EU debate: In, out, or shake it all about?

Adam DC puts forward a radical abstentionist point of view in the debate about what position socialists should take about the upcoming referendum on Britain’s membership to the EU

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The starting point for any discussion regarding the UK’s European Union (EU) referendum must be that the issue is one between different factions of capital and the ruling-class. As such, working-class organisations can only take sides if there is a pressing reason.

Some reasons could be:

If one side or the other represented a significant possibility for the development of the productive forces, or a significant block to the development of those forces

There may be an academic Marxist argument that pan-European capital is some sort of step forward in the overall development of the capitalist system (and therefore a ‘progressive’ development) and that Brexit would be a step backwards. Even if this were true it would be a small difference (by no means as significant as industrialisation in a post-colonial country or, as Marx argued, victory for the North in the American civil war) and not one where socialists should necessarily take sides.

In the current period it doesn’t appear that either side in this capitalists’ faction fight is going to take capitalism forward in a progressive direction, nor to send it backwards. Neither offer any significant developments for the working class – they are both intent on blocking any progressive lines of discussion in preference to their own, pro-business agendas.

If a victory for one side or the other would significantly change the balance of class forces, so as to improve the opportunities for struggle for the exploited and oppressed

In fact the likely outcome of this referendum process will be yet further diminishing of our class’ power. Both campaigns will be racist, pro-business, and anti-worker. Perhaps on one side, the trade unions will be part of those debates, hopefully mitigating the most harmful effects, but still in cahoots with the establishment parties and supporting stances that many socialists will surely cringe at.

If the yes to stay in vote wins, the government will still want to introduce more anti-trade union legislation. As before, despite the EU’s union laws being on the whole better for workers, the EU will still allow the UK to do this. This signals the EU’s future direction towards a more UK and USA style of workers’ rights; the direction in which it itself wants to travel but has so far been hamstrung by popular movements and the organised working class on the continent. Indeed it appears that in order to placate his rightwing critics, Cameron’s current negotiations with the EU are about exactly this, removing the limited amounts of workers’ rights that the UK currently receives from the EU.

In Europe, as in Greece and Spain recently, and Holland and France previously, the fight back against the EU has come from a trade union and leftist perspective, opposing austerity, and defending workers rights against unfair anti-union legislation, and extensions to state retirement ages.

In May 2008 the then President of France, Nicolas Sarkozy, was reported in Le Figaro saying:

“One day they’ll say I made as many reforms as Margaret Thatcher!”

Subsequent strikes and rallies across the country against his Thatcherite ‘Anglification’ as it was termed, gave this short shrift, and the EU business friendly Treaty fell. As did Sarkozy at the next election, with many of his ‘reforms’ left as Thatcherite dreams.

Compare this to the actual introduction of ‘reforms’ to retirement age for British workers. The Left and trade unions opposed them naturally, but without success. A whole gamut of new retirement laws have been enacted, meaning that most of those who have not already retired look likely to be working into our mid 70’s and beyond before receiving a state pension, if indeed one still exists then.

The potential of splits in the Tory Party after the vote (whatever the result) could be seen as a positive change in class forces. On the surface this could appear to be good news for the radical left and Labour, splitting the Tories, and possibly having to have a new election. We must consider in which direction any potential split will go, and in all likelihood it won’t shift to the left. Even if there were to be a Labour government, the only possibility of a leftist (but still pro-EU) trend would be if Jeremy Corbyn wins the Labour Party leadership contest. In this case there’s even the possibility for the Labour Party to fragment.

The most likely fallout from a NO vote is that the Tory Right, UKIP and the far right will feel emboldened and strengthened by the result. We will then see the continuation of a rightward trajectory in British politics, dragging the Labour Party ever more into the so called ‘centre ground’ of the political spectrum. A ground which since the last referendum to support continued membership of the European Economic Community in 1975, has already shifted considerably to the right.

The ruling class forces would be weakened, but only in as much as there will be less unity on the Right, but at what cost?

Would this be an opening for socialists to exploit, or just another enemy and another fight for us to keep having? In this instance I think the latter.

In opposition to the radical Left and Trade Unionism, UKIP and Tories, and even elements of the Labour Party would have no issues with ganging up against the Left. We only need look to the Scottish Independence referendum last year to see how the establishment, when threatened, used and abused their influence. In the short term and possibly for longer, especially in Scotland, this has proved disastrous for the Labour Party and how that was a contributing factor in the Tory victory at the last election.

In a yes vote, will the class forces be any different? In terms of the rights of migrants and EU citizens, perhaps, and I will come to that later. In all other aspects what the yes vote is, is an acceptance of the status quo, and a continuation of austerity and if possible an even more pro-business, anti-worker stance.

