greece protest Demonstration in front of the Greek parliament, June 2011. Photo: Wikipedia

Staying in the European Union will increase the power of our rulers, which is why we need to leave, writes Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a long-standing activist in Unite, and a member of its national Executive Council. Here he explains why he disagrees with the overwhelming consensus on the EC and his union’s current policy.

Most of my friends and comrades in the labour movement and beyond are going to vote to “Remain” in the upcoming EU referendum, and cannot understand why I will be voting to leave. They throw many good arguments at me to persuade me to change my vote (and some crap ones), and I suspect many readers of Counterfire will be puzzled as to why we argue for “Leave”. So here are three bodies of argument that convinced me to bin “In” and shout “Out”.

First, almost always, is the challenge “You can’t seriously intend to line up with Farage and Ukip!” often adding that we will also be joining Gove, Iain Duncan Smith, Boris Johnson and all the ‘Little Englanders’ of the Tory backwoods.

To be frank, this carries very little weight, as to vote to stay in the EU means voting the same way as Cameron and Osborne, Tony Blair and Nick Clegg. But it is also mistaken for another reason: it may show decent instincts to recoil from some of the nasty individuals in the ‘Brexit’ campaign, but political assessments cannot be based purely on who latches onto a particular campaign – otherwise there would have been no Stop the War Coalition in this country. There was, after all, no arguing that Saddam Hussein was a brutal dictator – indeed, many of us on the left (including Jeremy Corbyn) had been saying so for years, while the US and UK governments still regarded him as ‘their’ tame dictator.

We supported the heroic struggles of the industrial and agricultural workers of Solidarnosc in Poland against their brutal and corrupt regime. So did Thatcher and Reagan, and the Catholic church – for their own ends.

There are even Tory MPs who supported the call for government intervention to ‘Save Our Steel’ but that is no reason to turn our backs on the steel workers and their communities.

As socialists, we have to base our practice on what best strengthens our side in the struggle against greed and exploitation, and what most weakens the exploiters and expropriators. When you view it from this angle, and you realize that every major politician in Europe, every government in the EU, is supporting Cameron’s call for a “Remain” vote, it makes you wonder: why? It includes every governing political party in Europe. They are not doing this because they think it is better for workers – theirs or ours – as every one of them is enthusiastically promoting the politics of austerity, which impoverishes us, to enrich them. The single exception to this is Greece, where the Syriza government is reluctantly imposing austerity – as the imposed condition of staying in the EU.

Second, there are those good comrades who argue that the cause of labour is better served in the European ‘family’, than in glorious isolation. That we will be better able to improve our lot working in concert with our European brothers and sisters. It is argued that at least the EU curbs the worst of the Tory excesses; that our holidays, and employment rights, the equal pay laws and anti-discrimination legislation, are resultant benefits of our membership of the EU, and if we leave, we will be at the mercy of Cameron and his ilk.

Actually, the last time I looked at a map, Dagenham – the site of the great fight for equal pay – was east of London, not Brussels or Hamburg. The first laws against racism in this country were passed in Westminster, not Strasbourg. The decriminalisation of gay sex was passed years before we joined the Common Market (as the EU then was, which gives a slightly more honest indication of its true nature). The common theme in all these steps forward is that they began in the real struggle of real people, on the streets, in the workplaces, and in our communities, which eventually forced the elite to realise they had to shift.

Socialism, and the politics of Counterfire, are worth nothing if we throw away the belief that we can change the world. We, ordinary people, can refashion this world and make it fit for our children, and our parents. This is an obligation that we must discharge; we cannot sub-contract it to others. And it is a counsel of despair to say we cannot do it, we have to leave it to others (and by implication, hope they will do the right thing by us).

To those who point to holiday pay, the limits on the working day (the Working Time Directive), and other positive conditions of employment as arguments for staying in the EU – I would simply point out: statutory holiday entitlement under EU law, 20 days; under UK law, 28. The WTD supposedly ensures no worker can be forced to work more than 48 hours a week (on average). I work in an industry where the 70-hour week is normal. And lawful under the WTD. Because the haulage industry negotiated a ‘derogation’ (exemption) from the WTD until they had come up with a way round it.

The EU makes it unlawful to pay workers of different nationalities different rates of pay (so does UK domestic law, actually). So the construction industry dreamt up the ‘Posted Workers Directive’, which makes it quite legal to do this as long as the employer jumps through certain hoops (creating front companies, using ‘employment agencies’ and sub-contractors etc.). The only effective opposition to this has come from industrial action organized from the rank and file workers of the industry.

The harsh truth is that the EU is wedded to ‘free market’ economics, where profit is god, and workers rights are only tolerated where necessary i.e. where we are strong enough to impose them anyway. To those who argue the EU protects domestic jobs, I would say “Steel? Coal? Shipbuilding? Power generation? The railways? The NHS? Show me one industry where the EU has come down in favour of protecting employment, terms and conditions.”

This is not only true in the UK – the EU’s orders are explicitly destroying job in Greek ports (eg. through forcing the government to put ports up for sale); they forced the Italian government to tear up social employment provisions, and their enthusiastic servant M. Hollande is doing the same in France. The EU does not create, or even protect, jobs; it actively encourages the ‘race to the bottom’. It exists to serve the interests of international capital, not labour.

