The 52% vote to leave the European Union in the recent referendum was a political earthquake, the shockwaves of which will be widespread and long-lasting. It represents a blow to the interests of the ruling class in Britain, Europe and the United States, who have invested decades of political capital into the EU project. It has brought into sharp focus all the contradictions and fault-lines running through the continent, particularly in Britain. All is now in flux. While nothing is guaranteed, opportunities are posed for the working class to organise and assert its interests.
All the major institutions of British capitalism supported a ‘Remain’ vote – the CBI bosses’ union, the heads of all the main political parties, even the supposedly apolitical Bank of England. They were backed up by the International Monetary Fund, US President Barack Obama and an array of ‘world leaders’. The EU represents an attempt by the European ruling classes to overcome the limitations of the nation state, to allow the free flow of capital and labour so as to maximise profits, as well as forming a more powerful geo-political bloc. The withdrawal of one of its major economies represents a profound blow to these ambitions.
While the instinct of the European elites will be to huddle closer together in the wake of Brexit, demand for similar referendums can grow across the continent. In October, a referendum regarding constitutional amendments connected with EU membership in Italy could see a further setback for the project. Opposition to the EU is not confined to the nationalist far-right. Significant sections of the left and the workers’ movement in Europe have welcomed the British electorate’s rejection of the EU
, particularly in the ‘peripheral’ economies battered by Brussels-imposed austerity. Threats by the European Central Bank to fine France and Portugal for not implementing enough austerity can further boost support for a ‘left exit’ from the EU.
David Cameron has resigned in ignominy, having gambled with the interests of British capitalism and lost. Theresa May – who supported ‘Remain’ – has been appointed the new Tory leader and Prime Minister following the withdrawal of ardent Brexiter Andrea Leadsom. It seems that she and Boris Johnson were put under serious pressure to abandon their ambitions of becoming Prime Minister, reflecting the nervousness of the British establishment about a withdrawal from the European Union. While May has stated that “Brexit is Brexit”, a second referendum following further negotiations with the EU about terms of membership cannot be ruled out, such is the weight of opposition to withdrawal from British capitalism. As we have seen in the South and other countries, the ruling class may decide to keep asking the question until they get the answer they want. While he supported a ‘Remain’ vote, Jeremy Corbyn is the only major party leader who has called for Article 50 to be immediately enacted.
The Socialist Party called for a ‘Leave’ vote in the referendum. We did so not because we have anything in common with the nationalism and xenophobia of the likes of UKIP, but because the EU is an institutionally neo-liberal, increasingly authoritarian, militarised and undemocratic institution which cannot be reformed in the interests of the 99%. The austerity imposed upon the peoples of the South, Greece, Spain and Portugal, the “fiscal waterboarding” to which the democratically elected SYRIZA government in Greece was subjected when it attempted to turn the tide against this austerity, the thousands drowning in the Mediterranean as a result of Fortress Europe policies all illuminate this reality. We do not believe that swapping a right-wing Tory government inside the EU for the same outside the EU represents an immediate victory, but the working class can now more easily shape the course of events than it could within the glass prison of the EU, which would have been a fetter on a future left-wing government.
‘Leave’ vote – a revolt from below
The ‘Leave’ vote represented a working class revolt against the establishment. While there were differences in attitudes geographically, among different age groups, ethnic backgrounds and so on, the key determinant of how people voted was social class. The poorest sections of society – particularly in England and Wales – voted to leave. The referendum was seized upon as an opportunity to strike a blow against aloof and arrogant rulers, both in Westminster and Brussels. It was an inchoate expression of frustration against decades of deindustrialisation, mounting poverty and hopelessness. Serious commentators have recognised this reality, from the Financial Times to British Green Party leader Caroline Lucas. It is no coincidence that Theresa May, Boris Johnson and other leading right-wing figures have since engaged in ‘banker bashing’ rhetoric and talked of the need to tackle social inequality.
