Thank you for the opportunity to discuss this important topic with you.
I am national secretary of a small, quite new left party in the UK. I am a teacher, and long-time socialist and campaigner for the rights of women and children. During the 1980s I was a Labour councillor in Liverpool, one of those barred from office by the Thatcher government and expelled from the Labour Party for opposing cuts.
Austerity is pulling apart the social fabric of society. Wages have been falling substantially. Poverty is worse than at any other time in my life. Some of the worst austerity is implemented at local government levels by Labour Councils.
Sanctions leave people with no income at all to punish them yet the very, very rich have recouped all their losses from the crisis.
People are putting up a fight in some areas but it’s not universal and we keep losing.
Left Unity’s Position on Brexit
It is our position that the Brexit vote marks a very low point for the working class people of the UK and a separate political crisis for the ruling class in the United Kingdom in Europe and globally.
It is no surprise that the public face of Brexit, Nigel Farage, worked closely with Donald Trump. They are politically linked.
“Oh Jeremy Corbyn!”
We are now buoyed up by the success of the campaign around Jeremy Corbyn, the first socialist campaign we have seen in England for a generation. He did not win but he did inflict serious damage on the Conservatives who were so over confident of victory and of getting a green light to introduce a really reactionary Brexit settlement. There is now a movement around Jeremy Corbyn. That gives us hope.
How important was the Brexit campaign? How did Left unity respond?
As socialists, we challenge the rule of the World Bank, of the IMF, of the US and European Union financial institutions. We recognise the damage done to the global south by the EU’s role in “restructuring” many economies at the turn of the century, causing lasting damage to state functions and laying the groundwork for some of the mass migrations happening now. We are conscious of the growing working class in manufacturing in the global south.
We are very conscious of the impact of war in Iraq, Syria, Libya, Yemen and more and the role our government has played in these wars.
Please don’t see our political position as being supportive of the reactionary role of the EU. We stand with Greece. We acknowledge the very different way newer members of the EU have been treated.
Despite this we campaigned for Remain.
We said that the referendum was a carnival of reaction and any Leave outcome would make things worse for working class communities, including the migrant workers, who are about 4million. It would make the racists feel very powerful.
Our campaign was that Another Europe is Possible. Building such a Europe is still a task we all face as socialists, as women’s rights campaigners, as people involved in social struggles, as anti-racists across Europe. It’s a heavy load and will take some real strength. It will take a continent-wide social movement and political campaign.
So what lead to the vote?
There are traditionally two big political parties in the UK.
The Conservatives, also called Tories, are split between the globalists and the ‘little England’ nationalists who hanker after a return to empire and links with the US.
Labour is still structurally dominated by New Labour who are pro-austerity and pro capitalist, but with the new phenomenon of a left party leader and mass left membership.
The Liberal Democrats
The Scottish Nationalists
In the north of Ireland Sinn Fein and the infamous DUP
Plaid Cymru in Wales
UKIP and the far right BNP and a myriad of others
Few Left Parties have any elected representatives
So why the Remain campaign?
We had ruthless austerity, poverty and a media that blamed migrants or people who could not work for everything. There were no positive descriptions of anything about the EU.
It was almost as though the ruling elite really did not want people to know that the UK was a rich country at all. “We are all in this together” simply would not work if people knew just how rich the very rich were. The most important industry in Britain, banking, was almost a secret.
Bankers, after all, had caused the big crisis and had been bailed out with huge sums of government money.
And above all there was a split ruling party. The different sections of the Conservatives loathed each other but few were real statesmen or effective political operators. They have their spin doctors and media manipulators but – as with the banking crisis – they could not see the crisis coming.
The ideas of racism and anti-migrant feeling had taken root but not in the areas of greatest migration except for places like East Anglia where migrant farm workers are commonly employed.
Some migrants are employed on zero hours contracts with no security and bullying management but so are some born British. The sanctions regime forces people to accept this.
It was in this situation that the vote was called.
In describing the situation we do not advocate for that situation. This is how it is now.
We live in a global economy and London is a global city. 40% of foreign equities are traded through London, more than New York, 30% of world currency exchanges take place in London, more than New York and Tokyo. Twice as many transactions in Euros go through London as in the whole of the EU.
80% of London’s business is international. People from many nationalities and races live in London.
It is home to some of the globe’s richest people. London is the site of huge property speculation. Finance is a huge business in the UK. London functions as a hub in the global economy. London needs the EU. The EU needs London. Big pharma is another international business. It is very interested in the possibilities in privatising our NHS.
