- Interview by
Tomorrow, the United Kingdom will hold a referendum on whether to remain a member of the European Union. While the reformist left, centered around Jeremy Corbyn’s Labour and the Green Party, are largely for staying in, those identifying as radicals or revolutionaries widely consider the EU to be an antidemocratic, unreformable institution.
The European Union has acted as an uncompromising vehicle of neoliberalism — both economically, in its forced imposition of austerity on Greece and several other member states, and institutionally, in its hollowing out of democratic governance.
Meanwhile, the free movement of EU citizens across its internal borders has been accompanied by the increasing militarization of its outer frontier. Those trying to reach the continent die in the thousands in the Mediterranean, or are forcibly removed to an increasingly authoritarian Turkey, in which they are denied any possibility of refugee status.
But what may seem a simple choice for the Left is complicated by the current political conjuncture. This referendum was demanded by the Right and has been dominated by the Right, highlighting the degree to which the material experience and public perception of the EU varies greatly between member states.
In Britain, neoliberal austerity is an entirely home-grown product. As a result, the EU is popularly imagined not as the imposer of reactionary economics, but as an imposition on the sovereignty of a British state which could otherwise “control its borders,” keep out immigrants, and free the petit bourgeoisie of the minimal rights guaranteed to workers under European law.
The immediate beneficiaries of a Leave vote would be the Tory right, the far-right United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP), and even more unsavory and openly racist forces; migrants feel under threat, and rightly so.
In a horrific testament to the volatility of today’s atmosphere, Labour MP Jo Cox was recently gunned down in broad daylight. She was known as a politician who defended migrants and refugees, as well as campaigning for Palestinian causes and aid for Syria. The man arrested for her murder, Thomas Mair, was influenced by fascist ideology: in court, he gave his name as “death to traitors, freedom for Britain.”
The Left is stuck between remaining within an institution antithetical to our aims, and gambling that we can turn the period of crisis which would undoubtedly follow a Leave vote to our advantage.
If this gamble is seen as too great, what does it say about the self-confidence, organizational capacity, and political horizons of the British left? If it is taken, what is the process whereby a blow for the British and European ruling class is translated into an opportunity for progressive, rather than reactionary, politics?
Much has been written about the fragmentation — even “Pasokification” — of the old social-democratic parties. But this referendum has come about mainly due to a fragmentation of the British right. What explains the split within the Conservative Party, the Right more generally, and British capital itself, with regards to the European Union?
The issue divides the Right. The leaders of the main right-wing party, the Conservatives, favor staying; the leaders of the second right-wing party, UKIP, favor exit.
The Conservative Party members of Parliament (MPs) include 100 government ministers (who receive a salary which depends on their continuing support for the government) plus a further 220 backbench MPs in Parliament. Of the backbenchers, a majority have declared their intention to vote to leave the EU (113-90 at the last count).
These political splits reflect splits in society. Polls of senior managers in large companies show a narrow majority in favor of stay. Polls of small business owners show greater support for leave.
In terms of the political divide, this is partially related to the fact that the UK joined the EU late, twenty years after its establishment. As a late joiner, the UK was incapable of becoming the European hegemon, and on the Right there was always a feeling that membership represented an equivocal bargain.
Joining in 1973 was an acknowledgment that the British Empire had been consigned to history and the cost of this admission could not be wholly compensated by increased opportunities for trade.
From the mid-1980s, the Thatcher government began to rail against the EU and splits over Europe were, in parliamentary terms, the cause of her final departure. A significant wing of Conservative opinion regarded this moment as a betrayal and has looked ever since for revenge.
There was always a mythic component to this argument — as late as 1987 Thatcher had approved the Single European Act; she was no unequivocal anti-European.
However, anti-Europeanism acquired a popular base of support in the 1990s and 2000s, in response to press stories which maintained that the British people were suffering under the enormous burden of regulatory European laws. This generated the social split among business owners and managers that I referred to above.
The most important of the supposed burdens on business have been employment laws which increase the bargaining power of labor: laws limiting the working week, laws entitling workers to consultation and compensation on redundancy, antidiscrimination laws, etc.
If you’re a manager in a company that employs 1000 people, these laws are neutral, as they prevent your competitors from undercutting you. If you are the owner of a small business, it is easier to convince yourself that your business would be booming were it not for these regulations.
While not all small businesses are anti-EU (even some small business trade in the EU) people with this background play a considerable part in the local associations of the Conservative Party and UKIP.
How has the media debate been affected by the fact that the Right has driven this referendum? How does that affect how the Left should approach it? Presumably you agree with many of the criticisms “Lexit” campaigners level at the EU, but do you think that there is any realistic chance of “exiting to the left” as things stand?
We live in a moment when “politics” means migration, which means race. The EU is a trading zone in which all citizens have a complete freedom to migrate and all restrictions on migration are unlawful.
