Britain: EU referendum

Whatever the result, political turmoil is ahead

The days are counting down to the EU referendum and the polls remain on a knife edge. For the first time the Financial Times ’poll of polls’ has put exit in the lead. Cameron’s team is reported to be in a ’blind panic’. Project Fear has tried to step up the doom-mongering, with David Cameron declaring that Brexit would mean £40 billion worth of added cuts to public spending, including to pensions and the NHS.

It is incredible, however, the degree to which Project Fear has so far failed. Instead trust in Cameron – already low – has tumbled to just 18% believing his announcements on the EU. As the Socialist predicted, voters – particularly working class voters – are increasingly seeing the referendum as a chance to protest both against Cameron and everything they have suffered in recent years: low pay, zero-hour contracts, benefit cuts, the lack of affordable housing, and public services cut to the bone. One poll shows that 60% of ’blue collar’ workers intend to vote for exit.

Had Jeremy Corbyn been prepared to lead a left, internationalist campaign for Leave, that anger would have found a clear expression. Corbyn could have explained, accurately, that he had always opposed the EU because it is an Employers’ Union, adding that it is illegal under EU law to nationalise the railways or the steel industry. Many of those who are currently voting Remain because they are repelled by the little Englanders who lead the official Leave campaign could have been convinced to vote for exit.

At the same time Corbyn should have declared that, after the referendum, Cameron would have no right to continue in office, demanding a general election which Labour would contest on a programme of a £10 an hour minimum wage, mass council house building, public ownership of the privatised utilities and more. Such a bold stance would have transformed the political situation in Britain.

Relying on Labour

But it would have required defying big business, and also the pro-big business, pro-austerity and therefore also pro-EU wing of the Labour Party. Instead, one of Jeremy Corbyn’s first serious retreats in the face of the Blairites was to agree to campaign for Remain. And now, as it becomes clear to Cameron that his speeches increase support for Leave, he is standing aside to allow the trade unions and the Labour leadership to try and convinceworkers to vote Remain.

It is possible that this will have some effect on the referendum polls, but it will also act to discredit the Labour and trade union leaders. Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell are struggling to avoid this; correctly refusing to appear alongside Tory politicians. Most of the Labour leadership, however, have shown no such scruples. It is incredible that Sadiq Khan, after the vile racist campaign run against him by the Tories, is now standing together with them to call for a Remain vote.

And such is the desperation of the Remain camp they are thrusting Jeremy Corbyn into the front line despite his reticence and having poured scorn on him. In the Observer (12 June) David Cameron brazenly declared that he couldn’t, "be accused of an establishment stitch-up" because he was "saying listen to Jeremy Corbyn and the Green party." There is a real danger here that – as in the Scottish referendum – Labour could end up being undermined by its role in this referendum as attempted saviour of the establishment.

Deputy Labour leader Tom Watson has openly recognised that outers are voting to get rid of Cameron and pleaded with them not to because ’Boris Johnson would be worse’. We completely reject this argument, which is a new form of ’lesser evilism’. Over the six years that Cameron has been prime minister a ruthless campaign has been run to make working class people pay for the capitalist economic crisis. The interests of the working class are not served by keeping him in power but by launching a mass campaign to force him, and his government, out of power.

A Brexit vote, and Cameron’s subsequent resignation, would lift the confidence of many workers in Britain who would rightly feel they had managed to land a serious blow on the opposition. At the same time it would be a serious defeat for the capitalist class. The potential would be there for the working class to go on the offensive against the endless austerity that has rained down on us. A 24-hour general strike could quickly be posed.

Tories in meltdown

And the Tories – once the most successful capitalist party on the planet – are already in meltdown and in the event of a Brexit vote could face a terminal crisis. Far from a smooth succession from Cameron to Johnson, a vote for Brexit could potentially lead to the shattering of the Tory Party. If Johnson does take over it will be against the background of the divisions in the Tory Party having become a gaping chasm, with the Cameron wing constantly sniping from the back benches.

Even if Remain wins narrowly, Cameron could be forced out. The current Tory government is very weak – carrying out 20 u-turns or partial u-turns in the last year – but the new government would be even weaker. Voters who have been told by Johnson and Gove that Brexit would mean more money for the NHS and better workers’ rights will not passively accept a Johnson-led Tory government trying to impose further austerity on the working class.

