The Lexit that never was

Article originally published in Spanish in CTXT on 20 June 2016.

The British left has shown the dangers of leaving the anti-EU narrative in the hands of the xenophobic right. Its counterparts in the rest of Europe should take note.

This referendum is a binary choice: Remain or Leave. Left or right. Right or wrong. Or is it? For all its brevity, a ballot paper isn’t always easy to read. Words must be filled with meaning. Context matters. Indeed, what is a referendum campaign if not a battle to define the options on offer?

In the case of the so-called ‘Brexit’ referendum, there’s no doubt that conservative forces, from Tory government ministers, through Ukip to the extreme right, are authoring the Leave narrative. In much of the British, and European, imagination, a vote for Leave is a vote for borders and against immigration. It is a vote for the nation state and against transnational cooperation. It is a vote for narrow self-interest and against solidarity. But is it? And, if so, how did we end up here?

Flashback to July of last year. #ThisIsACoup is trending globally on Twitter. The left across Europe is united in outrage at the speed and force with which the Troika has crushed the Syriza government’s attempts to resist its demands. Many who once saw the EU as undemocratic, but benign, are starting to see it as anti-democratic and dangerous.

Just days later, Owen Jones publishes an article in The Guardian on the radical case for leaving the European Union, coining the term ‘Lexit’ (a left-wing Brexit). In the piece, he joins the increasing number of progressive voices questioning the UK’s membership of the EU, pointing to Greece and the TTIP as some of the causes of the ‘reawakening’ of left-wing Euroscepticism. He also, presciently, warns of the dangers of leaving the struggle against the EU in the hands of Ukip.

At the same time, Jeremy Corbyn, the surprise front-runner in the Labour leadership race, says he would consider calling for a Leave vote in the EU referendum. One of the few socialist MPs in the party, Corbyn voted against the UK’s continued membership of the EEC in 1975 and became an MP in 1983, when withdrawal was still on the party’s manifesto. Even when Labour changed its official position on the EU, Corbyn rebelled, voting against the Maastricht Treaty in 1993 and against the Lisbon Treaty in 2008.

Then comes the summer of migration; the daily beat of bodies tumbling from lorries and washing up on beaches, those sickening images of three year old Alan Kurdi lying face down on the sand. The price of free movement within Europe seems to be death at its gates. The EU is in crisis and the meaning of ‘Leave’ is up for dispute between the left and the right.


Illustration: Javier Royo

Yet now, with just a few days to go before the referendum, most of the British left have lined up in support of Remain, abandoning their initial attempts to resignify Brexit and reclaim ‘Leave’ from the right. What are the reasons behind this rapid turnaround and, just as importantly, what are the consequences?

When the referendum was confirmed in February, Corbyn announced that he would vote Remain. After all, it would have been all but impossible for Corbyn and Labour’s treasury spokesman, John McDonnell, to call for Brexit and lead a parliamentary party overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU (and looking for any excuse to remove them from office); in the end, just 10 of Labour 258 MPs have declared their support for Leave.

In the absence of significant Lexit leadership from parliament, many big names in the wider left, Owen Jones among them, switched to Remain out of fear that a Leave victory would pave the way for the former Mayor of London, Boris Johnson, to become Prime Minister and steer the country even further to the right. Such was the case of journalist and author of Post-Capitalism, Paul Mason. Mason was clearly torn, writing an article on the left-wing case for Brexit ‘one day’, but concluding that now is not the time.

It appears the left has been more concerned about the short-term opportunities that Brexit might provide the right than the limits that a Remain vote would impose on a future Corbyn administration. This pessimism is understandable. Due to successive years of Blairite and Tory governments, the UK has never experienced the implications of these limits first-hand. Nevertheless, the fact remains: EU law would prohibit a left-wing government in the UK from renationalizing the railways, introducing a Keynesian fiscal stimulus policy, or bailing out struggling industries, however much the public supported such measures.

The left has also been squeamish at the prospect of putting its cross in the same box as Ukip leader Nigel Farage, albeit for very different reasons. Many see a Remain vote as a way to express their rejection of the xenophobia of much of the Leave campaign. Of course, this is something of a self-fulfilling prophecy: the fewer Lexit supporters there are making an alternative case for Leave, the more likely it is that Ukip will be able to claim victory for their agenda in the case of Brexit.

That’s not to say that left support for Remain is unanimous. There are people arguing for Leave and giving a glimpse of what a Lexit campaign might have looked like. Former Deputy Mayor of London, Jenny Jones, has made the green case for Brexit, calling the EU ‘a lobbyists paradise’ that ‘smashes local resilience and self-reliance’. Giles Fraser, the radical anglican priest who resigned from St Paul’s Cathedral in support of Occupy London, has denounced the effects of the common agricultural policy on farmers in the developing world. The writer Julie Birchill has said she’s voting Leave because the EU needs ‘a good feminist kicking’. Tariq Ali has called for an anti-capitalist Leave vote on the basis that the EU promotes privatisation, welfare cuts, low wages and the erosion of trade union rights. The journalist Susanne Moore, for her part, has argued for the need to reclaim popular sovereignty and democratic accountability from European institutions.

But such voices are a minority and, as such, left-wing voters with Brexit instincts have found themselves without significant representation in the public debate. Overall, the right has had free reign to appropriate the anti-establishment flag and to define what a Leave vote means. Ukip has taken advantage of this opportunity to monopolize the left’s natural language of sovereignty, democracy and popular rebellion. It is worth noting that support for Leave is concentrated among people with no formal education, those living in social housing, the working classes and unemployed. A left that fails to engage with these groups is doing something very wrong. Well-meaning calls to stay in the EU to reform it from within, with no explanation of how or promise of when, have done little to convince those who have every reason to vote against the status quo. Worse still, as well as failing to speak to the concerns of Brexit voters, too many on the left have gone one step further and insulted them as ignorant ‘Little Englanders’ who don’t know what’s best for them.

Obviously there are many on the left who believe in the benefits of membership of the European Union, and they are right to defend it. But those that favour a radically different model could have played an important role in challenging the eurosceptic right and contesting the meaning of a Leave vote. A Lexit campaign could have provided a competing counter-narrative that focused eurosceptic criticism at international financiers and corporate lobbyists rather than migrants and refugees. It could have argued for the benefits of immigration while acknowledging that policy has to be subject to democratic control. It could have challenged the false dichotomy between the EU and the nation state by bringing internationalist and localist perspectives to the table.

Whatever the result on Thursday, the left in the rest of Europe should seek to learn lessons from the Brexit referendum. The EU is not the antidote to the extreme right, indeed, in the absence of alternatives, it can fuel its growth. Political events in the UK in recent months have shown that if the left silences its legitimate criticisms of the EU, the right will step in to write the story of democratic regeneration on its own terms. With the EU in crisis, it is time for the left to go beyond the rhetoric of indeterminate institutional reform. It must start to consider the radical potential of democratic breakaway and to think about what it would want a Europe without the EU to look like.