What We Need Is A People’s Brexit

We shouldn’t delude ourselves – the EU is mounting an unprecedented assault on the remnants of our social and workplace rights, write Enrico Tortolano and Ragesh Khakhri

ANTAGONISMS and ambitions within the Tory Party occupy the corporate media’s coverage of the EU referendum. Fear and loathing have poisoned the liberal commentariat: fear of Boris Johnson and a few posh boys, coupled with a bitter loathing of the working class. It’s embarrassing, and unnecessary.

The scenario frightening metropolitan liberals that a Leave victory will deliver power to the racist right is a gross miscalculation.

If Leave win, David Cameron — who helped prop up the old Afrikaner regime in South Africa, let’s not forget — will be ousted and Johnson or Michael Gove will secure the keys to 10 Downing Street.

It will fast turn into their biggest nightmare. The resource intensity of having to seriously engage in detailed negotiations with vexed EU technocrats for months on end over Britain’s exit route, while running a country entirely opposed to any more austerity or cuts alongside a Parliament beyond their control will paralyse the lot of them.

At the same time, powerful campaigning unions like Aslef, BFAWU and the RMT will be relentless in defence of their members and wider society.

That’s why there’s no need for the Alice in Wonderland politics emanating from both the Another Europe is Possible camp and some trade union officials.

The idea of the EU being the promoter and protector of progressive social reforms needs refutation.

The really existing EU is mounting an unprecedented assault on the remnants of the social and workplace rights won post-World War II, as well as dismantling individual states’ collective bargaining powers as a bailout and entry condition.

Those embarking on this misconceived venture have chosen to ignore not only both the institutional and political barriers to achieving such reform, but also the increasing hostility of millions of workers across the continent to the European Union.

Professor Danny Nicol succinctly set out the rationale for why radical reform of the EU is not constitutionally possible: the EU treaties institutionalise key elements of capitalism and neoliberalism.

An important example of this is the monitoring of state assistance to the public sector and allowing private companies to challenge such subsidies on competition grounds.

Another key component is the free movement provisions of the treaties, as interpreted by the Court of Justice in Viking and Ruffert, prohibiting strike action that “disproportionately” obstructs the free movement of goods, services and capital.

Any proposals by a national government to instigate EU laws to allow all member states a choice over public ownership of energy post and rail would require the agreement of all 28 members of the council.

It would take just one national government to veto such proposals from a future Labour government, rendering it unable to carry out even modest commitments on public ownership.

The EU has no glory in its handling of international matters either. In order to deter migrants fleeing war-torn Syria and Iraq, the EU reached a shadowy agreement to repatriate asylum-seekers to Turkey from concentration camps in Greece.

The carrot for the Turkish government was the prospect of visa-free travel in the EU and fast-tracking of its application for EU membership.

The fact that Turkey is characterised by human rights abuses and migrants face being shot there didn’t bother the bureaucrats in Brussels.

They even manipulated the composition of Greek immigration panels, which were unwilling to return vulnerable individuals and families to face an uncertain fate in Turkey.

The harsh treatment of asylum-seekers exposes the darkness that lies at the heart of the EU project, with profit and political expediency riding roughshod over the plight of the vulnerable and destitute.

Historically, the labour movement and Labour leaders such as Clement Attlee and Hugh Gaitskell felt a much greater affinity with the Commonwealth countries than they did to the capitalist Common Market.

During the 1975 referendum, much opinion across the political spectrum of the Parliamentary Labour Party was hostile to remaining in the EEC.

Peter Shore, Barbara Castle, Michael Foot and Tony Benn all campaigned to leave. Membership of the EEC eventually marked a big fault line between left and right and led to the formation of the SDP, which of course led to 18 years of Tory rule.

In 1979 the Labour manifesto declared that it would oppose any move towards turning the EEC into a federation and this position hardened four years later into full withdrawal.

Only in the Kinnock years did the party’s leadership drop its resistance and instead support greater integration.

A speech in 1988 by Jacques Delors at the TUC Congress marked a turning point in the attitude of many previously sceptical trade union leaders.

In the context of the Thatcher government’s anti-trade union laws and the struggles of the miners, his advocacy of a social Europe and partnership with trade unions captured the imagination of many.

But it didn’t withstand critical analysis then, and it still doesn’t today. The much-missed Bob Crow understood this, commenting: “People thought that they could get out of bed one morning and their struggles were over.”

Bob wouldn’t have been worried about Johnson and Gove: they would have been wary of him.

From its inception, New Labour was keen to get into bed with the EU, with Tony Blair himself pushing strongly for Britain to join the euro.

Although this disaster was averted, little changed until the election of Jeremy Corbyn, a renowned critic of the EU and close comrade of Tony Benn.

Corbyn unfortunately rowed back on his promise of a workers’ conference to determine Labour’s position on the referendum.

Unfortunately, the TUC and some union leaders have also shown a distinct reluctance to recognise the implications of the EU’s anti-worker, pro-privatisation policies and practices.

The austerity and misery inflicted by the EU on workers in Greece, Ireland, Spain and beyond has been conveniently ignored.

We’re now at a historical juncture. Polls show that the lower your income the more likely you are to vote Leave.

This means that millions of working-class voters are unrepresented by the mainstream political parties and large chunks of the trade union movement.

The stance and position of those who are supposed to represent labour is at odds with the experience of the working class in Britain as well as the rest of the EU.

Working-class people are experiencing unemployment or insecure jobs, low pay, no pension with little prospect of owning their own home, or living in secure council housing.

It’s nonsense to pretend that the movement of more people into these communities is having no impact on their lives.

Rich Tories have already cut schools and hospitals they use to the bone.

For the metropolitan liberal elite, far removed from such concerns, the prospect of a people’s Brexit simply violates their sense of entitlement and jeopardises the prospect of middle-class benefits that the working class will never see.

Out-of-touch Labour MPs and councillors, door stepping for Remain, are shocked at what their constituents are saying.

Labour councillor Ed Murphy added insult to injury by claiming only the thick will vote to leave.

There is a blind refusal to see that a people’s Brexit provides a genuine opportunity for workers to gain confidence, challenge a weak and divided Tory government and elect a left-wing Labour government empowered to see through its socialist commitments.

If Corbyn had come out relating rejection of the EU to the fight against austerity and cuts he could have led a mass movement of millions that would have taken him to 10 Downing Street.

Nevertheless, there has been a hugely successful collaboration of many different Left Leave organisations through this campaign. Whatever happens on June 23, the challenge will be to build on these strong foundations.

  • Enrico Tortolano and Ragesh Khakhria: Trade Unionists Against the EU.