A lot of people are confused about the Brexit vote and what it means going forward. Given the multiple dynamics at play within the British referendum to Leave or Remain in the EU this is completely understandable. The vote was the result of the Conservative Party’s promise to hold a referendum on the EU by 2017. This promise was made by David Cameron to ensure he could hold onto the leadership of his own party which was divided over the question. The Greens, UKIP and a whole host of smaller parties like Respect also supported a referendum. The Liberal-Democrats and Labour supported a referendum under certain conditions. By the spring of 2015 the referendum was in motion and a referendum act was passed in December of that year outlining the date and procedure.
In the meantime Jeremy Corbyn won the Labour leadership contest defeating his Blairite rivals. Corbyn, a longtime EU skeptic of the labour left (this is a tradition that is best encapsulated by people like Tony Benn), won handily but had little support within the Labour caucus. His platform in the leadership race was clear, it was against austerity, disarming the Trident nuclear missiles, no war in the Middle East, pro-migrant rights and for re-nationalizing public services like rail.
Through staunch resistance by Blairites, Corbyn’s position became slightly more tenuous. As a political calculation, coloured by internal labour strife, Corbyn ditched his euro-skeptcism in the run up to the referendum. He campaigned on a Remain and Reform position which called for less austerity and more rights for migrants within the EU framework. The majority of Labour was by this point pro-EU.
Cameron who is a creature of the British establishment, was pro-Remain, used the period leading up to the referendum to engage in negotiations with the EU. Those negotiations resulted in a major shift to the right in terms of Great Britain’s relationship with the EU. As part of that deal the EU curbed the right of the free movement of people from EU countries, made it easier to deport EU nationals, and made it harder for non-EU migrants to stay in the UK. These negotiations required a further change in EU law, but it is clear Cameron was using the referendum to push through rightwing changes from a Remain perspective.
Demagogues and racists from UKIP and the Tory party used the referendum for their own purposes. They sought to whip up xenophobia and fear of migration and control of borders. This was largely successful in some sense as they were not met with principled opposition. Those who peddled the Remain position as an antidote often used fear of an economic meltdown as a response. The EU’s own extreme racism could hardly be offered up as a defence against Farage & Co. The EU’s prison camps for refugees, the mass drownings of largely Black migrants in the Mediterranean cut against the image of liberal tolerance the EU projects.
The absence of a strong Labour left campaign left the door open to confusion amongst the broader working class and the rest of the left. The top issue in polling for Leave voters was a question of sovereignty followed by a question of immigration. There is no doubt that Labour party’s lack of a strong opposition to the EU and neoliberalism for the last several decades has created an opening for racists to seize on the questions of nationalism and immigration for their own twisted purposes. Correcting this and building a strong anti-racist political pole will be the left’s historic challenge in the period to come.
There is also no doubt a large chunk of the motivation for Leave voters was driven by an anti-establishment sentiment. People for years have been ignored by the neoliberal consensus of the two major parties. So when Labour, the Greens, the Lib-Dems, the Tories and the financial class came out for Remain people said no. When the bastards who have held real power and screwed you over for years like Cameron, Blair, Brown and the City of London financiers tell you in unison to do something, you are probably going to tell them to go to hell. The turnout was massive, higher than a regular election.
The Brexit vote was complicated. The choices on offer were not just racism vs. non-racism or choosing sides amongst the rightwing. It was a ballot question about leaving or remaining in the EU infused with multiple issues. A simple analysis that racism won or the EU lost is not helpful. People had complex and contradictory reasons for voting to Leave or Remain, and by people I don’t just mean the educated, the liberals or the left, but regular working class people.
Many on the left saw Remain as the anti-racist option in the given context. Perhaps that may be the correct position, though only time will tell. But by what measure should we make this judgement? If the Tories win reelection is this a sign that Remain was a better position? Perhaps it should be judged on policies instituted? And how do those assessments help people learn lessons going forward? It is worth thinking about before people on either side pile on about being correct.
The point is the #Brexit vote happened. The question is, what now? First, especially those of us not directly impacted, should take a deep breath. The fascists are not on the march tomorrow, this is not end of Europe (whatever that means). The referendum vote does not mean the Great Britain leaves the EU tomorrow. Rather it opens up a period of political crisis which people, regardless of whether they were for Remain or Leave, should be looking to intervene to push towards better ends.
The Good (Possibilities)
- Blair, Cameron, Brown, the Tories, the labour right, the lib-dems all were dealt a defeat.
- The financiers, the economists and capitalists who went hard with the blackmail also were rejected.
- Great Britain’s political establishment is in full crisis.
- The working class anger at the establishment is on the rise.
- The Tories are split.
- Cameron is gone.
- Corbyn has room to move and seize on the anti-establishment sentiment.
- The EU constraints on GB policy around nationalization (and many other economic and political policies) are no more.
- The EU project is thrown into a crisis.
- The door is open for other countries to leave the EU.
- CETA and TTIP are most likely done for now
- The national question is now back on the agenda for Scotland
- Irish reunification is on the agenda.
- UKIP’s polling has topped at 16 – 20 percent, which is high but also no higher than their high point in 2014. Remember their great breakthrough came in EU elections that year.
- One of the drivers, though not the only one, of UKIP’s popularity is gone. The successful removal of the EU punching bag for Farage leaves him with less unfilled political space to occupy.
The Bad (Challenges)
- UKIP clearly got a boost from the referendum and so did fascist grouplets.
- Blairites are using this to attack Corbyn.
- Anti-immigrant sentiment was also given a boost.
- Racism is on the rise.
- The far-left remains hopelessly split.
- Some union leaders, like Len McCluskey, got pulled to the right.
- The left has cut itself off from working class sentiment.
- The left outside of labour (especially when it is split) is incapable of shaping debate.
- Defeatism is rampant and self-fulfilling on the left.
- The Tories will tack further right.
There is no way of predicting exactly what happens next. What is clear is that British politics and the EU is entering into a political crisis. The left can and must help shape what happens next and push it in a positive direction. It is absolutely not a given that the crisis will result in a left or right wing outcome.
The lesson for us watching from a far is to ensure that we unite early on around political positions such as being against free trade, for migrant rights before we allow the right to shape the debate. A vote for Brexit happened, this is not a sign that fascism is imminent, but a warning it could be if people don’t organize and fight for socialist and anti-racist ideas within the working class.