Wayne Asher’s article in the previous issue of International Socialism is a welcome intervention in the debate about the revolutionary left’s position on the European Union.1 It avoids some of the more outlandish claims of the Remain camp in not idolising the EU as the protector of workers’ rights and defender of anti-racism and does admit that there are problems with the bosses’ club. However, it fails to grapple with some of the most important issues and fails to understand the position we on the revolutionary left have actually been arguing.
Two main points of contention between Asher and the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) concern whether the EU can be reformed and, even more importantly, whether failing to support Remain strengthens the populist right.
Can the EU be reformed?
Asher deals with this issue only very briefly. His sole argument is that, as opposed to EU state aid and state spending restrictions being effective, Brussels cannot in practice “even prevent much smaller capitals such as Hungary or Poland from defying basic EU tenets of bourgeois democracy”.2
This is somewhat easily refuted. It assumes that the EU views concessions to democracy and concessions to neoliberal economics as equally important. Just look at what has happened to Greece and it can readily be seen this is not true. The EU is ruthless in its pursuit of neoliberal economics and austerity. A democratic election of a left government in Greece was of no significance to its agenda.
Does failing to support Remain strengthen the populist right?
Asher questions whether it was correct to call for a Leave vote in the 2016 referendum when the revolutionary left was too small to build a left alternative, especially given that revolutionaries could not win a vote to leave in 1975 when we were much more influential.
He also endorses the decision of Momentum (with 40,000 members, many of them young and with many more supporters) to support Remain on the basis that there was “a growing coalition coming together to campaign for a Remain vote on an unapologetically progressive and critical basis—for freedom of movement, internationalism and solidarity across borders”.3 Allegedly, they did not have illusions in the EU but saw that, due to the weakness of the left, the campaign for Leave would inevitably be dominated by reactionary nationalism and outright racism.
Asher makes great play of Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll. He cites from it the following:
● Two out of three Labour voters voted Remain.
● A majority of those in work voted Remain.
● Two-thirds (67 percent) of those describing themselves as Asian voted Remain. Four out of five black voters (73 percent) voted Remain, and 70 percent of Muslim voters did so too.
● Traditional working class areas in London delivered the highest Remain votes. Remain won in most working class regional capitals (Bristol, Manchester, Liverpool, etc) and in “working class Scotland”.
● Those who paid least attention to politics voted Leave by 58 percent to 42 percent.
Nevertheless, he notes that all 20 areas with the highest increase in turnout voted Leave.
Asher suggests that the argument that the referendum result represented a “popular uprising against austerity” is illusory and questions where such an uprising against Tory austerity could have come from. In the previous general election the Tories achieved an overall majority and improved their position in many traditionally Labour voting areas. There was no generalised anti-austerity outburst. Strike figures are historically extraordinarily low. SWP branches in Leave strongholds did not grow. Again, Asher quotes the Ashcroft poll arguing Brexit was to blame for this:
● Tory voters regarded Brexit as the biggest issue in the election.
● Labour voters were more concerned by the NHS and cuts than about Brexit.
● Some 49 percent of Leave voters said the biggest single reason was “sovereignty” (decisions about the UK being made in the UK).
● Some 33 percent said the main reason was immigration control. Asher argues this is “a proxy for racism” for many of these voters.
● Only 14 percent thought immigration was a force for good compared to 57 percent of Remainers.
● Austerity, NHS cuts, zero-hours contracts, privatisation, the housing crisis did not come into what Leave voters told the pollsters.
● Still he does note a large section of the working class, C2DEs in marketing speak, voted by 2 to 1 to leave.
● Leave voters were disproportionately old with the retired being the bedrock for Leave.
● Leavers were disproportionately white.
● Leavers were disproportionately based in declining small/medium sized towns and rural areas.
Finally, Asher argues that the Leave campaign was led by Nigel Farage, Jacob Rees-Mogg, Boris Johnson and Arron Banks, presumably to prove Brexit was a right-wing project. The left (excluding Momentum) made the wrong decision because “it did not take into account the extreme weakness of left-wing forces”.
