Both sides are reactionary
Demands are growing for Jeremy Corbyn to swing the balance to save Dave Cameron’s bacon. Eddie Ford calls for an active boycott
David Cameron has dug himself well and truly into a hole.
When he made his promise, panicked by opinion polls showing the UK Independence Party riding high, to hold an in-out referendum on the European Union, he did so in the comforting expectation that after the 2015 general election he would still be in coalition with the Liberal Democrats - who, of course, would block any such move. Problem solved. However, things did not turn out that way. Cameron got saddled with a Tory majority and therefore had to deliver on his promise.
Now, alarmingly for Cameron, the polls are showing a very close result - maybe his downfall is imminent. A telephone poll conducted by TheDaily Telegraph on April 4 has 51% voting to stay in the European Union and 44% in favour of leaving, with 5% still undecided. But when “certainty to vote” is accounted for, the campaigns are virtually neck and neck, with ‘remain’ on 49% and ‘leave’ on 48%.1 An ICM online poll published on the same day produces a similarly close result, with ‘remain’ on 44% and ‘leave’ getting 43%, while 13% are still undecided. In perhaps the most interesting poll of the lot, an Opinium survey that came out on April 2 has ‘remain’ on 39% and ‘leave’ on 43%, with 18% undecided and 1% refusing to say. However, when pressed, most of the supposedly ‘don’t knows’ said they were actually “leaning” towards ‘remain’.2 Meanwhile, the ‘poll of polls’ tracker for the Financial Times gives a fairly small lead to the ‘remain’ camp of 45% to 42%.3
What does seem apparent from all these surveys is that Brexiters are more likely to vote, as they tend to be more ideologically motivated than the ‘remainers’ - especially when it comes to hot-button issues like immigration and ‘national sovereignty’. This becomes even more apparent when we break things down by age group: the same Opinium poll found that in the 18-34 age group, 53% said they backed staying in, as opposed to 29% who wanted to leave. On the other hand, amongst voters in the ‘55 and over’ category, support for leaving was far stronger, as was their certainty to vote. Some 54% of this group said they favoured Brexit and a huge 81% were “certain” to vote.
Another poll commissioned by the Fabian Society shows that nearly two thirds of Labour voters say they are “likely” to vote ‘remain’ - around six million people. However, revealingly, little more than half of them say they are “very likely” to turn out.4 Furthermore, the study discovered that, after listening to arguments from both campaigns on various topics (ie, immigration), 47% then decided to support ‘leave’ - two points ahead of the ‘remain’ vote.
All of which places Cameron in an extremely awkward position - an irony not lost on anyone. If he wants to save his job and avoid political humiliation, he needs help from none other than Jeremy Corbyn - particularly as the Labour leader has a strong following among young people who, at the moment, are less likely to vote than their elders. If he can persuade enough of them, and Labour voters in general, then he can swing the vote. Cameron comes out smiling.
Thus we have seen the beginning of a campaign - you can call it nothing less - to get Corbyn to throw his full energies behind the ‘remain’ campaign. Adopting a stern, statesman-like tone, an editorial in The Independent declared that the Labour leader should put the “national interest” before any “narrow party advantage” and “get off the fence before it is too late”, given that the referendum is “arguably more important than last year’s election”. The column added that a “big speech” on Europe by Corbyn has been promised for many weeks, yet “we are still waiting”.
The editorial also notes, interestingly, that the Opinium survey found that only 47% knew that Corbyn favours ‘remain’, compared to 78% for Cameron - 12% were convinced he actually backed the ‘leave’ campaign. This confusion over Corbyn’s position is quite understandable. Even we on the left were surprised when he came out with his new ‘pro-EU’ stance, something you would never have gleaned from listening to his and John McDonnell’s various speeches over the years. Indeed, Corbyn has written regularly for the left-nationalist Morning Star - therefore we were expecting some variation or other of the ‘socialist exit’ line.
Anyhow, Polly Toynbee in The Guardian (April 5) puts further pressure on Corbyn - writing that now the Tories are in “meltdown”, Corbyn needs to “find his voice”. For Toynbee, this should be the moment when Labour is “speaking unequivocally in the national interest” - and who cares if it “helps save Cameron and Osborne’s bacon”? What really matters is that “Tory and Ukip outers are defeated forever”. A popular front against the extremist menace.
Therefore, concludes Toynbee, what is needed is a “roadshow of barnstorming Labour rallies” featuring the “united forces” of Corbyn and John McDonnell, alongside Hilary Benn, Alan Johnson, Chuka Umunna, Yvette Cooper, Emma Reynolds, Lisa Nandy … They would all be “reaching across Labour’s own deep divide”. What “an eye-catching show of unity in contrast to the Tory civil war”!
From the communist perspective, following the advice of the likes of Polly Toynbee is the worst possible thing Jeremy Corbyn could do - remember Scotland? There it cannot be denied that Labour enthusiastically took the lead in the Stay Together campaign, and for their patriotic service were punished at the polls for being in bed with the Tories. Something that was totally predictable. There is mass psychology in Scotland that says we never voted for Margaret Thatcher or David Cameron - rather, England did, and we got stuck with a Tory government: a sentiment that the Scottish National Party has been able to successfully manipulate for its reactionary, nationalist ends. In reality, it is more the case that working class Scots voted ‘yes’ for separation not because they are under the sway of petty nationalism, but because they hate the Tories.