If one side or the other was so reactionary that they have to be stopped by any means

UKIP are not the Nazis and the EU is not a dangerously authoritarian regime – bureaucratic, undemocratic and ideologically neoliberal to the core, yes, but not tyrannical, despotic or totalitarian. That is the rhetoric of the mainstream no vote, and arguing inside the no campaign on this basis, rightly calling out the undemocratic neoliberal nature of the EU, does nothing to strengthen our side within the campaign. It would be inevitably drowned out by the Rights version of what it means to be undemocratic.

Within the yes campaign, this argument and any anti-business, and perhaps even any euro-communist arguments, won’t even be on the agenda, anybody making them will more than likely find themselves marginalised to such a degree as it would be a waste of time being there in the first place.

Here though we must consider the combined issue of migration and racism, and how that will play out on either side.

It is true to say that the no camp will be far more aggressive in its attacks on migrants, and by extension more racist and xenophobic, even though at present, on an official level it is being played down, on the doorstep come the referendum it is unlikely to stay that way, and the campaign will get more aggressive rather than less.

But the yes camp too, as we have already seen with their obsession for “immigration controls”, and “border security”, pandering to the Right with ever more discriminatory ‘anti-terrorism’ laws, and the divisive “British Jobs for British Workers” slogan, adopted by some elements within the Trade unions, will be only slightly less reactionary. Again on the doorstep, are Labour members really going to challenge the stereotypes and myths? Or will they reflect back to Gordon Brown’s correct assertion about “that bigoted woman”, and remember what happened to him?

The issue that should be vexing most of us, is the future status of migrant workers. In April next year, before the referendum, new rules will come into force, and non-EU workers who are earning less than £35,000 a year will be deported after six years in the UK. Apart from this being a sop to high-tech business, and a snub to low paid workers, it is unclear at present if this would effect current EU citizens who live and work in the UK after a no vote? It’s also unclear generally, what the UK’s relationship will be to other EU citizens after a no vote? It is also possible that something similar to this new law will be part of Cameron’s EU negotiations. Either way the only option is to argue as socialists for the free movement of people as a principle, an argument which will see little effect on the no side, and only qualified acceptance on the other, possibly with a price-tag attached.

To me it’s difficult to see which side is the more reactionary, the one which says, “no to migration”, or the one which says “only good migrants please”. Or indeed if either side can be progressive in any form at all within this referendum debate.

Fighting for socialist principles outside the main yes/no arena, in this respect, seems far more productive to bringing people towards a socialist perspective.

If intervention on one side or the other in the campaign would strengthen the Left either as revolutionary groups or in general

The simple answer to this is that neither side are going to want to hear internationalist, anti-business arguments. There may be some scope within Trade Unions to voice these arguments, and it’s definitely worth trying, but we should be doing that anyway to influence their thinking. In the context of the referendum, our arguments will be limited, marginalised, and on the whole, unreported and unheard. The main reason being that both campaigns will be conducted as populist fights, between an establishment of little Englanders and small business ‘leaders’, who see European competition as a problem, in opposition to a pro-business establishment which sees the EU as a bulwark against Chinese, Indian and US capital.

Intervening on either side and inevitably splitting the wider forces of the Left into yet more fragments doesn’t serve the class, migrants, or our own revolutionary groups.


In general the left will have little impact in the debate as such, and little influence on its outcome. The only realistic role socialists in Britain can play is an educational one, raising issues for those who are interested in understanding contemporary politics from a left perspective.

The question is how best to do that, and where can we get heard? Will it be possible through the fog of an unholy alliance in the yes campaign, where we can only be heard to say “migration is good [for British business]”, or within a grouping comprised mainly of the Tory right where euroscepticism means something entirely different?

Radical abstention offers possibilities to make our point clearly. We can use the referendum to raise wider issues about neoliberalism and contemporary capitalism and the struggles of the exploited and oppressed, without being pulled or tied by the policies and rhetoric of the mainstream campaigns.

We can stand aside and have the ability to put principled socialist arguments about the nature of the EU, the causes of racism and xenophobia, the barbarism of capitalism, and be able to critique both sides of this establishment fiasco.

In conclusion, whichever side socialists find themselves on, in this period – in, out, or shaking it all about – it is the clear duty of all of us to stand up against what will no doubt be a pro-business, racist, anti-migrant and bigoted campaign conducted by both sides.

Special thanks to Richard Kirkwood, for his valuable help.


