The UK after the EU Referendum

On 23rd June 2016, Britain voted to leave the European Union – the so-called Brexit vote. On a turn out of 72.2%, 51.9% voted to Leave and 48.1% to Remain, thereby defeating the position of both Cameron’s Conservative government and the Labour Party under the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. This was a hard fought campaign, with its fair share of lies and dirty tricks.

Both Conservative and Labour Parties were split on the issue, so no clear political or class lines were drawn and deep fissures were opened in all parts of the British political landscape which will continue to mark and define it for years to come.

Deep fissures

For much of the right and the far right, it hinged on the whole question of opposition to the free movement of labour, xenophobia, racism, and petty nationalism. Their economic policy was ill-defined but harked back to the age of empire and spoke of ending “restrictive regulations”. Other sections of the ruling class, particularly those supporting the interests of the crucial finance sector in the economy seriously wanted and expected the Remain campaign to succeed. Britain has the second largest level of foreign direct investment of nearly $2trn, equivalent to 30% of UK GDP. Of the top 500 global companies, the UK was second only to the US with 34 companies. The UK had six financial institutions in the top 50, compared to the US with ten. And UK bank assets are four times UK GDP, the highest ratio in the world after Switzerland and tax-haven Luxembourg. This section of the ruling class supported the free movement of labour to drive down labour costs and renew the labour market, saw the EU membership as positive and necessary.
Across the left there were also divisions, from those who wanted ‘British jobs for British workers’, to those who wished to leave the EU because they considered it irredeemably neoliberal. It has become clear since that many workers voted leave just to strike a blow against Cameron and the hated Conservatives, without understanding the likely consequences. The level of information available to people and the warped campaign, on top of years of disinformation and biased news coverage of Europe, meant many people just didn’t know what was at stake.
There was also a section of the left, of which we were a part, who, whilst fiercely critical of the EU, saw Brexit as a dangerous risk to workers’ rights, to international workers’ struggles, to the rights of migrant workers and to the rights of millions of EU citizens living in the UK, as well as UK workers and pensioners living abroad. They also actively opposed the disgraceful migration policies of the Conservative government as it is applied to non-EU citizens, refugees and asylum seekers.
The idea of strength across Europe and the shared struggle of workers across Europe was also important.
This Remain left believed that a Brexit in the current context would be a victory for the far right and that European solidarity is key – that ‘Another Europe is possible’. There were other intermediate positions. Many people supported the concept of Europe and all the freedoms it gave them but this energy was not effectively harnessed to the campaign.

Violence – mourning Jo Cox

Whatever people’s position, few were prepared for the violent political degeneration of the campaign as it entered its final days – the tension and anger was palpable throughout society. Traditional fault lines in politics broke down as the divisions over Remain or Leave crossed and re-crossed through parties and movements where typically in a general election period sympathies would be predictable and tolerated. The referendum was called after years of blaming society’s ills on migrants, even by the Labour Party. It was a result of pressure from the far right and splits in the Conservative Party – driven by anti-immigration sentiment, fuelled by racism.
As the campaign developed, so did that racism increase, insufficiently challenged and often fed by Brexit, by the mainstream press and media. The result was an open emergence of the extremist right. Most shocking of all was the terrible killing of the Remain-supporting MP Jo Cox, with her attacker shouting ‘Britain First’ – echoing the name of a far-right political party – as he fired into her face. Equally shocking was the rapidity with which this political assassination became old news, now rarely spoken of.
Cox’s death tragically compounded the fact that this was the most reactionary national campaign in modern British political history. Outrage was expressed at a UKIP campaign advert widely seen as referencing Nazi propaganda of the 1930s, picturing queues of refugees under the heading: ‘Breaking Point: Europe has failed us all – we must break free of the EU and take back our borders’. This is typical of much of the messaging and the narrative propagated by the Leave camp. If one could sum up the chief message of the Leave campaign it would be ‘Blame immigrants for everything’. They peddled the politics of hate on baseless accusations and fictional figures. They had a bus, widely filmed and photographed, proclaiming that leaving the EU would mean hundreds of millions more to the National Health Service every week. Within days all these promises were reneged upon and the impact of the racist narrative is already clear: migrants and people of colour, especially women, have experienced many more personal racist attacks and hate crime. The right wing believe they have won a major victory and can be more openly racist and violent.

