The Left and Brexit

In June 2016 I wrote two short pieces for a New Zealand audience that were published on the ISO website. One of these was written just before, and the other just after, the British referendum on whether to remain or leave the European Union. In the first piece I put the argument for voting remain. The second article was on the interpretation of the referendum result, and I made the case that the sections of the British Left that advocated leave had blundered. I drew a parallel with the mistake of the German Communist Party over the 1931 referendum on the continuance of the Social Democratic government of Prussia. This article expands my analysis to take into account what has happened since. The previous efforts, and this article, are my personal opinion. The ISO does not have a position on Brexit.

The Brexit crisis is far from over and this seems a good time to look at the question again now that over three years have elapsed since the referendum and a stage is marked by Boris Johnson being elected by the Tories as their party leader in the House of Commons, and therefore he has become the prime minister.

The first referendum on whether the UK should stay in the EU (or the EEC as it then was) took place in 1975. On that occasion I voted to leave, which was the policy of the International Socialists to which I belonged.

At that time, the British working class, the miners at its head, had repeatedly humiliated the 1970-1974 Tory government of Prime Minister Edward Heath that took the UK into the EEC. The working class had installed a Labour government after a miners’ strike finished the Tories off. Practically the whole of the left: the left and centre leaderships of the unions, the Labour left, the Communist Party and the revolutionary left, was in the leave camp on the basis that the EEC was a “Bosses Market”. The Communist Party was then still a force, especially within union structures. The revolutionary left was far stronger than it is today. Notwithstanding concessions to nationalism by the reformists and the communists, there was a campaign of the working-class movement that was quite distinct from an anti-Europe campaign of Tory rightists, disappointed imperialists and fascists. The electorate voted 2:1 for remain, as advocated by the rightwing of Labour and the mainstream of the Tory Party.

The revolutionary left leavers today, such as the SWP (formerly the International Socialists), argue that the EU is a neoliberal organisation whose rules would restrict a leftwing government in nationalising industries. The choice between EU membership and national sovereignty was not the issue for the International Socialists in 1975. Their aim was to influence left-reformist workers to the revolutionary programme. The IS declared:

In this situation, our place is firmly and unequivocally in the ‘NO’ camp. Our task is to wage an aggressive internationalist and revolutionary propaganda within that camp, a camp which will include the vast majority of class conscious workers. We must utilise every opportunity to play a leading part in any referendum campaign (including probably organisational participation) and to draw closer to the left social-democratic workers (most of whom will not be active LP people) and to fight for our perspective and programme amongst them.

The IS did not oppose the EU on the basis that its neoliberal restrictions made it more reactionary than the British state. They said:

The reformist left is quite right to argue that EEC membership is incompatible with a socialist planned economy. Of course it is. The whole object of the EU is to strengthen West European capitalism. But it is hardly the EEC Commission or the Treaty of Rome that constitute the immediate road-blocks holding up the ‘advance to socialism’. Nor is it ‘loss of national sovereignty’. The British capitalist state machine, headed by the government of James Harold Wilson [Labour], is way out in front of them. And if foreign intervention were to become the big threat, then NATO – about which messrs Benn, Foot and Shore [left Labour MPs] are remarkably silent – is the real menace, not the unarmed bureaucrats of Brussels.  

In 2016, however, the left was split. The Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party and descendants of the old Communist Party took the same leave position as in 1975. Momentum, most unions, Socialist Resistance (the British section of the Fourth International) and Left Unity were for remain. Labour was for remain, but Labour Leader Jeremy Corbyn’s campaign was luke-warm.

Since 1975 the balance of power between the classes in Britain has radically changed. Workers do not now think in terms of union action toppling governments. Wayne Asher has said:

No-one I suppose, doubts that the left was ­immeasurably weaker than in 1975, both in numbers, size of periphery and in class implantation. There is no controversy about why this dispiriting fact should be so; the long downturn, now of historical length, massive de-industrialisation and the failure to unionise the vast number of new workers derived from technological change (in the IT and telecoms industries for example).

