Fear is, they say, wisdom in the face of danger. And in the final push countdown to the EU referendum, the British left should have good cause to be afraid. Poll after poll is now putting Leave in front, with a lead of up to ten points. Ukip’s political programme – until recently a pipe dream – is on the brink of becoming a reality, leaving the right wing of the Tory Party with the keys to Downing Street, unencumbered by pesky “red tape” (read: workers’ rights and environmental legislation) and with an explicit mandate to radically curtail immigration.
If Britain comes out on 23 June, a small portion of the left will cheer it on. Some are just on another planet, campaigning in a referendum that exists only in their own heads – in which Brexit will form part of a pushback against austerity. For others the calculation is that, yes, the right will benefit, and yes, migrants and workers will suffer – but it’s worth it in order to offer an abstract protest against the status quo and for some vague hope of destabilising David Cameron’s government. At best, this logic is wishful thinking. At worst, it is a cynical, almost accelerationist, attempt to leverage poverty and exploitation.
But for the left, the dangers of Brexit go deeper than the moral and human cost for workers and migrants. It is the right, not the left, that benefits from periods of economic chaos and social breakdown. Material defeats, and attacks on rights at work and on human rights, undermine the ability and the willingness of ordinary people to fight back against austerity. Add to that the spectre of rising nationalism and a popular mandate for smalltime racism, and the wrong outcome in this referendum could trigger the biggest rightward shift in British politics since the election of Margaret Thatcher in 1979.
There is undoubtedly a strong positive case for remaining in the EU. The European project has enabled the development of a shared political space in which the left can operate, and in which generations of Europeans have mixed; it provides a vital framework for the regulation of transnational capital; and yes, it has kept an imperfect lid on nationalisms which twice in a century saw Europe’s socialists slaughtered in trenches and concentration camps. It is important that the left, when asked the question of Europe, has a positive vision to propose – and that we are serious about pursuing it after the vote.
But in the final days of the campaign, it would be dishonest for me and other Remain campaigners on the left to pretend that this referendum is about hope. I have no desire to repeat the mistakes of Better Together. But these were not, at root, mistakes about negativity or positivity – they were about the fact that Labour joined hands with the Tories and posed as the respectable, discredited establishment. In order to cut through that establishment gloss, we must be relentlessly honest with working class and progressive voters about the stakes in this referendum. This is a defensive campaign for the left – called on terms campaigned for by Ukip and the Tory right for two decades.
This referendum is about migration, and always was. However much Britain Stronger In Europe wanted it to be about economics, however much the most obsessive Leave supporters wanted it to be about sovereignty, that is now openly clear. The plan is to make immigrants, and by extension the EU, the scapegoat for falling living standards, and if left unchecked this plan will win. The only argument that can counter this momentum – and one which has the benefit of being true – is that housing shortages, falling real terms wages and a decline in public services are the fault of corporate greed and failed government policy. Only the left can wage the kind of ideological counterattack that we need in the final days of the campaign.
As the polls lurch towards a Leave victory, a whole layer of leftwing activists have sprung into activity. This awakening must continue in the final ten days of the campaign – and reach the mass of people mobilised by the Corbyn surge, who must form the backbone of a desperate rear guard campaign. The outcome next Thursday will define British politics for decades, and yes, we are absolutely right to feel afraid.