While we disagree with the conclusion, we recognise that the majority of ‘Remain’ voters did so for very positive reasons – in opposition to the xenophobia and inward-looking nationalism of the forces which dominated the official ‘Leave’ campaign, expressing a desire for unity across national borders. In reality, the social conditions created, in part, by the EU are spurring the rise of nationalism and the far-right across the continent. Many will have been swayed by arguments that the EU acts as a guarantor of human rights, of workers’ rights and a basic social safety net. We believe that the facts contradict these assertions, but we empathise with those who voted ‘Remain’ for these reasons. While many will see the result of the referendum as a defeat, we believe these goals are now more realisable if we unite to fight for them.
Did racism win the day?
There has been an attempt by liberal commentators to smear the 17.4 million who voted to leave as stupid, backward racists. This haughty demonisation of the working class sums up why the establishment was incapable of connecting with and convincing these millions of people to remain in the EU. It is also grossly simplistic. For example, in Newham – a working class borough of east London where British whites make up only 16.7% of the population – 47.1% voted to leave.
Undoubtedly, concerns about immigration were a major motivating factor, with a third citing it as their main reason for voting ‘Leave’ according to ‘Lord’ Ashcroft’s study. This should come as no surprise. For decades, the right-wing press and mainstream politicians from across the spectrum have been scapegoating immigrants for the problems caused by a lack of investment in social housing and public services, particularly since the onset of the 2008 economic crisis. In this context, concerns about immigration do not immediately equate to racism, although a racist minority does exist. Rather, it can be a distorted expression of anger against austerity and falling living standards.
Since the referendum, there has been an upturn in racist attacks and harassment, with some truly harrowing stories emerging in the media. The official ‘Leave’ campaign’s propaganda was nakedly xenophobic. However, the ‘Remain’ campaign also engaged in anti-immigrant rhetoric. David Cameron argued that immigration could be better controlled inside the EU and that foreign nationals who didn’t find a job within six months would be sent packing.
We believe it was a mistake for the Labour Party – with lifelong opponent of the EU Jeremy Corbyn held hostage by the Blairites – and the conservative heads of the trade union movement in Britain and Ireland to line up with the establishment in calling for a ‘Remain’ vote. If these mass organisations had followed the example of the Socialist Party and unions like NIPSA and the RMT, taking a principled stand against the bosses’ EU while also challenging anti-immigrant lies, the populist right would have been checked by a progressive, anti-establishment voice. The left and the workers’ movement would have emerged strengthened and better able to shape post-Brexit events.
As it was, racists and the far-right have been emboldened by the result, which they see as a vindication of their poisonous ideas. They are mistaken in believing that a majority of people share their hatred. 84% of people, including 77% of ‘Leave’ voters, want all EU citizens currently living in the UK to be allowed to stay permanently. A motion stating the same was also passed overwhelming in the Commons, with only Tom Elliott and Danny Kinahan of the UUP voting against! This reflects the capitalist class’s reliance on immigration as a source of cheap labour. Regardless, it is essential that we organise to counter these attacks and isolate the minority of racists. Whatever our attitude on the referendum, it is imperativethat trade unionists and socialists unite to mobilise communities in opposition to racism wherever it raises its head. The Socialist Party has played a central role in doing this on many occasions, as when we led community defence of Roma families being attacked by thugs in south Belfast in 2009.
Scotland – Independence or a ‘special arrangement’
The referendum result again illuminated the national divisions within the UK. While a majority in England and Wales vote to leave the EU, 62% in Scotland voted to remain. Given that Scots were told that voting to leave the UK would endanger their EU membership, this has understandably provoked anger and boosted support for independence above 50% in recent polls. The SNP leadership, however, will be wary of pushing for a second independence referendum unless they can be confident of victory. Instead, SNP leader Nicola Sturgeon has raised the prospect of Scotland blocking the UK’s exit from the EU, or of Scotland being allowed to remain within the EU while still being part of the UK. Both these propositions are illusory.