Another significant change is in the economic relationship between Britain and the EU, which, incidentally, has grown from 6 states, before the accession of Britain, Ireland and Denmark in 1973, to 27 states today. At the time of the 1975 referendum Britain still had a huge industrial base, albeit underinvested in and outmoded. There was a British motor industry, coal industry, ship-building and a major steel industry. This was before the industrial destruction wreaked by Margaret Thatcher. The British economy was not integrated into the European economy as it is today. Pulling out of the EU in 1975 would not have had the devastating impact on jobs that is predicted should Britain leave now. It is because of the economic impact that the support for Brexit is divided between a soft Brexit and hard Brexit. The aim of a soft Brexit is to soften the blow by transitioning from EU rules and negotiating replacement terms of trade.

Yet another significant change is that back in 1975 there was hardly any movement of labour between Britain and EU countries, and there were far fewer foreign nationals all told living in the UK. In the year ending December 2018 there were 6.1 million foreign nationals living in the UK, including 3.7 million EU citizens. There were 785,000 British citizens living in other EU countries.

Despite the changes in working-class organisation and class consciousness, Britain’s economic relations and the internationalisation of the labour market that have taken place over the last four decades, the pro-leave left has not adapted. The unions switched to a pro-EU stand in the 1980s when that EU critic Margaret Thatcher was successfully waging a neoliberal class war against Britain’s workers. The Thatcher government was to the right of the EU, which made minimal EU workforce and environmental regulation appear relatively progressive. The EU’s neoliberal class war was less radical than that being waged in Britain.

European integration has divided the Tories since the beginnings of the EU in the 1950s. The racists and mourners of the loss of the British Empire have constantly been against it. The 2016 referendum came out of anti-immigrant, anti-EU pressure coming from UKIP and the Tory right. To reduce the haemorrhage of votes to UKIP, Tory Prime Minister Cameron attempted to put the issue to bed by conceding the referendum that he assumed would back EU membership.

The EU is a political and economic alliance of capitalist states. The neoliberal, austerity-imposing, Fortress Europe EU is not an institution that socialists can support. Neither can we endorse an un-allied “sovereign” British state outside the EU. Whatever the formation, the British state is an instrument of the ruling capitalist class. In all cases, workers in Britain have to struggle for their own class interests, and cardinal to success in their struggles is anti-racist, internationalist class unity.

But while the European alliance is not a fundamental question for the working class, it is for the nationalists and racists. Therefore, for defensive reasons – to combat the threat from the hard right and fascists – the left has to take a position on the greatest political issue of the day and exploit the crisis in the bourgeois camp. Without doubt the decisive issue is to push back against the racism and xenophobia peddled by Tories, UKIP/Brexit Party and fascists. The left organisations must ask themselves whether a leave or remain position best aligns with left-inclined workers and young people to win them to action in the cause of unity between all workers in Britain.

Just before the 2016 referendum I wrote:

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.

Unfortunately, this forecast turned out to be correct. After the referendum incidents of racist violence immediately increased. The Tory Party swung to the right under Theresa May. And now we have a Boris Johnson government packed with hard-right Tories whose programme for a “no-deal” Brexit is the same as Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. Indeed, Farage has now called for an electoral pact with the Tories in a general election.

Interpretations of the 2016 referendum result by parts of the revolutionary left were wildly unreal. They played down hostility to immigrants and built up a legend of a working-class anti-austerity, anti-establishment vote. Only they forgot that anti-establishment-ism can go to the radical right or to the radical left. There was an element of anti-establishment-ism in the leave vote, although the Vote Leave campaign was fronted by Tories Boris Johnson and Michael Gove, hardly anti-establishment figures. It was not a working-class vote in character and it was only partly a working-class vote in composition. All those elements that you would expect in a leftwing working-class vote were missing from the leave vote: winning the major cities, young people, trade unionists, Labour Party members, black and Muslim workers. Two-thirds of leave voters in the referendum had voted Tory or UKIP in the 2015 general election.

The leave position today is dominated by the racist, anti-immigrant right. Its raucous volume completely drowns out any left arguments for leave. These are not the right times for a leftwing campaign to leave the EU. Brexit is a rightwing issue. A look around Europe only confirms that the far right owns the anti-EU franchise. As Neil Faulkner has put it:

Let us be clear. Brexit is the British expression of the wave of nationalism, racism, and fascism sweeping the world. Brexit is a clear and present danger to every EU migrant living and working in Britain. Brexit is a green light to every closet fascist who wants to punch a Muslim (or worse). Brexit is the political lightning-rod of Tommy Robinson, Nigel Farage, Boris Johnson, Jacob Rees-Mogg, and their following of street thugs and bar-room bigots.

