The following is a guest blog article by the socialist student and reluctant remain voter, Sam Edgington. I think it’s an excellent piece and will write my comments on it below in the comments section. As you can tell from this blog’s About page, I am oppose socialism and am instead a Burkean conservative (lower case c) and a social, moral and fiscal conservative (also lower case c) but I welcome everyone to my blog, regardless of their views and Sam and I have found a lot of common ground on Brexit. If any other readers would like to submit their own guest blogs, please submit them via the contact form. Please copy the text from your word processor’s document and then paste it into the “Message” box on the contact form.
There was a time, not so long ago, when scepticism for the European project was associated more with the left than the right. Famously in the 1975 EEC referendum, Margaret Thatcher advocated to remain in the EEC while Tony Benn and Michael Foot, hardly ‘swivel-eyed loons’, advocated withdrawal. Oh how the times have changed!
This shift is not surprising of course. As neo-liberalism battered many working-class communities and the left seemed a million miles away from power, some began to see the European Union (EU) as a buffer. Left-wing Europhiles held up some beneficial legislation affecting climate change, employment rights (such as the Working Time Directive) and human rights as evidence that the EU was progressive simply for being better than neo-liberalism without said restraints.
I admit that in 2016 I bought into this narrative. Workers’ rights (coupled with distasteful aspects of the Leave campaign) were one of the main reasons why I voted Remain. The previous year has changed my opinion. Though some leavers view Brexit as a way to unchain capitalism by removing such ‘red tape’, the Brexit vote was not an agreement to strip back the workers’ rights which remain popular even with many employers. There would be justifiable uproar if rights to maternity leave or sick pay were eroded. EU legislation reflected this attitude rather than created it.
Other than these popular pieces of legislation it must not be forgotten that the EU is a neo-liberal enterprise. The proposed TTIP agreement, negotiated in secret, would have resulted in a lowering of food standards, more privatisation in the NHS and outsourcing of jobs. That hardly sounds progressive to me and perhaps explains why the majority of big businesses and bankers, as well as famously left-wing heroes like David Cameron and George Osborne, were desperate for a Remain vote. The EU also showed its fiscally right-wing nature during the Eurozone Crisis- most obviously their treatment of the Greeks. Yanis Varoufakis, whatever you may think of his politics, has brilliantly outlined in his book “Adults in the Room: My Battle with Europe’s Deep Establishment” that the austerity and debt repayment plans imposed on his country were not intended to improve the Greek economy or make them repay their debts. Instead it was to send a political message to other European electorates; left-wing parties like Syriza which challenge the EU will be crushed (they duly have been). This lack of respect for one of their own members and democracy itself should concern even ardent Europhiles.
Another aspect of EU membership which has been portrayed by many as benevolent and progressive by left-wingers is free movement (as the Labour Campaign for Free Movement has recently shown). Personally I believe immigration to be a beneficial thing overall but it does not follow that an unlimited number of people from 27 other countries, each with varying wages and economies, should be able to move to another country without any real restraint. Many on the left criticised Jeremy Corbyn for lamenting ‘the wholesale importation of underpaid workers from central Europe in order to destroy conditions’. The undercutting of wages generally hits the working-class (the group that Labour was initially created to assist). It is also exploitative as foreign workers are paid less simply for being foreign while bosses maximise profits. This practice is enabled and defended by the EU in the name of ‘competition’. Meanwhile, the EU discriminates against non-EU nationals who are not given the same rights in this respect resulting in a strange mix of internal ultra-liberalism and external protectionism. The answer, of course, is not to demonise these migrants as the far-right does (unfortunately the left often sees opposition to free movement as tantamount to being on the nativist right). Post-Brexit, I hope that left-wing politicians continue to defend the rights of refugees and immigrants while also helping to end the exploitative immigration enabled by free movement.
However, the focus for left-wing Eurosceptics should not be what has already been. Instead, we must campaign on what could potentially be in the future. Immediately after the Second World War British socialists realised they had reached a turning point and they changed the country. The Brexit vote, in some way, is similar. It was a cry-out for change. In the General Election campaign Theresa May misjudged this desire for large-scale change and she was punished for it. As EU laws and regulations fall away (assuming we have a hard or ‘clean’ Brexit), politicians no longer have an excuse to keep the ailing status quo on life support. The possibility of ‘capitalism unchained’ cowed many left-wing Eurosceptics into voting Remain. However, I prefer to see the process as ‘democracy unchained’ by which I mean that if Labour win the next election (as I hope they do), they will be able to fully implement their programme without interference from the EU. Rail and electricity nationalisations, currently all but prohibited under EU law, will once more become a possibility for a Labour government elected on such a platform. Subsidising industries like steel, which currently goes against EU competition directives, could once more be a possibility if MPs vote for it. Tariffs between the UK and developing areas like Africa could be cut to help British consumers as well as poor producers in developing countries. The point is that we, rather than the EU, will have control over such decisions. The election in June, where Labour ran on an unashamedly left-wing platform and won 40% of the vote, demonstrates that ‘Lexit’ is no longer an abstract concept.