This speech was given by Labour Campaign for Free Movement organiser and new Another Europe is Possible national committee member Ben Towse at a Nottingham AEIP/Left Against Brexit event on 12 December.
The leading campaign on the remain side, that lost the 2016 referendum, was abysmally conservative. It was a campaign by and for the class of people for whom the status quo was just fine. Two and a half years later, the same political forces – with perhaps just a different face here and there – are gearing up to do the same thing. For me, nothing drove this home more than the callout from Progress, Labour’s Blairite faction, on the day of the People’s Vote march in October. They declared that “progressives” could not rest “until everything is back to normal”.
“Normal”?! These campaigns are desperate to return to the “normal” of 2015, and think that that is an appealing, even inspiring prospect.
But “normal” then, and still now, meant a country in which the richest 10% owned half the country’s wealth, while millions languished on less than the living wage. Where 3 out of 10 kids lived in poverty. Where 3000 people, in one of the wealthiest societies on Earth, died every year simply because they couldn’t afford to heat their homes. It’s perhaps not surprising that polls showed only a fifth of the population thought young people today could expect a better life than their parents.
This immense, and entirely justified, sense of dislocation, dispossession, disempowerment and insecurity were fertile ground for the hard right’s Brexit campaign.
This campaign worked around two fundamental themes. First, the idea that kicking out migrants would mean more jobs and higher wages for the rest of us. And second, it fomented nostalgia for the days of empire, the days when “Britannia ruled the waves”. And you can see the appeal of this. If you feel small and powerless, in a world where you are buffeted by forces so much bigger than you, then the promise of belonging, and belonging to something capable of taming those forces, can be a potent one. In this sense, Brexit is our Trump moment – the right-wing promise to “Make Britain Great Again”.
In the face of this, what should the left do? Well we can’t pretend the status quo is fine. And Project Fear isn’t going to cut it. We need instead what some in our campaign have called Project Promise. A bold vision of another Britain, another Europe. And I argue that that vision needs to be, unequivocally and unapologetically, socialism.
Over the next few minutes I want to sketch out some potential elements of that programme: demands, aims, that we could build a movement around and fight to win both here and across Europe. Time is brief, so of course this will be incomplete, and this movement needs to develop its ideas democratically so I hope we can take this as a springboard for further discussion and I’m sure other comrades here will have views to contribute.
First, I want to say that this must be a politics of class, not of nation. Our catchphrase has to be what that anonymous vandal brilliantly graffitied across a UKIP advert: “blaming migrants just lets your boss off the hook”. British workers have more in common with our Polish neighbours down the road, or with another worker in Berlin or Beijing, than we do with the employers and landlords who exploit us all. So what we promise is not being part of a new British empire, which even if it were possible, would in reality mean people like us toiling at the bottom for the glorification and enrichment of our bosses and rulers above us. Instead we say you can be part of the international workers’ movement that we must build, a movement that can stand up for itself, for justice, for socialism.
Given that internationalist stance, we must say that we are as firmly against Fortress Europe as we are against Fortress Britain. We will tear down both. The uncertainty facing 3 million EU citizens in this country is a scandal, and so too is the regime overseen by European governments in the Mediterranean that is drowning thousands of people fleeing poverty, persecution and destruction.
We will fight to level up all workers to a decent living wage, and decent social security, here and across Europe. We will level up rights, equality protections, and dignity at work. And as well as fighting for these to be enshrined in national and European law, we can fight for them here and now in our workplaces through union organising. Incidentally, there is no better place to erode the divisions of race or nationality among workers, and discover who our real allies and enemies are, than on a picket line. That’s why the Labour Campaign for Free Movement is working to support disputes led by diverse workforces, from the outsourced cleaners in London smashing poverty pay and zero hours contracts to the McDonalds workers taking on a global corporate behemoth.
And on that – the companies and supply chains we work in are international, so our organising must be too. Let’s start talking about joining up our union organising, our workplace rep networks, and even our strikes, across borders.
Of course, to do all of this, we must also scrap all the anti-union laws that work to hem us in, especially here in the UK.
We should talk about ensuring a decent home for everyone. That means massive investment in building publicly-owned social housing. And improving things for renters. On rent controls and tenants’ rights, countries like the Netherlands are streets ahead of the UK – measures like this should be taken from different countries and levelled up across the continent in national and European law.