The revolutionary left leavers have failed to detect which way the wind is blowing. Since the 2016 referendum young and progressive people have taken to the streets to demand a re-vote. One million marched in March this year, an increase on the 700,000 who marched last October. Both marches were the second-biggest in British history. But the left has been absent from the pro-remain movement and has ceded leadership to the Blairites and Liberal Democrats. Faulkner again:

Instead of supporting the anti-Brexit movement as a progressive, multi-cultural, anti-racist mass movement which the Left should be trying to influence, they turn their backs on millions of ordinary people, including millions of young people, black and white, women and men, who should be the audience for any serious anti-fascist Left.

The failure of Jeremy Corbyn and the larger groups of the revolutionary left to give an anti-racist, pro-free movement lead against the hard right to fascist spectrum, by taking a comprehensible internationalist position against Brexit, has been tragic. Under Corbyn’s leadership Labour has sat on the fence over the demand for another referendum, a Peoples’ Vote that includes the option of remain. Had Corbyn and the entire left put themselves at the head of the pro-remain movement, the Liberal Democrats would not have been thrown the life-line it has gleefully grasped and the Blairites would have been kept marginalised.

At the time of writing, the latest opinion poll has Labour on 19 percent, down from regularly hitting around 40 percent just a few months ago. This is the price of fence-sitting on the question that dominates political life in Britain. Over the same period, the Liberal Democrats, championing remain, have climbed from single figures to 23 percent. The remain position of the Greens has helped them get up to 9 percent. In fact, on opinion polling, if Labour was counted for remain there would be a remain majority composed of Labour, Lib-Dems, Greens, Scottish National Party and Plaid Cymru. It is quite possible that a general election is called within the next few months and the Tories, the Brexit Party and Brexit are beaten.

An alternative scenario is that, somehow, a Brexit, possibly a hard “no-deal” Brexit, is achieved. A hard Brexit would have an immediate impact on jobs. The hard brexiteers prescription for the economy is ultra-neoliberalism and repression. Yet parts of the revolutionary left are leaving themselves open to being tarred with this Brexit brush.

The pro-Leave left in Britain have blundered by supporting a project driven by the hard right. A good analogy is with the 1931 referendum in Prussia, which accounted for more than half of Germany. The referendum was a fascist move to unseat the Social Democratic government of Prussia headed by Otto Braun. The Social Democrats were the crutch to the federal government headed by Brüning of the Centre Party. The German Communist Party joined in this initiative of the extreme-right German National Party (Hugenberg) and Nazis and dubbed it the ‘Red Referendum’. The combined Communist and fascist efforts failed to get a majority in the referendum.

Trotsky bitterly criticised the Communists for its united front with the fascists. Trotsky wrote:

We have not the slightest grounds for supporting Braun’s government, for taking even a shadow of responsibility for it before the masses, or even for weakening by one iota our political struggle against the government of Bruening and its Prussian agency. But we have still less ground for helping the fascists to replace the government of Bruening-Braun. For, if we quite justly accuse the Social Democracy of paving the road to fascism, then our own task can least of all consist of shortening this road for fascism.

Trotsky said that the coincidence of voting with the fascists should not be considered from the point of view of an abstract principle. He said that if the referendum was a springboard for a “revolutionary leap” by the working class to take power, then the fascist vote would not signify. “Only”, Trotsky said,

the possibility of actually making the jump must be there, not in words but in deeds. The problem is consequently reduced to the relationship of forces. To come out into the streets with the slogan “Down with the Bruening-Braun government” at a time when, according to the relationship of forces, it can only be replaced by a government of Hitler-Hugenberg, is sheerest adventurism.

The hard right in Britain was strengthened by the 2016 referendum result. They have now removed Theresa May, having blocked her efforts to achieve a “soft” Brexit, and installed themselves as the government. They could be knocked back the most effectively by the whole left throwing itself into solidarity with anti-racists in the remain movement and turn the tables by the election of a Corbyn government and stopping Brexit. That would wipe the smiles off the faces of Johnson, Farage, Salvini, Le Pen, Bannon, Trump and fascists that have relished the anti-EU movements being driven by nationalism and racism.