For any readers missing the argument for a left exit vote in the coming referendum, here’s one I prepared earlier. In the EU’s rush to take austerity positions since 2008, the budget mechanisms of the EU have been reimagined and the Commission and the ECB have become devices for forcing cuts on the poorer European states. It is a condition of continued membership that budgets are submitted to the EU each year and there they are scrutinised to ensure a continuous process of cuts, privatisation and diminished collective bargaining. In Ireland, Greece and Spain, EU policies are leading to a rapid diminution of union bargaining, and if these are the worst affected, the direction of travel is the same all across the continent.
That said, while I can recognise that the left exit position can have a principled basis, it’s problem if anything is that it is too principled. I have yet to encounter a left exit argument which finds a transmission mechanism between the high socialist hopes of those that I hear espousing exit and the vote. Why, I want friends to explain, will an exit vote improve the balance of forces for the left in Britain?
Here, it seems to me are the main areas where the advocates of a conventional Brexit are tactically ahead of their temporary allies among the exit voters of the far left:
The vote is / the vote isn’t a vote for restricted immigration. If you study the polls carefully, I understand it is possible to construct an argument that the EU exit vote isn’t just about immigration. When people are asked to explain why they are voting for exit, they do not always put immigration as their sole or even necessarily their top priority. Now one (relatively weak) response would be that data on voting intentions often has this character: if you study people’s reasons for UKIP voting, say, often people have complex and conflicting reasons for voting the way they do.
More important, is an understanding of how the national exit vote has been planned. The strategists of the exit vote are aware that: i) they have a big lead among the demographics most likely to vote (i.e. over 65s – see graph at top), ii) there is an equally big stay majority among the groups of people least likely to vote (i.e. under 25s), iii) these majorities have different weight. Because over-65s are much more likely to vote (in general and in this case in particular), exit can win without a popular mobilisation, in fact the more that it polarises people the greater the risk that today’s possibly-non-voting stay voters will be converted into tomorrow’s actual stay voters, iv) therefore anything that feels like racism is counterproductive – the UKIP/migration vote is already primed and ready to vote (of all the parties, UKIP supporters report the greatest interest in the referendum and the greatest intention to vote). Raw anti-migrant politics will only produce a reaction in terms of stay voting by the young.
This, I think, explains the way that the exit argument is positioned both in the national media and locally. There is a constant shuffle backwards and forwards between “immigration” and “other” arguments. One day, we are told that the NHS is dying under the weight of prospective immigrants, the next day that migrants are dragging British workers into poverty. Then as soon as these arguments are put, they are withdrawn and replaced with a blancmange of emptiness which is the characteristic mode of the exit argument. It is the same with the local literature: for every letter you find in which exit is presented in terms that would make a BNP voter smile, there are two fliers in which the No campaign avoids text and slogans and limits itself to stating that there is an Exit position, the politics of which are already assumed.
That said, while you can make an honest argument that Exit politics have been “less horribly anti-migrant” than many on the left predicted; you can’t make a compelling case that any significant part of the exit argument in this referendum has been an argument for redistribution, unionisation or socialism.
Who gets to interpret the meaning of a large Exit vote. Imagine a different context: a Labour government is elected, led by Jeremy Corbyn. The government has widespread popular backing and introduces a programme of nationalisations. Some EU institution (the ECJ? – it would only get involved as a result of a legal process starting in the UK, so we are planing already a two-term Labour government) announces that the EU which has previously allowed such nationalisations as Northern Rock now no longer approves of them. Corbyn calls a referendum to leave the EU in order to deepen his reform plans.
Here, I’m not making the obvious point that “this isn’t how we got here” but a (slightly) subtler one. In a democracy, the people who get to interpret a popular vote are the government of the day. Under a Corbyn government the left decides what a vote means, under a Tory government it’s the Tories who choose. A 55-45 exit vote will be interpreted as a the greatest possible popular affirmation of the politics of the Tory right and UKIP in just the same way that a stay vote will be used to bolster Cameron, Osborne and also (although to a lesser extent) Corbyn.
So, while the left exiters might want to interpret a 55-45 vote in “their” favour as an argument for socialism, that’s not how it will be interpreted by the government, and therefore by Parliament in the making of new legislation, or by the members of the main parties. Let alone by trade unionists, migrant workers or the young. (All three of whom have good reasons to fear an exit vote). In all these different constituencies, the dominant interpretation of an exit vote will be a vote for faster neoliberalism, the greater unpicking of reforms, faster privatisation, etc.
Who is actually voting. I’ve alluded to these points already, but to bring them out more clearly. The exit vote corresponds exactly to the demographic of the people who consistently vote for the worst political options in Britain: above all, it is an age vote. In just the same way that Miliband was ahead among the young and lost in every age group above 40, so it is with the exit vote. It is the vote of the old, of UKIP and the worst Tories. Friends on the left shouldn’t tell themselves that you can mobilise the very people in society who are most opposed to you, on their favoured issue, in circumstances they have been preparing for 30 years, with their government is in power and expect anything good to result.
All of this is relevant not merely to how people should vote but what the effect of a large exit vote will be. We live in a society that has for four decades increasingly criminalised migration, and in which non-EU citizens resident in Britain have been denied the vote in the referendum that will decide their future.
It is already the case that such non-EU migration as the UK still allows overwhelmingly comes as a result of EU law. Both EU and non-EU citizens will find it harder to come to Britain in the event of an exit vote and harder to stay. A large exit vote is going to mean an attack on EU migrants – if the left is seen to have voted for that attack we will be in a weaker position to resist it afterwards.
My own view remains that this is a referendum that the left cannot win and that either option will result in further attacks. Yet in the choice between two bad options, one of them is worse.