Left debates post-Brexit

Oppose Little Brexit Britain – Defend Free Movement

By Andrew Burgin

We need to campaign actively against little Brexit Britain and the stripping away of our rights, and chief among those campaigns must be to defend the right to free movement.

There are many aspects of life in Britain that those who voted leave hope will improve with Brexit. On holiday in Suffolk this summer (where 60% voted leave) my wife Kate and I were surprised to be told by the skipper on a coastal boat trip that Brussels was responsible for problems facing the Avocet population on Orford Ness: in a fit of ecological correctness gone mad, the Eurocrats had apparently banned the culling of the local Gull population, a competitor species that hails from foreign parts.

In fact, Avocets were initially wiped out in Britain in the 19th century because we ate their eggs. Fortunately the Avocet population had survived in other parts of Europe and they subsequently made their return to Orford. The truth is that EU funding underpins much of the nature conservation effort in the UK and its future is now uncertain. Yet the anti-EU, anti-immigrant narrative now intrudes everywhere, however baselessly, largely unchallenged.

Apart from supposedly protecting the local ‘British’ wildlife we are told that Brexit will mean ending the free movement of labour and controlling migration. This will lead to higher wages, increased employment among the native population and end the shortage of housing and other social services. Moreover democracy will be restored – we will have our country back.

For the right, Brexit opens the door to freeing Britain from the stifling regulatory embrace of the European Union allowing our national entrepreneurial spirit to once again reign free in the world at large; for some on the left, it is an essential first step on the path to a socialist Britain.

Those on the Left who called for a Remain vote in the referendum, did so, not because we harboured illusions in the progressive nature of the EU, but because the Leave campaign was fuelled and dominated by reactionary politics. We believed that a Leave victory would empower the right rather than the left and that far from providing a solution to any of the fundamental problems facing the working class it would open the way to further defeats. The post-Brexit treaties and legislative settlements would be seized upon by the government as a further opportunity for deregulation and attacks on our rights.

Immigration and refugees

The most reactionary feature of the campaign – and the most effective notwithstanding its dishonesty – was the way that all the ills of British society were laid at the door of immigration. A hundred newspaper front pages told us how damaging and harmful immigrants and refugees were to the British way of life – this was the underlying message of the leave campaign.

The fact that government policies are to blame for the shortages and cuts ascribed to migrants was disregarded, and the real economic benefits brought to our society and economy as a result of migration were airbrushed out of the referendum debate. So it is that the belief that curbing immigration will have a beneficial effect on British society has gained widespread currency and this belief was the driving force behind the leave campaign.

However even among those who supported remain and across a broad swathe of the labour movement the view that immigration is detrimental to the interests of the British working class has taken hold.

A few days before the Referendum vote the leader of Unite, the largest private sector union in Britain, made his views clear. Len McCluskey, writing in The Guardian, said he was not surprised that Labour voters were concerned about immigration: ‘In the last 10 years, there has been a gigantic experiment at the expense of ordinary workers. Countries with vast historical differences in wage rates and living standards have been brought together in a common labour market … The result has been sustained pressure on living standards, a systematic attempt to hold down wages and to cut the costs of social provision for working people’.

The view that immigration and particularly the free movement of labour within the European Union has been responsible for lowering wages, diminishing social services and creating unemployment is widely held. But is this actually the case? And will Brexit create the conditions for raising the wages and employment levels of ‘native’ British workers?

The evidence suggests not. The argument that EU migration is responsible for a reduction in wage levels is tendentious to say the least. The enlargement of the EU in 2004, when 75 million people joined, did not lead to a downward pressure on wages. That took place after the crash of 2008: it is since the recession – that began with the credit crunch and the bailing out of the banks that led to the longest and deepest slump in a century – that we have seen substantial pay cuts. Allowing for inflation, average wages fell by 8 to 10 percent in the six years after the global financial crisis of 2008. McCluskey does not mention the great crash in his article so we are left with the impression that immigration is the source of these wage cuts – whereas the reality is that wages overall rose during the period 2004-8 when there was significant large scale EU migration.

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Most studies and reports show that immigration is a net contributor to the economy overall and, as far as average wages are concerned, it has a marginal impact and may actually lead to a small increase in average wages. Where there is an impact on wages – and it is a small one – it is on low wages and its impact is felt primarily by existing migrant workers and not by UK-born workers. Moreover, the first systematic study of the effect of large scale EU migration on the employment of UK-born workers showed no overall effect. Although some studies (Migrant Advisory Service) show that non-EU migration was associated with a reduction in the employment of UK-born workers over the period 1995-2010, there were no statistically significant effects for EU immigration.

Moreover nearly all studies of the effect of migration on jobs and wages neglect to include the effect of job creation through enterprise by migrants. Migrants create more jobs than their actual numbers.

EU free movement is therefore not only a positive for the host country but it is an advance for the European working class as a whole. Rather than being ‘guest’ workers with few rights, those who work in other EU countries have rights and protections as EU citizens. These rights need to be extended rather than retreated from.

