David Cameron “won’t last 30 seconds if he loses the referendum”, said Ken Clarke, one of the few sitting Tories who was in parliament for the last referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU’s forerunner in 1975. And whichever way the vote goes, he continued, the Tory party will struggle to unite afterwards.
There is talk among Tories along the lines of “You can’t put Humpty Dumpty back together again”; rumours of coup plots against Cameron and of up to 12 prospective contenders to replace him as leader as soon as possible. He has already stated that he won’t serve a third term, but the battle will be over whether he will get to leave as he chooses in 2020 or be forced out sooner, like Tony Blair was in 2007. Another Tory backbencher and Brexiteer, Bernard Jenkins, warned that if Cameron wins the vote, the chaos into which the Tory party will be thrown — with anti-EU members splitting and a civil war raging in the party — will mean that a Corbyn government in 2020 will become more likely.
All comforting words, indeed.
It is clear that the bitterness of the attacks leading Tories are foisting on each other cannot simply be washed away after 23 June. The key figure of hatred for the Brexiteers is chancellor George Osborne, who has been called Pinocchio by Michael Gove and attacked as unprincipled (imagine!) by Boris Johnson. If Cameron wins and feels compelled to have a “reconciliation reshuffle” soon afterwards, how will his cabinet of enemies function?
With Cameron predicting the Third World War if Britain leaves Europe and Johnson evoking Hitler’s plans for Europe as a fair comparison for the EU project, the referendum campaign will have a lasting impact in the party. As Tory commentator Matthew d’Ancona put it in the Guardian, whichever way the vote goes, there will have to be a reckoning. This is important for the left. It is one of the central factors of the whole EU campaign, which many of those on the left and inclined to support remaining in the EU fail to understand. A “reckoning” is not a good thing for the governing party — it is a crisis.
The Tory right might think they can simply oust Cameron and replace him with the figure of their choosing — whether Boris or someone else — but they are unlikely to be able to control the situation. If Cameron wins and the vote goes in favour of remaining in the EU, which, as I write with four weeks to go, looks more likely, the near-half of his party who want out are unlikely to immediately go quiet.
Weakness on their side is a strength for our side.
This is a factor that the Labour left has refused to grasp. Jeremy Corbyn did a deal early on in his leadership of the party that he wouldn’t continue to argue against Britain’s membership of the neoliberal bosses’ club that he recognises the EU to be. It was an issue on which he agreed to compromise for the sake of “party unity”. But, as well as Corbyn’s own principles getting in the way of him actually vocally campaigning to stay, the Labour Party must still be waking up at night in a cold sweat thinking of the Scottish independence referendum. Labour’s role as the Tory party’s bag-carriers and Union-savers during that campaign cost them nearly all their seats in the subsequent general election, a disaster which continued into the Holyrood elections last month.
The official Remain campaign is concerned about the lack of gusto from Labour figures in this campaign. As Andy Grice wrote in the Independent, “Polls suggest that one in four Labour voters backs withdrawal; if they turn out in much greater numbers than Labour’s ‘soft’ Remainers, the result could be close.” He continues, “Some Labour MPs even claim Corbyn could face a leadership contest if the public vote for Brexit. ‘Anything he does is being taken down and may be used in evidence against him,’ snarled one.”
In reality, it seems improbable that there will be a leadership challenge to Corbyn any time soon. He is set to be the beneficiary if the Tories continue to tear themselves apart and spend the next three years mired in hidden or open leadership battles. But, as we have argued in Socialist Review since Corbyn’s election as leader, we cannot afford to wait until 2020 in the hope that Corbyn will lead a fight against austerity and racism. Joseph Choonara points out elsewhere in this issue that this fight is at the heart of the Lexit campaign against the EU, which has a principled position against Fortress Europe and austerity and for workers’ rights. The logic of fighting against austerity and racism leads to a Left Leave position.
As the official Leave campaign has begun to feel more under threat, it has got more vicious. The racist arguments about migration, until now relatively muted, have come to the fore. On the prospect of Turkey joining the EU in future the right have played it as a terrible threat hanging over “us Europeans”. Yet the official Remain camp has not challenged this attitude. A discussion on Radio 4’s Today programme last month had the presenter countering a Brexiteer’s anti-Turkey rhetoric with the astounding assertion that, well, surely we don’t need to worry about Turkey being allowed to join the EU any time soon because the far-right is on the rise across Europe and they’ll never allow it. This was on the eve of the Austrian presidential election, which saw the Nazi Freedom Party candidate Norbert Hofer lose by the slimmest majority, taking 49 percent of the vote.
In short, the EU and its supporters want the vicious state of Turkey to do the “dirty work” of dealing with refugees, while the EU maintains a racist distance from its mainly Muslim population and its “foreign ways”. Meanwhile far right parties are allowed to flourish across the continent, demolishing the contention from some on the left that the existence of the EU is somehow a barrier to racism and reactionary politics.
That’s why socialists involved in the Lexit campaign have also been centrally involved in organising the Convoy to Calais this month with Stand Up to Racism, the People’s Assembly and others, which will set off with a huge fanfare just days before the referendum. As Alf Dubs, a Labour peer, said at a SUTR meeting in central London, we should ensure that refugee children in Calais are here in the UK ready to go to school in September.
On the economic front, Project Fear casts the arguments around Brexit as ones of falling GDP leading to the necessity of cuts in public spending. But we know the Tories have a plan already in action to radically restructure (read: privatise) the public sector. Aditya Chakrabortty rightly argues that austerity is not simply about cuts; it is “a project irreversibly to transfer wealth from the poorest to the richest”. While “the typical British worker is still earning less after inflation than he or she was before the banking crash, the number of UK-based billionaires has nearly quadrupled since 2009.”
The Tories’ austerity project is continuing apace, although they have been forced into some partial retreats in recent weeks. Nicky Morgan had to backtrack on the plan to force every school in England to become an Academy; Cameron had to accept Britain’s responsibility to take in at least some child refugees currently in France, and over steel the government has offered partial public funding despite having previously ruled it out. Nevertheless, on other fronts Osborne is pushing ahead.
The new Trade Union Bill has now passed — without a fight from the TUC. Trade unionists in Britain will need to take a lesson from the French that attacks on our right to organise, on our wages and working conditions and our ability to defend them, must be fought in the workplace and on the streets, and with the broadest possible support.
The Housing Bill also went through parliament last month, though the fight against it will continue, with a national demonstration and further protests in the pipeline.
Many factors hang in the balance on our side at the moment. The junior doctors have been offered a deal which, while the full details have not been published as we go to press, looks risible. They will be balloting over coming weeks and socialists will need to campaign to reject. Teachers in the NUT are currently balloting for strike action over the government’s ironically entitled “Education for All” Bill, which will attack conditions, pay — and the very concept of public education.
The EU debate provides us with an opportunity to come out fighting while the government is weak. It is like a rain shower that brings all the slugs and worms to the surface, vulnerable and unprotected; we must be ready to pounce.
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