Tail-ending the Cameron Remain campaign is hemorrhaging working class support for Labour and the left, argues John Rees
The dense thicket of confusion that is the EU debate arises from the fact that many people start from the ideology or policy of the opposing camps. That’s understandable, but it's ultimately a narrow and misleading frame of reference. This is because the dominant voices on both the Remain and Leave side are right wing or Tory. Both sides contain much racist argument, the predominant voices are pro-market.
So the real differences only emerge if we first examine the social forces behind the two camps.
On the Remain side stand the main institutions of British and international capital: US imperialism, NATO, the G7 group of industrialised countries, EU itself, Bank of England, the overwhelming majority of large UK corporations, the majority of the Tory cabinet, the BBC, the Financial Times, the Economist, and the Guardian.
The right wing forces on the Leave side comprise about half of smaller UK businesses, a minority of the Tory cabinet and about half of Tory MPs, UKIP, and the Murdoch and tabloid press.
Two things can be said about this division. One: the most vociferous racists are among the leaders of the right wing Leave forces and that these represent an enraged, nationalistic, petit bourgeois current. Two: the power brokers of the world system are driving the Remain campaign. These are the people actually wielding real power in the global capitalist system and who lead its imperial forces. They are not just wannabe exploiters without state power, but the real time organisers of exploitation and oppression. They are not as verbally extreme as some of the petit bourgeois nationalists, but they don't need to be because they are, right now, implementing racist and exploitative polices with the full panoply of state and corporate force at their fingertips.
The left is the enemy of both these forces, of course. We are utterly opposed to racism from wherever it comes. But if we want to start dismantling the actually existing centres of power and so weaken the real and currently operative engines of exploitation and oppression that means opposing the main enemy: the ruling class currently embedded in the EU.
The lesson is this: sometimes your ugliest enemy isn't your most powerful enemy. After all no one assumes that the English Defence League is as powerful an enemy as the Tory government, though both must be opposed. The same applies here: the mainstream ruling class block is the main enemy. And if we deliver a body blow to them it will be all the easier to defeat our other enemies.
Immigration is actually the acid test of this approach. Nigel Farage, and possibly Boris Johnson (although he is much more constrained by being part of the main party of British capital), are verbally and in policy terms extreme opponents of migrants and refugees.
But so are Cameron and Theresa May. May is running Prevent, one of the most racist government programmes ever to become law. Cameron actually called this referendum on the basis of taking benefits from migrants. That's the policy, implemented now, hurting lives now. And Fortress Europe exists now and is EU policy. It has led to the death by drowning of 8,000 refugees and migrants in the last two years. Withdrawing the Mare Nostrum rescue operation in favour of military deterrence is EU policy now. Detention camps are EU policy now. The failure to implement its own quota system is an EU failure now. The 'bodies for money' deal with Turkey is happening right now. That's why the EU is to blame.
If we left the EU any more punitive 'Fortress UK' policy would have to be constructed (if it is to be worse than it is now). It would be contested, and UK law is easier to oppose or change than getting all 28 members of the EU to change. That is never going to happen because the far right governments in the EU have a veto.
The working class, Labour and the left
Millions of working class people are about to vote Leave. That is just a fact. Some Remain campaigners would like us to believe they are all UKIP supporters or racists. But this, statistically, is simply untrue.
There are 47 million people in the UK electorate. Half of them, some 23 million, are minded to vote Leave. UKIP only got 3.8 million votes at the last election. Even if we add in the right wing Tory voters and assume that all of these and all UKIP voters are racists that still leaves the overwhelming majority of people who are going to vote Leave with nothing in common with the far right. Indeed polling shows that support for UKIP has actually fallen during the referendum campaign. In fact what is striking about working class views is that they are still so resistant to racism during a campaign in which nearly every major politician and most of the media are propagating anti-migrant views on a minute-by-minute basis every day of the campaign.
Most working people who vote Leave will do so because they want to kick the political establishment, because they hate corporate and state bureaucracies, don't like the undemocratic EU and don't trust it's free market agenda. There will be an anti-establishment vote, no matter how inchoate. This is very clear in the interviews John Harris conducted for the Guardian in Stoke. The views expressed in these interviews show that this is not simply a question of ingrained racism, even among that minority which expresses right wing reasons for voting Leave. Working people have suffered a long deep hurt. Their jobs and houses, their health and welfare services seem to them, and are, hanging by a thread. They want to send a message and a Tory party that set the referendum in motion for its own reasons has given them the chance to do so.
The Labour Party could have led these people. It could have sided with them and shaped their views. It could have amplified the good and suppressed the bad. It could, in short, have shown some leadership. If it had done so the Leave vote would have been overwhelming, Cameron would have resigned, and the likelihood of a general election with Labour well placed would have been very likely.
Instead, in a deal with the right in the Parliamentary Labour Party, the new leadership abandoned the position it has held for decades, the very position it defended in the leadership contest and on which it was elected. All this so that the Blairites would not split the PLP...which they intend to do anyway. Jeremy Corbyn has made the best of this bad deal by trying to run a campaign that does not share policy or platform with the Tories. Many right wing Labour figures, Harriet Harman for instance, just ignored this policy. And, in any case, many in the media and on the Labour right were never going to be happy with anything less than full-throated Europhilia.
