Britain: Youth and the EU referendum

Fight for our future, starting with a Leave vote to smash the Tories

Switched off, disengaged and bemused: these are just a few of the adjectives that have been used to describe the way young people are reacting to the current EUreferendum debate. And is it any wonder? The leaderships of both the official Remain and Leave campaigns are dominated by representatives of the small super-rich elite. Switch on the news and you're usually greeted with Tory politicians arguing over which outcome, Leave or Remain, would work in the best interests of big business.

For young people experiencing the bleak reality of austerity Britain – with sky high tuition fees, rock bottom wages and an impossible housing market – it's not surprising that a debate currently dominated by pro-austerity politicians is not enthusing. Reportedly only 52% of young people are 'definitely intending' to use their vote on 23 June. A recent YouGov poll has shown the depth of the disillusionment with the current public debate. Only 10% of young people said they trust politicians to tell them the truth about EU referendum, just 13% trust the media and 16% trust business leaders.

But, with recent polls suggesting a narrow lead for Leave, panic is beginning to set in among Cameron's Remain camp and the capitalist class which overwhelmingly backs it. Their response has been to further escalate the fear campaign. This week's threat is that Brexit would be like an 'economic bomb'. But it appears the apocalyptic predictions and dire warnings have so far failed. In fact, among working class people they could even be having the reverse of their intended effect. After all, what could be better encouragement to vote Leave than David Cameron (the same man slashing public services, cutting jobs and wrecking the NHS) desperately pleading with you to do the opposite?

Fearful that they could lose the referendum, the leaders of the Remain campaign are relying on right-wing (and unfortunatley some left-wing) trade union leaders and the Trade Union Congress (TUC) to mobilise working class voters to support Remain. By allowing themselves to be used by the Tories in this way, the trade union tops are objectively helping to save Cameron's skin.

Mass working class struggle

They justify this stand with the argument that the EU acts to protect workers' rights. But, in reality, the opposite is true. Most EU legislation acts to undermine workers' and trade union rights. In any case, better rights and living standards are never 'gifted' to working class people, instead they have been won, and must be defended, through mass working class struggle.

It is a supreme irony that the TUC leadership, which failed to organise so much as a demonstration to oppose the most vicious anti-union laws in a generation, is now energetically campaigning alongside the politicians who proposed them – all on the basis of alleged concern for 'workers' rights'.

With the referendum result potentially in the balance, the Remain campaign is hoping it might rely on younger voters to help keep Britain in the EU. Perhaps Cameron and his friends are cynically hoping that the instinct of most working class people for international solidarity and anti-racism, which is particularly strong among the young, will make them sufficiently repelled by Farage and co to turn out and vote for the status quo.

It is true that the anti-immigrant rhetoric of Johnson and Farage, which has consistently been mirrored on the Remain side, can be especially repulsive to youth. That's because, perhaps even more than older generations, young people are often keenly aware of the interests they share with other workers and young people in Europe and the rest of the world.

Some are conscious that the fight against brutalausterity and the capitalist system cannot be confined to the borders of one country.

In recent years, a spectacular display of this instinct for internationalism came in the form of the Indignados and Occupy movements, which spread like wildfire across swathes of the continent. This was a movement sparked, in large part, by opposition to the severe, EU-directed austerity being imposed across southern Europe. And it was a movement to which national borders presented no barrier.

Many of the methods adopted during this struggle – including mass occupations of streets and squares – have been revisited in the huge movement currently rocking France, with 'Nuit Debout' protests going alongside a mighty trade union struggle. This fight to defend protections for workers – including collective bargaining and a 35-hour week – is rightly seen as a fight for the future of the next generation in France.

But there is no recourse to the EU for protection for French workers and young people (which you might assume there would be if you believed the rhetoric of many of the trade union leaders in Britain).

The defenders of these rights – themselves the fruits of mass workers' struggles – are to be found on the picket lines and on the streets, not among the bureaucrats of Brussels.

