Revolutionary socialists and the EU referendum campaign: sorting out the real issues

The EU referendum offers no clear route for socialists; instead, John Walker argues, our focus should be on organising against the attack on migrants and workers which will intensify no matter the outcome.

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The Tory government’s plan to hold a referendum on continued UK membership of the European Union on 23 June has got the revolutionary left in a bit of a tizzy, with divided responses.

There are those whose immediate reaction is to call for a “Leave” vote, arguing that the EU is a bosses’ club, committed to privatisation and a rampaging free market.

Then there are those whose reaction is to call for a “Remain” vote, on the grounds that withdrawal from the EU would put the two million EU migrants already in this country at risk of being expelled.

And there are those whose reaction is to wish both sides could lose, and call for abstention.

Finally there are those of us who have all three reactions simultaneously.

The problem is that all three positions are backed up by extremely good arguments. It is difficult, however hard some people try, for a revolutionary to argue against any of them.

The source of this confusion is that we are asking the wrong question. We should not be asking ourselves whether we should remain in the EU or not. The question we should be asking is how to independently intervene in the campaign.


Differences with 1975

It is useful to compare the present referendum campaign with that of 1975, when Harold Wilson called the first referendum on Britain’s membership of the then Common Market. There are similarities, but there are also major differences.

The main similarity is that the referendum has been called because of a deep split in the governing party, so deep that it threatens to tear the party apart. The first major difference is that the party in question in 1975 was the Labour Party; in 2016, it is the Tories.

The two situations are not mirror images of one another. In the case of the 1975 referendum, the battle was between right and left in the Labour Party, and it was necessary for revolutionary socialists to back Benn and the Labour left. For them to lose would have meant – and did mean – a significant shift to the right by the Labour government. The defeat of the left in the referendum contributed to the defeat of working-class militancy that created a downturn in struggle and culminated in Margaret Thatcher’s defeat of the miners.

In 2016, the split within the Tory Party is between two sets of free-marketeers, who are agreed on their basic anti-trade union, anti-migrant, pro-privatisation politics. There is no objective reason for revolutionaries to back one faction or the other. Whether Britain votes to leave the EU or not, the Tories are going to continue with their attempts to privatise the NHS, restrict the trade unions and attack migrants rights. And we are going to have to continue fighting them.

There are a large number of things we cannot predict about what will happen on 24 June, but that much we can be certain about.

The second major difference is that in 1975, the electorate was asked to choose between two visions of the economy. In opposition to the idea of British business growing through access to European markets, Benn and the Labour left proposed a programme of capital controls, nationalisations, directed investment and, for smaller businesses, workers’ cooperatives.

In 2016, there is little to choose between the economic policies of the two official campaigns. You couldn’t slide a cigarette paper between the economic views of David Cameron and Boris Johnson, while the Eurosceptic John Redwood is, if anything, more in favour of privatisation than the EU is.

This is why there is, for socialists, no point of principle at issue in the vote. To call for a vote one way or the other – or for abstention – is purely a tactical issue. And not necessarily an important tactical issue.

And there is a further important difference with 1975 that we need to take account of when considering tactical voting. In 1975 workers’ militancy was all around us. It was in the air we breathed. The demand to leave the European Community, as it was then, came out of this, and it meant that revolutionaries had at least some chance of getting a hearing for their views. In 2016 that audience is far smaller. We have no chance of having a major effect on the outcome.


What is to be done?

This means that we need to think carefully about how we respond to the referendum. What we should avoid is gesture politics. Crying in the wilderness for a “Leave” or a “Remain” vote, or for mass abstentions, without the slightest chance of having an effect, is a waste of time and effort.

Our objectives have to be both modest but also to have long-term importance. They have to be both something we can potentially achieve and be something that will potentially strengthen our side in whatever shit we find ourselves in after the referendum.

A key component of this shit will be increased attacks on migrants. The main thrust of UKIP and the Tory right against the EU has been on the question of migration, whilst Cameron’s response has been to negotiate with the EU to restrict migrants’ rights. For both the “Remain” and “Leave” campaigns, migration is a problem, to which they claim to have an answer. And whichever way the vote goes, the attacks on migrants will increase.

We know this will be the case, since the deportation of non-EU migrants earning less than £35,000 a year is planned to go ahead whatever the result.

It is the job of revolutionary socialists to build resistance to these attacks. This is not a new departure. We do this already: rs21 members and many others are involved in organisations such as London2Calais, which provides support to refugees in the  Calais camp, and in the campaigns for the closure of detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood and Campsfield, as well as in other campaigns. We were present on the anti-racism demo on 19th March. And so on.

What is urgently needed, though, is a unified campaign against the government’s anti-migrant policy, whichever way the vote goes. At present, the movement for migrants’ rights is fragmented. It is largely composed of campaigns over specific issues – support for refugees in Calais, campaigns to close detention centres, etc. This is essential, but we need an active united campaign that takes up the demand for open borders and tries to force it into the mainstream. It is unlikely that we will received much opposition to this proposal from existing campaigners, but it does need an initiative.