Therefore, whenever exit campaigners have sought to mobilize their base they have done so by quietly or openly making racist arguments against migration.
The supporters of Remain have responded with a loud outrage of negative campaigning, emphasizing the costs of departure, the threats to business if Britain votes to leave, etc.
In the referendum it feels like we are being offered — and indeed we are being offered — a choice only between two different routes to neoliberalism.
If you were trying to create a leftist majority in Britain you would start with three main groups of people: trade unionists, nonunion migrant workers, and the young. Migrants don’t have the vote in this election.
Most active trade unionists are choosing between a stay position (encouraged by the Labour Party and almost all unions on a lesser-evil basis) and not voting for either of two unpleasant camps.
Polls of young voters show a huge majority for stay; my own sense, however, is that this is more than balanced by an equal feeling of contempt for both groups of right-wingers who dominate the campaign on either side.
We do have some experience in Britain of the ruling class losing control of referenda, and the referenda taking on a new social meaning. This happened in Scotland two years ago where a vote to leave became the way of expressing a rejection of politics as they are.
There is a very muted hint of a similar rejectionist aspect to exit voting in this referendum, but it is a rejectionism of the Right — a vote to diminish workers’ and migrant’s rights.
A lot is said on both sides of the debate about the legal and constitutional implications of EU membership and withdrawal. This ranges from perhaps naive statements from reformists to the effect that the EU is the major guarantor of workers’ rights, environmental protection, and so on, to the opposite claim made by some on the hard left that EU legislation has very little, or no, real value whatsoever.
What’s the truth of this? Surely any real analysis has to identify exactly what would be at threat in the event of Brexit and start organizing to defend and extend existing legal rights. Similarly, to what extent are these legal rights at risk of roll-back even if we stay in the EU?
For six years, the Conservative government has been trying to roll back particular rights. Three very specific examples of what they have attempted to attack are the rights to benefits of migrants from states which have newly joined the EU, the rights of all workers on redundancy, and the panoply of rights contained within the European Convention of Human Rights.
And for six years, they have failed. In each case, the obstacle has been that these rights are in legal terms constitutionalized by treaties which are not solely of domestic origin and which Parliament is powerless to reject, except by taking at the same time other, major constitutional steps (in the first two cases, leaving the European Union, and in the third case, leaving the Council of Europe, membership of which is required under EU membership).
There is nothing naive in characterizing this battle as an argument between “rights” and “non-rights” in which membership of the European Union has been a significant obstacle to the Right and to a UK state which otherwise likes to regard itself as sovereign.
The naievete of (say) Labour’s Remain position does not rest in seeing the EU (from the perspective of the working class in Britain in 2016) as a shield. Rather it is located in a failure to say clearly that this is only one part of how the EU is experienced.
The EU is also a device to encourage free trade between European states. It is also subject to massive lobbying by the Right, and there are parts of the EU which have been captured for austerity politics.
It is a consistent feature of relationships between the EU core and periphery, that budgeting arrangements have been more and more “Europeanized,” that in EU country after EU country, the EU is operating as a device for privatization and the destruction of trade union rights.
The only reason why we don’t notice this dynamic in Britain is that we are already, as a result of domestic politics, a pioneer of neoliberalism and other states (and the EU institutions) are struggling to catch up with us.
Leftists voting (reluctantly) for Remain often evoke potential attacks on the status of EU citizens living and working in the UK as their major motivation; in response, “Lexit” campaigners raise the slogan of “solidarity with all migrants and refugees,” not just those from EU countries, in the hope that a vote to leave will disrupt the EU border regime and the EU as a whole. What are your thoughts on this point?
Supporters of the left exit position typically misunderstand how migration to Britain works. They see the UK as part of an EU and imagine that what is happening is a dynamic of white migration to the UK with a high boundary at the edges of the EU prohibiting people of African or Asian ancestry entering the EU at all, long before they get to Britain.
They don’t understand that a very large amount of contemporary migration happens in stages. From the perspective of a person living in Kabul or Kinshasa, the borders of the EU (policed as they are) are much, much lower than the borders around the UK.
So a person from Kinshasa will fly to Holland and make an application for asylum there. This application has some prospect of success in Amsterdam and much less in London. Having acquired EU rights in Holland, that person is then free to move to the UK.
After family migration to the UK, a second main source of non-EU migration to the UK happens under EU law. If Britain does vote by a majority for exit, we will be a whiter country in the future.
You have written of a Remain vote as the lesser of two evils. But even if this is true in the short-term, in the long-term — and leaving the EU, should it happen, will be a long-term process — might a “leave” vote open up more space for struggle? The ruling class is largely in favor of Remain; a Leave vote would mean that they have to go through a period of partial reorganization politically, institutionally, and legally. Various parts of UK law and policy will be “up for grabs,” and although they will try to do this in a neoliberal and racist direction, these will also be occasions of potential struggle.
