By Johnny Lewis
In a previous post I dealt with the argument from ‘Lexit’ (ie left pro-Brexit) campaigners that the chaos an exit from the EU would create for the ruling class would, inevitably, benefit the working class. For ‘Lexit’ people this functions as a Deus ex machina, overcoming the unsolvable problem of their failure to grow as a movement and acts as a substitute for activity within the working class. We now have Brexit and with it chaos in spades, and we will soon see just what a wonderful new dawn it will usher in for socialism and the working class. In the meantime the Brexit triumph has to be painted as a great working class victory: the Socialist Party’s Peter Taaffe has duly obliged in an article published in their paper and on their website. To do this he has to begin with two big – very big – assertions.
The vote “…represents at bottom a predominantly working-class revolt against austerity” and it is “… totally false to draw the utterly pessimistic conclusions… that this result could lead to a ‘carnival of reaction’ in Britain and encourage right-wing forces in Europe and elsewhere”. From these two assertions the rest of Taaffe’s views follow; in fact both of these statements verge on the delusional.
A recent report form the Europe Council on Foreign Relations: The World According To Europe’s Insurgent Parties: Putin, Migration And People Power points to the rise of insurgent parties across Europe some are of the left but mainly of the populist right; they are “sceptical about the EU, resent the United States, and are sympathetic to Russia. Most prefer borders closed, migration low, and trade protected. They all want to return power to the people through direct democracy”.
While some parties on the left such as Podemos want to reform the EU, it is the parties of the populist right who have been emboldened by Brexit. It was Le Pen from Front National, the Northern League from Italy the Austrian FPO and the Dutch PVV who hailed it as a victory for their own anti-immigration and anti-EU stances. This relationship between Brexit and the European populist right has simply escaped Taffe’s notice – or perhaps he regards it as merely incidental in the ever-onward march of socialists towards inevitable victory.
In Britain Ukip has been gaining traction for a number of years. In the 2015 election they gained 3.5m plus votes (12.6% of the electorate) displacing the Lib-Dems as Britain’s third party. Over the last year they have made small but noticeable encroachments into unions’ workplace positions. It is inconceivable that Brexit has not increased their stock and if Johnson et al fail to deliver on controlling the boarders, then for sure Ukip will be there to pick up disillusioned Brexit voters.
It is not only the neck of the new Tory leadership Ukip will be breathing down: it is also the Labour Party’s. After the 2015 election Ukip declared the gaol of replacing Labour in the North. Having come second in some 120 seats they are now well on the way to building up a constituency infrastructure as the prerequisite to a stable and ongoing challenge to Labour. It is self-evident that the referendum has further consolidated and extended Ukip’s working class base.
Just as the with reactionary consequences in Europe, the consequence of the Brexit victory boosting Ukip and the right in general is not on Taaffe’s radar – indeed how could it be when he considers Brexit a great triumph for socialism.
One thing Taaffe is right about is Brexit’s working class base: there were far greater numbers of workers voting to leave than stay. While there was just two percentage points in it among C1’s there was nearly 50% more voting to leave among C’s and DE’s (according to the Ashcroft poll). The same poll also showed a stark division in social attitudes between Leave and Remain, with 39% of leavers, more than twice the number of remain voters, viewing themselves `either as “English not British” or “more English than British”. By large majorities’ Levers, as opposite to Remainers, did not see multiculturalism, feminism, the Green movement, globalisation or immigration as forces for good. This divide chimes in with one of the findings of Labour’s Future, that social conservatives were deserting Labour to such an extent that it is “now largely a party of progressive, social liberals who value universalist principles such as equality, sustainability and social justice. It is losing connection with large parts of the voter population who are either pragmatists in their voting habits or social conservatives who value family, work, fairness and their country.”
So Brexit voters clearly fall into the category of those deserting Labour.
One would think as a general rule socialist would err on the side of social liberals rather than the socially conservative – but such a presumption cuts no ice with Taaffe who is unequivocal; Remain workers were “… cynically exploited by the Tory ‘remainers’ and their supporters”. The Brexiteers are a different matter: `”Traditional Labour areas and regions [who] voted heavily against the government…Even where remain won a majority there was an unmistakable working-class determination to show ‘them’ – the Tories and the remain elite – that ‘enough is enough'”.
Such a black-and-white division is in fact essential to the ‘analysis’ put forward by Taaffe and the Socialist Party (SP) as it enables them to conjure up Brexit workers, and their struggle against the “elite”, as a tablou, the backdrop illustrating the correctness of the SP stance on the EU.
Taaffe is able to assert this division exists because while Remain are seen as dupes, Brexiteers are somehow ideologically free agents, pushing a spontaneously arrived-at class positon. While for sure Lexit had no say in the leave campaign, the ideas and views that Brexit-voting workers listened to and absorbed were those of the Brexit campaign. The key – the main and often the only – message workers picked up from Brexit was stopping immigration which merged with their own independently arrived-at view.
The élan Brexit achieved was due entirely to Johnson and Gove saying to workers what they wanted to hear: leave the EU and we will stop immigration. 80% of leave voters said immigration was bad, 35% of Labour Leave voters cited the need for border controls (as opposed to 27% of Tories) as the main reason for voting Leave.
As I believe is universally acknowledged, without the ‘carrot’ of curtailing immigration we would still be in the EU. This is not to say austerity did not play its role in the Brexit vote, but for many (probably most) pro-Brexit workers, it was immigrants who were the scapegoat for the destitution they’re experiencing under capitalism. Yet austerity also played an important role for Remain workers in similar social circumstances, the difference being they did not blame ‘foreigners’
Absenting himself from tiresome facts, Taaffe has conjured up an ideologically- free imaginary movement arising from the Leave campaign – implicitly and/or ‘unconsciously’ socialist (or at least, ‘progressive’) in character. But the harsh reality is Leave voters were tied hand and foot to the racist-right Brexit campaign, and how could it be anything else? Taffe tells us in a half-hearted concession to this point “…it is true that the racist …UKIP was for leave, as was the Tory capitalist brutalist duo of Johnson and Gove, with an emphasis on scapegoating immigrants. Some workers were no doubt seduced by the anti-immigrant message of these reactionary forces”: if this means anything it is an attempt to say the SP (and perhaps the rest of the Lexit campaign) were in competition with the two main right wing Leave campaigns, putting the anti-EU case to the workers. Outside of the SP self-deusionary propaganda circles the reality was that Johnson and Gove were the Leave campaign with Farage providing their more forthright, openly racist, flank.
While the SP and Lexit supporters continue to deny the character of the Leave campaign and refuse to countenance its reactionary consequences in the real world, the rest of us are confronted with just that. While the bill in jobs and terms and conditions has still to be presented, we have already seen that Brexit has lowered the racist bar, back to where we were in the late ‘60’s, with a racist surge of verbal abuse and in some cases physical attacks taking place across the county. Brexit has not just brought overt racism back onto the streets: it has placed immigration at the centre of the political stage. It is this rather than class upon which the political axis now turns: if an election was held today even a Labour party united behind Corbyn would struggle as the question of border controls is now the centre of the political discourse.
Anyone who spoke to workers during the campaign will know how immigration was the alpha and omega of any discussion: the lack of understanding and the repeating of misinformation existed on a breath-taking scale. Whatever else socialist and in particular trade unionists do we need to engage with Brexit workers and our starting point is not to call them racist bastards’ or suggestthat we should all hold hands, celebrate our diversity and be nice to one another. Rather it is to explain why the immigrant is the wrong target. Nonsense like Taaffe’s delusional (indeed, self-delusional) article will not help us do that.