Part of the Union? – What should socialists argue in the EU referendum?

Can socialists take a principled position in relation to the EU referendum on 23 June, or should we wish ‘a plague on both your houses’? Charlie Hore puts the case for a ‘remain’ vote, Christina Delistathi to ‘leave’ and Rob Owen for a ‘radical abstention’

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Campaign to remain

There’s no dispute that the EU is a bosses’ union: racist, neoliberal and pro-austerity. The attacks on Greece, and the ‘Fortress Europe’ walls set up against refugees show the real nature of the institution. But when attacks on refugees and the right to migrate are increasing, does it help to reinforce borders across Europe? Won’t we just be swapping Fortress Europe for Fortress Britain?

There’s no ready-made answer, and we have to think through what the referendum will mean in practice for British politics, and for the working class. And for me that means voting to remain, for three main reasons:

Whose referendum? Not ours 

Cameron conceded the referendum as a sop to the racist right of the Tory party; it’s never been a demand of the left. And it’s happening now because of a defeat for the left – Cameron winning the election last May. UKIP have been central to articulating the demand, but it’s more importantly about the rifts in the Tory party.

Given its origins, inevitably immigration and arguments about numbers have dominated the campaign so far. Cameron’s negotiations with the EU centred on restricting migrant workers’ rights, and the criticism from the Tory right is that he wasn’t harsh enough. However bad Cameron’s attacks, the Tories pushing to leave want to go further.

This is quite different from Scotland – the left and the working class could shape the Scottish referendum because the impetus for independence came from an anti-Tory groundswell. The opposite is true of the EU referendum.

Why the left is divided

The EU hasn’t been a focus of the left’s campaigning for decades, largely because successive British governments have been more right-wing and neoliberal than the EU, so it is hardly surprising that many activists don’t see it as the main enemy. But there have also been more fundamental shifts that we should pay attention to.

In the labour movement there has been a sea-change in attitudes, with many who once opposed the EU, now seeing it as a shield against the Tories. That is in part a reaction to decades of defeats, but it is also true that the EU has produced real reforms that the Tories opposed, in particular over workers’ rights and the environment. When Eurosceptics talk about a ‘bonfire of regulations’, those gains are what they have in mind.

There have also been deeper shifts in social attitudes – over issues such as racism, sexism and homophobia – and views on Europe are part of that. Those changes were fought for, and are still contested, as current attacks on refugees and migrants show. But we have not lost all the ground gained, however fierce the right’s attacks. The anti-racist reaction that so many young people have against UKIP and the Eurosceptic right is a healthy one, and we should back it.

The changing working class

There are close on three million EU citizens here, with equal rights to housing, work, and health care. It is migration that has mainly fuelled the right’s demand for the referendum, meaning that in Britain the issue of the EU is about migration in a way that isn’t true in other European countries.

Leaving the EU would threaten those rights. Exactly how that would play out isn’t really the issue – the point of leaving the EU, for most of those pushing it, is to make migrants’ lives more precarious. And we only have to look at the USA to see how a society can be dependent on migrant workers, and yet deny them basic rights.

The way forward

Of course there are principled socialists who are arguing for an internationalist exit from the EU. But they are a minority of a minority. The balance of forces is overwhelming with the right, with too many on the left making concessions to the idea that the free movement of labour harms British workers.

Our arguments on the referendum need to centre on defending migrants and refugees, and the right to migrate. And we need to make common cause with those arguing for an exit who also put those at the centre of their politics, and see divisions on the vote as a secondary issue. We will have far more in common with each other than we will with most of those campaigning for either outcome. ‘In or out, workers have to fight’ was a useful slogan in the early 1970s, and it seems to have become apt again.

How you vote should be the end of an argument, not the beginning. But it seems to me that a position grounded in anti-racism and defending workers’ rights leads to one logical conclusion: the road to defending and extending the right to migrate cannot go through restricting existing migration rights, which would be the practical outcome of a vote to leave the EU.