And this cuts to the heart of the matter: for Marxists, the analysis of society being fundamentally riven by class divides is fundamental. Moreover, the logic of this analysis tells us that the state is not impartial; it is not there to serve the needs of whoever wins an election. It exists to maintain the power of the rich and powerful. Jeremy Corbyn has had a small taste of this already, in the foul press coverage he has received, and the way serving and retired senior officers have dissed his opposition to Trident. It is virtually certain given his activist history that the security services have a file on him.

But the British state is not limited to bad-mouthing lefties, or briefing cabinet ministers; it was intimately involved in the blacklisting of trades unionists in the construction industry. It fitted up Ricky Tomlinson and his fellow construction workers, and fixed the trial to get him imprisoned. It colluded in murder in Northern Ireland, and in the horrific sexual abuse of children in the Kincora children’s home. It aided and abetted the police violence and subsequent cover-up during the great Miners Strike of ’84-’85. It lied about the Guildford 4 and was happy to let innocent people die in jail if it helped their propaganda campaign. It turned a deaf ear to the pain of the relatives of the Hillsborough dead, and helped the police cover up their incompetence.

In all this, it merely served the master it was designed to benefit – those who rule our society in their own interests. And if this is true of the British state, it is no less true of its international equivalents. Italy, where the state set bombs to maim its own citizens (the Bologna railway bombs); Greece, where the military junta that ruled the country in the 60s and 70s thought nothing of torture and assassination; France, where the state murdered opponents of its colonial war in Algeria and threw the dead bodies in the Seine; let’s not talk of the Franco regime in Spain, or the Portuguese military dictatorship. Yet all these state apparatuses were welcomed, virtually unchanged, into what is now the EU.

And yet, well-meaning comrades tell me that we can ‘work from within’ to alter these institutions, and make them more accountable. That’s what Salvador Allende thought, until Pinochet’s thugs murdered him. Did the EU impose sanctions on Pinochet; embargo the Chilean economy until democracy was restored? It didn’t even shut its embassies in Santiago!

So no, I don’t think the EU can be made to serve the interests of the dispossessed.

The claim is made that at least it has kept the peace in Europe, after the dreadful experience of two world wars. I dispute this: the pictures of refugees, so desperate to escape the horrors of home that they risk their lives – they risk their children’s lives! – yet on arriving in the so-progressive EU are trapped behind barbed wire. If they are lucky enough to make it through that they are pushed from country to country, increasingly subject to a growing xenophobic governmental narrative.

Or remember the victims of the murderous civil war in former Yugoslavia. The EU certainly helped keep the peace there, didn’t it? Ah, but these examples originated outside the EU, I hear the cry. Does that justify the current response? (And it begs the question of just why there are so many millions fleeing from ravaged countries. Perhaps if the EU had been a little less ‘interventionist’ – read ‘imperialist’ – there would be less havoc in their native countries.).

But to stay within the EU; there have been no wars on European soil – well, EU soil – since the EU was founded. Really? That only holds water if you accept our rulers’ definition of ‘war’, and of ‘nation’. There was (is) a minor problem of disputed borders in Ireland, in which even the British government had to accept there was a war situation. The Basques would dispute the ‘50 years of peace’ claim. The French state claimed Algerian soil was truly French, and happily massacred thousands of its own reluctant citizens. So the ’50 years of peace’ only really stands up if you accept our rulers’ take on things.

I find it hard to follow the logic that accepts that individual states may be murderous agents of their ruling classes, but in aggregate, they limit their excesses. My view is the complete opposite – the more you allow the bullies in the playground to gang up together, the more you will regret it.

But to put it in perspective, look outside the EU, at the other robber barons of our world. Does anyone seriously think that Putin would be less of a brute if the he had all the resources of the old soviet empire at his command? Or would he be more capable of following his ambitions? Would the rulers of China be more or less powerful if its constituent nations were able to go their own way? Would the brute power of the USA be increased or diminished if California declared UDI? To ask the question is to answer it; the rulers of Europe want a powerful EU, because it benefits them. It increases their power. And that is bad news for us.

Then look at the consequences of a vote to leave. Cameron would not survive; so who would replace him? Not Osborne, who has dirtied his nappy well and truly over the past week (and nobody seems interested in cleaning him up). The fact is, after a ‘Brexit’ vote, the anti-EU faction of the Tory party will be cock-a-hoop, and will not accept a pro-European as leader. And the pro-EU Tory grandees, who will feel completely betrayed as they see their gravy train pull out of the station, will not be prepared to work under BoJo, IDS, or Gove. It is likely that the Tories will tear themselves apart. That will mean the fall of the government. UKIP will have lost its reason for existence, so the strains in its populist alliance will come to the fore. We could see a complete transformation of the political landscape, and at the moment, all the polls suggest a Corbynite Labour Party would be the beneficiary.

So all in all, and not just for petty hatred of the Tories, I will welcome a “Leave” vote in June. And just for the record, win or lose the referendum, I will continue working with the Polish activists in our road haulage branch, to fight discrimination, promote the struggle for workers’ rights and internationalism, and organise against the employers who seek to divide us by race, religion or nationality. As I have done for the last 40 years. Because I am an internationalist, and a socialist, and I believe the power to change our world lies with us, here, now. Which is also why I will be on the Peoples’ Assembly March for Homes, Health, Jobs and Education in London on Saturday, 16 April. See you there!

Richard Allday

Richard Allday is a member of Unite the Union’s National Executive, a branch secretary and shop steward in road haulage.  A member of Counterfire, his comrades know him better as 'the angry trucker'.