EU debate: 38 points on Brexit and the Left

Ian Allinson examines what points the radical left can agree on, and what points remain contentious, concluding that we should not lose sight of the fact that our united campaigning for migrant solidarity, for genuine democracy, against austerity, and against neoliberalism puts in opposition to the establishment in both referendum camps.


Now the EU referendum campaign is under way, everyone engaged in politics is under great pressure to focus on the in/out question. But is that really the most important argument for the small forces of the British radical left?

What key arguments can everyone on the radical left unite on? What are the more contentious points? What bad arguments should we avoid? Why are socialists adopting opposing positions? How should socialists go about deciding which way to vote and what priority to give that question?

What can the radical left agree on?

  1. Both the UK state and the EU are deeply undemocratic capitalist institutions that stand in the way of socialism. Both are pursuing neoliberal policies and participate in economic, political and military imperialist competition. Internationalism does not rely on the unity of either the British state or the EU.
  2. The EU has played a disgraceful role in undemocratically imposing austerity on poorer EU countries such as Greece.
  3. Socialists should place demands on, and fight for reforms from, capitalist institutions.
  4. Within the EU, the UK has promoted the worst policies and opposed the best.
  5. Opposing the EU hasn’t been a significant focus of the British left in recent decades because, unlike in some other countries, the government policies we have been fighting have been home grown, not EU imposed.
  6. As the UK labour movement suffered defeat in the 1980s, its attitude to the EU became more positive. EU policies led to improvements in UK legislation in a number of areas including workers’ rights, health and safety, environmental standards and equality. Most big trade unions currently have a pro-EU policy.
  7. More recently, the UK has helped win the EU to increasingly neoliberal policies. Free market principles are “balanced” against workers’ fundamental human rights, as in the Viking, Laval and Rüffert European Court of Justice (ECJ) rulings. The secret EU negotiations with the USA over TTIP are a major threat. Policies promoting privatisation (e.g. Railway Directives) and deregulation are growing. Any left government within the EU would rapidly be in confrontation with the EU as well as the national state.
  8. From a working class standpoint, EU legislation represents a safety net, an obstacle to future progress, and a threat.
  9. Being more remote and having a wider base to play off competing pressures, EU institutions are less susceptible to pressure from popular movements than national governments. The structures of the EU, such as the unelected Commission and the Council of Europe, which requires unanimity of 28 national heads of state, make it highly resistant to reforms.
  10. The EU project is primarily about a “single market”, with the aim of providing a home market larger than the USA or China and so helping capitalists based in the EU to compete globally.
  11. The ruling class (in the EU and USA, not just the UK) predominantly supports UK membership of the EU. That is reflected in the Tories, Labour and Lib Dems all supporting the “In” camp.
  12. The middle class social base of the Tory Party is much more hostile to the EU. This is partly driven by racist and nationalist nostalgia for the British Empire. Partly by the fact that smaller businesses are less supportive of regulation as they benefit less from standardisation and want to under-cut bigger capitalists.
  13. The current Brexit referendum has been prompted by pressure from UKIP and the right of the Tory Party on racist and nationalist grounds.
  14. The Brexit referendum is deeply problematic for the Tory Party.  It is the party of big business, but relies on middle class support electorally and organisationally. UKIP has already attracted a section of the Tory Party base.
  15. Concern about the EU is greatest amongst older, rural people in higher social groups. This fits with Tory voters (or ex-Tories who have decamped to UKIP) – and those most hostile to migration.
  16. Some key audiences for the left to relate to are in favour of “In” campaign, often with illusions in the EU. This includes much of the soft left, EU migrants and most anti-racists. Support for the EU was the majority position of the Yes camp for the Scottish independence referendum, but the healthier position of the Scottish radical left means this does face more challenge. Most unions and Corbyn supporters are in the “In” camp, though Momentum is staying neutral.
  17. Much of the left “out” forces are tainted with nationalism, drawing on Stalinist or Labour nation/class traditions. Many are rehearsing arguments and positions from the 1970s, rather than addressing the question as it stands today with the audiences of today.
  18. It is easier to put a sharp anti-establishment position if you aren’t arguing for the same vote as most of the establishment.
  19. Free movement of people within the EU is greatly valued. Around 3 million EU citizens live in the UK and many UK citizens live elsewhere in the EU. Given the anti-migrant stance of the “Out” campaign, they are fearful for their futures. These migrants are an important part of the British working class, and losing them would do severe harm to profits. The ruling class wants migrants, but they want them to be precarious and “deportable” so that they can be exploited and resistance is more difficult. Capitalist interests are not directly and purely expressed in government, they are mediated through politics. Despite Boris Johnson being pro-migration, an “out” vote relying heavily on anti-migrant votes would lead to anti-migrant measures. Many EU migrants are applying for British citizenship now, at a cost of over £1000 – the referendum is already creating another “migrant tax”.
  20. The “fortress Europe” aspect of the EU has become very visible due to the Syrian crisis. Far from being an internationalist project, the EU represents the combined interests of the various EU states in competition with the rest of the world. Refugees are left to drown in the Mediterranean “to discourage the others”. Walls and fences are springing up, and borders closed. Migrants are harassed and left in squalid conditions at borders and within the EU.
  21. Cameron’s deal makes no significant difference to the nature of the EU or Britain’s position in it. Apart from some spin about the future, he got some cuts to in-work benefits and child-benefit for migrants and the ability to stall Eurozone regulation that might threaten his mates in the City of London. It has attacks on migrants’ rights at its core.
  22. The political debate around Brexit will be dominated by the right on both sides of the debate, competing to be “tough” on migrants and good for “business”. Though Corbyn has historically opposed the EU, he has fallen into line with Labour policy to remain in the EU.
  23. The attack on benefits for migrants is part of a wider attack on welfare and people who rely on it. Migrant workers worry that whatever the result of the referendum, discrimination against them in benefits could spread to other services, such as access to the NHS.
  24. The current migration/borders crisis is creating huge tensions between EU states and calling into question the survival of the Schengen arrangements. It is possible that free movement within the EU will not survive in its present form irrespective of the outcome of the referendum.
  25. Liberal and soft left opinion in the UK is influenced by reaction to tabloid myths about the EU, some of which they replicate. For example, the European Court of Human Rights (responsible for Human Rights Act) is separate from, and predates the EU.
  26. The soft left tends to like the EU because they see reform as being given from “above”, having faith in national state and international institutions.
  27. Arguments around “sovereignty” concede huge ground to nationalism. They assume there is some “national interest” when in reality this is always the interests of a tiny minority at the top.