Left Exit – not just a vote

The referendum to stay in or leave the EU is ripping the Tories apart, but has also opened up an intense debate on the Left with many people arguing to vote to stay. They fear that the leave vote is mobilising racists, that the end of free movement will make it harder for migrant workers from poorer EU countries to move freely through Europe, and that an exit will signal an assault on our rights currently protected by EU legislation.

Yet both the ‘leave’ and ‘stay’ sides involve racist and nationalist arguments. UKIP’s role in the leave campaign is obvious, but the ‘stay’ side includes Cameron and Theresa May with her despicable plan to cherry pick ‘deserving’ refugees. Unless the radical Left articulates a clear anti-capitalist campaign with demands that unite migrants and non-migrants, there is a real danger that anti-racists will be tied behind Cameron’s chauvinist rhetoric or Corbyn’s calls for a reformed EU – a strategy which was tried by Syriza in Greece and failed so spectacularly.

Many also argue that the free movement of labour among EU states, which has allowed people to build a better life in another country, fosters internationalism. The free movement of labour shouldn’t blind us to the fact that it applies only, and unevenly, to EU citizens. Whichever way the vote goes, the EU remains a fortress of ever-tightening border controls against refugees and migrants fleeing war and poverty. Fortress Europe is responsible for the thousands who drown in the Mediterranean or face razor fences and walls. Internationalism is not strengthened by accepting the right of free movement only for one group of workers. We need to remind ourselves that the only way to beat xenophobia is to defend the rights of all, migrant and non-migrants alike, and to consider the working class, our class, in unity across all borders.

EU promotes privatisation

The EU is not a defender of our rights. It’s a bosses’ institution and protects the bosses’ rights. The most recent action to defend the NHS came from junior doctors, whereas the push towards NHS privatisation is aided by EU trade rules that insist companies across Europe can tender for all contracts. The only reliable defence of our rights comes from our struggles. It took just two days of talks before EU leaders accepted Cameron’s demands to limit child benefits and tax credits for migrant workers, plunging them deeper into poverty and opening the door for more benefit cuts for us all.

To suggest then that the EU is what makes things better for working class people, is to accept to sacrifice the rights of one section of the working class – those without an EU passport – in the hope of keeping the rights of the rest. It does not prevent the ruling class from singling out vulnerable groups of migrant workers, undermining our class unity. Migrant and non-migrant workers have repeatedly fought together to secure social rights, welfare benefits and pensions. Think of the cleaners of the living wage campaign, who have fought and won. The only way to safeguard our rights is to ensure that they are available to all.

What kind of campaign?

A Left ‘out of the EU’ campaign has to do more than expose the EU as a capitalist and racist institution. The starting point of our campaign should be to use the referendum to strengthen our class, so it cannot end with a vote.

Many argue that a left exit position would have too small a voice to impact on the debate, suggesting that socialist ideas are irrelevant. Yet Corbyn’s victory, which came from campaigning against austerity and for a fairer society, has shown that an audience for a left alternative exists. Last summer, tens of thousands demonstrated in London in solidarity with refugees and many have organised regular trips to Calais. There is a sizable audience for our arguments and this makes it all the more urgent to organise such a campaign. We must give voice to anti-racists and steer the debate to the left. Recently, a number of trade unionists and activists launched a Left exit campaign. This is a very positive step.

We need to confront both faces of racism: islamophobia and anti-immigrant rhetoric. Our campaign must fight for the rights of the largely Muslim Syrian refugees and also have specific demands that safeguard the rights of migrants already here, such as equal access to benefits, welfare, health and education, and working rights. We must prepare a campaign in the unions to fight against austerity and protect everyone’s rights. We must also take on the argument that tighter border controls and fewer migrants will make life better for working class people.

