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The Left and the Brexit Referendum

A day before the referendum, there is a climate of immense political tension. Contrasting positions over the referendum: to leave or to remain? What are the positions of the British left?

Alejandra Ríos

June 22, 2016
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The fate of the United Kingdom and its relations with the EU will be decided at the referendum on June 23. The discussion about whether to leave the EU or stay was artificially created by Prime Minister David Cameron following the elections of May 2015. Fearing to lose more MPs to the far-right UKIP (The UK Independence Party), the Prime Minister called the referendum to appease the Eurosceptic wing of his party.

In recent days, discussions about the economy were overshadowed by the debate about immigration, particularly after the political earthquake triggered by the assassination of the young Labour MP Jo Cox, which led to a temporary suspension of referendum campaigns. Adding fuel to the fire, key evidence in the investigation pointed to a connection between the perpetrator and far-right, nationalist, anti-immigrant groups. The UKIP escalated its anti-immigrant profile by unveiling a campaign poster with clear references to a fearsome Nazi propaganda poster, foreshadowing the discourse which will certainly gain in strength if the vote for leaving the EU wins.

Polls in the past few weeks pointed to a Brexit victory by a few percentage points, although the latest surveys point to slight advantage for “Remain.” This occurs against the backdrop of a falling stock exchange, as well as alarmist statements about the future of the country by Prime Minister Cameron and the business and political establishment. They say that the Brexit will mean the collapse of the country’s economy, disruption of revenues from the EU and the absence of interlocutors to negotiate a quota of immigrants with the required skills to be integrated into the labor force.

The UK’s referendum debate has strengthened nationalist and anti-immigrant groups who accuse immigrants for all of the country’s past and future woes–from the gutting of the national health system to the lack of industrial growth, and even the economic crisis. These signs of polarization and the level of political rivalry–-unseen in any electoral campaign in the last decades–-call into question the logic of Cameron’s referendum maneuver.

Why choose between Cameron and Farage?

Unfortunately all of the British left is caught up in one of the two options presented in the referendum question: “Should the United Kingdom remain a member of the European Union or leave the European Union?” They see two available answers: remain a member or leave. However, the struggle for the rights of workers, immigrants and the poor cannot be waged on either side of the referendum, and the primary response of the Left should be to denounce the true purpose and character of the referendum: a maneuver by Cameron to settle issues within his party.

The Socialist Workers’s Party (SWP) is part of the platform “#Lexit: Campaign for a UK left exit from the EU,” together with other left-wing political formations. In the “About” section of their web site, they correctly state that voters deserve better than a “choice between David Cameron’s pro-EU campaign (or the pipe-dream of a ‘Social Europe’) on the one hand, and the reactionary anti-EU campaigning of UKIP and the Tory right on the other.” They argue that #Lexit was launched to refuse this false choice and “to build a principled, anti-racist and internationalist campaign, committed to democracy, social justice and environmental sustainability.” Lexit is supported by Counterfire, Communist Party of Britain, and Antarsya (Greece).

The SWP defends the “Leave” vote with the following arguments: the EU has a big business agenda, which includes secret negotiations to launch the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) and austerity programs in Greece, Cyprus, Ireland and Portugal. Second of all, the EU is ungovernable, with mega-bureaucratic institutions such as European Commission and the European Central Bank (ECB). Thirdly, the argument that the EU defends workers’ rights is a myth and all gains are the fruits of struggle. In fourth place, the EU is a European fortress engaged in mass deportations, and the free movement of labor applies only to members. Finally, in the political arena, an exit would not automatically mean a move to the right. If the UK leaves Europe, this could trigger a huge crisis for the dominant class. As for the assassination of Jo Cox, they consider it to be a result of “the atmosphere of racism and Islamophobia, and the scapegoating of immigrants and refugees.”

No one on the Left denies the EU’s liberal agenda nor its reactionary aspects; however, groups in solidarity with the immigrants’ movement argue that a victory of Brexit would lead to a rise in racism. Furthermore, the SWP’s position is dangerous because the Leave campaign is associated with the UKIP leader Farage and the extreme right. How could an emboldened Farage mean better conditions for struggle and lead to a situation favorable to the masses?

These contrasting positions for remaining within or leaving the EU have divided the British Left.

The Socialist Party (part of the Committee for a Workers‘ International) also defends an exit from the EU. In their materials, they claim to do so from an internationalist, class perspective and argue that this is an opportunity for workers to express their opposition to the Conservative government and the capitalist class. In relation to the assassination of Jo Cox, they argue that in the absence of an independent class campaign uniting against austerity and racism in a single cry, the referendum may lead to rising attacks against immigrants and ethnic minorities.

Socialist Resistance, sister organization of the French NPA, and Left Unity, a formation supported by the director Ken Loach, are located at the opposite end of the political spectrum. In the flyer “EU Referendum: For A Critical ‘in’ Vote Against Xenophobia,” Socialist Resistance condemns the antidemocratic and neoliberal character of the EU, as well as its institutions and the referendum. They argue that the Leave campaign is a brainchild of the xenophobic right and that its victory would fuel anti-immigrant and racist sentiment in the UK and Europe. They discard the option of abstaining, due to the terrible consequences of Brexit.

Left Unity strives to enter into a dialogue with those who argue that remaining within the EU is more progressive, but their weak spot is the embellishment of the EU project. They are highly critical of the Conservative Party, its austerity policies and of Cameron, the face of the “in” campaign. When discussing with those on the Left calling for a Leave vote, they suggest that a Brexit would grant power and credibility to the extreme right and anti-immigrant sentiment.

These contrasting positions for remaining within or leaving the EU have divided the British Left. The referendum had presented the Left with the opportunity to demonstrate that this is a fight among the bourgeoisie by refusing to side with either of the two camps. In the end, the debate has been entirely dominated by two bourgeois camps: Cameron’s camp with its big business and neoliberal discourse, and Farage’s camp with a right-wing populist narrative.

The youth who are disillusioned with the establishment and who mobilized in support of Jeremy Corbyn’s candidacy now continue their struggle in other political spheres. They go to detention centers for immigrants, work as volunteers in the French city of Calais, join the fight against racism and for immigrants’ rights, and often, argue for a Remain vote. Faced with the perspective of the reinforcement of reactionary ideology and in the absence of a campaign which puts forth an independent solution in favor of workers, the poor, women, immigrants’ and the LGBT community’s rights, remaining in the EU appears to them as a lesser evil.

As such, it is necessary to argue clearly that this is no alternative. The fight against xenophobic and racist nationalism is inextricably linked with the fight against the European Union of capital, and for an internationalist class perspective.

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