What would Brexit mean for the radical left?

As a growing number of commentators across the radical left are outlining, the choices in the EU referendum are decidedly depressing. On the one hand there exists the Vote Leave camp, whose primary focus involves rambling on about booting out all the immigrants; on the other, most of the Remain campaign seems blissfully unaware that the EU is so riddled with neoliberalising rules and regulations as to make any kind of radical – or even just vaguely progressive – EU practically impossible anytime soon. Thus, the immediate choice is between two bad options: do we want to be ruled by racist toffs or neoliberal oligarchs?

As has been articulated by a number of individuals and groups, at the very least, the EU does provide a number of very basic protections that would be immediately under threat should the UK leave the EU, especially on workers’ rights, human rights, and the right to free(ish) movement. As such, it seems that the majority of the radical left is leaning towards a reluctant vote to remain.

However, a recent Guardian poll suggests that the vote could be extremely close, with only 4 percentage points dividing the two camps. We therefore need to think seriously about left strategy in the event that a leave vote wins. As an initial foray into these murky waters, I have identified some threats and opportunities that may face us if the UK leaves the EU.

Threats

  • A much friendlier political environment for the right. Spurred on by nationalist and xenophobic fervour in the wake of Brexit, and freed from the ‘restrictions’ of EU regulation, the right would be far more buoyant and confident in its ability to push through ever-stronger anti-immigrant, anti-union and anti-working class legislation. The Conservatives would almost certainly win the next general election and UKIP could make gains too.
  • With a much more open political environment for the right, there could be greater opportunity for a violent, street-based far-right to emerge and begin terrorising immigrants and leftists alike, with relative impunity from an already right-leaning police force with new confidence to turn a blind eye. Alternatively, those attracted to far-right politics may well become absorbed by the new ‘mainstream’ and lose their need/desire to engage in politics of the street. Either way, it’s very bad news.
  • The combination of market uncertainty, a period of renegotiating treaties, and increasingly stringent laws on workers and benefits, would almost inevitably lead to a significant reduction in income and quality of life for many, especially the working class, unemployed, and those with low education levels. A new recession, at least in the short term, would be likely.
  • Another Scottish referendum on independence, this time with a much stronger pro-independence vote, could be on the cards. Should Scotland leave, a major section of the British left would ‘disappear’, leaving a proportionally much bigger right in what would remain of the UK.

 

Opportunities

  • The destabilisation of the UK economy and reductions in quality of life for many may create a new political vacuum for a resurgent left (with nothing left to lose!) to make a stronger case against the increasingly visible failings of the right. Many who initially supported Brexit and the exclusionary politics that drives it could turn to the left as a result.
  • The removal of extremely powerful neoliberal EU rules against re-nationalisation could see opportunities for new collective forms of ownership – not only state ownership but also other (e.g. co-operative and other worker-owned) forms of management of public services.
  • An increasingly aggressive policy approach towards immigration, workers’ rights, human rights and basic social protections could see a significant convergence of different interests and campaigns into a broader movement against the Tory government and (what would become) their de facto allies, UKIP.
  • The possibility of large-scale resignations in the Conservative Party could signal a split within the party and some level of fragmentation and disarray among the right.
  • Mass deportations or a block on new immigrants could cause havoc for the labour market. Our highly segmented labour market depends on Filipino nurses, Polish warehouse workers, Romanian bricklayers and so on – their sudden removal from the labour market could lead to catastrophic labour shortages if managed badly. This could, for example, signal opportunities for new struggles around demands for stipendiary vocational education and even paid domestic labour to emerge, as well as an increased leverage for workers with skills that are in demand to force better pay and conditions in those sectors.

 

These are, of course, all speculative suggestions, but it is important to imagine what the UK would be like outside of the EU, and how it might affect the possibilities for the radical left. In light of these suggestions, I would like to propose a number of priorities that radicals, revolutionaries and other extra-parliamentary leftists of all stripes should consider in preparation for a possible Brexit:

  1. Learn from our mistakes

The left spectacularly failed to capitalise on the global financial crisis of 2007-8, and we cannot afford to make the same mistakes again. What went wrong? How can we prevent it from going wrong again? This short blog is not the place to go into detail about these things, but the question must be asked – crucially, not as individual parties or groups (“Why didn’t we manage to build our membership?”) but as a broader movement of black, green and red (“Why were we unable to shift the political discourse? Why did we lose momentum? Where did our splits come from?”). Blaming external factors for these problems (other groups, corporate media, big business, ‘the system’) is not good enough – the buck stops here.

