There is nothing to celebrate today. The vote by a small (but significant) majority of people in the UK to leave the EU is not a victory for working people, for migrants, for socialists or left activists of any stripe. It could have been: if Labour and the main trade unions had seized the moment and set out a strong, principled, anti-racist and anti-capitalist case for leaving the EU. They didn’t, and the moribund radical left was so fragmented and disorganised, that it’s interventions had little or no bearing on the debate. As a result charlatans such as Nigel Farage are able to portray themselves as champions of “ordinary people” standing up to the “elites and fat cats”.
Race and immigration were certainly important issues in this campaign, and the mainstream narratives (whether for Leave or Remain) were racist and xenophobic. But race wasn’t the only issue, and if we fail to recognise this from the outset then we will be unable to respond meaningfully to the altered political landscape. The distribution of votes indicates that the Leave position was strongest amongst working class communities, in particular white working class communities. It is an indictment of the British left, and a reflection of their historical failure, that such communities now look to UKIP and other such racists for solutions to the marginalisation, exclusion and powerlessness they feel.
In response to the outcome many people will, understandably, be angry and unsure about what steps to take next. In this context it’s crucial that we do not allow anger or fear cloud our judgement or assessment of the situation. It is not the case that in this referendum good was defeated by evil, love conquered by hate, or the white British working class revealed as inherently reactionary or racist. Millions of people who have, for decades now, suffered under the yoke of neoliberalism and feel (inconsistently) that the political establishment (including the EU) does not represent their interests, have rejected the status quo. And they were right to do so. In the context of the ongoing crises of capitalism, the EU has developed to become a substantial driver of suffering, whether of workers, migrants or refugees, and a structural barrier to meaningful political reform. Notwithstanding these fairly well established facts, the British left balked in the face of what they saw (rightly) as a campaign launched by racists, and that would be fought (by them) along racist and xenophobic lines.
As a consequence the British left split along four broad lines: (i) enthusiastic remainers (the Labour Party, TUC and others); (ii) “tactical” remainers (not fans of the EU, but convinced that a vote to leave now could only benefit the right and far right) (iii) leavers and (iv) abstainers. The embrace by the centre left of the remain position shows that they are fundamentally divorced from the lived experience of the working class communities that they were previously immersed in and served. In doing this the Labour party has likely further alienated marginalised working class communities who know full well that the EU is not on their side, and were subjected to the spectacle of a Corbyn-led Labour defending the indefensible, thereby identifying themselves as part of the “establishment” that Farage and others purport to oppose.
The tactical remainers argued that while the EU was, of course, undemocratic, racist, pro-business and anti-worker, voting to leave in the context of a Tory/UKIP led referendum campaign would, given the (often blithely assumed) “balance of forces” lead to a “lurch to the right” and a rise in racist and xenophobic attitudes and fascist politics. This position is understandable and defensible in certain respects, but it also reveals two crucial problems with the radical left in Britain. First, it demonstrates a clear divorce from the life and struggles of working class communities, and a consequent willingness to expect the worst (in terms of reactionary attitudes) from white working class communities.
Secondly, it is premised on a very partial take on the balance of forces. For while UKIP has certainly been on the rise in recent years, and anti-immigrant sentiment has been stoked by politicians and the media, the last few years have also seen increasing work place activism and militancy from doctors, teachers, train drivers, university lecturers and many more. Recent years have also seen the “Corbyn phenomenon” which, whatever it’s shortcomings, shows that there is an appetite amongst many British people for an alternative to Tory-driven austerity, and indeed in recent months a poll conducted by The Independent showed that a majority of British people have a stated preference for socialism over capitalism. All of which is to say that the political landscape, pre-referendum, was not entirely bleak. Add to this the fact that the reactionary, racist right is already firmly ensconced in the British mainstream, and the tactical assessment seems less persuasive. A similar set of criticisms could be levelled at the abstainers, with the added note that their idea that we should sit out fights which are not to our liking is a dangerously demobilising notion.
The key lesson that should be drawn from this referendum is that if we purport to be committed to the radical and fundamental transformation of our world, then we cannot achieve that by half measures. Furthermore, we should not imagine that there are neat divisions between arguments and positions of principle, and tactical considerations. It was the wrong tactical choice for the British left to subordinate principle to mistaken assessments of the objective conditions; the correct approach would have been to enter the debate with a clear, principled vision of an alternative to the racism and inequality of the EU and the capitalist system and seek to win working people over to this argument. If that challenge had been taken up, then today could have been the first important step towards fundamentally transforming politics in the UK and throughout Europe. We failed, and as a result handed the day to Farage and his ilk.
Going forward, it is crucial that the broad forces of the left come together and leave behind the acrimony of the referendum debate. It’s unfortunate that during the debate (and the medium of social media is part of the problem in this context) fear and empty moralism came to be seen as legitimate substitutes for engaged political debate. Our friends, family and co-workers who are migrants or people of colour had very good reason to be afraid during this campaign, given the rhetoric deployed (by both mainstream Leave and Remain camps and by the media), but even with that we still had to think about the correct tactical and strategic choices to combat the rise of the right, ceding ground to them was not the right choice.
In the days, weeks and months ahead we have to take the genuine, legitimate fear people felt and transform it into productive anger. We must stand resolutely with migrants, refugees and people of colour against racism, xenophobia and Islamophobia; but the left in Britain also has to look very hard at itself and find ways of reconnecting with and mobilising the working classes that have been left behind by the era of neoliberal capitalism. If we on the left fail to offer a progressive, transformative vision for the emancipation of the working class (and that is a working class as varied as the lived experiences of the millions of people that make it up) in the twenty-first century, then all of the darkest fears of reluctant and sincere remainers alike may well come to pass. If we don’t learn the right lessons from this referendum, and instead retreat into a frantic moralism, then we will be the authors of our own undoing.
Paul O’Connell is a Reader in Law at SOAS, University of London