Fears that an exit from the EU may trigger an assault on migrants’ rights are well founded. That’s why it’s important to go on the offensive now. We must combine our ‘no’ vote with a campaign that goes beyond the 23rd June, articulates an alternative to austerity, organises with migrant workers and defends everyone’s rights. We shouldn’t fear having a small voice in this moment – we should rather fear the long term consequences of failing to articulate the interests of the whole of our class from all corners of the globe.

A plague on both houses

2008 exposed the EU’s shaky foundations. Its structures were placed under tremendous pressure by financial tremors emanating from the USA. The attempt to manage the resulting crisis laid bare the debt relationships that underpin the common market and exposed the brutally undemocratic heart of the EU.

Despite its hegemonic role, German capitalism has shown itself both unable and unwilling to resolve the problems underpinning the crisis when the interests of the eurozone conflict with its own immediate interests – particularly ensuring repayments on loans from debtor nations within the EU. The most extreme example was the crushing austerity measures demanded of Greece in exchange for further loans, despite warnings from the other major eurozone economies that it would leave no path to recovery for the Greek economy; an economy previously absorbing billions of dollars’ worth of German exports a year.

British capitalism has consciously placed itself on the fringes of Europe and EU membership has had little bearing on left-wing or working class politics domestically. The referendum has been driven and continues to be shaped by a crisis on the right of British politics. A crisis where both sides are equally committed to deepening austerity and have collectively driven an agenda several steps to the right of anything emanating from Brussels. Their division, notionally over questions of “sovereignty,” is over whether Britain is best placed as a neoliberal outlier within the EU (with greater access to Eurozone markets). Or if the city and British firms could better exploit global markets if freed from the “protectionist” instincts and red tape of Europe. Socialists have no side in this split but it doesn’t mean we can’t exploit divisions to our advantage.

Opportunities for the left?

We have largely ignored the question of Europe for decades as successive governments, Thatcher, Blair then Cameron have driven forward agendas to the right of mainstream European politics. Slashing of services, growing insecurity and austerity have all been driven by Westminster. For most working class people the only impact of EU membership (bar cheaper holidays) has been an increase in European economic migration and “red tape” regulations on workplace rights. In most communities the only people arguing enthusiastically in opposition to the EU have been closet racists and right-wing Tories.

In an attempt to generate support both camps have pitched narratives unfavourable to the left. The remain camp has focused on economic viability and scare mongering around the financial uncertainty of exit. While the Brexit camp has built upon a dog whistle campaign hostile to the idea of mass migration from Eastern Europe and the idea of “Britishness.” A significant section of the wider left takes opposition to the racism of this postcolonial idea of Britishness as a starting point and combines it with illusions that the EU can be reformed to represent a more progressive anti-nationalist “Europeanism.” This reflects the sense amongst working class communities that a large Brexit would be a vote against the increasingly multicultural life of our cities.

In this context revolutionaries have to put out propaganda exposing and explaining the neoliberal nature of the EU in a dialogue with those voting to remain and attempt to organise the anti-racist sentiment into active solidarity with migrants.  Emphasis on the latter is essential if we are to counteract the most likely consequence of the referendum – an increase in anti-migrant legislation and the confidence of those most hostile to multiculturalism.

Don’t lend our votes to the right

Unless a recurrence of the Greek crisis upsets the dynamic of the referendum “left exit” arguments will prove unable to shape the debate beyond the far left and certain unions. If we can’t shape the wider debate then votes to remain are lent in support of Cameron and votes to leave are adding to the numbers in support of a more openly racist, nationalistic conservativism.

The only good outcome on 23 June is a low turnout that demonstrates neither section of the right has gained traction over the question of Europe. The radical left should patiently explain our anti-capitalist critique of the EU and fight where we can win – in solidarity with junior doctors, building the solidarity and combativity of our side.