  1. Build networks and connections

The fragmentary nature of the left never fails to undermine its projects and defeat itself. This is not to say that we should not debate our differences but that our current weakness means that different left tendencies need to seek some level of common ground in order to be able to collaborate when/if the time comes that we must be united against a common threat. This doesn’t just mean formal coalition-building between organisations but also – crucially, in fact – it means to nurture existing relationships as individuals and to build new ones. Our ‘non-political’ relationships with the pub landlord, yoga classmates, church group or five-a-side football team could prove to be just as important as our ‘political’ relationships with members of our collectives, parties and unions.

  1. Get clued up on alternative forms of getting stuff done

The standard binaries that we have become accustomed to, across the political spectrum, may no longer apply in the Brave New World of post-Brexit Britain. Authoritarian vs horizontal; nationalisation vs autonomy; collectives vs parties; workplace vs community; ‘old-fashioned’ vs ‘innovative’; networked vs formal; legal vs illegal; violent vs non-violent; state vs non-state – and so on. The established order is built upon such distinctions, not only in terms of our organising strategies but also in terms of people’s broader political imaginaries. This could be an opportunity for rethinking our established ways of doing things. Can we imagine an anarchist think-tank that conducts research, writes policy documents and holds press conferences? Is it possible to build forms of labour organisation that not only promote workers’ rights but also provide spaces, skills and cheap credit for alternative economic practices? What would a democratic, co-operative health clinic, university or transport system look like?

  1. Think intergenerationally

It is clear that older generations are most likely to vote to leave the EU. With an ageing population and most of the baby-boomers who led us to this abyss reaching retirement age (someone born in 1947 is now 68 or 69 years old), there may be a number of new dynamics in the coming years. Firstly, pensions may become a growing area of struggle, where state pensions are scrapped and the excesses of offshore pensions schemes laid bare. As employers wrestle with the difficult transition to life outside the EU, having already cut back as far as they already can in terms of labour costs (e.g. wages) in the last 8 years, they may seek to cut back on pension funds too. Secondly, as the baby-boomer generation ages there will be increasing strain on the neoliberal health and social care business model leading to greater workplace conflict and increased pressure to ‘socialise’ these conflicts. Thirdly, and perhaps most importantly, with a new ‘era’ of British politics we need to think about where new generations will find their niche: what are the hopes, fears and aspirations of the average 16-year-old? What kind of left would they identify with and want to be part of?

  1. (Re)new(ed) forms of action

Winning through the established modes of ‘democracy’ (A-B marches, voting, petitioning, social media, occupations) will become far harder in a UK with a strengthened and buoyant right wing and a strengthened and buoyant police force. What can we discover (or rediscover) that will leverage victories for us and put politicians and bosses on the back foot when they don’t have EU free market rules to fall back on? The notion of the social strike has been raised in the wake of the Junior Doctors’ struggles, but other ideas such as workplace take-overs, good work strikes, rent strikes, bossknapping, and even good old-fashioned sabotage could become amplified in a newly-isolated UK.

  1. Be prepared

This is a fairly simple one. Organisations and groups that seek to enter into conflict with a resurgent post-Brexit right need to be ready for what is coming to them. This must involve resourcing ourselves appropriately, in a range of areas: finances (hardship funds etc), materials (good quality, well designed templates, reliable suppliers), organisation (proper structures and processes), physically (eat healthily and, if you can, get fit!), tactically (direct action, legal knowledge), technology (both skills and materials) and so on.

  1. Be present

We can easily forget that bourgeois politics is essentially a conversation between the streets and the halls of power – it’s not just a top-down process of indoctrination. We need to be aware of what people are discussing, enjoying, frustrated by and concerned about. Being present means consciously thinking about these things and finding connections; spaces of everyday, boring, mundane – even altogether unarticulated – political imagination that can be nurtured and brought to life. Can we feed insights from what we hear in idle chit-chat at pubs and cafes and sports centres into how we frame our campaigns? This is exactly what the big political parties do, and exactly what businesses do, and they don’t just do it for fun.

 

These are just some initial sketches of what could be done in preparation for a Leave vote at the end of June. It’s stuff we can start thinking about now – individually and within our respective organisations. Although most of the debate around the EU is a combination of frighteningly nationalist, painfully neoliberal and astonishingly boring, we on the radical left do need to think carefully about what our future might be like if the UK was to leave the EU.

One thing is for sure: it cannot be business as usual.

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