Whether the ending of free movement would itself reduce immigration is a moot point. In Lincolnshire and other agricultural areas there was a significant leave vote, yet already farmers, many of whom themselves voted leave, who rely largely on labour from Eastern Europe to pick their crops, are calling for work schemes to allow those migrants to work here on a temporary basis. So those workers would see their rights of permanent residence removed and would be reduced to the status of more exploitable casual workers. It has recently been reported that the government is already discussing these proposals.

Working class support for Brexit

Clearly attitudes towards immigration are not entirely shaped by lived experience. In many areas with low migration such as Wales and the North East, large sections of the working class voted leave. This serves to underline the fact that working class support for Brexit was driven primarily by economic instability – poor housing, low wages, job insecurity in areas experiencing severe social and economic deprivation – combined with the misperception that immigrants are to blame for these problems rather than government policies. Unemployment and demoralisation, together with a decline in trade union organisation in those areas, also fed an anti-immigrant narrative which has been driven by the media and by the emergence and development of UKIP.

The reality is that reducing immigration and ending free movement of labour is most likely to result in a fall in overall living standards and would actually lead to a downward pressure on wages and an increase in unemployment. A Brexit Britain driven by the free market policies of the current Tory government would not improve the lives of those working class leave voters but would makes them worse.

We should avoid extending our opposition to the existing structures and policies of the EU – notably its neo-liberal cuts, austerity and privatisation agenda – to the absolutely essential engagement with the working class, politically and economically, at a pan-European level. The dominant slogans of the Leave campaign – ‘take back control’ and ‘we want our country back’ with their subtexts of insularity and nationalism and implied hostility to the workers of other European countries – are illusory and reactionary. So too are the politics of those on the left who see an exit from the EU on the terms of the right as something progressive in itself.

A wave of racism

The leave campaign was built on a wave of racism and xenophobia, a British pro-remain MP was murdered by a far right activist, and no lie was too outrageous to be believed: that Brexit would mean £350 million freed up each week for the NHS, that a Remain outcome would mean 70 million Turkish people coming to live here and claim benefits.

Following the vote the promises on the NHS were quickly withdrawn but the anti-immigrant lies had whipped up such an atmosphere of permissive hostility that this rapidly led to a dramatic increase in racist and xenophobic attacks. A Polish man was murdered and his friend badly beaten by a group of teenagers in Essex for the ‘crime’ of speaking to each other in Polish.

Some on the Left who supported the leave campaign tended to play down the racist upsurge – but this increase in hate crime was an entirely predictable response to the vile campaign that had preceded it. The leave vote emboldened the racists.

In fact, the referendum outcome further fuelled already existing anti-Muslim bigotry with increasing reports of women being assaulted and having their hijabs torn off.  What took place was a dovetailing of all the bogus concerns around immigration with the reactionary campaign against Muslims and refugees on the basis of the perceived impossibility of their integration into British society.

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The wrong position of some on the left regarding the upsurge in racism stemmed from their misperception of the Leave outcome as an advance for the left and the working class – not least their failure to recognise that the millions of European migrant workers living in Britain are part of the British and the European working class. They were denied a vote in the referendum even though they have been living and working here for many years and in some cases decades.

This narrow national approach contributes to racism and will only divide the working class. Further to that, claims had been made during the campaign that a Brexit vote would strengthen the Corbyn leadership and hugely weaken the Conservative Party. In fact, following the vote the Tory government united under a new, more right-wing leadership and was strengthened. Within the Labour Party, the Corbyn leadership came under massive and sustained attack from the party’s right, now given its long-awaited excuse to try and unseat Corbyn based on his perceived lack of commitment to a Remain victory. This was precisely the opposite outcome to that predicted by those on the left who supported Leave, some of whom had argued that the Tory government would probably fall and that if a Conservative government survived, it would be hopelessly fragile.

The May government is not ‘hopelessly fragile’. The Tories closed ranks to unite in the interests of their party and class and, given a positive boost by May’s clever presentation of her non-Eton background and longstanding ministerial experience, they remain well ahead in the polls. An early general election is unlikely given the current fixed term regulation and the fact that the government has a workable overall majority. But the government does have serious problems about how to deal with Brexit. This is uncharted territory – apparently there are insufficient experts to actually deal with the technical challenges of the necessary legislation – and it is also extremely unpopular with a large minority of the population.

Pro-Europe protests

The days and weeks following the referendum were notable for a wave of mass pro-Europe protests, to the extent that one could say that a new movement is emerging to challenge Brexit. More than 4 million people signed a petition demanding a second referendum within days of the vote. There is a risk that this new anti-Brexit movement will be dominated by the centre right, limiting itself to attempting to overturn the referendum decision, in a futile attempt to maintain British EU membership as it was before the vote.