  1. I disagree with your claim that the EU vote is in some way abstract from a class perspective. Workers in the UK witnessed how the Troika treated a government of the left. Consequently the issue of austerity took centre stage. The subsequent surge in support for Corbyn is evidence that there is a potential to build an anti-austerity movement. Like Corbyn we can’t expect a ready made social movement to spring up before we take a stand.
    On the one hand, there are those on the left who claim that, after Greece, the EU still stands for democracy which is what Cliff described as lying to the class. Those who campaign to abstain fail to understand that EU membership strengthens the Tories hand rather than holds them in check. The vote isn’t simply between two wings of British capital – it’s also a struggle between the ruling class and workers over austerity and racism. If we are against austerity then we are against its architects who run the EU. If we are against racism then we must challenge UKIP’s arguments while still standing against austerity. It’s not an easy option but then there were those on the left who thought challenging Brown’s, British jobs for British workers was a mistake too.
    Labour’s abstention in the welfare bill handed the Tories victory. We need to take EU austerity every bit as seriously as the Tories welfare bill which is why abstaining on this issue hands over the political debate to the right.

  2. Ray, whatever your strength of feeling that a Brexit is the only legit revolutionary position its incomparable to the welfare vote.

    The welfare vote was over whether to impliment vast cuts to peoples living standards or not. Children I work with will see their families standard of living and their life chances deminish with terrifying effect.

    The euro referendum is a much more abstract proposition from a class perspective. A left dominated no vote might be seen as a solidarity vote with Greece/Spain/???? in a years time. But equally a right lead one could well be seen as a richer nation slamming its boarders shut to the victims of extreme austerity impossed on weaker states. The only way voting no is meaningfully opposing the troika would be if a left no camapaign was imbedded in a social movement strong enough to give the political stance social weight. Otherwise it is no different in meaning to the left writing articles /leaflets attacking them. Sadly where a a demand is currently most likely to gain popular traction is restriction of migration/ border control – a context where a large no vote’s most likely result is to bolster (what the ISJ termed) the New Racism by further legitimising the anti-migrant racism against eastern europeans and by extension all migrants. You can already see the pull in this direction by Cameron’s moves to try and steal some of their thunder.

    In essense we are voting between two wings of british capital – a dominant wing that wants a negotiated place in the EU while tilting heavily towards financial relations with the US amongst others. And a wing that wants negotiated treaties with Europe from the outside it. One wing is more dominent and one more wrapped up in little Englander nationalism.

    Either way a comparison with abstaining on welfare cuts is bizarre…

  3. So what you’re talking about is what Lenin called an “active boycott,” except that it won’t be active or activist since what seems to be proposed is focused propaganda rather than agitation and organization.

    My fundamental disagreement with the arguments here is the starting point of our analysis: “The starting point for any discussion regarding the UK’s European Union (EU) referendum must be that the issue is one between different factions of capital and the ruling-class. As such, working-class organisations can only take sides if there is a pressing reason.” Yes, different elements of the ruling class are on different sides of the question, but that doesn’t mean for us as socialists that that fact is our starting point. I think our starting point should be to evaluate the question of what effect staying/leaving the EU will have on the interests of the working class and oppressed groups.

    Seems to me that leaving the EU would be leaving (or rather putting) migrant workers and non-UK EU citizens in the lurch, create a lot of uncertainty and legal problems for them, and throw up a whole new set of border and immigration controls impeding the free movement of labor and laborers. On this basis, I would lean towards a ‘no’ vote on the referendum.

  4. I am positing that “radical” is not a passive form of abstention. Radical actions, ‘radical socialist’ positions in opposition to the yes/no platitudes. There is an opening in this position to build our socialist ideas, which wouldn’t necessarily be available to us on either of the mainstream campaigns.

    I agree it is likely the yes camp wins, but it’s unlikely that my minority position on abstaining between racism hard and racism light will be statistically significant to alter that anyway, unless it becomes a larger focus of public opinion, in which case on think we could argue strongly for proper change, not just a change of bosses.

  5. I don’t agree with RayB’s method of approaching the question or his conclusions but he raises a good point when he writes, ” Abstentionism is really a vote to stay in the EU.”

  6. We can’t abstain on this issue otherwise we’re no better than those in Labour who abstained on welfare reform. Abstentionism is really a vote to stay in the EU because the Tories will be pulling out all the stops to get a YES vote just like they did to push through welfare reforms. We can’t abstain after what’s happened in Greece and need to stand in solidarity with Greek workers which includes pulling out of the EU. The only way to be seen to oppose the Troika is to campaign against the EU otherwise if we sit on our hands the right will channel all the anger against the EU’s austerity agenda towards racism. This is an opportunity to offer an alternative to austerity and to racism.


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