If the opening to a new situation of political instability has to come about through a big victory for the press, the parties, and the people of the Right, then it is unlikely that the instability which follows will assist the Left.
People sometimes think that the only class which struggles is the working class, but the petty bourgeois is a fighting class too. There is a whole long, finely worked-out history of left theory which explains what happens when social reactionaries begin to rage against a status quo.
The idea is not that we accommodate to them but that we defeat them and we create different grounds of struggle, and compel them to rally behind our banners.
There is an equally long history of the Left experimenting with shortcuts which fudged the difference between movements for and against human liberation, the results have never been pretty.
If the process through which this referendum has been brought about and the political forces which stand to gain from a Leave vote make campaigning for Lexit unviable at present, how likely do you think it is that we will have another referendum in the foreseeable future, perhaps in more favorable conditions?
The country’s second main party, Labour, is now led by Jeremy Corbyn, a democratic socialist. If he becomes prime minister in 2020 and he finds his way blocked by the EU then he can decide that there should be a second referendum.
I can imagine an argument that we shouldn’t have two referenda on the same topic in five years but I doubt it would be compelling. After all, who would be making it?
Aimed against Corbyn would be a right which has opposed membership of the EU for many years. It would be an extraordinary piece of opportunism for them to come out suddenly as the champions of EU legality.
Is your decision to vote Remain a purely negative one, based on the “lesser of two evils” logic? Or do you see any positive case for serious reform of the EU? Do movements with this as their central aim have any value, or are they simply wasting energy?
Some EU reforms (free movement) are historic, others (workers’ rights) were enacted as recently as the late 1990s and early 2000s. Until the governments of the EU adopted austerity in 2008, the EU was reformable.
That period has, however, ended. If there is going to be a route for the reform of the EU in future it will not come about through the center-left or center-right of European politics, both of which agree in seeing the reform period as over.
Even if the center-left won a series of national elections, it has no program for reform. Conversely, while people in the new European lefts (Podemos, Syriza, etc) have reform projects, they are a tiny minority on the European stage.
Do you think that it is fair, as some on the Left have done, to characterize the “leave”/“remain” split within the Left as a divide between real revolutionaries and reformists? Do you think that the Left on either side has a clear idea of what a practical long-term strategy would look like?
What then is the most realistic road ahead if the result of the referendum is to remain within an institution that you consider unreformable? Is, perhaps, the best starting point to build unity around principles such as (EU and non-EU) migrant rights and anti-austerity, rather than treating the referendum as a point of principle as such, considering that we are likely to face attacks on these areas to various degrees whatever the outcome of the vote?
I hope the Left can reunite at the end of the election, and doing so around the rights of migrants would be a principled basis. That said, there are reasons the Left has been split over the referendum and the split or similar ones may recur.
We inherit a series of unspoken assumptions about how politics works which were formed in a different epoch. In the next twenty years in Britain, politics will not be only about the battle between center-left and center-right.
At one time, these two parties had 95 percent of the vote, now it’s 65 percent. That portion will fall. At one point the large majority of British workers had their terms and conditions negotiated by a union; that portion is now below a quarter.
It is unlikely that the working class will reestablish that social weight soon. All over the world, we are seeing the growth of parties of the far right, not fascist in origin but unpleasant all the same.
In Britain, we are going to have find ways of dealing, again and again, with controversies in which class seems to be a subordinate issue. We have to learn to distinguish between anti-political trends worth fighting with, and ones that we have to resist.
Finally, what do you think are the strongest left-wing arguments for Leave? What are the weakest? And could you still change your mind as to which way to vote?
I haven’t voted yet, although I am a postal voter — the form has been waiting on my desk for a week and I still haven’t completed it. I don’t like the present austerity EU and I have a firm sense of its most likely direction of travel — towards further cuts.
The strongest argument I have heard for Leave is that the Left risks becoming the advocates of the “diversity” aspect of neoliberalism, and therefore of neoliberalism itself, and that in doing this the Left is vacating the terrain of class which the Right will occupy.
I do not accept this as a valid criticism of socialist supporters of Remain in this referendum, who have a keen sense of the defeat that exit and the roll-back of employment law which will follow would mean for workers of every ethnicity.
But I have shared platforms with the representatives of other European left-wing parties who I think do fall into this trap, and where people do, it seems to me a strategy for permanent marginalization.
The weakest argument I have heard from socialist advocates of Leave is the absence of any explanation as to why a large exit vote would make our tasks easier. The purpose of an exit vote is to enable the repatriation of rights from the EU to the UK state in order to restrict the rights of migrants.
If there is a decisive exit victory, then this will be interpreted by politicians and by the public as a vote for the speeding-up of austerity. Why should a victory for the Right make life any easier for the rest of us?
If I vote to stay, which I still not have decided to do, it will be because I have no desire to live in that stale fantasy of 1950s Britain which is at the end of the Exit vote.