Such an approach can only have negative consequences. Not only has that ship sailed but such a campaign would only fuel the right in this country. Already there are those like Aaron Banks, UKIP’s main financier, who are preparing to launch a new super-charged UKIP in the event that there is a serious attempt to overturn the Brexit result. In this context we need to engage with this anti-Brexit movement on a positive pro-European basis, but clearly arguing for a re-founded union, a different type of Europe which seeks to preserve the progressive elements of EU membership but to go well beyond them in terms of democratic, political and economic reform.

The terms of the Brexit are now the key site of struggle for the left and progressive forces in Britain.  There is no doubt that they will be highly contested. The Brexiteers charged with overseeing the process, Boris Johnson, David Davies and Liam Fox, will try to dilute or remove those trade union and social rights which have been underwritten by the EU. The Human Rights Act will be scrapped. Our job is to strenuously resist that.

There are those on the left who are calling for us to ‘respect’ the Referendum result. We do not ‘respect’ the result as there was a real democratic deficit in the referendum because of the lies and racism that drove the leave campaign. It is more accurate to say that we ‘accept’ the referendum outcome in the same way that we accept the result of an election. Accepting the outcome doesn’t mean ceasing to fight at every level, in the same way that when the Tories win an election we struggle against their reactionary policies at every step, fighting to defeat them electorally, and mounting campaigns in our communities to fight for our rights and defend and extend what we have already won. We will have to fight every step of the way to prevent the Brexit treaties and parliamentary legislation being a deregulatory jamboree in the interests of the ruling class.

We need to campaign actively against little Brexit Britain and the stripping away of our rights, and chief among those campaigns must be to defend the right to free movement. Free movement is an enormous step forward for the European working class, allowing the possibility of the creation of pan-European spheres of struggle. It recognises the essential fact that the integration of Europe politically and economically is a vital step forward for the working class internationally. The struggle is not to undermine the gain that free movement represents – some left leave supporters refer to it as ‘so-called’ freedom of movement – but to recognise its importance and to fight to defend it and extend it.

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Not only free movement but migration in general must be defended; it is historically a powerful source of progressive development and we fight for open borders and for European integration. We oppose fortress Europe but we understand that the ending of free movement in Europe will make extending that right to all more – not less – difficult. We also recognise that the European integration that we need is not possible within the capitalist framework represented by the European Union.

Pan-European movement

So the task is not to agitate for a second referendum or to ignore the Brexit vote but it is to recognise that a pan-European movement is necessary to create the democratic and federal Europe that can begin to solve the problems that the working class faces internationally. This cannot be achieved within a national framework.

The most powerful moments in recent working class struggle in Europe have been those which have reached beyond national borders. The British miners’ strike in the 1980s and the French strikes of the 1990s and the mass recent struggles of the Greek working class have all found deep reserves of support from across the continent. Free movement represents the concretisation of the European working class and its ending would be a reactionary step bringing no economic benefit to the so-called native working classes of each country and politically weakening all working class forces across Europe.

The struggle over Brexit is the most important political challenge that we face. The consequences of unmitigated Tory exit terms are too terrible to contemplate so there is much work to be done. But this is also an opportunity to campaign and argue for an alternative, for the socialist Europe that we wish to see. Writing that in Britain may sound hopelessly utopian, but this is actually a vision shared by millions across Europe, many of them already organised in unions, parties and movements advancing those arguments. And this is also an opportunity to engage with the many hundreds of thousands of young people in this country who voted to remain – not because they sought to defend the neo-liberal institutions of the EU but because they instinctively grasped the importance of going beyond our national borders, feeling a real allegiance to a social Europe.

These are complex issues that cannot be settled in a single question referendum which are in any case of questionable democratic value. Referenda are notoriously the province of the dictator. But neither can these issues be solved on a national basis. The ‘take back control’ message of the Leave campaign claimed that they could but that was a reactionary illusion based on little Englander nationalism. It also had the effect of exculpating our own ruling class and institutions for their undemocratic and austerity driven agendas by blaming Brussels, when they will do worse outside than inside the EU.

So the British framework is clearly inadequate for the advances we need to make. An essential first step in this direction is an open discussion on all the issues that form the fabric of people’s everyday lives throughout Europe – on jobs, austerity, social services and wages. Such a debate and struggle across Europe has the possibility of affirming a shared belonging to Europe and the consolidation of collective struggle and strategic coordination to achieve the victories that are necessary to secure the basic existence of so many people’s lives.

There are now calls for referenda to be held across Europe. These calls are coming primarily from the far right – Marine Le Pen in France, Geert Wilders in Holland and from Italy and Sweden. There are some on the left echoing these demands believing that the left will be the main beneficiary of the break-up of the EU but this is illusory.

Marine Le Pen calls the Brexit vote the ‘most important moment since the fall of the Berlin wall’. In that she is right: the fall-out from the referendum will dominate British and European politics for years to come, but potentially in an extraordinarily dangerous and damaging way. The right sees this time as their opportunity but we must make it ours. We have to campaign for a refounded European union on a democratic and anti-capitalist basis. The first slogan in this campaign must be ‘Defend Free Movement’.