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Lazy left-wing Brexit supporters are endangering the left’s future

The bulk of the organised left is backing a Remain vote because the EU is so clearly not a reactionary force in our domestic politics. 

By Michael Chessum

The nearer the referendum gets, the narrower the polls become. Almost every day between now and June 23rd, polling companies and journalists will analyse new statistics and attempt to predict an outcome. If yesterday’s ICM poll is anything to go by, the honest answer would be that they have no idea. Phone polls show a lead for Remain, internet polls a lead for Leave – just as they have for months.

Increasingly, and with the mainstream debate having largely focused on a blue-on-blue fight over (older, richer) Tory voters, it looks as if the outcome of the referendum will be determined by two things. The first will be turnout among the under 30s, who are overwhelmingly pro-Remain. The second will be traditionally leftwing and working class voters. In Scotland, this was reflected in last week’s revelation that 40 per cent of SNP voters might swing the result for Brexit, but the same process is at work across the UK. In his flagship Europe speech this morning, John McDonnell rightly emphasised that the role of the left, and of the Labour Party, is now a defining feature in the outcome of the referendum.

In comparison to 1975 – when the country was last asked the Europe question – the British left has shifted a long way. Inside Labour, the old Bennite Eurosceptic tendency is a tiny shadow of its former self – almost all trade unions are either neutral or pro-Remain, and when Momentum meets this Saturday, its decision to back a Remain vote is almost a foregone conclusion. When the Left Exit (‘Lexit’) campaign launches tomorrow night, it will be headed up by French trade unionists, the now much-weakened Socialist Workers’ Party (and splits from it), and the remains of the Communist Party.

The bulk of the organised left is backing a Remain vote because, in contrast to decades past, the EU is so clearly not a reactionary force in our domestic politics. Britain’s rail network was privatised by a Tory government, not the EU. Thatcherite and neo-liberal economic reform in the UK has been driven enthusiastically by British governments (including New Labour ones), with the EU often playing a moderating role. Our workers’ rights legislation is now so bad that we rely on EU law for maternity pay and holiday pay.  Greece’s treatment at the hands of the Troika is rightly held up as a travesty, but quite how this injustice can be effectively opposed with a British exit from the EU is something which no-one has ever properly explained.

But however weak the arguments for Lexit may be, there is in fact a large audience outside of the bubble of the campaign – among Labour voters, voters tired of establishment politics, and leftwing voters looking at the EU’s treatment of Greece – that will be paying attention. This dynamic is dangerous. Even the harshest analysis of the prospects for democratisation and leftward reform of the EU’s structures – effectively articulated yesterday by Paul Mason – also acknowledge that an exit now, on the terms set by UKIP and the Tory right, would mean a big lurch to the right, both in terms of economic policy and in terms of the process that is really driving this referendum campaign: anti-migrant racism, pandered to by the political establishment for decades.

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Not only would Brexit endanger a raft of human rights, environmental protections and working conditions, it would set the left back years.  After a Brexit, is difficult to imagine even a Corbyn government managing to reintroduce the level of freedom of movement that we enjoy now. And in order to get anywhere near a Corbyn, or Labour, government, the left will have to convince a majority in society that things are bad because of the economic system and the ruling elite, not the Bulgarian next door – a task that will be made immeasurably harder if Brexit makes a whole new level of racism respectable and mainstream.   

For many leftwing activists, the most instinctively appealing argument for Brexit is, in a word, chaos.  The idea is that a Leave vote will create a crisis for the political establishment – especially the Tories – and “open a space” for the left to intervene and shape politics. While the situation is superficially analogous to the Scottish referendum – in which many English leftwingers privately hoped for a Yes vote to shake up English politics – the situation now is quite different. The social and political forces driving Brexit are deeply reactionary, and only the most naïve, wishful thinking could imagine either that there is some undercurrent of “left-wing” ideas in the motives of most Leave voters, or that it is the left that would gain the most political space from Brexit.

For the first time in decades, the British left has a plausible strategy for winning power. But most of the political tendencies represented in the Lexit campaign – the SWP, and leftwing fragments either from or influenced by the old Communist Party – never expected or supported the rise of a left leadership in Labour. Deep down, they are in a state of strategic crisis as a result of Jeremy Corbyn’s victory. As a result, they are left repeating decades-old slogans – “the EU is a bosses’ club” – devoid of context or tactical thought; and they are running with the losing strategy of creating chaos on the Right’s terms in the desperate hope of gaining ground. 

In the coming weeks, the British left will have a serious historical responsibility foisted upon it. It is vital that the left’s voice (which is overwhelmingly pro-Remain) does not become subsumed within David Cameron’s pitch – that we campaign on an unapologetically progressive platform, for freedom of movement, for social justice, and against the status quo in Europe. And those tempted by Leave should seriously question whether Lexit is a viable option at this referendum, or just a convenient cover for the very worst aspects of the British right. 

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