We also have to tie this into the question of the EU. There are too many of those active on the question of migrants’ rights who have illusions in the EU. We have to keep plugging the point that, while the EU might be in favour of removing borders within Europe they are super-hot about a strong border around it. People, lots of people, have died as a result of this. There is blood on the EU’s hands.

We therefore need to keep plugging away with the slogan of “No borders!”

We should also emphasise that the EU’s free market, anti-trade union agenda is no protection for migrant workers, since, by destroying workers’ ability to protect themselves, it makes the conditions of work – both for migrant and non-migrant – deteriorate. It’s not immigrants that reduce wages, it’s employers. And the EU’s legislation helps them do this.

And we should also point out that it isn’t just the EU that is causing the deterioration of workers’ condition. The Tories’ Trade Union Bill, for example, is an entirely home-grown affair, and both sides of the referendum debate in the Tory Party support it. Indeed, some of the most vicious neo-liberals in the Tory Party are anti-EU.

All this means that revolutionaries shouldn’t tie ourselves to one campaign or the other on the EU. We should not let ourselves be organised into two neat lines, like good little schoolchildren, one saying “In” and the other saying “Out”. Our model should be the boy in the Hans Christian Andersen story who pointed out, loudly, for all to hear, that the Emperor had no clothes. We should be the naughty children who point out inconvenient truths, never losing sight of the fact that we are building for the longer term.

During the Cold War, faced by two enemies, both of which they found unacceptable, revolutionary socialists in the tradition that rs21 comes out of raised the slogan “Neither Washington nor Moscow, but International Socialism”. This was not a statement of neutrality but a declaration of war on both sides. Nor did it mean that they kept their distance from actual struggles. For example, during the Vietnam War they were deeply involved in the Vietnam Solidarity Campaign.

It is not possible to push the parallel too far, but, nonetheless, it gives an indication of the approach that revolutionaries now, in 2016, should adopt. We are opposed to the neo-liberal institution of the EU and we are opposed to the racism of immigration restrictions, so we should say so clearly. We need to be saying:

No to the EU and Fortress Europe!
Reverse the privatisations! No to market madness!
Open the borders!


And finally, what of the vote?

This is where the discussion of which way to vote should be – at the end of the discussion in an addendum. Because it is a tactical question, not one of principle, it comes way, way down the list of things to discuss. It should certainly not be the starting point. That way madness and pointless splits lie, as a result of arguments that will be completely out of date by the time the schools break up for the summer holidays.

The problem is that the position of opposition to both the EU and border controls does not map easily onto the options offered in the referendum. The vote will be purely one of leave or stay.

The consistent position is to call for a vote to leave. If, at a later date, a referendum is called on some other basis, such as economic policy, then it would be clear that socialists should call for a leave vote. To call for a vote to remain now would lead us to be inconsistent in the long run.

On the other hand, there is also the question of the two million EU citizens resident in the UK. These people are, naturally enough, concerned about their future if Britain leaves the EU. They have been the focus of the debate within the Tory Party, attacked by the Eurosceptics, whilst Cameron has done a deal with the EU to worsen their position if Britain votes to remain. There are those on the left who, whilst being opposed in principle to the EU, argue that we should vote to remain in order to protect the interests of these migrants.

Faced with the contradictions that would be implied if revolutionaries took sides in an argument within the Tory Party, some argue for abstention. This is probably the worst option, since it implies that we are not interested in the outcome, instead of being opposed to both possible outcomes. Nonetheless, it is a defensible position for a revolutionary to take.

There are good arguments for revolutionaries to take each of these positions, and good arguments against. We can learn from these arguments if they are conducted in fraternal manner. But we should not expect any sort of resolution, because there is none possible.

When it comes to the referendum, we are fighting on the terrain of the enemy. However the vote goes on 23 June, we will be faced with the same fight on 24 June 24. That is what revolutionary socialists should be preparing for.

If voting could change anything, they’d make it illegal.


  1. This is a useful and well argued contribution. The problem with this whole debate however, is as you say, trying to argue a revolutionary position in what is essentially a ruling class fight. But as Michael Roberts has argued, the position of migrants in the UK post a withdrawal will be essentially the same as those in Norway or Switzerland- conditional on border regulations (which I agree we should be opposed to anyway)- they will be able to remain. And in the meantime, the Schengen ‘open borders’ agreement is dead in the water anyway. But in the meantime the TTIP US/EU agreement will be going through anyway, which exposes EU public services to transatlantic compulsory tendering with a thwarted would-be privatising corporation able sue member state governments should they chose to maintain services within public ownership. Either way, UK capital will continue to inflict neoliberal assaults on labour and the poor. But within the EU Greece has shown the barbaric scale to which it punitive austerity will be prosecuted. And the proposed EU/Turkey forced reverse migration pact is probably the worst and most cynical act of forced population movement since 1918. Neither Brussels nor Westminster but no borders and solidarity. And as a blow towards that objective, a NO to the EU that the leading faction of the executive arm of the UK ruling class advocates.


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