In fact the European Commissioner for the Euro and 'Social Dialogue', Valis Dombrovskis, has given France's proposed Labour laws a glowing endorsement. Dombrovkis has repeatedly stressed the urgent need to address 'rigidities' (ie barriers to the bosses driving down wages and conditions) in the French Labour market.

After all, the real internationalists are not Juncker, Merkel, Lagarde and Cameron. And there is nothing that is genuinely internationalist about the EU. You need only look to Greece, with the social catastrophe of more than 50% youth unemployment, to know that any idea of a progressive, 'social Europe' is a lie. Real solidarity with young and working class people, both in Greece and elsewhere, does not require a 'vote of confidence' in one of the main institutions imposing this penury – quite the opposite.

Socialists and trade unionists campaigning to leave the EU have absolutely nothing in common with the pro-capitalist, xenophobic Leave campaigns being headed by Johnson and Farage. The tawdry nature of the current debate, with ant-immigrant rhetoric dominating the headlines from both sides, highlights why it is so regrettable that Jeremy Corbyn, whose clear anti-austerity stance enthused many thousands of young people during his leadership bid, has allowed himself to be browbeaten by the Blairites in his own party into supporting a Remain vote.

Had Jeremy remained firm in his historically held position and come out for a Leave vote, the whole terrain of the debate could have been changed. If a Corbyn-led Leave campaign was linked with building a movement to break with austerity – including fighting for free education, a £10 an hour minimum wage, rent controls, council house building and the renationalisation of the railways – this could have generated huge enthusiasm from young people.

Instead Corbyn has been forced into a corner – giving the impression of a man distinctly unconvinced by his own speeches. Meanwhile senior right-wing Labour figures – including Sadiq Khan and Harriet Harman – have jumped onto platforms with Cameron, all the while ratcheting up the pressure on him to do the same.

The Socialist Party is urging a Leave vote on socialist, internationalist and anti-racist basis. For young people in Britain, perhaps the most compelling argument for voting to Leave is the opportunity to strike a mortal blow against Cameron and potentially even the Tory government itself. 

Just witness the escalating civil war within the Conservative Party. With the referendum still weeks away Cameron's own back-benchers are baying for his blood. In the words of Nadine Dorries, if Cameron wakes up to Brexit on 24 June he is "toast within days". The intervention of John Major – a firm 'remainer' – has further escalated the acrimony. The notion that this party can be easily re-united the day after the referendum, particularly if the vote is for Brexit or a narrow Remain, is clearly unrealistic.


A Leave vote would offer the biggest potential to see the back of this Tory government – the same government which is presently pursuing a raft of attacks which will hit young people hard. Included in these are plans to increase tuition fees and to further privatise and marketise higher education. Incidentally, the drive to turn universities into businesses has itself been enshrined in EU agreements. The 'Bologna process' has been a key part of imposing this model for higher education across the continent.

Far from giving a 'boost' to right-wing, pro-austerity forces – as some have argued is inevitable – a Leave vote would instead leave the Tories in complete disarray, opening up huge potential for the strengthening of anti-austerity forces and the development of mass movements in defence of workers' rights – including the rights of migrant workers. This, in turn, could help to increase the confidence of workers all around Europe in the fight against austerity.

But whatever the outcome of the vote in June, it will remain necessary to build a mass movement to end austerity and fight for socialist change. A Leave vote could offer us a renewed opportunity for this by dealing a death blow to Cameron and the Tories. But it is not an end in and of itself. Young people need to get organised – both to fight the fresh attacks that are in the pipeline and to demand a decent future – one with secure, well paid work, genuinely affordable housing, workers' rights, free education and so on.

Fighting for this means linking up with workers and trade unions both in Britain and internationally. And it means being prepared to challenge the failing capitalist system which demands the misery of working class people across this continent and the world. It means fighting for a socialist society for the 99%, the only society capable of genuinely meeting the needs and aspirations of this generation and the next.


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June 2016