Lay the blame where it’s due

On the left we worked to say that if we don’t have enough houses or jobs or services it’s not because of migrants, it’s because of government austerity policies that fail to invest in our industry and economy.
When we wrote about the campaign in the run up to the vote, we noted differing trends in attitude based on age. Media coverage of street vox pops and discussion shows – as well as polling data – suggested that most young people in Britain see the EU overall as a positive institution. What would they expect as citizens of an EU member state? They would expect a) that they could travel freely to other EU countries, b) that there would be the rule law, c) that basic public services would be provided; they would expect d) rights at work, e) healthcare, f) education, g) human rights guarantees, h) pensions, i) environmental protection, and j) adequate food for the population. Many saw Europe as definitely better than Tory Britain and this was confirmed by the voting results: young people overwhelmingly voted to Remain – although the turn out wasn’t as high as in other age categories – and many have subsequently been involved in huge pro-Europe demonstrations and actions.  
Elsewhere, attitudes and experiences have been mixed. Some in the older section of the population, have regarded the EU as a success because there has not been war in Western Europe since 1945. Others from the older generation have seen EU membership as an obstacle to Britain determining its own destiny – ‘we want our country back’ was one popular slogan. Behind nationalism in the UK is the history of empire, a yearning for a ‘glorious’ past and a hankering for links across the Atlantic rather than across the Channel. The idea that outside the EU, Britain can become ‘great’ again, was pure fantasy politics, yet it was nevertheless the kind of emotional draw which made many vote Leave, against all the evidence. And the stereotype of European bureaucracy and red tape played a part too. The picture of ridiculous EU regulations has been pushed by the tabloid press and accepted by many as true, unless challenged by their own experience. Most people have had little reason to doubt these myths, and they have become part of the political landscape, the ‘common sense’ in Gramsci’s definition. 
Without doubt, the decisive factor in the campaign was the shocking anti-immigrant propaganda and blatant racism employed to bolster the leave vote. The Leave vote was strong in many traditional working class areas – although not in big cities like London, Liverpool, Manchester and Newcastle – where decades of government economic policies have closed industry and employment, run down housing, health and educational opportunities and cut their benefits and social services. Often these were areas with low migration such as Wales and the North East but nevertheless the Leave voters frequently identified ‘migrants’ as their reason for choosing to leave. This was because rather than putting the blame where it belongs – on successive government’s economic policies, the campaign was dominated by blaming migrants for Britain’s social and economic ills. Unfortunately, the belief that curbing immigration will have a beneficial effect on British society has now gained widespread acceptance – even among some of those who campaigned to remain.
Corbyn’s opponent in the current election for labour’s leadership claimed that migration was putting pressures on schools in his area. It has become clear now that there has been few migrants where he lives and no pressure on schools, but Smith was a Remain supporter. Blaming migration is a common currency.
This is something we are very committed to fighting against – not least because it is just factually wrong. Downward pressure on wages – one of the charges levelled by some on the left – has not resulted from immigration, but from the financial crash of 2008.
British wages have fallen more since 2008 than any country in Europe except Greece. This has hit some areas harder than others by the movement from state employment to temporary low paid privatised jobs. Wages have also been damaged by ending of workers’ protection such as the Agricultural Wages Board which set effective minimum wages. Agriculture is an area of widespread employment of migrant workers and wages have been under downward pressure.
There has been widespread use of Agency workers in big factories employed below the union rate. These have contributed to major drops in living standards but no major party has ever discussed this in elections.

Free movement is an advance

In fact, data shows that immigration is a net contributor to the economy overall and, as far as average wages are concerned, it may actually lead to a small increase. But we also have to see this in terms of working class solidarity, not just in financial terms. Our position is that EU free movement is an advance for the European working class as a whole. Those who work in other EU countries have rights and protections as EU citizens – we don’t want to see them being reduced to ‘guest worker’ status. We want existing rights to be extended rather than reduced. We are already seeing the British government looking at temporary schemes to allow migrants to work here in agriculture, without their existing rights and protections. We want to defend the rights of workers, wherever they work, not exclude them or make them more exploitable.
It is interesting to see how voting patterns differed across Britain. As we observed before the vote, in Scotland, which had a strong majority for Remain, this was seen as both support for staying in Europe and for a more socially democratic country free of Tory rule. With the UK voting to leave the EU this is very likely to trigger a second Scottish independence referendum, based on Scottish determination to remain part of Europe. Northern Ireland also voted in its majority to Remain, wishing to remain in Europe with the Republic of Ireland, without the re-erection of borders within the island of Ireland. There are significant concerns about the possible impact of the referendum on the ongoing Irish peace process.
Even the greatest supporters of Brexit were astonished when they won. They had no policies ready, no leadership ready to take over. Boris Johnson, the effete populist who along with Farage, ran the Brexit campaign (perhaps so he could become Prime Minister), went to play cricket!
With the defeat of the government’s pro-EU position, David Cameron resigned as prime minister and Conservative party leader, replaced by the more right wing former Home Secretary, Theresa May. May was herself a Remain supporter but has committed herself to making Brexit work for Britain, and has integrated the major pro-Brexit political figures into her cabinet, including Boris Johnson as Foreign Secretary. Debate continues as to whether she should call a further referendum once the terms of the Brexit agreement are known, but the key factor for the left will now be to fight for the best possible treaties and legislation to replace the EU structures and regulations within Britain. This will be a massive struggle because the Conservatives will want to take the opportunity to remove all EU safeguards on women’s rights, workers rights, environmental protections and other positive regulatory frameworks.