Whatever happens, in the aftermath of the referendum politics in Britain will be in serious turmoil. The 1%, the capitalist class, will be fumbling around to try and find parties that can act reliably in their interests. At a certain stage the divisions in both Labour and the Tories, who are in reality only held together by the electoral system, can lead to a realignment of British politics.

A split in the Tories and Labour could lead to a new alignment of the pro-capitalist wing of the Labour Partyand the pro-EU Tories. It is not for nothing that Janan Ganesh comments in the Financial Times (14 June) "the Tory and Labour moderates newly mingling in the Remain offices rather get on." It is even possible that the capitalist class could shift towards supporting a change in the electoral system to proportional representation in order to try and put such a coalition into power.

Political voice

While the political representation of the capitalist class is in turmoil, it is urgent that the working class fights for its own political voice. The complete absence of a mass working class voice in the referendum has left the ground free for the ex-Tory, ex-stockbroker Nigel Farage to falsely pose as the voice of ’the little people’. In reality, of course, the divisive little Englander ideas of Ukip offer no way forward for working class people.

To cut across them, however, requires a mass party that opposes racism and fights in the interests of all working class people, whatever their country of origin. When the anti-austerity left Syriza government was first elected in Greece over 70% of people who had voted for the far-right thugs of Golden Dawn supported the new government. It was only the betrayal of the Syriza leadership – capitulating to the institutions of the EU and implementing vicious austerity – that left room for Golden Dawn to grow again.

For big business in Britain, particularly against the background of a new economic crisis, a Jeremy Corbyn-led Labour government is a nightmare they will do their utmost to avoid. They fear the huge expectations it would raise among working class people who have suffered years of austerity. Therefore once the referendum is over, the offensive will once again start against Jeremy Corbyn. If Brexit wins Corbyn will be blamed no matter how many speeches he makes for Remain in the next week.

As a new round of attacks rains down on Corbyn – from inside and outside of the Labour Party – it is vital that he stands firm and makes no more retreats. It is only the popular support for Jeremy Corbyn which has so far prevented the Labour right moving to oust him, but they still intend to take the first available opportunity.

It is likely that, in collusion with the Blairites, the Tories will put the debate on the replacement of Trident on the parliamentary agenda before its summer break. Len McCluskey, general secretary of Unite, has already said that Jeremy Corbyn has privately promised him that MPs will not be whipped. Given the right-wing character of the Parliamentary Labour Party, that would mean the majority of MPs voting to keep Trident. The right wing Labour backbench defence committee has gone further, demanding that MPs are whipped to vote for Trident, with Jeremy Corbyn being given permission to ’absent himself’!

The replacement of Trident would cost £200 billion over its lifetime. Any further retreats by the Labour leadership would inevitably lead to an ebbing of support for Jeremy Corbyn among those who have been enthused by his stance. Jeremy Corbyn should stand firm against renewal, while at the same time guaranteeing the jobs, pay and conditions of all workers in the defence industry, through a bold programme of nationalisation of BAE, Rolls Royce, Qinetiq and other companies.

Strategy to defeat austerity

He also urgently needs to launch a fight against austerity, with the programme on which he stood for Labour leader as its starting point. This should include making clear that he opposes austerity whoever it is implemented by – Brussels, Westminster, or local councils.

In May’s local elections there was a swing to Labour in Bristol, partly as a result of support for Jeremy Corbyn. But the new Labour Mayor has immediately proposed £100 million worth of cuts and appointed a ’rainbow cabinet’ including Tories! This – and the vicious cuts carried out by Labour councils across the country – is not the ’new politics’ that workers and young people voted for when they gave Jeremy Corbyn his landslide victory. That is better represented by the recent GMB conference, which joined the Unite and Unison local government committees and the Wales TUC in demanding councils set no-cuts budgets.

Those decisions reflect the growing determination of many workers to accept no more austerity. We urge a vote for exit on 23 June, which will strike a serious blow against the Tories and the capitalist class. That, however, is only the first step. Whatever the result of the referendum, the workers’ movement needs to go on the offensive against austerity – both by fighting for a 24-hour general strike and for a mass party that stands in our interests.

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June 2016