As the clock ticks ever closer to Britain’s deadline for leaving the EU, people might be forgiven for wondering why a new socialist group pushing for the importance of getting the UK out of the EU is required. However, a quick look around at the political environment should make it clear that the socialist case has not made it into the majority of workplaces, trade unions nor our mainstream media.
The referendum in 2016 was presented as a battle between two opposing wings of the establishment: a Tory right high on post-imperial delusions versus a pro-EU establishment supported by the vast majority of big business, the CBI, the Bank of England and the Treasury. The working class was talked down to by both sides, with the assumption being that reactionary positions on immigration were the key to victory. When exit polling showed that the principal concern of leave voters was sovereignty, this made no difference to the narrative being pushed.
The reality is that in June 2016, for a multitude of reasons, the EU was rejected in the biggest democratic exercise in the UK to date. It was the first time citizens could vote for or against membership. In June 1975 no such vote was allowed, only a confirmatory vote to ‘stay in’, where membership was already locked in. During that first vote, the left strongly argued the case against remaining in. LeFT draws on that tradition and the case for a Left leave has never gone away.
Many argue that Leave is a lash up between right wing forces. How then to account for the millions of Labour voters who voted leave? Thousands of these had spent decades fighting austerity, to save the post office from privatisation, to stop pit closures, and to keep open a local library, or nursery. LeFT believes there was a strong left element to the Leave vote. But this voice was stifled by a near monopoly on media and a skewed democratic process that stopped alternative voices from being heard.
Yet as soon as the opportunity for a real vote appeared, a majority of the working class voted to get out. Scare stories of shortages must not be allowed to spread panic and force us into hasty choices that do not suit the interests of working people. We remember only too well, the food mountains and wine lakes, and the throwing of excess dead fish stocks back into the ocean, whilst price hikes took such items out of reach for families facing austerity.
Once we leave there is a national debate to be had about the type of trade we engage in and with whom. LeFT intends to play an active part in arguing for a new kind of trade, especially with developing economies and advanced countries such as China, Russia, India and Brazil, that previously was funnelled through EU institutions, rules and regulations. It is possible to trade in a way that is different from EU trade treaties that are all too often grossly exploitative.
It is in the interests of leading fractions of capital, tied as they are to markets in the EU, to suggest that the 17.4 million people who voted Leave did so because they were ignorant, or manipulated. But the picture is more complicated. Millions of Remain voters also had an intense distrust of the EU but were frightened by the consequences of a Leave vote, did not like some of the forces arguing for Leave (also true of many Leave voters) and thought that a Leave vote would align them with racists.
One of the achievements of the EU has been to position itself as a defender of liberty and anti-racism. Yet a look at its Fortress Europe policy, its dirty deal with Turkey and its 800 kilometre wall to incarcerate millions of Syrians fleeing conflict suggests different. Then there is the use of ECJ rulings to provoke mass movement of working age citizens, the gutting of local economies and the make-up of its institutions and staffing, which actively discriminates against BAME citizens: all paint a very different picture. We recognise there is a job to be done to expose this reality.
If activists want to challenge neoliberalism and its symptoms, a task that can sometimes appear monumental, then a good place to begin is with a struggle against the EU, which alone in the world, as Tony Benn pointed out, enshrines capitalism in its constitution in a state-like organisation, but one without a mechanism for political contestation. Remain and Reform is an empty slogan. There has been forty years to try that approach and year on year, the centre has grown more powerful, democracy has been eclipsed, and austerity imposed in exchange for bail-outs, most strongly within the Eurozone.
No deal, soft deal and hard exits are false choices. None of these terms existed prior to the vote in June 2016, and were introduced into the language by a capitalist class seeking to limit the damage to itself that the Leave vote could bring about. LeFT seek a clean break, which is what people voted for. The pressing need is for a change of government so that a new left politics can govern the future pathway: based on investment, sustainable jobs, high skill, socialised medicine, health and welfare services and a radical change to the pension system. There must be a policy of peace and support for progressive governments abroad.