While some tokenistic ‘special arrangement’ cannot be ruled out, it would be intolerable for both British capitalism and major European powers for Scotland to be allowed to maintain EU membership separate from the rest of the UK. Spanish Prime Minister Mariano Rajoy has strenuously opposed any such proposal, as it would give confidence to nationalist forces in Catalonia and the Basque Country. It could similarly boost separatist forces in Belgium, Italy and elsewhere. Just as the EU’s leadership opposed Scottish independence in the first referendum, they will not risk setting off a chain reaction which could threaten the integrity of key member states.
Northern Ireland – Renewed Calls for a Border Poll
In Northern Ireland, 56% voted to remain in the EU, a considerably narrower majority than polls and many commentators predicted, despite a deluge of propaganda that leaving the EU would wreck the economy and ‘undermine the peace process’. Around three quarters of Catholics voted to remain, but on a very low turnout – for example, only 49% in West Belfast. While the EU is perceived by many Catholics as a guarantor of rights and a check on any threat of return to Unionist rule, there was clearly no great enthusiasm in working class Catholic areas to turn out and defend it. The Protestant community was broadly split along class lines, with East Belfast delivering a ‘Leave’ vote while North Down voted to remain.
As soon as the overall result became clear, Martin McGuinness and Sinn Féin again began to raise calls for a border poll. This does not reflect a serious belief that such a poll would deliver a majority vote for a united Ireland. The result of the EU referendum will not have dented the almost universal opposition of Protestants to such a development. A recent poll showed only 27% of Catholics supported a united Ireland in the immediate future. This may have increased following the referendum but the low turnout in Catholic areas suggests the EU is not such an emotive issue as to have transformed the situation.
Sinn Féin raise the demand for a border poll as a way of creating the false impression that they have a meaningful strategy to deliver their ultimate goal of Irish unity. They aim to cut across growing disillusionment amongst their support base, where there is anger at their implementation of austerity at Stormont, their integration into the establishment and the perception that they have sold out on republican principles. This disillusionment was reflected in People Before Profit’s Gerry Carroll topping the poll in West Belfast in the recent Assembly election. Secretary of State Theresa Villiers – before being replaced by James Brokenshire in the cabinet reshuffle – ruled out such a vote, but if Sinn Féin consistently raise the demand and Unionists choose to ‘call their bluff’, pressure for a border poll could mount.
The Socialist Party is opposed to a border poll and, in the event of one being called, we would actively campaign for a boycott of the vote. A border poll would be nothing more than a sectarian headcount and would resolve nothing. A binary referendum is not a basis to reconcile the two communities, with their opposing national identities and aspirations. It would serve only to heighten tensions and pit Catholic and Protestant workers and young people against each other. The ‘losing side’ would not stoically accept its fate. Such a poll would only deepen divisions and stoke the flames of sectarian conflict.
A majority of Catholics aspire towards Irish unity, at least at some point in the future, for cultural reasons and because of the history of discrimination and oppression within the Northern state. Conversely, Protestants support the maintenance of the Union of for cultural reasons and because they fear becoming a vulnerable minority within a capitalist united Ireland, a legitimate concern which was reinforced by the experience of the IRA’s armed campaign. These fears and aspirations are preyed upon and manipulated by the sectarian parties and paramilitaries in both communities to suit their own narrow interests.
Neither community has the right to coerce the other into a state they do not want to be part of on the basis of a simple majority vote. No solution can be found while forces with a vested interest in maintaining sectarian division – whether the Green and Orange parties or British capitalism – continue to dominate. Only by building a movement which unites Protestant and Catholic workers and youth around their common interests and in opposition to the political establishment can we begin to break down the sectarian barriers between our communities. This would lay the basis for solutions to be found to the difficult questions which divide our communities – including the issue of the border – based upon compromise, mutual respect and solidarity.
The Socialist Party stands for a socialist Ireland where the rights of all minorities are guaranteed – including the right of the Protestant population of the North, if desired, to autonomy or even a separate state – as part of a democratic, voluntary and socialist federation with Scotland, England and Wales.
