If you’re a citizen of a European Union country living in the UK, you have the right to vote. But not in all elections.
You can vote for who you want as your local councillor, so that they can continue failing to fix the potholes in your street. If you live in Scotland, Wales or Northern Ireland, you can vote for the devolved parliament and assemblies in those regions. You can even (if you’re at a loose end) vote for the Member of the European Parliament in your region, so that they can read the details of the TTIP agreement and then keep them a secret from you.
You cannot, however, vote in a General Election. Your passports may be the same colour as ours now, but if they’re not issued by Her Britannic Majesty, how can we possibly trust you to make decisions about the political direction of the country you call home?
Maybe that’s a little cynical. Of course voting and the exercise of democracy is important, in all aspects of life. But there’s one ballot in particular scheduled for June this year where any sane and rational person would absolutely expect European migrants to have the right to vote. One which, more than any other, could affect their lives significantly. You guessed it – it’s the referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU.
Needless to say, if your job, your home, and your children’s places at school all depend on your right to remain in this country, it would seem only fair that you should be given a right to vote in a referendum which places that right at risk. Sadly however, the ruling class doesn’t agree. No EU migrant (with the special exception of Irish citizens) will be enfranchised in this plebiscite.
But the left defend migrants, don’t they? Surely they at least will speak up about this blatant injustice.
Well, you would assume so, wouldn’t you? But the silence on this has been deafening. In fact, many socialists are actively hoping that this referendum will lead to a British Exit, or “Brexit”.
It may be worth pausing for a moment to contemplate the words of Colonel Thomas Rainsborough, a radical democrat in the parliamentarian army during the English Civil War. In the famous Putney Debates, Rainsborough offered the following defence of universal suffrage:
“[…]really I think that the poorest he that is in England hath a life to live, as the greatest he; and therefore truly, sir, I think it’s clear, that every man that is to live under a government ought first by his own consent to put himself under that government; and I do think that the poorest man in England is not at all bound in a strict sense to that government that he hath not had a voice to put himself under[…]”
I happen to think that Rainsborough, himself briefly MP for Droitwich in Worcestershire, was correct. Moreover, I think that his was a basic principle with which all socialists should agree. So why should we lend any credence to (let alone actively campaign for) a Brexit brought about by a reactionary instrument such as this referendum, which is in its very form clearly an attempt to divide the working class between natives and foreigners? Even criminals are accorded the right to be present at their own trial, to respond to charges against them and to defend their liberty.
If you think the comparison too stark – kindly devote some further thought to the consequences of Brexit for your average EU migrant.
At present, EU citizens are allowed to stay in this country for three months. Beyond that time, they must be able to sustain themselves financially, or they could in theory risk deportation. However, the border authorities do not in practice pursue EU passport-holders who overstay.
Now I am not suggesting that there will be mass deportations if Britain votes to leave. But those who are agitating for them will clearly gain strength and influence, and the likes of the Daily Mail would clearly welcome at least a few token round-ups of Eastern Europeans, say, who are not in legitimate employment.
The best-case scenario may be that the UK quickly reinstates its own freedom of movement arrangements, similar to Norway (not a member of the EU). But if Britain votes to leave on June 23 – can we have any confidence that a Tory government, with a reinvigorated and newly confident far-right biting that their heels, will continue to use their discretion in not pursuing those who overstay the limit that was previously only a formality?
Unfortunately, the answer to this from the pro-Brexit left (as on so many other questions) is quite simple: “nobody knows”. And we should be quite clear on this: “nobody knows” is a completely unacceptable situation for anyone to be put in – let alone three million people who we should be defending with all means available to us.