What is less agreed?

  1. Failing to win an “In” vote would mean the Tory Party losing the trust of the ruling class, just as the Scottish independence referendum threatened to do. The Tory Party would enter crisis over Cameron’s replacement. Would they elect an “Out” leader to carry through the referendum result and alienate their big business supporters? Or elect an “In” leader and see more of their base slip away to UKIP? A crisis of this scale could weaken the Tory Party for an extended period and help Corbyn get elected.
  2. An “Out” vote would generally be interpreted as a victory for UKIP, the right of the Tory Party, nationalists and racists. It would boost the confidence of such forces.
  3. A successful “In” campaign would bolster Cameron. Britain would be unlikely to see another EU referendum for many years. This could take the steam out of UKIP, with elements joining the Tories or further right organisations. The Eurosceptic Tories would mostly be forced into line, strengthening the unity of the Tory Party by reducing a division that has dogged the Tories for decades. However unhappy they might be, it is unlikely that many would leave the Tories for UKIP, as their window of opportunity would have gone.
  4. An “Out” vote could trigger a crisis in the British state, with Scots demanding a second independence referendum. Neil Davidson argues that if this led to a vote for independence, the SNP would want to negotiate re-entry to the EU, probably on much worse terms which would push the Scottish left towards opposing the EU.
  5. An “Out” vote could lead to a wider crisis in the EU, giving confidence to people in other countries, including those where the left dominates the anti-EU arguments. In the context of the failure of Syriza on a very similar point – seeing remaining the Euro as more important than resisting austerity – this could be seen as an important act of solidarity with the Greek people irrespective of the views of Syriza leaders.

What bad arguments should we avoid?