We cannot allow a position whereby the main force in opposition to privatisation and austerity, militarism and imperialism is divided into Remain and Leave. This is not the divide in our society, and we will not give credence to such vapid notions as culture wars, promoted by both the far right and the liberal centre. LeFT exists to bridge the growing gap on the left and bring the movement back together, to understand our common interests and concerns so that it can apply itself to transforming political alignments in Britain (and across the globe) in order to provide the threat of a good example to the working class everywhere. We are committed to creating places where working class remain and leave voters can discuss, understand and re-forge politics together.
Democracy is essential to any future. And democracy has been hollowed out in a number of ways in the last 40 years. One of these is the EU taking on more and more power while allowing for less and less contestation. The working class has to be united because in a class society, only the united strength of workers can keep the power of capital at bay. Once we leave the EU, that unity becomes more important as we seek to change the politics of the country in a radical and new direction.
Threats to this possibility come in a number of different guises.
One is the threat of a ‘government of national unity’, which is being trumpeted within the Westminster bubble and by a pliant media, with has-beens from the right and centre such as Ken Clarke and Harriet Harmen being suggested as figures to ‘bring the country back together’. In reality, in the context of having Jeremy Corbyn as leader of the opposition, this is nothing but an anti-left wrecking operation. The events of the last few weeks, in which the most anti-Brexit forces in the land – the Lib Dems, for one, as well as the Greens – have refused to back Corbyn’s attempt to prevent a no deal Brexit, should have made it clear that the principal aim of the People’s Vote brigade is to prevent a Corbyn-led Labour government, in or out of the EU. We deeply regret the extent to which Corbyn and those who respect the referendum result in Labour have been forced into a corner, perhaps fatally damaging its chance of winning the general election that is just around the corner. We also unreservedly oppose any attempt to set up a national government. It would have a similar impact on Labour as did the Ramsay MacDonald National Government of 1931, from which it took a generation and a war to recover. We say to Labour, before you go down that road, check the batteries on your smoke alarm.
After the exit from the EU politics will realign again and again. This will reflect class struggle and the relative balance between opposing classes. The return of an element of sovereignty, especially in Scotland and Wales, but also to Westminster will put those who want to go back into the bosses’ club on the back foot. Space will appear to bring larger numbers together for a politics of change.
Institutions that the EU had hollowed out into little more than debating chambers will become relevant again and susceptible to mass action, protest and pressure. This is what many MPs in Westminster, Holyrood and Cardiff fear. It’s a huge opportunity for our labour movement.
Unions, which in some cases had been so weakened that they looked to Brussels for a veneer of legislation and aid, have come badly unstuck. EU grants have been used to shift jobs around, and – true to its origins – EU policy and institutions have speeded up the destruction of manufacturing jobs, while its ‘competition’ laws inhibit state intervention to rescue ailing companies and sectors. Whole communities have suffered as a result. With the power to act and intervene returning to government, unions can focus campaigns and struggle on new laws to protect workers and new initiatives to create jobs and sustain existing ones.
Attempts have been made to put the left case for leave in the past. In LeFT we wanted to gather the different forces from trades unions, large working class constituencies, local labour parties, and a range of socialist organisations to develop a coherent, principled left-wing perspective on the Brexit conjuncture. And we wanted to bring new forces in. Ours will not be a debating society. Nor will it have elaborate policies that all have to sign up to. It will include a high degree of exchange of views, but the emphasis is on campaigning and fighting for change.
We are a campaigning organisation, with an agreed set of core values and politics, enshrined in our founding statement. The aim is to build the power of the working class so that we can ensure the decision to Leave is implemented in the interests of the working class. We will campaign in working class communities for political change, to ensure there is no going back in. We invite you to campaign with us. Set up local groups. Hold public meetings and go into the market and city centres, and onto estates and workplaces and make the case for Leave – Fight – Transform.
In this process of struggle for change, we will ally with and extend solidarity on the basis of internationalism. But this will not be limited only to those in struggle within the EU. Africa, Latin America and the Middle East face an ongoing onslaught from the power of the EU, and our solidarity is with the communities standing up to that.
We urge you to read our founding statement. Take it into work with you. Discuss it in your community groups, education establishments, and in any place where people congregate. If you agree with it, let us know. Sign up! And join the struggle to Leave – Fight – Transform.
Martin Hall is a trade unionist, socialist and founding member of LeFT; Phil Katz is Designer, Author and Eastern District Secretary of the Communist Party.