Some of Labour's leaders and the entire corps of Guardian liberals are now in a flat panic about the fact that Labour cannot be sure of delivering their voters for Cameron. As the New Statesman reports Labour can't carry its own base for Remain because it has nothing to offer: 'This is thin gruel, not red meat, but it’s difficult to see what else there is that Remain could plausibly serve up. They can’t win over a Conservative vote that has been whipped up into a Eurosceptic frenzy over 25 long years of Brussels bashing from Tory leaders, including the present incumbent. They don’t have a Labour government that can rustle up goodies to get Labour voters to the polls. All they can hope is that a dose of fear and the distant prospect of a Labour Prime Minister holding the European Union’s presidency is enough to secure a narrow victory on 23 June'.
Now, predictably, the Leave section of the working class isn't won over by the Labour Party and so Labour, as it did in Scotland, is losing a section of its base. But, equally predictably, rather than blame its own lack of courage, Labour supporters are busy blaming the 'racist working class', just as they blamed 'nationalism' in Scotland. Guardian columnist Polly Toynbeeemerged from participating in a Labour phone bank convinced that fascism is around the corner: ‘National socialism will no doubt carry a new name – but it’s there in the making’. Mathew D'Ancona is demoralisedthat Brexit thoughts are even penetrating the hallowed gardens of Glyndebourne (though why this is a surprise Wagner only knows).
So here is what is happening now with Labour and the EU campaign: the Tories are pushing Labour to front up the Remain campaign because they are losing; the more Labour do so the more the Labour right take over the campaign from Jeremy Corbyn; the more the Labour right is in charge the more Tom Watson, Gordon Brown, Tristan Hunt start making anti-immigrant statements; this makes Labour looks like Cameron; this cuts Labour off from its base and weakens Jeremy Corbyn.
The left must stand against this logic, reject the project fear-mongering, and develop its own independent understanding of the crisis that may be about to emerge.
The coming crisis
There is going to be a crisis now unless Cameron comes out 10 points ahead in the vote. It looks unlikely that even the Labour leadership's assistance will give him that. But even if he wins narrowly it will allow him a measure of control over the crisis in the Tory party. It may give him time to organise an orderly transfer of power to a successor. That successor is as likely to be right wing in this scenario as it is if Leave wins, unless of course you think Theresa May is more left wing than Boris Johnson.
But if Leave win the crisis will be much, much deeper. Here's why: Cameron will be toast very quickly, and the Tory party will be internally split for at least 5 years. That much is certain. There will likely be a general election. That's probable. And Jeremy Corbyn has a good chance of winning that (a much better chance than surviving serial coups attempts all the way to 2020) as long as the failures of the EU campaign damage Labour with its core vote. But even more important than this: the Tory party will have a policy totally at odds with the majority section of British capital. For a party whose whole reason for existence is to be the political representative of capital this would pose an existential threat.
There will not be an automatic lurch to the right even with a figure like Johnson or May as Tory leader. The Tories will just have suffered their biggest reverse since the defeat of Thatcher. Their back-benchers are split down the middle. They only have a 17 seat working majority. They are under investigation for electoral fraud in more seats than that. They have just had to make a series of policy reverses. Their only hope is that Labour pulls their chestnuts out of the fire as it did in the Scottish referendum.
Only someone entirely wedded to the linear school of historical analysis could fail to see an opportunity for the left in this situation. Minds uncomfortable with contradiction always have difficulty with social crises of course. They can't deal with polarisation, with the fact that both the right and the left can, for a period, both accumulate forces out of such a crisis. They are always waiting for the ‘right time’ for the left to act, but that moment never comes because the right have no such inhibitions about acting ‘prematurely’. So if we don’t see such crisesas an opportunity for the left we will be doomed to permanent defeat...or just accepting the least worst capitalist option.
We need to understand the complex nature of the crisis, and to see that the Labour leadership has created a danger in this situation. But we can organise a successful resistance. To do this we need to seize the opportunity a crisis gives us (as we did when we formed the Stop the War Coalition the week after 9/11, when it would have been so easy to just say 'the right will benefit'). We need to reunite the left in the battle against austerity and be alert to the meaning of the crisis in the Tory party. The alternative perspective is doom laden pessimismwhich abuses millions of workers as racists and leads to tail ending Cameron.
John Rees is a writer, broadcaster and activist, and is one of the organisers of the People’s Assembly. His books include ‘The Algebra of Revolution’, ‘Imperialism and Resistance’, ‘Timelines, A Political History of the Modern World’, ‘The People Demand, A Short History of the Arab Revolutions’ (with Joseph Daher) and ‘A People’s History of London’ (with Lindsey German). He is co-founder of the Stop the War Coalition.
More articles from this author
- The left and the crisis of the liberal centre
- Brexit and the left: uniting to take control of the debate
- Christmas 1641: 'the maddest Christmas that I ever saw'
- Counterfire’s top ten hits of the year
- Syria: a tragedy foretold
- Leveller! A political insult for all ages
- 5 novels every revolutionary should read