Comment: Plus ça change

As became increasingly clear from the morning of Friday 24 June 2016 onwards, one of the key battle lines in the debate over the EU has been the ‘market’ versus the ‘masses’. Capitalism in Britain, Europe and the globe – in normal times – does not like uncertainty and instability. The vote to leave was by and large not what it wanted wherever it was. On the other hand, the masses – well most of them – put two fingers up to that.

Those that were aggrieved and blamed the EU for many of their ills were more motivated to vote than those that favoured remain. Their rejection of ‘paternalistic’ advice in order to ‘kick against the pricks’ has come at a price – mostly obviously the immediate economic turmoil which threatens livelihoods and increases costs of living. But just as importantly, the political initiative now lies overall with the rabid right in the Conservatives and with UKIP. This expresses the fundamental contradiction at the heart of the political dynamic embodied by the referendum.

Many – but clearly far from all – working class leave voters wanted progressive change, expressed through the simplistic notion that they wanted control of their ‘country’ back from what they viewed as an oppressive EU regime. They wanted to exert control of their own lives – or at least have their own democratically elected politicians doing so – thinking that leaving the EU would give them that. They also wanted not to do what they were told by the dominant ‘political class’ – the ‘class’ of politicians they felt alienated from – as well as by businesses and unions leaders. But along with that came the xenophobia and racism. What they have got now is an insurgent rabid right that wants to further deregulate the labour market and dismantle the welfare state while putting up new external barriers.

This testifies to the genesis of the referendum coming from a battle between different sections of the right over how to organise and run capitalism. It was always going to be difficult for the left to get a look in on this debate. Consider the position of left ‘remainers’ – arguing to stay in the EU for a version of the EU that is not now or at any time imminently on the table for negotiation. This meant the most compelling argument for remaining was merely ‘voting leave will only make things worse’. Against the promises of£350m a week extra for the NHS by leaving, this was not a crowd pleaser. ‘Hope’ – even in a bastardised from – lay with the leave side even though there was precious little in the way of progressive hope as embodied by the ‘yes’ side in the Scottish referendum.

But, of course, the dominant dynamic has been different in Scotland from most of the rest of Britain. Why so? For all its faults and weaknesses, the SNP was able to make it clear a vote to leave would hand the political initiative to the rabid right. Recalling the longstanding notion that it would protect ‘Scotland’s interests’ from Tory dominated Westminster, the SNP logically adapted this to the one particular section of the Tories (and UKIP). This was a more important message (and with traction) than any notion that voting to leave would hasten independence for Scotland so that this should tactically be chosen.

The big problem for any indyref2 is that, as with the Edinburgh Agreement that paved the way for the 18 September 2014 referendum, there has to be political agreement from Westminster otherwise any poll will be deemed by critical forces outside Scotland as illegitimate and not lead to independence (as has been the case in Catalonia). This is regardless of what position Scotland has to Europe and the EU (where the vote in Scotland was maybe rather less an endorsement of the EU than a rejection of the alternative of being outside it). And, of course, for the SNP to even begin to formally make the case for indyref2 has to be sure that it can win it (which is not yet clear). Much of this reticence is explained by there not being a direct mapping of pro-Scottish independence votes onto ‘remain’ votes.

Labour continues its meltdown as it increasingly clear there are two parties within it – the Labour Party outside Westminster led by Corbyn and the Parliamentary Labour Party plotters led by ‘new’ Labourites. Notwithstanding some early unforced errors on their part, the latest crisis for Corbyn and McDonnell shows that they are still prisoners of the past in as much as the gift of leadership for less than a year has not allowed them to counter-Labour’s long prior decline. The rejection of the late in the day and lacklustre remain campaign of Corbyn et al. by many ‘traditional’ Labour supporters in the middle and north of England compounded an existing trajectory of the alienation of these supporters from their previous party affiliation. The ‘free movement of labour’ was not working for those that tended to be older, poorer and less educated and thus weaker in the labour market. This is not to suggest Corbyn and McDonnell’s politics are ill-suited to the times but that it will take a long-time under more conducive circumstances for them to bear political fruit. Internal divisions and a possible snap general election are not those conditions. So in the likely coming general election after another bout of ‘blue-on-blue’ warfare until 2 September, it is unlikely that Labour or a left-led Labour will make any headway. That makes the fall of the Tories (and UKIP) improbable.

The left needs to re-examine its attitude to the issue of the free movement of labour. It is clearly now working for low paid workers and it is not good enough now to say that all we need to do is make sure union recognised wage rates are upheld to stop under-cutting. This is because unions are too weak. For many (most obviously the self-professed ‘internationalists’ among the ‘remainers’ but also amongst those against any border controls whatsoever), it has become a political principle in the context of calls for immigration controls. This tendency will only be heightened by Tory Brexiteers seeking to end the right to freedom of movement. But we should not oppose that just because it comes from the Brexiteers. And, we should recall that the right to freedom of movement emanated from the creation of the (EU) single market as part of a project of creating a larger capitalist trading base. Even with the ‘social chapter’, it was still a capitalist project, not a social democratic or socialist one. The left’s attitude should start from asking what situation makes workers strong and better off and capital weaker and worse off. Approaching the issue in this way does not make support from free movement of labour as a shibboleth very sensible.

We are at the beginning of a prolonged period of political and economic crisis. The triggering of Article 50 of Treaty has to come from parliament (where 490/650 of the current MPs are for remain). That suggests if the new leader of the Tories is a Brexiter then another general election is probably the way to try to align parliament with the referendum’s result so that parliament can trigger Article 50. But there will be many MPs (Tory and Labour) who will be against holding an election anytime soon given the meltdown in their parties (as the law on fixed term parliaments would have to be overturned in parliament). Thereafter, negotiations could take up to two years at the minimum to establish new agreements in trade and other matters. What are the options? Joining the European Economic Area (the Norway model) or umpteen bilateral agreements (the Swiss model) are the most likely routes after leaving the EU. Both are replications of the EU so that Brexiters might yet be disappointed with the extent of their new found ‘freedoms’.