David Trussler

Back to all posts

The EU Referendum: a left case to remain

June 14, 2016

We’re just over a week away from the referendum on the UK’s continued membership of the European Union. I’ve been advocating a vote to remain throughout this time, in contrast to some left organisations (such as the Socialist Party and the Socialist Workers Party) who are backing a Leave position.

Whilst there’s a number of reasons for them to draw that conclusion, I want to concentrate in this post on just one: the argument that leaving the EU would be a massive blow to Cameron, and for that reason the left should support the leave option in the forthcoming vote.

Would a vote to leave be a massive blow to Cameron? Well yes it would. The Tory leader has gambled his political future on the outcome of this vote: he was always reluctant to call it and did so only under pressure from various right wing elements of his party and the electoral threat from the right represented by UKIP. Should he lose he will clearly have no future as leader of his party.

Journalist Paul Mason recently wrote a piece in the Guardian arguing that whilst it may at some point be appropriate for the left to support the UK leaving the EU, now was not the time. As he put it: “If Britain votes Brexit, then Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island.”

In response National Chair of the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition (TUSC), Dave Nellist, wrote: “A leave vote would topple Cameron and further exacerbate the divisions inside the Tory party, not heal them. It could provide a perfect opportunity for Labour to demand not a mere change in Tory leader, but an immediate general election to choose a new government.”

This isn’t a new argument from Nellist’s Socialist Party—the political force behind TUSC. In an editorial in their paper earlier this year they argued: “The referendum on 23 June is not just about the EU but is also an opportunity to pass verdict on Cameron and his rotten government. An ‘out’ vote would strike a mortal blow at the government. It could lead to the calling of a general election and the downfall of the detested Tories from power. So voting ‘out’ is particularly important.”

The flaw at the heart of this argument is that the suggestion that the vote will be an opportunity for us to pass verdict not just on the EU but also on the Tories is a fantasy. But a fantasy the Socialist Party need to erect in order to give political credibility to the argument that voters will link this referendum with the performance of the current government.

Similarly the SWP, in an article by Charlie Kimber, argue that Tory divisions “… should incite every union and campaign to intensify the pressure on this rotten government. The Tories’ trouble is our opportunity.”

Such simplistic “my enemy’s enemy is my friend” sentiments from both organisations displays an inability—or reluctance—to grasp the underlying dynamics of the referendum. As the campaign enters its final stage we have seen the economic arguments reduced to fear-mongering from Remainers and promises of almost unlimited funding for the NHS and education and any other cause dear to the hearts of the British people from the official Brexit campaigners. That is to say from Gove and Johnston. Think about that for a moment. Gove and Johnston will be the saviours of the NHS. Is that really credible?

To support Brexit right now is a clear and unambiguous vote to hand over the reins of the economy to privateers like Boris Johnston and Michael Gove. It is to allow them to perpetuate their lies that they care about issues like education, housing and health. And having conned us into believing that will surge forward in control of the Tory party with a clear mandate to cut our services with abandon.

Meanwhile immigration is the issue that trumps even the economic arguments. The right-wing leaders of the Brexit campaign are successfully conning us once again that immigration is the problem for British capitalism and they will reduce it to zero. It’s a lie that immigration is at the root of our problems and they know it. Furthermore, they have no intention of reducing immigration because they need it as a source of cheap labour.

A victory for the Brexit camp will represent a decisive shift to the right in UK politics. That a tiny fraction of support for this position was on a “socialist basis” will be lost on the masses who will live with the consequences.

In his response to Paul Mason, Dave Nellist argued that having accurately described the neoliberal politics at the heart of the EU “… Paul backs down and asks us to accept all that, because exit threatens a change of Tory leader. As if the marginal difference between David Cameron and Boris Johnson, in the context of all Paul has identified, is in any way fundamental.”

But actually it is fundamental. The problems we face today are rooted in the nature of capitalism in crisis, whether that is administered by the EU or the Tory government. Such a change of leadership, brought about on the back of a decisive rightwards swing in British politics will make it harder than ever to fight back.

Socialists don’t have to love the EU the back a remain position. But we do need to recognise that the voices of the left on this are marginal to the debate. Unfortunately we rarely get to choose the terrain upon which the battle is fought and this squabble between elements of the capitalist class is not really our business. But the domination of the Brexit campaign by the right, on both the economy and the question of immigration, make this a question on which we must take sides. And that side should clearly be to remain.