The victory for the Leave camp in the EU referendum was a huge blow to progressive causes in the UK. Having been touted as a referendum on leaving the EU, the politics of UKIP and sections of the media turned it into a referendum on migration. The result was a resounding vote against migration and against further integration with Europe on a political, social and economic level.
Sections of the left (Socialist Workers Party, Socialist Party and Morning Star) talked up the supposedly anti-establishment and “working class” character of the vote, due its rejection of the elite-lead Remain campaign, and its rejection of the imperialist EU superstructures. Enrico Tortolano and Ragesh Khakhri in the Morning Star called for a “People’s Brexit”, saying “Brexit provides a genuine opportunity for workers to gain confidence, challenge a weak and divided Tory government and elect a left-wing Labour government empowered to see through its socialist commitments.” while Jonny Jones of RS21 argued in the Independent in the run up to the vote that “many people voting to leave this week be will be doing so because they want to inflict a blow against a project that attacks workers in Europe and violently excludes those beyond its razor-wire borders, and against the crisis-ridden government and establishment that are defending it.”
What the analysis put forward by sections of the “Lexit” Left failed to grasp was the profoundly reactionary character of this “anti-establishment” rejection. While a section of Leave votes were motivated by some idea of reclaiming sovereignty for the UK (in itself a misguided and reactionary idea given the history of the UK as an imperial power, the profoundly undemocratic character of the UK’s government, and what this “sovereignty” would constitute in practice) many millions were motivated by racist beliefs; that Leaving the EU would stop immigration and lead to less competition for jobs and services. Innumerable vox pops displayed this thinking after the vote as Leave voters exulted at the coming clamp down on immigration, and how it would be easier to get access to schools, houses, hospitals and jobs in a post-Brexit Britain. The assertions of a progressive character to the Leave vote rings hollow when examining the Ashcroft polling of voters post-referendum, which found reactionary beliefs significantly higher on the Leave side, and that many Leave voters were motivated by a desire to stop immigration.
In contrast to this assessment of a “working class revolt”, after reviewing polling data, sociologist Danny Dorling assessed the Leave vote was in the majority middle-income voters living in the South of England, bolstered by several million working-class pensioners and the unemployed. These voters were largely blinded by racism, and accepted the right-wing arguments that placed responsibility for their plight in the hands of Brussels bureaucrats and “immigrants”.
This perspective on a “progressive” rejection of the EU missed the fact that while the neo-liberal character of many EU policies is not in doubt, the economic, social and political integration fostered within the framework of the EU remained progressive. The fact that citizens of the EU can travel, study, work and live in any of its 27 member states without restrictions was a huge gain for working people. The EU’s social rights – while under attack constantly – are still superior to much of the world. The rejection of the EU by part of the UK ruling class is exactly because they wish to increase their ability to exploit the UK workforce by freeing themselves from EU labour and social rights. And deprived parts of the UK, long abandoned by London-focused Westminster, received much needed investment and development money from the EU.
And of the chief aim of “Lexit”; of striking a blow against the EU super state project to help austerity-stricken Greece and the migrants and refugees trying to get into Europe, there is little to show. There are no plans to reduce the austerity regime on Greece, and migrants and refugees are still trapped and hunted at the borders of Europe.
Theresa May has however abolished the refugees minister position created by David Cameron, so what little commitment the government has made to helping Syrian refugees has now been undone. Following The referendum, support for the EU has actually increased in several countries, and the main forces cheerleading Brexit in Europe are the far-right parties, who are emboldened by the victory of UKIP and their strategy.
The worst impact of the referendum though was the boost for hardline racists and fascists provided by the Leave vote. Emboldened by the reality that 52% of people had voted against immigration, racists went on the rampage across Britain. Black and African, Asian and European migrants were attacked, migrant owned businesses, and homes were smashed and firebombed. Even white citizens of other imperial powers; French, Germans, Americans, reported being subject to racist abuse, as nationalist and xenophobic attitudes hardened against all migrants.
