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Who would gain from a ‘People’s Vote’?

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There is growing momentum behind calls for a ‘People’s Vote’ over Brexit. Support ranges from big business and right wing liberals to left wingers and union leaders. Sadie Robinson and Sarah Bates look at the campaign’s aim and how socialists should respond
Issue 2622

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable at the head of a Peoples Vote march earlier this year

Liberal Democrat leader Vince Cable at the head of a People’s Vote march earlier this year (Pic: Guy Smallman)

Who is behind the People’s Vote?

The People’s Vote campaign was launched at a glitzy party in London in April.

Its March for a People’s Vote drew tens of thousands of people onto the streets of London in June. And its “Summer of Action” saw hundreds-strong rallies in major cities and will finish with a demonstration in London on 20 October.

Many people on the left have come behind calls for a People’s Vote out of opposition to Theresa May.

They are worried about the impact of a Tory Brexit on workers’ and migrants’ rights. And they are disgusted by the vile reactionaries in the Tories’ ranks, such as Jacob Rees-Mogg, who support Brexit.

But the leaders of the People’s Vote campaign aren’t just against the Tories’ right wing vision of Brexit.

Some of the high-profile driving forces behind the project include Blairite Peter Mandelson and top boss Gina Miller.

They are right wingers who ideologically support the racist, neoliberal European Union (EU).

While the People’s Vote campaign claims it only wants a “final say on the Brexit deal”, its leaders want to stop Brexit altogether.

Julian Dunkerton, millionaire founder of the Superdry fashion company, said, “We have a genuine chance to turn this around”.

And many involved see delaying the exit date as a key tactic. Lib Dem leader Vince Cable says the first step is to “extend Article 50”, which would delay the deadline of Brexit from March.

Who cares if liberals are leading the campaign, shouldn’t we have a say on a final deal?

Don’t let the vote to leave the European Union be written off as backward
Don’t let the vote to leave the European Union be written off as backward
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Those pushing for a second referendum have managed to brand it as the “people’s vote”.

And having a vote on a final Brexit deal can sound democratic. Surely it’s better for ordinary people to have a say, rather than the Tories imposing what they want?

We should judge ballots and referendums on what class forces are behind them—and in whose interests they are being waged.

In Ireland it wasn’t progressive in 2009 to “let people have a say” on whether they backed the neoliberal EU Lisbon Treaty. They had already rejected it in a referendum in June 2008. But big business and the establishment wanted a different result.

So they forced a second referendum and won a yes vote—with the help of the unions and the Labour Party. The same thing had happened with the European Nice treaty. Irish voters rejected it in 2001, only to be forced to vote again the year after to deliver the “right” result.

The demand for a People’s Vote is not about extending democracy. It is aimed at overturning the democratic vote to leave the EU. At the moment, a vote on a Brexit deal would be led by bosses in their interests. Backing it strengthens them.

At the TUC union federation congress last week, many union leaders positioned themselves behind the People’s Vote. “When trade unionists do a deal, we go back to members to get their approval,” they said.

But ballots aren’t always a good thing. Voting can be used to undermine workers’ action or to strengthen the ruling class.

For instance, union leaders often hold consultative ballots on action instead of launching a strong campaign for strikes and a proper ballot. Without a clear message that the union is prepared to fight, these can deliver less than inspiring results.

Union leaders then say there’s no mood for action and so don’t run a strike ballot.

Why do union leaders support a People’s Vote?

The EU is a racist institution that deliberately puts refugees and asylum seekers in jeopardy with its harsh border regimes
The EU is a racist institution that deliberately puts refugees and asylum seekers in jeopardy with its harsh border regimes (Pic: Guy Smallman)

TUC union federation general secretary Frances O’Grady has thrown her weight behind the call for a People’s Vote.

This reflects the fact that most union leaders think the EU is a force for good.

They wrongly argue that the EU is responsible for workers’ rights, such as holiday pay or working time regulations.

In reality these were won by workers’ struggles over the last century.

More fundamentally, union leaders think that what’s good for business is good for workers.

This can seem to make sense. If a boss shuts their factory, workers will be out of a job. So it follows that unions should help create a “business-friendly” environment to entice bosses to stay in Britain.

And if business supports staying in the EU, so should the unions.

