I will be voting remain today, but mentally speaking, and most of the time, I’ve been completely disengaged from this referendum. It’s one that’s been fought almost entirely on the terrain of the right and their friends in the press. Some people have tried to inject some rational arguments and socialist politics into the campaign, but it’s been drowned by the white noise of anti-immigrant rhetoric – very little of which has any logical basis, and therefore almost impossible to fight, especially without an emotional pull of our own. Not only is this a referendum not of our choosing, but it has been designed not to allow alternative voices: you’re either “taking control” of Britain’s borders or you’re saving Britain for big capital.
It is a sign of our weakness that the left have been drowned out – and we should reflect on that. Since 2004, we’ve left the terrain of immigration to the New Labourites, hoping that it would go away. A New Labour leadership who fought the European Agency Workers Directive, so beholden were they to the interests of big (and small) business and their “right” to exploit migrant workers and undercut local agreements. Yet at no point has the referendum been a serious discussion about exploitation, undercutting and the posting of workers throughout the European Union. Instead of watering down EU legislation on workers, we should be leading the campaign to strengthen them – and be organising across borders in solidarity.
My view is that Jeremy Corbyn and John McDonnell have got the approach right, within some very difficult restraints. Like me and many on the left of the Labour Party, they come from a Eurosceptic position historically. Because of that, they’ve been attacked by some of the left, including many who were engaged by Corbyn’s victory, as lacking in principle. People have been quick to shout “sell out”, the favourite political slogan of our movement when at its most dysfunctional and “little”. But political principles must take into account consequences, otherwise they become shibboleths. And the consequences of a Brexit will be huge, in the immediate term. If we think the atmosphere has been poisonous during this election, imagine an isolated, recession-hit island which has just voted to “take control” under a hard right Tory government. Those aren’t academic arguments, they’re real – and people, whether migrants or not, will suffer the consequences.
Having said that, Lexiters are not the enemy and it worries me that they too have been painted as petty racists, when many of their arguments are of the type that Jeremy Corbyn, Tony Benn et al have been using for decades. Some have used the referendum to settle scores and if we are going to build as a left (both inside and outside the Labour Party), we’re going to have to stop delighting in beating each other up and find ways to work together.
And I have an idea how : starting tomorrow, how about we get on with some real organising, especially in those communities that have been so disenfranchised over the past couple of decades that they have become easy prey for anti-immigrant and (at times) racist sentiments? Just like in the leadership election, how about we do exactly the opposite of the New Labour approach which has done so much to bring us to crisis point: that would be about breaking with the Westminster consensus (the trite gesture politics, the nervous, half-scared, half-disdainful view of our working class base) and it would involve starting from where people are at, in those working class communities, but at the same time believing that change is possible. Realising our failures, and understanding what it will take to re-engage people on a mass scale. But crucially, not running away from the fight, relishing it.