Similarly, if Corbyn started to enthuse about the ‘remain’ campaign it would be a similar disaster: sharing any sort of platform with Cameron would be the kiss of death. Once again Labour would be seen to have climbed into bed with the Tories - a message that that would kill off any chance of a Labour revival in Scotland. There is, of course, much talk of another independence referendum, maybe even a UDI declaration, if Scotland is dragged out of the EU as a consequence of June 23.
But the Labour right is obviously worried that Corbyn will remain semi-detached throughout the entire referendum campaign. They are hopping mad that he might be going to the Glastonbury festival in the same week as the EU referendum vote - apparently he is “keen to attend” after being invited by the Left Field travelling stage/bar organisers and the Campaign for Nuclear Disarmament.5 One disgruntled MP moaned that “this is the ‘make or break’ weekend for the next election” yet Corbyn is “donning his sandals to dance around in a muddy field with his peacenik Islington chums”.
Under the circumstances though, maybe talking to the music fans at Glastonbury makes perfect sense. Perhaps he is following Napoleon’s wise advice: “Never interrupt your enemy when he is making a mistake”. Let the Tories continue to destroy themselves.
We would not be foolish enough to try and predict the actual result of June 23 - it is too close to call. However, what we do foresee with some confidence is that if Brexit narrowly wins on the day there will be an almost immediate campaign by the political establishment to run another referendum: irresponsible politicians put party advantage over the national interests and as a result the turnout was too low ... or some such line.
Quite obviously, it would not be difficult to manufacture a climate of fear - especially if there was a run on the pound following a Brexit vote. You just flood the media with all sorts of opinion polls and stories from rueful people saying they voted ‘out’, but now regret their decision: if only they had been fully informed of the facts and the dreadful consequences beforehand. Then, near miraculously, the new Tory leader (obviously it will be goodbye to Cameron) will suddenly wrest a few concessions (or pseudo-concessions) from the EU and before you know it, time to have another go - but now get it right.
Anyone who says this cannot happen should just take a look at Ireland, France and Denmark - all of which voted the ‘wrong way’ initially. With regards to Denmark, the first referendum was held on June 2 1992, when 50.7% said ‘no’. Strangely enough, the Danish government quickly secured four opt-outs from portions of the Maastricht treaty: economic and monetary union, union citizenship, justice and home affairs and common defence. A subsequent referendum the next year had 56.8% now voting in favour of the renegotiated treaty. Normality restored.
Of course, we in the CPGB have consistently argued for an active boycott. Cameron’s EU ‘renegotiations’, by definition, were powered by an explicitly anti-migrant, anti-working class, nationalist agenda. By the same token, however, the ‘out’ campaign dominated by ‘Little Englander’ Tory frontbenchers and Ukip is likewise totally reactionary: you cannot stop the world and get off, nor would the rights and conditions of the working class improve one iota in an ‘independent’ Britain finally making its own way in the world.6
In this context the demand by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition to be designated the ‘official’ campaign to get Britain out of the EU is absurd - not to mention Tusc’s threat of legal action if either Vote Leave or Grassroots Out are chosen. According to national agent Clive Heemskerk, neither group can meet the test set down by the 2000 Political Parties and Representation Act requiring referendum campaigners to “adequately represent” all those campaigning for a desired outcome, since neither can speak for anti-austerity campaigners who want to leave the EU because of their “pro-business” and “reactionary” views.7 If the Electoral Commission were to recognise one of the two main Brexit groups, that would constitute a “political decision”, and in the process give the ‘remain’ campaign a “five to ten point boost” (the EC will come to a decision on April 14).
Understandably, given that this unexpected development first appeared on the BBC website on April 1, for an instant this writer thought it might be a joke. But after a few seconds reflection it sounded horribly plausible and, yes, the normally moribund Tusc website had an article dated April 2 about “challenging the Tory- and Ukip-dominated exit campaigns” to a “public debate on who should be the voice of Leave”8 - plus a link to a petition to the EC (“Don’t give taxpayers’ money to Ukip and Tory EU campaigners!”9) and a leaflet outlining Tusc’s ‘Exit Left’ opposition to the EU.10
I am not quite sure whether to laugh or cry, though the former is probably better. As a minuscule organisation with absolutely no social weight - sorry, comrades - Tusc’s ‘left’ exit will be drowned out by the clamorous voices of those demanding a right exit: make Britain great again. Sadly, Tusc will merely be providing left cover for this nationalist crap. Do the comrades really imagine that a Britain ‘freed’ of the EU, and possibly breaking apart under centrifugal nationalist forces, will be able to legislate in ‘socialism’ or even social democracy in one country?
No, under concrete British conditions, communists fight for independent working class politics. Our class has had no say in negotiating the terms and conditions for either ‘stay’ or ‘leave’ and should therefore refuse to back either camp. Both sides would have us believe that the main question in British politics is migrants and how best to keep them out - why the hell should we vote for that? l
3. https://ig.ft.com/sites/brexit-polling/ - calculated by taking the last seven polls from unique pollsters up to a given date, removing the two polls with the highest and lowest shares for ‘remain’, and calculating an adjusted average of the five remaining polls, where the more recent polls are given a higher weight.