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16 October 2015

Only the radical left can save Britain from a European exit

If the task of keeping Britain in the European Union is left to the establishment, the only outcome will be Brexit, warns Michael Chessum.

By Michael Chessum

Clearly, the past thirteen months in British politics haven’t yet happened to everyone. The key lesson of that time – running through the Scottish Independence referendum and the Labour leadership election – has been the exponential potential of outsiders, capturing the imagination of public and channelling widespread frustration with the scaremongering of the perceived political establishment, to cause great political upsets. So when the official “In” campaign for the EU referendum was launched last week by Lord Rose– a Conservative Party peer and former CEO of Argos and Marks and Spencer – anyone hoping to keep Britain in the EU should have had great cause for alarm.

The key message that the campaign – Britain Stronger in the EU – has so far managed to put into the public imagination is that voting “In” is what the establishment expects loyal subjects to do. Rose focussed the thrust of his speech on the idea that being pro-EU was just as “patriotic” as the alternative, and on the great “risk” that leaving posed to national security and the economy. The endorsement of Tony Blair, which worked oh-so well for Jeremy Corbyn’s opponents, was the press story of choice in the next few days. At the heart of the official “In” campaign there appears to be a school of thought which sees the danger and popular appeal of the little-islander Euroscepticism, and places its hopes in becoming a pale imitation of it – risk-averse and inanely flag-waving, but with a bit more establishment backing.

If it is left to this establishment, the campaign to keep Britain in the EU will be doomed. Nigel Farage, whose entire career and political following has been calculated to exploit precisely this kind of situation, will look like a crusading outsider, despite being a privately educated former stockbroker. Despite the overwhelmingly rightwing terms of debate, UKIP will be given cover by some sections of the left – from Kate Hoey’s “patriotic Labour” line, to old Bennites with their arguments about national sovereignty, to the Socialist Workers Party and the Socialist Party who will argue that the EU is a “bosses’ club”.  Commentators are used to looking at Europe as a Conservative Party split; actually, much of the outcome of the referendum will depend on what happens in Labour working class heartlands, and on the left.

The leftwing case for ‘In’ should be overwhelmingly clear. The European Union, for all its flaws, is a source of freedom of movement and legal protections for ordinary citizens. All of the problems that the EU poses for the left – its neo-liberal economic policy, its incompetent and barbaric treatment of refugees – are just as acute at a national level. The EU did what it did to Greece because of the policies of the national governments that comprise it. A Britain that voted to leave the EU on terms and arguments set by Nigel Farage would be a worse place, not a better one, for migrants, workers and the environment. 

What is needed to defeat Farage’s outsider ploy is an equally insurgent and radical campaign on the left of the debate, one which is unafraid of calling the EU what it is: a grossly undemocratic entity dominated by business interests, in dire need of democratisation. From there, a leftwing “In” campaign can directly take on Farage and try to shift the wider debate: it should unashamedly defend migration – and its arguments for doing so should be based on supporting freedom of movement and refugees on a human level, not on the basis that migration is good for profits.

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Across the European left, a debate is raging about the EU. What is at stake in that debate is a series of radical ideas – peace, political and regulatory integration that defies national borders and identities, freedom of movement – which has been presided over for decades by an increasingly rightwing and technocratic elite. The British EU referendum should provide a platform to start the really important debate: about what the European project really means today, how to reclaim and democratise it, and whether, ultimately, the EU is still capable of transforming into a more social Europe. The seemingly dry content of this debate needs to be brought to life, and the idealism contained in the European project examined and renewed.

Another Europe is Possible, an explicitly leftwing campaign against Brexit, will launch soon, backed by dozens of prominent activists, MPs and campaigners. Other projects on the radical left, like Workers’ Europe, were launched over the summer, and time will tell how serious Labour’s own pro-EU campaign will be. In a country in which anti-establishment sentiment and poverty are both growing, any campaign that is seen merely to defend the status quo, and a sense of stability which does not exist for many millions of people, will fail. The political and business establishment seem to be capable only of triangulating towards Euroscepticism, further entrenching the anti-migrant and nationalistic sentiment which fuels it. So it will be down to the left – with ideals and radicalism – to defend against a Brexit. 

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