And of course, a vital part of any programme has to be an emergency climate plan. We have just eleven years to turn around our carbon emissions and transform the way our economies work, before we are locked in to catastrophic change. That’s clearly not something a small country can do on its own. We need to put energy, transport and other polluting industries under public ownership and democratic control, and draw up transition plans that convert them rapidly to a sustainable, zero carbon basis to secure our future. And in doing so, provide millions of secure, decently-paid green jobs and training opportunities for those jobs, and develop our infrastructure so that it sustainably serves social need rather than private greed.
Now these are all big ideas. The right will tell us that money doesn’t grow on trees, and they will not be wrong. But we live in an almost unimaginably wealthy society, so we have a very easy answer to that. That wealth is hoarded in the pockets of the rich: we propose a fundamental shift of that wealth to the rest of us. We will squeeze them til the pips squeak: tax their incomes, their assets, their capital gains, their inheritances. And while we’re at it, we’ll cut the regressive taxes like VAT that hit the poorest hardest. The right’s success has been in identifying scapegoats for the very real problems workers face – we need to respond by identifying the real culprits and promising concrete measures against them.
This brings us to the banks. The banking system occupies a central place in any modern economy. Not only do all of us rely on them for savings, mortgages and so on, but the investment decisions they make shape our whole economy. They decide what gets built, what gets developed, and their speculation produces crises that hammer the rest of us like in 2008. Those decisions should not be in private hands, guided by private profit, but in public hands. Taking the banks across Europe into public ownership and democratic control, as the Fire Brigades Union General Secretary has talked about, would enable us to start dramatically democratising our economy, and directing those investments to where we as communities decide they are needed – for example, into the green plans, green jobs and sustainable infrastructure I just talked about.
Finally, we do need to address the democratic deficit in Europe. But pulling out does not solve that deficit – as we know, we face challenges bigger than one country that need to be brought under democratic control. The answer is more integration, with a sovereign Parliament, given real teeth and authority over the affairs of the union and over a more genuinely accountable executive.
Now, the Lexiteers say that these policies would be all well and good, but Europe is a block. It is an undemocratic bosses’ club whose rules make socialism “illegal”.
The first thing we have to say it that many of their claims are exaggerated. They have bought, and are now peddling themselves, the lies and excuses used by right-wing UK politicians from the Tories to the SNP to New Labour, that Brussels requires all these privatisations and so on, and that it’s out of their hands – when it very much is not. It is criminally irresponsible for any section of the left to give cover to these dishonest excuses.
But more problematically, the idea implicit in all this is that EU rules are the main block on socialist or social democratic transformation in the UK. So that all we really need to do is elect a left-wing government, it will sort things out, and we’ll all live happily ever after.
But the bitter lessons of history tell us that, in or out of the EU, the capitalist class and the state apparatuses it has built won’t just sit by while democracy redistributes their wealth and power. Senior civil servants, when Tony Benn was a minister, actively attempted to derail Labour’s plans. The radically reforming Mitterrand government in France in the 1980s took a hammering from capital flight and turned on its own programme to implement austerity. Even Obama, not even a social democrat, faced a capital strike of disinvestment to ensure his meagre reforms didn’t go too far. And we saw in Chile in 1973 what the capitalist class is ultimately willing to do to protect its wealth and power from democracy.
The only thing that can see off such threats and carry through a democratically-willed transformation of society is a massive, organised workers’ movement capable of flexing its muscles outside parliament as well as within. Next to those threats, a few desk jockeys in Brussels will be the least of that movement’s concerns. While the Europe-wide left and workers’ movements will be our most vital allies.
Capitalism is bigger than a small island in the North Atlantic. I was at a meeting like this in Derby last night, where a Unite union officer described how a modern car factory can be taken to pieces and moved to another country in a matter of weeks if that suits its owners. In a world like that, the only way for a small country to compete for any investment is to turn itself into a doormat for big capital, cutting taxes, wages, workers’ rights, you name it, in a race to the bottom. As socialists, if we want to take down the multinationals or even just bring them to heel, we have to think bigger. Integration, not disintegration, is the only way.
At the end of the day, the shared arena of the EU is simply more favourable terrain for the workers’ movement to fight on. It makes the ideas of shared demands, common projects, and mutual solidarity across borders into more plausible and tangible proposals. It is an arena in which continent-wide political demands could be platformed at elections, and in which we could materially back each other up. For instance, quitting the EU would have done little to get the German government off the back of the Greek working class – but what if German workers had shut down Berlin, saying that not a single wheel would turn until their government relented and conceded a better future for both them and their Greek counterparts?
Building a movement capable of pulling off things like this is a big task. But it is the only way – there are no shortcuts to socialism. It’s up to people like those of us here today. Let’s make the campaign to remain in Europe into the first battle of the campaign to win a socialist Europe.
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