As the British referendum campaign on EU membership enters its final days, the tension and anger is palpable. Traditional fault lines in politics are breaking down as the divisions over Remain or Leave cross and re-cross through parties and movements where typically in a general election period sympathies would be predictable and tolerated. This referendum came from pressure from the far right – driven by anti-immigration sentiment, fuelled by racism. As the campaign has developed so has that racism increased, insufficiently challenged and often fed, by the mainstream. The result is an open emergence of the extremist right. As I write, news is coming in of the terrible killing of the Remain-supporting MP Jo Cox, with reports suggesting that her attacker shouted ‘Britain First’ – echoing the name of a far-right political party – as he fired into her face.
If true, this is a disastrous turn of events which tragically compounds the fact that this has been the most reactionary national campaign in British political history. Outrage has been expressed today at a new UKIP campaign advert, picturing queues of refugees under the heading: ‘Breaking Point: Europe has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back our borders’. This is typical of much of the messaging and the narrative propagated by the Leave camp. If one could sum up the chief message of the Leave campaign it would be ‘Blame immigrants for everything’. They peddle the politics of hate on baseless accusations and fictional figures. What we on the left work to convey is that if we don’t have enough houses or jobs or services it’s not because of migrants, it’s because of government austerity policies that fail to invest in our industry and economy.
The pro-Brexit left lay our economic problems at the door of the EU, arguing that Brexit will make socialism in Britain more likely, without the pro-austerity, anti-democratic EU. But the reality is these same policies – or worse – would be implemented by our government. In fact Margaret Thatcher started the neo-liberal cuts, deregulation, anti-trade union agenda long before any other European country. The idea that Brexit makes a Corbyn-led Labour victory more likely is deeply misplaced. Brexit will consolidate the far right and strengthen it, making a Corbyn government less likely, not more likely. This analysis is shared not only by the Labour leadership but also by the TUC and the overwhelming majority of trade unions – not to mention young people who are, in their majority, for staying in Europe.
An example of the mistaken thinking from left Brexit campaigners is the question of TTIP. Some say we should leave the EU to get out of free market agreements like TTIP. But if we leave the EU we’ll face the same policies even if under a different name. All the mainstream Brexit arguments are premised on extreme free trade agreements and looser regulation – as bad or worse than TTIP. At the moment it looks as though TTIP won’t get through because of massive opposition across Europe. Do we have the strength in Britain alone to overturn such a policy? We haven’t managed to defeat our own government on cuts yet, or overturn its deregulation policies, or restore the trade union rights that Mrs Thatcher stripped us of in the 1980s.
In the left Remain view, we stand a better chance working together with the people of Europe, who are mounting their own massive political opposition to neo-liberalism. Brexit will not be a loosening of the shackles of neo-liberalism, it will be an unmitigated compounding of the same policies by the British ruling class. We watch the advance of the left – particularly the newfound cooperation and unity – in Spain and Portugal, with our hearts filled with hope. We see the nuit debout struggles of the French workers against the imposition of the new labour laws and convey our solidarity to these and other struggles. But we also watch with grave concern the rise of the far right across Europe. We need to consolidate our forces against this growing tendency not take a step which will assist and strengthen it.
This is the time to come together, work together and succeed together. To strengthen the British left as part of strengthening the European left. I know the left across Europe looks to Jeremy Corbyn with optimism and expectation: a Brexit would weaken Corbyn. But imagine the Corbyn-led Labour Party as a political factor within the EU, challenging – and perhaps helping to reverse – the path that social democracy has taken towards neo-liberalism. What an asset that would be for the left.
So whatever contacts you have in Britain, whatever comrades or colleagues, friends or family, anyone who has a vote or can speak to anyone with a vote, please, share our plea. We want to Remain – to work with the left across Europe, to defeat austerity and racism. The alternative is terrible to contemplate. Please, help us to succeed.