This article was originally published in the rs21 magazine


  1. It seems strange there are socialists who want to vote Lexit. I do not believe that option will be on the ballot paper. In this referendum, I will vote that the sea should be turned into lemonade. This option will not be on the ballot paper, but it is worth a try

  2. On rs21 ‘getting in a room and hammering this thing out’, it seems you did (my error). But what has evidently not been hammered out is an unequivocal vote leave position. To say ‘our arguments and vision have nothing in common with the likes of Farage’ is plainly wrong on one fundamental point. When he, Galloway or any number of brexiteers you may or may not detest accuse the EU of being an anti-democratic, unreformable conveyor belt the public can’t control THEY ARE RIGHT (and you know they are right). At meetings and in workplaces across the country principled democrats are being shouted down by left pro-remainers who see the EU as a shelter from the demos (it is the demos, you, me, us which they fear). I’m glad to think that members of rs21 might be applauding and backing-up anti-EU democrats but there must be many caught like rabbits in the headlights hoping that somehow, from a revolutionary perspective, June 23rd doesn’t really matter either way. Tony Benn had it exactly right on the EU; it is the decaptitation of democracy (don’t give your government a place to hide).

  3. Apologies for being slow to respond to these comments.

    On the point of rs21 not advocating a positions and needing to “get in a room and hammer one out”, both have in fact been done. As Neil Davidson pointed out, rs21 members voted at our national meeting to campaign for a “Leave” vote. You can read multiple pieces explaining this, in particular this piece which sets out the debate we had and resolution we came to:

    You can read more of our EU referendum pieces here:

    As comrades have said, however, there is much debate within the organisation, with comrades disagreeing on a tactical level about the best way to approach THIS referendum at THIS particular political conjuncture. We believe in openness and debate, and also believe that comrades advancing arguments for leave, remain or abstain have much more in common with one another than they have differences. We also believe that, whatever the result of the referendum, the left will need to come together in solidarity with one another and with migrants, victims of austerity and workers. In the interests of foregrounding this and being open around the discussion we have had, we decided to publish the three pieces above laying out socialist arguments for each position.

    Jake: on the point of migrants undercutting wages…we refuse to give an inch to any argument that places blame for the exploitation of the working class on any section of the working class itself. Workers are exploited by capitalists, and it is the latter which push down wage levels.

    You hit on part of the answer to your own concerns when you stated “most of the cheap labour will of course not be unionised which is why they’ve been brought in”. Rather than play the ruling class’ game of setting one section of the working class against another, we require greater unity and solidarity, part of which is increased unionisation to fight for higher wages across the entire class. A blow against one section of the working class is a blow against all; an advance for one section of the working class is an advance for all.

    Our arguments and vision have nothing in common with the likes of Farage. We will share no platform with him, nor will we pretend that we share any goals or principles. Dividing the working class along national, religious, or other lines has always been, and always will be, a tactic of the ruling class; uniting and rejecting these divisions has always been, and always will be, the only route to workers’ advance.

  4. HI JGW – the bosses bring in immigrant and illegal labour to pay them less, yes the bosses are to blame!!
    but that doesn’t change the real effect of undercutting wages and a seemingly unending pool of cheap labour.

    Most of the cheap labour will of course not be unionised which is why they’ve been brought in.
    In the Morning Star,

    “Ms Hoey said that there is a “middle-class intellectual attitude” among activists that overshadows the EU debate and was joined by German-born Labour MP Gisela Stuart who said her party had made a mistake in establishing itself as pro-EU.”

    thats the RS21 attitude, a ‘middle-class intellectual attitude’. Even Owen Jones recognises the working class feel ‘brexity’.

    George Galloway is making a principled stand.
    We should take up his slogan at the end of his speech:
    left, right, left, right forward march to victory!

    Grassroots Out!

  5. Showing that Galloway is prepared to work with a right-wing shyster like Farage is not really an argument that migrants bring down wages. As Rachel pointed out, it’s bosses who set wage rates, not migrants. Or at least, bosses do if the unions are not strong enough. And if the unions are to be strong enough they need to unite native-born and migrant workers. Solidarity is the key.