The politically conscious left often despises the EU because of its increasingly neoliberal role and more recently the pain inflicted on the people of Greece by the EU through enforced austerity measures. But rather than the liberation from the neo-liberal EU which some on the left anticipated, following a Brexit vote, this will actually be the opportunity for a further neo-liberal deregulatory attack by our ruling class. Britain has probably gone further in privatisation and assaults on workers’ rights than any other country in Western Europe, indeed more than some in Eastern Europe. Inequalities are extreme. Child poverty is growing and the welfare system has been cut back to murderous levels. Housing is in crisis. The health service is on its knees. The economy is wealthy but unstable. We want – and urgently need – to work together with parties and movements across Europe to fight this neo-liberalism and austerity.
Of course there is no doubt that the EU has become a neo-liberal institution – we are as opposed to that as anyone, and have been part of the political movement against that process. Its neo-liberal role is operative not just within its borders; the EU has been involved, with the World Bank, IMF, and others in forcing neo-liberal ‘restructuring’ on areas of the global South. This transition to neo-liberalism has been most marked since the events of 1989, which put ‘global capitalism’ very much back on the offensive. In Europe, this resulted in very rapid progress towards the signing of the Treaty of Maastricht in February 1992, establishing a monetarist framework for economic and monetary union. A strict limit was set on the level of total public debt, at 60 per cent of GDP, and government budget deficits were limited to 3 per cent of GDP. Compliance with these requirements means major public spending cuts in most EU states. The Treaty also ensured that key areas of economic policy were insulated from democratic accountability: the projected independent European Central Bank was given control of monetary policy in a framework specifying that price stability takes precedence over economic growth, employment, and living standards. In effect, the Treaty of Maastricht made Keynesian economic policies impossible, ruling out the traditional economic framework of western European social democracy.
In this context, it was hardly surprising that the implementing governments found themselves on a major collision course with the labour movements of their respective countries. Western European politics in the 1990s was dominated by the struggle for and against the consequences of the Treaty of Maastricht. The first crisis appeared rapidly and was actually an unforeseen spin-off of the events of 1989. Germany was the strongest economy in Europe and the chief contributor to the EU budget. Its trade surplus subsidised the rest of the Community, while its industry benefited from the relative exchange-rate stability provided by the European Monetary System. With German unification, this balance changed significantly. Indeed, the Treaty of Maastricht provisions were set so rigidly because Germany had no intention of subsidising the weaker EU economies. The European Monetary System collapsed in August 1993 because the rest of the EU could not, during the recession of that time, cope with the levels of interest rate that the German Bundesbank had established to attract the funds needed to soften the impact of unification upon East Germany. The deadline for the start of monetary union was postponed from 1997 to 1999. In order to meet it, almost every EU government had already embarked on a programme of public spending cuts and labour-market deregulation in a context in which average EU unemployment was over 10 per cent.