Britain has very limited industry, most manufacturing happens abroad. Britain does not have anything approaching self sufficiency in food.
The global economy has centres that pull in both people and investment and peripheral areas which do not have the same wealth. There is no moral benefit in this but that is how it is in 21stcentury capitalism.
The split in the Conservatives
It was a conscious policy of Thatcher to destroy industry, starting with coal and steel. She wanted to break the power of the unions and she did it.
The UK economy is interwoven with the EU but this is not publically discussed as such. Popular discussion is about straight bananas and unnecessary red tape. EU citizens living and working in the UK are “migrants”. UK pensioners settled in Spain are “expats”…not the same thing.
So the common sense became that the EU was bad.
On top of that was a huge wish to kick the establishment and the darker underbelly of racism.
While London’s financial quarters equal the wealthiest places on the globe, the rest of the country is very different. If we have time later I can talk about the fire in Grenfell Tower.
Inequalities are extreme. Poverty is gross and far worse than even academic studies show.
The towns, as opposed to the cities, fare worst.
Britain followed, from the 1980s, a policy of low wages, anti-union legislation and deregulation, on the US model.
Please try to see “I Daniel Blake” to see just some of the poverty.
The break with the post war consensus came with Thatcher and she claimed her greatest achievement was to create New Labour whereby both political parties followed her neo-liberal policies.
There was some economic growth and increased public spending under the Labour government of Blair and Brown but also the banking crisis of 2008. This crisis was used, in the manner of ‘Shock Doctrine’, to introduce extreme austerity and the rolling back of post WW2 working class gains.
The Government elected in 2010 in forcing through major cuts said:
‘We are all in this together’, ‘There is no alternative’ and ‘There is nothing you can do about it anyway’.
They have conducted a very damaging, almost unopposed, class war. The UK is a very unequal society; closer to US model than most of Europe. Inequalities are as great now as the 1930s. It is not only unequal in wealth but in health, housing, work and education.
While London is a world hub, other areas are more harsh and bereft, with public investment sadly lacking in the smaller towns. Austerity is harsh and cruel, and child protection services failing, while services for the elderly are really poor.
Public discourse is very limited. The newspapers are owned by oligarchs, the BBC has moved far to the right (often referred to by the left as the ‘Ministry of Propaganda’) and some TV channels have programme after programme demonising the poor.
Ideology is very controlled through the tabloids and TV channels. There is a lack of effective information: people know/ knew very little. Newspapers, TV and managed social media all demonise:
Our trade unions are sleeping dragons. Membership has slumped (from 13 million at the end of the 1970s to 6.2 million in 2016 and still possibly decreasing – not yet clear what effect if any the Corbyn phenomenon is having on TU membership). Belief in them has slumped. There is little education in the workplace.
There is much insecure, zero hours, agency working.
We ‘need’ Food banks– one charity alone distributed 1.2 million 3 day emergency food packs between April 2016 and March 2017, and usage is increasing – this is before the worst of the benefit cuts take effect.
Women have borne the brunt of austerity and restructuring. They have suffered cuts and lower wages. Women voted differently by age:
In 18-24 80% remain. Males 61% remain
25-49 54% remain. Males 39% remain
50-64 40% remain. Males 38% remain
65 plus 34% remain. Males 39% remain
Women are more likely to be in a union too.
We have rough sleeping and other kinds of homelessness and a housing crisis that is out of control, many children live in poverty.
So, internal wrangling within the Conservatives led to the referendum.
In this referendum 4 million working people could not vote because they were not UK citizens. Their lives have been turned upside down. Some of them are grandmothers whose children and grandchildren are British.
The establishment were convinced they would win. Being closer to the ground we feared that they would lose. And that this would unleash a wave of xenophobia and racism which indeed it has done. We also feared and that a still further emboldened ruling class would rip up all the social benefits of EU memberships.
We do not accept that migration reduces wages. Nor does it put stress on the NHS or housing in fact the opposite is true. But migration has been widely blamed for the ills inflicted by the neo liberal governments. We feared that racists would be emboldened and bring violence to our communities. A Labour MP was assassinated by a right wing street fascist.
Once the referendum was declared political parties split on Brexit. Some Conservatives were remain as were some Labour MPs. Some Conservatives were leave as were some Labour. Some of the left were leave. They called themselves Lexiters. This in part limited any progressive mass movement for remain.
In the vote:
The youth voted overwhelmingly remain. The very old with living memories of war voted to remain. Many of the big cities voted to remain.