    So, in a sense, those who blame migrants for workers’ ills, by dividing the working class, are responsible for lowering wages.

  6. Hi Rachel- you are just skirting the issue.
    of course migrants undercut the wages of the native working class, black or white, which is why they are popular with big business. that is the whole point of bringing in migrants and why the UK economy is so ‘vibrant’.

    this is why a whole section of the ruling class is so pro immigrant, to keep getting cheap labour.

    Charlie Hore – yes people migrate here, but how many before the situation becomes dangerous and we get Norbert Hoffer’s and Marine Le Pen’s getting voted in? there has to be a limit to immigration as well. is there any cut off number or point where there is enough immigration?

    I believe the issue was brought up in the German Die Linke party recently.

  7. The right to migrate is not an end in itself – no, it’s a principle that we defend. People migrate to make better lives for themselves, or to get away from an awful situation, and as socialists we defend that. And Galloway has made exactly the same mistake as Tony Benn – if you collaborate with the right on the right’s terms, then it’s the right that wins.

  8. Jake – migrants don’t undercut the pay of working class 1. They are as much a members of the working class as another worker 2. Migrants don’t undercut the wages, the ruling class does. In the present period they have been able to get away with cutting wages and conditions because of the lack of fight back from the working class.

  9. we should leave the EU. migrants ultimately are used by capitalists to undercut the wages of the working class. the right to migrate is not an end in itself and is used by the bosses to divide the working class.

    We should say no to the EU and seize control of our borders.

    George Galloway has shown the lead here, bravely teaming up with Nigel Farage, the left and right teaming up on this issue just as Tony Benn and Enoch Powell teamed up. We need more left/right unity.

    Grassroots OUT!

  10. I see the LEXIT view again. Now, how can a LEXIT happen when it is not on the ballot paper? What we are being asked is that a Right Exit happen or not; the left has little influence in this. The left knows this, so the LEXIT campaign is really about getting support for SPEW, the SWP and the CPB; they are using the Brexit campaign to get new members and influence etc. LEXIT is a fantasy. Comrades are deluding themselves. It is akin to third period Stalinism – go look it up.

  11. Adrian – rs21 voted on this on 9 April and the majority of comrades were for leaving the EU, for reasons set out at length as a separate article in the Spring issue of our magazine (pp. 14-17) which will also appear on the website. However, since there were three different positions within the organisation, all of which are compatible with a revolutionary perspective, we’ve set them out here so supporters or visitors to the site can see the nature of our discussion; but our ‘official’ position is to leave and comrades, including me, have been arguing this in debates and meetings since we took that decision.

  12. Though not a member of RS21 I found reading the three arguments useful and interesting, Refreshing to see a Left group not advocating a “line”.
    ()I still haven’t decided which way to vote.

    • I agree Declan – refreshing and interesting. But for RS21 to be ‘useful’ (with only 12 days to go) they need to get themselves in a room and hammer this thing out, take a vote and get behind LEXIT.

  13. So there you have it comrades. You should vote to Remain or to Leave or to Abstain…the position of Revolutionary Socialism in the 21st Century. Pathetic – Not sure if Tony Benn would laugh or cry…

  14. One thing I have noticed that the Left is doing during this Referendum is justifying a “pure” position on Brexit. Hence we get the fantasy of the Lexit campaign. A Lexit is not on the cards at the moment, and is certainly not on the ballot paper. The choice on offer is Remain or Rexit, that is, a right exit. Many good socialists will fall for Lexit. In my opinion, they should not. From the 3 main choices from rs21, the “Leave” camp is the most problematic, because it means socialists fusing with the hard right and expecting something nice to come about if Brexit wins. That seems like Third period Stalinism to me – After Brexit, us! Remain and Boycott both have merits. None of the debate, as far as I have seen, has centred around what we as a class want and need. The people and colleagues I know from EU countries want the UK to remain; there are some traditionally right-wing colleagues who to leave. It is not a hard decision to make.


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