Should workers in Britain vote to Leave the EU?

The referendum on Britain’s continued membership of the EU takes place on Thursday 23 June. Aotearoa has been touched by the referendum in a couple of ways. Winston Peters has not hesitated to give the British the benefit of his advice. Rightwing, anti-immigrant populist that he is, Peters is for a Brexit. On Saturday 18 June this country’s news media widely reported an interview given to TV3 by the right-wing, anti-immigrant, ex-Tory Nigel Farage, the head of the UK Independence Party (UKIP). Farage said Commonwealth people such as New Zealanders will benefit from easier emigration to Britain if it leaves the EU. He argued that at present, under the EU, New Zealand migrants are disadvantaged by competition with southern and eastern Europeans to whom Britain’s borders are open. What Farage means by New Zealanders and the Commonwealth is, of course, the “kith and kin” White Commonwealth and those within it who can prove their descent from Britons.

The last referendum on whether the UK should stay in the Common Market, the forerunner of the EU, took place in 1975. On that occasion I voted to leave, which was the policy of the International Socialists, to which I belonged. That organisation, known as the Socialist Workers Party since 1977, holds the same position now as it did back then. In fact, the SWP is making a quite a deal out of the importance of taking a Leave position. This time round the referendum is dividing the British revolutionary left as a whole on which way to vote, but it is united on the more important question of opposition to racism and anti-immigration. Honourable positions have been made out for leave, remain or abstain. If I were still in Britain I would be for a Remain vote this time, the opposite of my stand in 1975. Here’s why.

Since 1975 is the balance of power between the classes has changed. Back then the British working class, the miners at its head, was at the height of its power since the 1926 General Strike. It had repeatedly humiliated the Heath Tory government of 1970-1974 that took the UK into Europe in 1972. It had installed a Labour government after a miners’ strike had finished the Tories off. The whole left; i.e. most unions, the Labour Left, the Communist Party and the far left, was in the Leave camp on the left-wing basis that the Common Market was a ‘Bosses Market’ and a potential fetter on a left reformist government. Notwithstanding major concessions to nationalism by the reformists and the communists, there was a left-wing campaign that could hold its own independently of the larger anti-European campaign of the Tory Right and assorted disappointed imperialists.

Today the balance of power is completely changed. Gone are the deep left-wing roots in a vibrant union movement. Gone is much of the Left full stop. Reformism in its various guises has long since swung to a pro-EU position. The unions switched to a pro-EU stand in the 1980s when Thatcherite neo-liberal destruction was to the right of the EU’s slower pace of neo-liberalism and seeming progressivism. The leave campaign today is dominated the racist, anti-immigrant Right. Gallant that the internationalist left-wing leave campaign is, in reality it is isolated and has little reach into the working class.

Europe has divided the Tories since the beginnings of the Common Market in the 1950s. The right-wing racists, mourners of the loss of the British Empire, have constantly been against European unity. Broadly, the Tory Right have always rallied the small-business class to their side, whereas Big Business has rallied to the Tory mainstream and European membership. The reason we are having a referendum at all is because the Tories gave in to the anti-immigrant pressure coming from UKIP and made it an election pledge. More than ever, European unity is a subject for contention within the Right.

The EU is a political and economic alliance of capitalist states. From a working class point of view there is no question of principle involved in membership of the EU. The neo-liberal, austerity-imposing EU, Fortress Europe, is not an institution that socialists can support. Neither can we support the right-wing, racist anti-Europe camp. Both are horrendous, both anti-immigrant and anti-working class.

Regarding the question of where socialists stand on Thursday’s vote, the decisive factor is the specific situation facing the British working class. Whilst the prospect of the Cameron government falling after a Leave victory on Thursday is superficially attractive, it would be a mistake not to recognise that an even greater danger to the working class than the current Tory government is possible. A referendum win for the leave position will be a massive political victory for reactionaries. In the circumstances, without conceding to the idea that the EU is in any way progressive, socialists must take a stand against the dangers of xenophobia and a racist-right re-alignment. That means voting against the Leave proposition that belongs to UKIP and the right-wing of the Tory party.