  1. Arguments that “you are siding with Cameron and the city” or “you are siding with Farage, Johnson and the BNP” won’t get us anywhere – there are deeply unpleasant forces arguing to vote both ways. Socialists cannot support the main campaigns on either side – they are both competing on anti-migrant and neoliberal ground.
  2. We oppose the idea that the way to defend and improve jobs, wages and services in the UK is to keep out migrants or deny those here access to jobs. The British state does not try to protect wages or jobs. There is not some fixed amount of wealth to be shared out. Workers, including migrants, create wealth through their labour. It is capitalists who make it illegal for us to use available resources to work without their permission, which they only grant if they can make a profit from it. The main impact of calls for controls on migration is discrimination against migrants who are already here. These divisions weaken the working class and make it harder for us to defend jobs, wages and services.
  3. We reject the argument of the TUC that “the EU” has “given us” various reforms. Reforms happen because people fight for them and/or a temporary coincidence of interests between workers and sections of the ruling class. From the 1980s, when the British labour movement suffered a more decisive defeat than in most European countries, EU policy continued to reflect a capitalist strategy of keeping unions on board when sections of the UK establishment no longer saw the need. EU institutions are not independent of changes in strategy of the ruling class and are also adopting the neoliberal model. The TUC’s argument is extremely dangerous as it diverts people away from the need to fight for change themselves and encourages reliance on governmental institutions.
  4. The argument from many unions that we should support the EU because it is “good for jobs” reflects their acceptance of the “partnership” or “business unionism” agenda. They are assuming that because most employers support EU membership, which they see as best for their business plans, that is good for the workers employed by those businesses.
  5. It’s not helpful to argue on the basis that “the vote is about X”, whether X is whether you are for/against the EU, or for/against migration. The real meaning of a vote either way will depend on its consequences, which are partly shaped by the nature of the campaigns, not on assertions.
  6. We won’t win over the pro-EU soft left by arguing that losing beneficial legislation won’t make any difference because we can fight. This won’t persuade anybody. Socialists wouldn’t argue that we didn’t care whether the Trade Union Bill was passed “because struggle”.

Why are socialists adopting opposing views?

Socialists feel under pressure to adopt one position or another not just because there may be differences in analysis, but also based on their own personal situation, who they relate to politically, and what importance they give to different questions.

If you are an EU migrant, or do a lot of work with EU migrants, the threat posed by Brexit is real and immediate. There is great pressure to support the “In” camp in solidarity with EU migrants, and in reaction against most of the worst racists and nationalists being in the “Out” camp. Similarly, trade unionists fearful of Tory attacks on workers’ rights may look to the EU for help, just as sometimes judges or the House of Lords sometimes obstruct Tory excesses.

If your main activity is as an anti-TTIP campaigner, campaigning for the renationalisation of the railways, or opposing the EU’s treatment of Greece, then supporting the “Out” camp may seem natural. Similarly, if you see wrecking the Tory Party as the key strategic objective, then voting “Out” makes sense.

If our primary focus is on which way to vote, rather than winning people to an independent socialist position, opposing views on the referendum can be deeply divisive. Instead of exploiting divisions within the ruling class and its political representatives, we could end up replicating them.

How should the British radical left decide its position?

Which way to vote in the Brexit referendum is not a question of principle for socialists, it is a tactical question. It is crucial to recognise that socialists making pro-migrant and anti-neoliberal arguments while arguing “In”, “Out” or “abstain” have far more in common with each other than with the main forces in either camp. But socialists on either side must not use this as an excuse to abandon principles.

An independent left position will have to oppose both the EU and the UK state. It will have to expose the hypocrisy and self-interest of those in both the mainstream campaigns. Campaigning for migrant solidarity, against racism, against austerity and neoliberalism, for workers’ rights, and for real democracy will put us in opposition to both wings of the establishment. Developing an independent socialist current that fights for its principles on these questions is the central issue – how to vote is secondary.

In the Communist Manifesto, Marx and Engels argued:

“The Communists are distinguished from the other working-class parties by this only: 1. In the national struggles of the proletarians of the different countries, they point out and bring to the front the common interests of the entire proletariat, independently of all nationality. 2. In the various stages of development which the struggle of the working class against the bourgeoisie has to pass through, they always and everywhere represent the interests of the movement as a whole.”


“The Communists fight for the attainment of the immediate aims, for the enforcement of the momentary interests of the working class; but in the movement of the present, they also represent and take care of the future of that movement.”

What they are arguing is that the long term interests of the class as a whole are paramount. But they are also clear that these interests are best pursued by tactics which vary from country to country and situation to situation.

Creating a crisis for the dominant sections of ruling class is certainly a worthwhile objective. But it would be irresponsible to do so in circumstances where the beneficiaries would be more vicious sections of the ruling class rather than the workers’ movement. In very different circumstances, Trotsky argued that communists should vote against ousting a rotten government, saying that the question of which way to vote “is not decided by bare principles, nor by polemical formulas, but by the relation of forces“. But adopting a “less of two evils” position, always backing the marginally less unpleasant section of the ruling class rather than developing an independent position, is not an approach which has ever been successful for the left.

Given the short timescale and the failure of the far left to cohere around the issue, it will have minimal influence on the outcome of the vote. So the concrete question of what is in the long term interests of the working class is largely reduced to which stance would best enable us to independently intervene with socialist arguments and prepare us to deal with the aftermath. That means looking at what we can say and do and who we aim to say it to and do it with.

Whichever way individual socialists and groups decide to vote, we should not lose sight of the fact that our united campaigning for migrant solidarity, for genuine democracy, against austerity, and against neoliberalism puts in opposition to the establishment in both referendum camps.



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