Now Asher says, the political climate may be shifting, with some polls finding increased support for a second referendum. The first referendum was “won by lies and—as we now know—fraud”.4
Therefore, Socialist Worker is “siding with a reactionary demographic for whom the EU was actually a convenient proxy for all sorts of apparent evils” (read anti-racism, social liberalism, feminism, the green movement and the internet).5
What we actually argued
Firstly, we have to point out that the results of the Ashcroft poll are no big surprise to us. We never argued that the referendum result represented a “popular uprising against austerity”. Far from it. Although Diane Abbott was correct to say that it represented “a roar of defiance against the Westminster elite”6 (and it has certainly thrown them into crisis) this is not the same as a conscious movement against austerity. Neither, I submit, do many working class voters feel surprised that the Leave campaign lied to them. Indeed, it has to be said that both campaigns lied and we are used to being lied to by politicians.
The main reason we argued for a left campaign against the EU neoliberal establishment was not that the EU is incapable of delivering left-wing reforms (even though we believe it is) but because in the absence of such a campaign from the left, the populist right will be able to fraudulently position itself as representing the true anti-establishment force. It is not necessarily prevented from doing this by openly lying and being seen to do so (just look at Donald Trump).
It is true, in retrospect, that we were unable to build a big enough left-wing (Lexit) campaign to really count. This is because the reformist left including Momentum did not fully understand the danger and voted with the established order and big business to campaign with Remain. But, just because the revolutionary left was unable to find enough allies does not mean that what we argued was wrong. Trotsky constantly argued for united front tactics within the left against the Nazis. Unfortunately, he did not win the argument within a significant enough portion of the left. Would we therefore say that he was wrong and should have supported the disastrous Stalinist position?
Again, unfortunately, we have been proved right. The populist right did indeed fill the vacuum on the left, leading the Leave campaign and successfully deflecting a lot of the anti-establishment feelings towards the right. The Ashcroft results show that right-wing Brexit positions were prevalent and not the kind of positions a left wing anti-austerity, anti-privatisation, environmental Lexit campaign could have resulted in. This was of course less successful in areas of stronger class conscious organisation but we should not ignore the inroads made by the right even there.
But neither should we overdo the pessimism here. It is a mistake to think that everyone who accepts the ruling class idea that free movement and the alleged lack of immigration controls are part of the problem is an inveterate or closet racist. Unfortunately both the Remain and Leave campaigns accepted the logic of immigration controls. Indeed, immigration controls have become part of the received “common sense”; the only people who argue against them are the revolutionary left. If you feel like a victim of globalisation then, without the left-wing alternative of solidarity against the bosses being posed, it is understandable that you can fall for alternative right-wing explanations that argue that immigration controls are inadequate. The absence of a real mass Lexit campaign was a major contributory factor.
In fact the referendum became a Hobson’s choice (from our point of view) between a centrist Remain campaign that only offered more of the same and a populist right Leave campaign that offered change (albeit fraudulently). Faced with this kind of choice it would be disastrous for socialists to defend the establishment. To defeat the populist and racist right we must offer a left-wing alternative to the status quo. This is equally the case elsewhere in Europe, the United States and South America, where right-wing populism is on the rise
There is a difference in the UK, however, in that around Jeremy Corbyn we have the largest left reformist movement in Europe. It was the success of the “For the Many, Not the Few” general election campaign in 2017 that actually made inroads into the Brexit nonsense. It meant instead of Theresa May getting the vote of confidence she needed, she lost her majority and is now dependent on the arch reactionary Democratic Unionist Party.
Corbyn rightly did not base his campaign on Remain but on an anti-austerity, redistributive political position that was able to appeal to both working class Leave and Remain voters. It showed the possibilities of building a movement against austerity and inequality and did make real gains. Asher does not give Corbyn enough credit for this.
We in the SWP believe (and I think Corbyn does too) that to dissolve the left’s position into Remain (effectively that is what the demand for a second referendum is all about) would once again empower and encourage the populist right and the fascists who would have a strong position once again that they (and their racist politics) represent the true anti-establishment force.
Sean Leahy is a retired software engineer, former Unite senior representative, member of Coventry TUC Executive and a long-standing SWP member.
1 Asher, 2019.
2 Asher, 2019, p150.
3 Michael Chessum, quoted in Asher, 2019, p151.
4 Asher, 2019, p159.
5 Asher, 2019, p160.
6 Quoted in Kimber, 2016, p23.