No to ‘lexit’ – Vote Remain

By Hanif Leylabi / @hanifleylabi

I’m voting Remain – but one day I could vote Leave.

So #EUref. Yeah, that. That thing that seems like it’s been going on forever. Seems like a simple choice for those of us on the left. The Labour Party, labour movement, progressive and liberal organisations, moderate Tories and the third sector on one side; lined up against UKIP, the Tory right and racist tabloids on the other. The choice is clear. Right?

Not so. There are still voices on the left calling for ‘Lexit’ and it’s important to have participated in those discussions. In fact, if this referendum were taking place in a different context, I could be voting to leave myself. But it’s not, it’s taking place on 23 June 2016 and it’s the realities of today that inform my decision to vote remain. So let’s take a critical look at some of the ‘lexit’ arguments.

Let’s get real

It’s all very well talking about a left wing exit from the EU but what does that mean in practice? Very little it seems – context is everything.

There is a growing Eurosceptic movement across the continent, but it’s spearheaded by the dangerous right, not the left. From the Front National in France, to Jobbik in Hungary and from the Law and Justice Party in Poland to UKIP on our own doorstep, it is the voice of reaction that is pushing this agenda. Those who want to restrict abortion rights, force LGBT people back into the closet, close the door on refugees and, in extreme cases, commit acts of violence against Jewish and Roma people. Like Baroness Sayeeda Warsi tweeted the other day ‘I wouldn’t get on a night bus with them would you?’ A victory for Brexit would be a victory for Nigel Farage and Boris Johnson. They will be boosted and anti-migrant sentiment will be seen as the view of the majority. This is the context in which a snap general election could take place and, even with unpopular Cameron and Osborne at the helm, current polls point to a Labour loss.

Outside of a precious few industries, the trade union movement has largely failed to defeat the austerity agenda we have witnessed over the last six years. There is nothing to suggest it could defeat a new wave right wing Tory measures pushed by a government free from EU legislation on workers’ rights. So far we as a left have failed to effectively counter the rise of UKIP, even if we have kept Neo-Nazi elements at bay so far. Once more, there’s nothing to suggest that we are in a strong position to combat a vindicated UKIP in an environment where racists and xenophobes feel emboldened.

If these facts were turned on their head, if there was a strong, Europe wide movement based in the labour movement, student movement, ordinary communities, the third sector all coming together to argue for a progressive alternative to the EU, then I would be knocking on doors calling people to vote leave. But that is not the case and the consequences are that we lose the rights we do have, whilst the still UK pursues the kind of policies Lexiters currently criticise the EU for implementing. What would that look like?

Public services and workers’ rights

One of the messages of the Lexit campaign is that, far from protecting workers’ rights, the EU is a bosses institution that has forced austerity onto countries like Greece, Ireland and Portugal. It is true that EU supported measures have seen public spending slashed. In Greece for example, health spending fell by one quarter and education by one third. The question here has to be how would leaving help? It would only help if we assumed that EU member states are the only ones that have faces austerity.

Japan, Canada and Argentina have all experienced austerity in recent years and they are not members of the EU. There is nothing to suggest we would be free from austerity outside the EU.

So what would we lose? While many of the rights we enjoy today can be traced back to the toil of a range of political movements, many of them are also enshrined into EU law, precisely as a result of those struggles and their success in shaping policy, including at a European level. Do you trust a Tory government to respect your rights to paid annual leave and maternity leave? I don’t – and they are rights American workers are still fighting for.

The economy and TTIP

The Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP) is a proposed trade deal between the USA and EU and noises from some of the discussions are certainly alarming. From threats of deep privatisation to the NHS to the prospect of significant job losses, it’s crucial that we work together to get these issues into the public narrative.

But again, how would leaving the EU help? It could only help if it was assumed that we couldn’t or wouldn’t sign such a deal outside of the EU.

The US, for example, has signed the North American Free Trade Agreement along with Canada and Mexico, none of which are in the EU. In 2015 Canada’s government was successfully sued for daring to turn down a large mining quarry which threatened to cause environmental damage in Nova Scotia. The case was brought about under exactly the same mechanism – known as ISDS (Investor State Dispute Settlement) – which is at the centre of the TTIP deal. So ‘Lexit’ does not defend us against the tenets of TTIP.

So back to that all important second question, what would we lose? According to the Centre for Economic and Business research, an extra 790,000 UK jobs will be created by 20130 if we choose to remain. According to the Trades Union Congress, wages would reduce by around £38 per week. Once more, whilst the criticisms of the EU do stand up, leaving does not protect us against privatisation and could cost ordinary workers their jobs.

Migration and Refugees

Perhaps the most current and powerful left wing argument points to the poor treatment of refugees by the EU. Indeed it is not just the left who is saying this. Medecins Sans Frontières recently took the unprecedented step of refusing any further EU funds in protest at the treatment of refugees. Yet we have a Presidential hopeful in the US who says he will build a wall across the Mexican border to keep migrants out. Australia’s answer to boats carrying asylum seekers is to send its navy to push them back into Indonesian waters. There’s absolutely nothing to suggest that the UK’s treatment of refugees and migrants would be better than it is not in a post-Brexit context. Quite the opposite. And what do we stand to lose? The free movement of people within the EU and the right of students to study paying no more than a home student would.

So do we put up and shut up?

Not being open about our criticism of the EU leaves that terrain to the right. That is not what I’m advocating. But it’s not just about voicing what we think, it’s about who is listening and who values our voice.

While the Lexiters talk about the tyranny of EU diktats in Greece, Portugal and Ireland, people in Doncaster, Dover and Darlington talk about immigration, housing and jobs. The fact remains that the left as a whole has failed to respond to the needs of the people it seeks to represent. Too often we retreat to a safe space of, sentimentality and righteous truth, all the while, failing to adjust to how the world has changed, how communities have changed and how work itself has changed.

The people we raise the red flag for are simply walking on by.

They don’t want to live or die in its shade.

Unless we develop new narratives that relate to their lived experiences, then principled ideas like Lexit will always be overshadowed by poisonous ideas like Brexit. People can’t feed their families with principles.

We must resist the race to the bottom on issues like immigration. For too long elements in Labour have tacked right on the issue to gain votes, but you can never out-UKIP UKIP. But to truly defeat the idea that economic downturns are caused by immigration, we need to provide solutions. Solutions fit for 2016, not 1976. Solutions that look to the transformational power of technology to improve living standards; solutions that understand how to organise in modern communities; solutions that innovate to prevent ill health, not just advocate for more money to treat it. Until we regain people’s trust as people who understand them, they will never look to us as people who fight for them.

Vote Remain

There are many reasons why the EU has not acted as a friend to the democratic left, especially in recent years, but there is absolutely nothing about the context in which this referendum is taking place that points to a leave vote benefiting the people all stripes of the left claim to care about, partly because the institution is not being compared fairly with the likely or possible alternatives.

The idea that any crisis in capitalism is an opportunity for the left is dangerously misplaced and ignores the way in which class and cultural forces are arranged, what they can muster, and how they affect real people. The results of getting this wrong can be profound. It would be irresponsible to gift a confidence boost to those who oppose everything we stand for, just at a time when we have failed as a movement to provide a solution to the recessions of recent years.

I don’t want to wake up on Friday morning to a Nigel Farage victory speech. I don’t want to wake up on Friday morning to celebratory headlines in the most racist newspapers in the land. I really don’t want to see you on a demo against cuts to annual leave waving a placard saying ‘Don’t blame me, I voted Lexit not Brexit’.

That’s why today I am voting Remain, and you should too.

You can find your polling station here.

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