Social democracy’s role in implementing austerity 

Major social democratic parties set about implementing swingeing cuts, as European capital intensified its struggle to recover what it felt it had given away to the working class after 1945. This resulted in the political and economic course that has led to the austerity nightmare in which the European working class finds itself today. This is of course most strongly expressed in Greece, where debate about how to respond to the EU blackmail over austerity included considerations of ‘Grexit’, or Greece leaving the euro or even the EU. The political case for this was based on the appalling policies of the EU leadership in imposing the memorandum deal. There was also debate (which will likely be ongoing) about leaving the euro and establishing a central bank that could create money as all central banks do. The Bank of England, the US central bank (the Fed), and Japan’s central bank, created large amounts of money through ‘quantitative easing’ to mitigate the effects of the crisis. This was not available to the Eurozone countries, which had no national banks.
The EU is an organisation that has long ago ceased playing a positive role and is knee-deep in projects that defend the interests of major corporations and the very rich at the expense of working people and public services. But the world outside the EU is not the world that existed before the EU; there is no going back. 
We need to win a more widespread understanding that many migrants move around the EU for very positive personal and work reasons. Others are forced to migrate by sheer economic necessity. Outside of Europe, poverty, restructuring, repression and war can all force migration. Many families are split and children left to be raised by grandparents. Many economies are left bereft of key skills by this pressure of migration. Whilst we struggle to defeat capitalism and these destructive pressures, we should always stand with the migrant because it is the system that is our enemy, never the women and men travelling to find work and safety. They are our workmates and neighbours.

Leaving the EU will not make the UK less neoliberal

We want to make it loud and clear that being outside the EU will not make the UK less neo-liberal. The UK in the Thatcher and post-Thatcher era followed a different economic model from the one generally pursued by the rest of the EU. In the run-up to the economic crisis, Britain, like the US, pursued the Anglo-American kind of free market economics which had less labour protection, mass migration, and worked on the basis of a deregulated labour market, low pay, and freedom for investors and employers. They were the forerunners, and Thatcher was indeed the pioneer of neoliberalism in the developed world. Her greatest achievement, she claimed, was the creation of New Labour, for, as a result of the climate she created, Tony Blair rejected social democratic Keynesian economics and embraced neoliberalism. These ideas became the norm for the UK even before the austerity era in Europe. The UK government is arguably the most committed to neoliberalism in the developed world, matching the USA; its record includes ‘deregulation’, ruthlessly imposed austerity, increased child poverty, and privatisation. 
We believe that it is crucially important to clarify this with those on the left, because the pro-Brexit left continues to maintain its position of laying our economic problems at the door of the EU, arguing that Brexit will make socialism in Britain more likely, without the pro-austerity, anti-democratic EU. But the reality is these same policies – or worse – will be implemented by our government. The idea that they expressed during the campaign, that Brexit makes a Corbyn-led Labour victory more likely, has already been shown to be deeply misplaced. Brexit will continue to consolidate the far right and strengthen it, making a Corbyn government still more difficult to achieve
In our view, we stand a better chance of securing an advance for progressive policies through working together with the people of Europe, who are mounting their own massive political opposition to neo-liberalism. Brexit will not be a loosening of the shackles of neo-liberalism, it will be an unmitigated compounding of the same policies by the British ruling class. We watch the advance of the left – particularly the newfound cooperation and unity – in Spain and Portugal, with our hearts filled with hope. But we also watch with grave concern the rise of the far right across Europe. We need to consolidate our forces against this growing tendency.

So can we #change Europe? 

The battle for a better world must be on three fronts: the national, the European, and the international. Workers (including precarious workers), students and pensioners are fighting austerity. There are limited victories, but these struggles have not yet been successful in a broader systemic way. But the potential is there. We believe that in confronting the referendum outcome we must stress the importance of defending European human rights legislation and equality legislation. The EU was said to be built on solidarity; we should call for more solidarity, more Europe not less, in defending the interests of Europeans across the continent.
Women across Europe are all facing the same attacks on post-war gains. We have more in common with abortion rights campaigners in Spain than with right-wing misogynists in the UK. We stand with working people in Britain fighting poverty, fighting fracking, and struggling for decent housing and adequate food. We have more in common with workers resisting water charges in Ireland than with the UKIP in the UK. We have more in common with those fighting against a polluting gold mine than with this government, which allows a corporation to sue their government for protecting the environment, more in common with Despoina Kostopoulou, the leader of the Greek cleaners fighting privatization than with Verena Ross (Executive Director at European Securities and Markets Authority (ESMA) We have more in common with those fighting racism and fascism in Europe than with the Tory Party. 
We stand with the precariat, with working class communities, with those experiencing racism, and all who fight racism, and islamophobia, with campaigners for environmental and social justice, and with progressive people across Europe.
The potential for a cross-Europe movement is there. It is our job to try and build it, not to cut ourselves off from it. That is the message and struggle that we continue to take forward. 
#change Europe, a better Europe is possible! 

August 2016


  1. The authors are Principal Speaker and National Secretary of Left Unity, the new left party in the UK, which has recently been granted observer status with the Party of the European Left. Their views broadly represent the current thinking of the Left Unity leadership. 
  2. The above article is an updated version of a contribution originally published in the transform! yearbook 2016.