Socialists vs neoliberals and populists (a brief reply to Asher’s brief reply)

Issue: 164

Sean Leahy

I wish to thank Wayne Asher for replying to my response to his original article in this journal1 and to take this opportunity to respond once more and clarify further what I had meant to say.

Wayne mentions the polarisation among the UK population around Leave or Remain as evidenced by the psephologist John Curtice, who contrasts it with the weaker commitment to political parties demonstrated by his snapshot of opinion.2 In his original article, Wayne also noted Lord Ashcroft’s exit poll and one of its results; that a large section of the working class (C2DEs in marketing speak), voted Leave—by a ratio of 2:1. There are certainly deep divisions within the working class on this question and we as socialists have to work out a strategy that does not turn one section of the class against another (merely reflecting divisions among our rulers) but unites working class people against those who rule us. It is a major problem that the public Brexit debate has largely reflected the arguments between so-called “one-nation” Tories and liberals on the one hand and right-wing Tories and populists on the other. The left needs to intervene with an alternative to both.

We used to say “Unemployment and Inflation are not Caused by Immigration—Bullshit! Come off it! The Enemy is Profit”. I appreciate that left Remain supporters are motivated largely by defending freedom of movement so they understand the first part of the chant. But the leaders of the Remain campaign actually spend much more energy defending big business interests in the single market then they do defending the former. We need to remember that “The Enemy is Profit” and find a way to offer real change for working class people, not just defend the status quo. We also need to realise that the limited freedom of movement offered by the EU does not include free movement for those who are dying trying to cross the Mediterranean or even now the English Channel.

Wayne asks if I dispute Ashcroft’s findings and I wish to make it clear that I do not. Indeed, I took some pain to repeat the very findings Wayne cited in his original article precisely because I did not want us to waste time doing so. I wanted to make the point that, despite these findings, our argument against voting Remain still stands. It is how we should react to these findings that I dispute rather than the findings themselves (although there may indeed be some clarifications as to how they are interpreted that others might raise).

I will not repeat the Ashcroft findings for a third time here, nor will I spend time on the argument about whether the EU can be reformed. I would refer Wayne and our readers to Costas Lapavitsas’s book The Left Case Against the EU, which wholly demolishes the idea that the EU could be used as a vehicle to deliver any kind of socialist transformation of society.3 Wayne argues that defending the NHS, acting on climate change and opposing the hostile environment for migrants (highlighted recently by the Windrush Scandal), concretely means stopping Brexit. I say it means fighting the bosses’ drive for profit growth, privatisation and racism both here and in the institutions of the EU that British bosses share with French, German, Italian, Greek and other European ones.

I will instead concentrate on the substance of my original main argument with Wayne which I characterised as: “Does failing to support Remain strengthen the populist right?” I suggested that the most urgent reason for a left campaign against the EU neoliberal establishment was because, in the absence of such a campaign from the left, the populist right will be able fraudulently to pose itself as the true anti-establishment force. I also argued that the populist right did indeed fill the vacuum on the left during the referendum and succeeded in deflecting a lot of the anti-establishment feelings rightwards. If the Ashcroft results show that right-wing Brexit positions were prevalent and not the kind of positions a left-wing, anti-austerity, anti-privatisation, internationalist campaign could have resulted in, then I argued that this represented a failure of the left that we need to take account of.

When doing so, however, I also warned that it is a mistake to dismiss all Leave voters as an irredeemably racist and reactionary demographic. If you feel a victim of globalisation then without a left-wing alternative it is understandable that you can fall for alternative right-wing explanations.

In his reply to me, Wayne argues that a crucial issue is what we do in a downturn when none of the concrete choices are appealing. But he considers only two choices as concrete—a right-wing Tory Brexit or neoliberal EU Remain. Our point is that it did not have to be this way. If Corbyn and the trade unions had led a left campaign against the bosses’ EU, there would have been a third choice and that is what we suggested was needed in order to defeat the right. Of course, Wayne will say that this third choice did not appear on any scale and so therefore was not “concrete”. But since when has it been the revolutionary left’s duty to capitulate to big business by adopting a self-fulfilling prophecy that workers do not have the leadership to fight back?

Wayne is quite right to say that the enemy is at home. But he is wrong to ignore that it is actually the same home enemy that uses the EU as a tool to enforce its rule (hence the democratic deficit in the EU and the decimation of Greek workers by the Greek banks through the EU). As regards the hostile environment, the only difference between the two wings of the ruling class in this debate is whether the deadly borders, fences, camps and seas are to be policed within the EU or just strengthened further at its periphery.

Wayne asks us to suppose that if Remain had won, the extreme right would not have gained in confidence. But the concrete truth was that practically the whole of big business, the centrist, liberal and Labour politicians campaigned to remain in the EU and then lost the referendum to a campaign led ­(unfortunately) by the populist right. Undoubtedly the far right have gained confidence from the result (although this is not a phenomenon unique to the British state during the current period).

Were the Labour Party to campaign solely to remain in the EU, as is now being urged by its deputy leader Tom Watson and others, the populist and far right would have an added string to their bow. They would be the only ones to respect the decision of millions of people (particularly working class people) who voted Leave. We need a clear, left-wing, anti-austerity, anti-racist, anti ­climate change movement that can unite both Leave and Remain voting workers now more than ever. In such a movement, revolutionaries have to be honest about the nature of the EU. In contrast, when it looks like we may be heading towards a general election, we need a Remain supporting Labour Party that writes off the referendum result like we need a hole in the head.

Sean Leahy is a retired software engineer, former Unite senior representative, member of Coventry TUC Executive and a long-standing SWP member.


1 Asher, 2019b. See also Leahy, 2019 replying to Asher, 2019a.

2 Curtice, 2019.

3 Lapavitsas, 2018.


Asher, Wayne, 2019a, “In a Hole and Still Digging: the Left and Brexit”, International Socialism 161 (winter),

Asher, Wayne, 2019b, “Socialists and the Leave Vote—a (brief) Reply to Sean Leahy”, International Socialism 163 (summer),

Curtice, John, 2019, “The Emotional Legacy of Brexit: How Britain has Become a Country of Remainers and Leavers”, NatCen Social Research (October),

Lapavitsas, Costas, 2018, The Left Case Against the EU (Polity Press).

Leahy, Sean, 2019, “Should the Revolutionary Left Support Remain?”, International Socialism 162 (spring),