In reality the interests of bosses directly oppose those of workers. When one group gains, the other loses. Trying to “work together” just helps the bosses.

The Unite union agreed last December to 400 redundancies and shift changes at the Vauxhall car plant in Ellesmere Port. They said this would help keep the plant going and protect remaining workers.

In March bosses announced another 250 job cuts.

In October 2008 the GMB union backed a plan to cut hours and pay for JCB workers, apparently to save jobs. Bosses later cut jobs anyway.

Aren’t you siding with Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees?Mogg?

There is a principled socialist and anti-racist case for leaving the European Union (EU).

But the people leading the charge for Brexit are Tory right wingers, such as Boris Johnson and Jacob Rees-Mogg. The logic follows that if you oppose the People’s Vote you are lining up with these bigots.

But the leaders of the People’s Vote campaign offer no alternative to austerity or racism.

They are backing a People’s Vote because they see Brexit as harmful to the interests of big business.

Blairite warmonger Alastair Campbell is a leading figure in the group. He says another vote is needed because businesses are moving overseas. “There is a risk we are inflicting lasting damage to our economy and our strength and standing in the world”, he told the CBI bosses’ club in July.

The likes of Campbell are continuing a favourite tactic—characterising the vote to Leave as racist.

The referendum in 2016 was held on racist terms.

Both the official Leave and Remain campaigners pushed racism and promised to “control immigration”. This emboldened racists and attacks on migrants did spike in the wave of the result.

The best way to fight the racist poison is to build a mass movement against racism that unites both Remain and Leave-voting working class people.

Is the single market good for workers?

Lies about the single market
Lies about the single market
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The single market makes it easier to move goods, services, capital and workers across national borders within the EU.

These are the “four freedoms” for bosses. And if they feel these freedoms are threatened, the European Court of Justice can intervene.

It is true that under single market rules, EU residents can travel to and live in different countries. But it’s not total freedom of movement—governments are allowed to restrict migrants’ access to benefits or deport them if they don’t reach certain criteria.

And freedom of movement isn’t extended to those outside of the EU. It means that refugees drown in the Mediterranean trying to reach safety.

We should fight to defend and extend freedom of movement, but it doesn’t need to be bound up with the single market.

Bosses don’t just love the single market because it gives them greater access to goods, services, workers and capital.

Its rules limit the state’s ability to intervene in the economy, such as nationalising whole industries to be run as public services.

The EU ensures governments pursue programmes of austerity.

One of the single market rules is that governments have to have balanced budgets—and are compelled to implement vicious cuts to achieve it.

What’s the alternative to the People’s Vote?

A People’s Vote would not stop a Tory deal on Brexit.

The main forces behind it don’t have an alternative “good” deal up their sleeves. Key figures have said they’re willing to dump freedom of movement and they back the neoliberal single market.

Even if there was a good deal on the table, those at the top of society are more than capable of ignoring democratic votes.

Take Greece. In July 2015 there was an overwhelming referendum vote to reject an austerity package.

The austerity package went ahead.

The leader of the Syriza government Alexis Tsipras didn’t see the vote as part of building a mass movement against austerity. Instead he treated it as a bargaining chip with the EU—and got nothing in return.

Some on the left treat a People’s Vote as a method of forcing an election to get Labour into office.

There is no guarantee that Labour would win a general election. And if it did, the EU and bosses would put pressure on it to dump its left wing policies.

This strategy ignores the force that can really push attacks from the Tories and bosses—the working class. And a second referendum would make Brexit the main line of division in the working class and weaken its ability to mount a united fightback.

So how do we get something better? A good deal would boost workers’ and migrants’ rights. That is so far from what the bosses will accept that it will take a big challenge to their power to win it.

Instead of campaigning for a People’s Vote that guarantees nothing for workers, union leaders should fight against the EU and for left demands such as, “Yes to freedom of movement, no to the single market”.

They should demand that any deal protects workers’ rights and conditions—and be prepared to take action if they’re attacked.

It seems an unlikely prospect. There has not been nearly enough struggle in recent years, and this affects what people feel is possible and their confidence.

But it’s no good looking to short cuts, coalitions with the bosses, clever manoeuvres or to Labour. The only way to defend ordinary people is to organise to increase the level of struggle in society and build the fight against the Tories.

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