The recent poll giving 'Leave' a lead (Opinium, Observer, April 3rd), backed up by recent poll averages showing only a small two point lead for 'Remain', means that there is now a distinct possibility that Leave could carry the day, and Brexit could happen. This is accentuated by the poll also demonstrating that the younger, more pro-EU electorate is less likely to vote than the older, more anti-EU electorate.
Research (GQRR for the Fabians, Independent, April 3rd) shows that Labour voters could make a crucial difference, but only if Jeremy Corbyn (JC) gives a strong lead in encouraging them to vote. It has been suggested that there will be pressure on him to do this, as he has up till now not taken a strong position, although he has backed the rather lacklustre Labour campaign to remain, supported by virtually all MPs and without much sign of opposition within the wider membership.
The problem is - and in this JC is representative of the views of the left - that, while the traditional opposition to the EU has diminished significantly, as leaving seemed an increasingly unviable option, it has not been replaced by any notable enthusiasm for the EU, or for what a reformed left inclined EU could become. In practice, this outlook has been passive and abstentionist. It is, I believe, quite wrong. At best it can only be justified by asserting that from a left point of view there is not likely to be any serious difference between leaving or remaining. However, there has not , since 1975, been a time at which such views were likely to have had any significant consequences, even if we had held a referendum on the EU constitution.
This has now fundamentally changed. If, as appears to be the case, Labour votes, and JC calling for them, are crucial to winning for Remain, then it is vital that this happens. The only valid argument against this is to demonstrate that there is no particular disadvantage for the left in leaving, or advantage in staying in. I do not believe that any such arguments can be credibly made, and will try and explain why.
While there is still a residual left anti EU tradition the overwhelming impetus for Leave has come from the populist/nationalist right in UKIP, the Tory right and the right-wing media. Unlike 1975, there is little left visibility, and a positive vote for Leave would represent a significant victory for forces of the right to the right of the present government (yes, that is possible) who would celebrate with a distasteful orgy of flag waving imperial/wartime nostalgia to be followed by the serious business of attacking the working class by removing all those EU benefits that stood in the way of ’labour flexibility’. As the CBI predicts, there could be job losses of almost a million and a 5% reduction in GDP by 2020 (speech by CBI director, March 21st, based on research by PWC). Foreign owned firms (that includes all vehicle manufacturers) could relocate to the EU to avoid tariffs. But the appeal to the ‘national interest’ would be powerful, and would be likely to adversely affect the strength of and support for the Labour Party and wider labour movement for some time. It is also the case that Brexit could significantly weaken the EU and lead to its possible break up, with neo-fascist parties such as the French National Front becoming more dominant.
Even if no proposals for reform were made, Remain would almost certainly be a better proposition than the scenario just painted, with social and employment rights probably more secure and high levels of unemployment probably avoided. But of course the EU, which has in the last 20 years moved in a more neoliberal direction, needs significant reform. Labour must highlight the things that Cameron and most of the Remain camp are not interested in – more democracy for the EU Parliament, an extension of employment and social rights, positive policies for growth and employment and greater control over big business.
It cannot be denied that there are enormous problems in the EU, even without the current refugee crisis, mainly stemming from the Euro, and these must be overcome so that the peripheral countries are not condemned to depression and unemployment in perpetuity. But there are plenty of parties in the EU that are committed to change, and to the sorts of policies outlined above. This is to some extent true of the established social democratic parties, grouped mainly within the umbrella Party of European Socialists, most of which succumbed to some degree of neoliberalism in the 90s, like New Labour, but some of which have since moved back to more left wing positions, and the newer parties of the left, grouped mainly within the umbrella Party of the European Left, which include not only new parties like Podemos and Syriza but more established parties such as Die Linke in Germany. With the exception of some of the traditional Communist parties almost all of these parties favour remaining in a reformed EU rather than leaving, and have developed policies accordingly.
We should emphatically join them. It is not so much a question of international solidarity, but because it is the right, indeed the only way to go.There is unlikely to be any basis for left advance in an independent UK. Nationalism and global capital will always be stronger. But the EU is potentially big and strong enough to allow real advances for the left. It may not happen, but there is no other way forward.
It would therefore be a monumental disaster for the left if that possibility was summarily cut short by a win for Leave on June 23rd. We must campaign strongly to see that that does not happen. Come on Jeremy, you know it makes sense!
This article also appears on Left Futures.