Labour – Defend Corbyn, Take On the Blairites
Jeremy Corbyn now faces a leadership challenge from Angela Eagle and Owen Smith – both corporate-backed politicians who support austerity and war, contrary to their claims to be ‘on the left’. This follows a series of resignations from the Shadow Cabinet and an overwhelming vote of ‘no confidence’ in his leadership from the Parliamentary Labour Party.
The pretext for this coup was Corbyn’s allegedly poor performance in the referendum campaign. While we believe it was a mistake for Corbyn to bow to the Blairite right-wing of the party on this issue, this excuse is clearly bogus. Two thirds of Labour supporters voted to remain in the EU. Challenger Angela Eagle praised his performance in Parliament. They claim he cannot ‘unite the party’ while they actively sabotage his leadership
In reality, the Blairites have never been reconciled to Corbyn’s leadership, despite his huge mandate from the membership. They resent the re-birth of left-wing ideas within Labour which they believed they had resigned to the history books. They resent that workers and young people are again trying to use the Labour Party as a means to advance their interests. They had hoped to move against him after the Oldham by-election and the local council elections, but Labour performed too well.
The Blairites do not fear that Corbyn will lose – they fear he will win. It is possible that Theresa May will feel compelled to go for an early general election to assert her authority. Polls currently put Labour and the Tories neck-and-neck, some showing an narrow Labour lead. The Blairites would rather see five more years of the Tories in power than a left-wing, Corbyn-led government.
There are now two Labour parties in one – that of Corbyn, the left and the rank-and-file, and that of the right-wing MPs, party apparatchiks and councillors. These diametrically opposed forces cannot co-exist indefinitely. A split and the de facto formation of a new, anti-austerity party – even if it retains the name ‘Labour’ – is implicit in the situation.
The right-wing recognise that Corbyn is likely to win in a democratic contest. membership has more than doubled since last year’s general election due to an influx or workers and young people enthused by his left, anti-austerity message. This growth has been reflected in Northern, even though Labour candidates are blocked from contesting elections here. Tens of thousands have joined explicitly to defend his leadership.
The Blairites tried unsuccessfully to cajole Corbyn into standing down ‘in the party interest’ without triggering a leadership election. They then tried to keep him off the ballot paper by denying his automatic right to stand forcing him to seek nominations from 51 MPs and MEPs, which would have been a clear violation of the Party’s rulebook. When this failed, they tried to rig the election by disenfranchising all members and trade union affiliates registered in the last six months and increasing the fee to register as a supporter from £3 to £25.
Even if Corbyn wins the leadership contest, as is likely, the Blairites will continue to undermine him and manoeuvre against him. The time for conciliation is over. Corbyn must move decisively to mobilise his mass support and democratically oust the Blairites by re-introducing mandatory re-selection of MPs, returning power to the Conference and opening up the structures so that socialists who are currently excluded from the party can assist in this struggle. This would likely provoke a major split on a Parliamentary level, but a left-wing Labour Party united around a clear, anti-austerity programme could quickly build support and make major gains in a snap election.
If Corbyn loses due to the gerrymandering of the Blairite apparatchiks, it should be challenged legally and through protest. However, is these attempts are unsuccessful, Corbyn should quickly lead the formation of a new anti-austerity party. The vast majority of those who have flooded into the party in the last year are not Labourloyalists. They are looking for a left-wing alternative, wherever they can find it. They will not engage in a protracted war of attrition inside Labour with the Blairites, who will pull up the drawbridge by further concentrating power in the hands of the Parliamentary Labour Party. These workers and young people could quickly become demoralised if a positive lead is not given.
The Tory government – elected with the support of only 24% of the electorate and forced into U-turn after U-turn – is weaker and more divided than ever. Now is the time for the trade unions to go on the offensive, rebuilding a united movement against austerity across Britain and Northern Ireland through mass demonstrations and co-ordinated industrial action. Combined with the building of a mass, anti-austerity political voice based on the working class, this could be the beginning of the end for the Tories and neo-liberal austerity across these islands. It would be an important first step in the struggle for a socialist future and a society run in the interests of the 99%, not the 1%.