Social media is awash with accounts of the increased aggression and violence towards non-white people, to migrants from the continent and particularly those from Eastern Europe. The police reported a five-fold increase in the number of reported racist attacks, and public institutions with large migrant workforces like the NHS are reporting large increases in racist aggression and violence towards staff. As of the time of writing, police are still reporting higher than average incidents of racist violence, one of them resulting in the death of a Polish man in Harlow. For migrant communities, the Leave vote was primarily seen as a vote against them.
Facing this reality post-referendum, it should be clear there was nothing progressive about the Leave vote. To quote John McDonnell, it has ushered in a “carnival of reaction”. It was a rejection of migration, a rejection of any sort of unity with Europe, a rejection of globalisation, and motivated by highly racist and reactionary views which serve only to obscure from Leave voters who the main cause of the problems in their lives are.
Roots of the Brexit vote
The cause for the massive vote to Leave lie in the last 6 years of British politics. Under the Cameron government the social fabric of Britain has been frayed by huge austerity measures. Access to social services has been withdrawn or restricted for many, emergency services are in a state of permanent crisis, as is much of the NHS. Unemployment benefit is now little more than a vicious method of social control, and millions use food banks to supplement inadequate pay or benefits. Homelessness is climbing rapidly as a shortage of affordable housing, rising rents and continued sell off of public housing make even basic shelter inaccessible to many. Unemployment is low, but jobs are increasingly precarious, minimum wage and come with zero hours contracts, increasing workers vulnerability to the whims of business and the market.
To cope with the growing animosity and polarisation in society between the mass of the working and middle classes and the 1%, the ruling classes across Europe have stoked ever more vicious and irrational forms of racism to divert the attention away from the main source of their exploitation and torment. The refugee crisis that swept onto Europe’s shores when Syria’s millions of refugees decided they would no longer languish in camps and set out for a better future in Europe, was another catalyst for xenophobic hate mongering. The paralysis and division which characterised the response of Europe’s elite to the refugee crisis allowed the far-right to use the images of tens of thousands of Arab, African and Asian people coming in to Europe to deflect people’s anger from their elites ruinous economic policy. They refocused peoples justifiable anger at the elites and the system, on to the most vulnerable and dispossessed.
The political campaign for Leave was a continuation of this racist fear mongering, with the addition that it gave the British little Englanders and far-right the chance to also rail against their other favourite bete noir; the EU.
What allowed the right-wing politicians to capitalise on this anger for their Brexit cause was the failure of the left and progressive forces to successfully organise and mobilise people against austerity in the early years of the Cameron government. The failure of anti-austerity organisations like the Coalition of Resistance to develop a strong, national anti-austerity movement with democratic organisations rooted in working-class communities during 2011 to 2013 meant the austerity project largely succeeded. Anti-cuts campaigns remained localised, and there was no national response beyond a yearly token demonstration called by the TUC, nothing that greatly impeded the government’s attacks. The failure to defeat austerity or build lasting social institutions to combat its effects meant a political vacuum was created as local anti-austerity campaigns suffered defeats, and austerity viciously frayed the social fabric. The poorest, most atomised sections of the working-class were left with little practical alternative to poverty, anger and despair.
Go forward three years, and this despair and anger has been harnessed and mobilised primarily by reactionary forces; namely UKIP, but also fascist fringe groups like the English Defence League and Britain First. With no social or political organisation to defend them, or examples of successful social struggles to motivate them, the most backwards parts of the working-class threw their weight behind the Leave vote, as the only available way to hit back at a government responsible for ruining their lives. While their anger and resentment, and desire to hit back at the government are justifiable, doing it via the Leave vote was a reactionary act, regardless of their class background or intentions.
It is deeply worrying that socialists have sought to interpret a progressive character to the Leave Vote. Whatever people’s motivation for voting leave, and their legitimate grievances with the Cameron government and its austerity regime, the Leave vote does nothing to empower working-class people or strengthen their ability to resist capital’s assaults on their jobs, homes and communities.
Instead it has given a green light to racist violence, and created uncertainty for millions of EU migrants, who face being used as bargaining chips in negotiations with the EU. None of the ramifications of the Leave vote develop class consciousness, and as the practical aspects of Brexit play out, may create further barriers to organising workers as EU migrants lose their equal rights to British citizens and suffer the same precarious immigration status as non-EU migrants.