Some of the leave vote was a protest against the EU as an institution, some believed it would “give us back control”. Some wanted to poke the establishment in the eye.
There was very little information available to people even those who made an effort to find out. It was a campaign characterized by lies. There was a promise that huge amounts of money now spent on Europe would go to the NHS. This was written in huge letters on the campaign bus but repudiated the day the leave campaign won.
This vote result was a surprise to the establishment. It created a huge crisis in the Conservatives. Such was the crisis that Theresa May won the leadership. She was a remainer but has switched tack. Theresa May and the establishment were convinced that she could win a General Election and be returned with a majority which would silence the Brexiteer extremists, and allow her to create a Brexit that would strengthen the low wage, low rights economy but would protect global capitalism’s interests.
Thanks to the movement around Corbyn she failed. Now with a weak government the negotiations with Europe have begun. The 4million EU workers face a difficult position. UK migration policy stinks and many may leave placing the NHS, for example, in a further crisis. A no settlement Brexit is very dangerous to the British, and global, economy. Our struggles to defend our communities go on but would be more difficult with such a crash.
To recap UK politics we have:
The Conservatives: the party of the rich. Some are globalists representing the needs of the global elite, often liberal in personal political issues like gay rights and multi-culturalism. David Cameron, the prime minister who called the Brexit referendum expecting a remain vote, was of this group. Then we have the nationalist element. There is no economic basis for their nationalism and they are frighteningly ignorant at times, but they have command of the media. Their ideal Brexit is to create a Singapore off the coast of Europe with low wages, few rights, and even fewer regulations.
The Labour Party had been running far to the right aping the conservatives, implementing the worst cuts, in cities. We have NHS cuts, mental health, accident and emergency cuts, maternity cuts. Big Pharma and the US health giants want the National Health Service to be in a free trade deal with the US.
The Aquis, all the EU laws, are to be integrated into British Law but amended using statutory instruments not debate in Parliament. Each right gained for workers, for families, will be up for grabs and frankly unless the Corbyn surge hits the unions too and young people join the trade unions and actually strike we could lose a century of gains.
Teresa May was handholding with Mr Trump. The Conservative right wants a U S model economy. Low wages, few regulations or rights and few social benefits. So we face serious difficulties but we have the beginnings of a social movement.
After the Brexit vote many young people were furious. Those who had not voted were berated by their friends. Many of our youth want to visit Europe, to study in Europe and see being in Europe as a sign that our country is civilised.
Jeremy Corbyn has been a left MP for years, well-known to anyone in struggle. He opposed Thatcher in the 1980s, he stood with the miners and with our struggle in Liverpool against the Thatcher government, he was adamant against the war, he stands with Palestine. His position on the EU was against the EU reactionary policies and he supported Syriza. What’s not to like?
After Labour’s defeat in 2015 there was a new election for the Labour Leader. It was quite by chance he got onto the ballot paper. The left unions were discussing disaffiliating from Labour and Labour’s membership was dispirited and low. As an attempt to perpetuate right wing rule, the Labour party had moved to a one member, one vote, system to stop the power of the unions.
Some right wing Labour MPs voted to let Corbyn on the ballot paper to be seen to be fair. They thought could not win…but once Labour and trade union members heard him they voted for him or joined to vote for him.
Seeing how unpopular he was in the opinion polls, Theresa May thought she would have a landslide but the election campaign meant more people heard him and liked him.
We are a different party but we work as part of the Corbyn surge. We worked for him in the elections and did not stand in the general election this time.
We have distinct policies from Labour but a very friendly relationship with the rank and file
We stand for:
For an end to austerity
For an end to capitalism
We stand with the hardest hit in society
We oppose anti migrant legislation.
I hope this explains a little of what went on with the start of Brexit.
Left Unity is active in movements and campaigns across the left, working to create an alternative to the main political parties.
Events and protests from around the movement, and local Left Unity meetings.
Tuesday 24 October
The Gig Economy: Now and in the age of the ROBOT
Public meeting with South London Left Unity: 6pm in the Meeting Room, The Artworks, Elephant Road,
London SE17 1AY. Tickets and details here
Friday 10th to Saturday 11th November
Marseille Forum, France
A European-wide gathering of progressive forces in Marseille – trade unions, campaigns, parties, social movements – discussing the crisis we face and how to build a different Europe. Contact firstname.lastname@example.org
Sign up to the Left Unity email newsletter.
Get the latest Left Unity resources.