical left are supporting exit at this point. Of course they attempt to separate themselves from the xenophobes but are drowned out by them.
There is also the Labour Leave campaign, fronted by MPs Kate Hoey and Kelvin Hopkins but also supported by some trade unionists, including the left led Bakers Union. They ignore the question of migration almost completely in their 8 page glossy booklet but instead lead on security and the pledge of car manufacturer Toyota not to withdraw from Britain after Brexit! Hardly left wing arguments.
It’s deeply worrying that the Lexit campaign have the treated the effect of an exit vote on the position of EU nationals living in Britain as of little importance. In their arguments for Brexit?, the SWP wrongly claim that “Almost two thirds of foreign nationals in Britain are from outside the EU and would be unaffected.” In fact a majority of the non-UK citizens living in the UK are from EU countries (2.57 vs 2.42 million), with Poland topping the list (736,000).? This can be found in?this link?(first file listed, tables 2.1 and 2.3). [iii]
But beyond a dispute about numbers, the argument here is complacent. EU nationals living in Britain certainly feel their position is in jeopardy. That’s one of the reasons why many active in the remain campaign are people from other parts of Europe – people who, unless they are also from a Commonwealth country[iv], won’t actually be able to vote on June 23, despite the fact that their future will be dramatically affected by the outcome.
In practice the vote on June 23 is seen by most people as a vote on migration. A vote for Brexit would strengthen the racists and make the situation worse for all migrants – and those assumed to be migrants because their appearance, name or religious practices don’t conform to the reactionary myth of what it is to be ‘British’ in the 21st century.
Another question on which some left wing campaigners for exit have focused on the question of TTIP, and particularly the impact that this reactionary treaty would have on Britain’s National Health Service. Health campaigners have pointed out the contradictions of this argument – the mainstream Brexiters are precisely those people who are driving privatisation of the NHS. And the reason that the NHS is under stress today is because Britain spends a lower proportion of GDP on health than most other developed countries.
Of course it’s absolutely right to oppose TTIP, which is in effect, as Nick Dearden explained in the Guardian a radical agenda for deregulation. The campaign in against TTIP in Britain hasn’t reached anything like the scale in has in many other parts of Europe – particularly Germany where it has been a huge issue.
Support for TTIP in Germany is at less than 20% whereas the majority of non-activists here probably have no idea what the treaty is about if they know it exists while both candidates in the second round of the Austrian presidential race said they would block implementation. The original plan was that the treaty would be ratified by now – but campaigners have managed to throw many spokes in the work.
Dearden rightly points out that Britain is already more of a paradise for big business than most other European countries – neoliberalism has gone much further. He also notes that in order to remain in the single market Britain would have to adopt most of the provisions of TTIP. And the reality is that TTIP is one of a series of free trade agreements across the globe and following Brexit, a right wing Britain would be clamouring to be part of such agreements.
These are some of the reasons Socialist Resistance thinks that it is a big mistake to support an exit vote in this referendum and that a vote for exit would have very serious consequences in Britain and beyond.
This is not because we have any brief for the EU. In fact we agree with most of what the Lexiters say about it. It is an anti-working class construct designed to help the members states more effectively exploit their workforce and drive through the neoliberal agenda. We are unambiguous about that.
The real face of the EU is the role it has played in Greece where it impoverished the population in the name of the neoliberal agenda – and it will do the same to any other member state that steps out of line.
It fact we are in principle for exit from the EU – but that does not mean that we are for exit whatever the circumstances and whatever the consequences!
This is not an exit proposition by a left-wing government in order to break free from EU imposed austerity for example, but an exit proposition as a part of a right-wing xenophobic project which can only have right-wing xenophobic outcome.
The Lexit campaign argues that exit is a way of defeating Cameron. The problem is that standing in the wings are even more strident right wingers like Boris Johnson.
The idea that an exit vote would be result in a Corbyn – Labour government beggars reality – but that is what they suggest. This is taking optimism to disastrous levels. When did a victory for the right result in an advance for the left?
From this point of view we also don’t think that Paul Mason’s call on Question Time that if there is a vote for Exit on June 23 the left should demand a General election (an argument also made by Dave Nellist in his letter to the Guardian in response to an article from Mason explaining why he won’t campaign for Brexit.
Of course it’s true that the Tories are deeply divided over Europe – they have been for decades although the fissures are getting deeper. A general election called after a victory for the right in the referendum, with Jeremy Corbyn on the losing side would create the very real potential of a majority Tory government with an even more right wing leadership – and in power for even longer than this one.
The problem for the Lexit campaign is that there is not Lexit on offer. The only exit on offer will be led by the hard right and the consequences would be disastrous, pushing the political situation to the right. It would be seen as (and claimed as) as endorsement of racism and anti-immigration policies. It would boost the right not only here but across Europe.
An exit under the conditions of this referendum would set back working class struggle rather than advance it.
It is a very dangerous situation given the closeness of the polls. Those on the left who are thinking on voting for exit under these conditions should think again about going down a road which will strengthen the right and the racists both here in Britain and across Europe
[iii] The data is a bit messy: it does not include people who live in “communal dwellings”, like halls of residence, hostels, boarding houses and caravan sites, so it will miss a lot of international students, but also tens of thousands of EU migrant – and especially seasonal – workers. But they are no so far our as to get to 2/3:1/3, where there would have to be 900,000 fewer EU-citizen migrants AND 900,000 more non-EU ones.
[iv] Republic of Ireland, Malta and Cyprus