On the political level, the Leave vote creates unfavourable ideological conditions for socialists. By giving credence to the grievances raised against the EU, it diverts attention away from the actions of the British capitalist class. Austerity in Britain has never been driven by the EU, and neither is privatisation of public services or any of the other factors causing misery in peoples lives. These are all actions pursued independently by our own government. In the right-wing political discourse in the UK, the EU has served as a scapegoat for these actions by some sections of the ruling class. The victory of the Leave vote demonstrates this wing of the ruling-class have effectively won millions of people to this perspective. The political climate of the next several years is going to be more difficult to organise in as large sections of British society now locate their primary antagonism as being with the EU, rather than with their own government, or with the capitalist system.
Predictions were made that a successful leave vote would usher in a crisis for the ruling class. There is certainly a crisis for the ruling class, but it is of no benefit to the working class or socialists. The Tories have managed a smooth transfer of power to Theresa May, and the hard right-faction of the Tories are now in control of the government and the Tory party in a way they haven’t been for a decade. How to carry out Brexit is causing difficulties for the Conservative Party, but they are settling on a course of breaking with free movement and by extension, the single market: a “hard Brexit”. This course will hurt Britain’s economy, lead to further impoverishment for the working class, and restrict rights further for EU and non-EU migrants. The Tories are already demonstrating the racism they are willing to stir up to deal with the repercussions of this; out of the Tory Party conference have come proposals for businesses to publicly list all foreign born workers, in order to “encourage them” to hire local, “British” workers. More scapegoating and divisive politics will follow, as the government tries to shift blame for the economic hardship of Brexit on to the shoulders of migrants.
The political crisis did have an affect on working-class organisation, but not in the way any Lexit supporters would have hoped for. One of the ironies of the Brexit referendum has been the marginalisation of the revolutionary organisations which advocated Brexit, as hundreds of thousands of working-class people have flooded into the Labour Party since the referendum. They see the Labour Party, and defending Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of it, as their only viable protection in post-Brexit Britain.
This could have been predicted, but there has been a distinct lack of materialist analysis about how this crisis would benefit the working-class, and whether the working-class was in any state to resist the crisis. As the Tories seek to make the working-class pay the price for Brexit, this will become increasingly apparent.
Outside the Labour Party, working class organisation is at an all-time low. There are few strikes, and trade union organisation is still declining across most sectors.
For example, outside of the doctors struggle, trade union organisation in the health sector has been declining for the last ten years. Vicious witchhunts in Unison have driven militants out of the union and the NHS, destroying entire union branches. In UNISON, the largest public sector union, the number of branches nominating candidates for union election is only 20% of the total, and member participation in voting is as low as 5% of total membership. The demobilisation of the public sector pensions dispute in 2011, and failure to turn sectional struggles – like the widespread privatisation of pathology services – from local into national disputes has lead to demoralisation and the decline and fragmentation of union organisation. In the London and Eastern region of Unite where I am a member, there are many hospitals without even a union rep, let alone a functioning union branch. Without even the barest skeleton of union organisation, how are workers to successfully resist further attacks on them and the health service? The answer is they probably won’t, as they haven’t for the last ten years. As well any trade union struggles workers wage may be set back by people’s uncertainty over their immigration status, and the poisonous racism unleashed by the Leave campaign.
The response to the Leave vote by pro-Leave leftists of increased attempts at migrant solidarity work are welcome, but they rarely confront the point that this activism is necessitated by the very victory of the Leave campaign, and these effects were warned about by pro-Remain activists. Failing to acknowledge what is driving the attacks that they were warned were coming in the event of a Leave victory, is shortsighted and politically dishonest, and leaves unanswered the bigger questions as to what stance to take towards the ongoing Brexit negotiations and its effects on migrants.
Brexit is probably going to be the most significant event in 21st century UK history since the Iraq War. It has highlighted division, polarisation and the significant weakness of socialist and progressive forces in British society. Socialists need to be looking at this reality clearly in order to better understand how to work out a path beyond it. Ascribing to it a progressive character is politically dishonest, and means they remain blind to the acute dangers it poses for us all.