The Left-Wing Arguments For and Against Brexit

When coherent concerns are expressed about the EU, they tend to be rooted in Tory ideology. But there is also a fiery debate on the left that never once mentions "taking our country back".

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Jun 14 2016, 2:00pm

Coming later this week: The Right-Wing Arguments For and Against Brexit.

The EU referendum is the worst type of political issue: it's boring and important. Yeah, you should probably be paying attention to it, but honestly – who has the time to read economic projections from a load of obscure thinktanks, or the inclination to watch Nigel Farage's smug face being melted by the lights in a TV studio?

On top of all that, there's a sinking feeling that this isn't really a debate about the EU at all, but Tory infighting that we've all been forced to participate in. Watching the coverage it can sometimes feel like this whole referendum is really just an exercise in seeing whether Michael Gove or George Osborne can have the most pained expression.

Even when coherent arguments are expressed about the EU, they tend to be ones rooted in Tory ideology. Either we should leave to protect our national interest and keep out immigrants, or we should remain so that businesses can trade more and hope those benefits trickle down to the worker.

But that isn't the only discourse in town. There are is a whole different debate happening in the British left, which doesn't once mention "taking our country back" or "British values". So here is a rundown on the EU arguments the left are having. Off we go!

The Left-Wing Argument To Leave

There are numerous left-wing arguments for leaving the EU, but the most popular ones boil down to two basic issues: neoliberalism and democracy.

"My position on the EU is that it's fundamentally undemocratic and has steadily stripped its member nations of the right to govern themselves, which is the very definition of imperialism. I take the same attitude that Tony Benn and Michael Foot took back in the 1980s - it's not about flag-waving or foreigner-bashing - it's all about democracy. It depresses me deeply that the Labour Party has abandoned this position and left the argument to the likes of Farage," says Dreda Say Mitchell, a novelist and left-winger who has appeared on Question Time arguing for a Leave vote.

Lexiters (that's 'left-wing Brexiters') argue that too many of our laws are made at an EU level, meaning that a left-wing British government would not be able to reshape the economy in the interests of the people if it won power. As Reuben Bard-Rosenberg, a Lexit campaigner, puts it: "The fact that government is accountable, in some way, to those who have to suffer the consequences of whatever it does or doesn't do has been fundamental to social progress. European state aid laws make it impossible for governments to take on a serious interventionist role in the economy – for example nationalising loss-making businesses, and taking on those losses for the sake of protecting jobs. Meanwhile our trade policy is set at European level by Cecilia Malmstrom, and the dynamic is very much towards free trade. Most people haven't heard of Malmstrom - and there is no accountability on her part to those who stand to lose their jobs and livelihoods as a result of the decisions she makes."

It's not about flag-waving or foreigner-bashing – it's all about democracy.

TTIP, or the Transatlantic Trade Investment Partnership, is one big example of European free trade. It's a trade agreement between the EU and the USA that will make EU regulations and American regulations more similar. For example food regulations were previously much stricter in the EU than the US, almost no EU food contains GM crops whereas 70 percent of processed foods sold in American supermarkets do. TTIP makes it easier for those products to be sold here. TTIP is also likely to create further unemployment in the EU, as it becomes easier to hire US labour, where wages are lower and there are fewer benefits. The EU has even advised member states to draw on support funds to help deal with inevitable unemployment. Overall, TTIP is likely to leave public institutions at risk of privatisation, drive down wages, and attack regulations introduced to keep people safe. British people won't get to vote on whether we want TTIP or not.

The second big reason some left-wingers want to leave the EU is neoliberalism. Most trade unions have come out in favour of Remain but Mick Whelan, general secretary of the transport union ASLEF, backs Leave. "The EU has gradually evolved into a neoliberal marketplace," he explains. "The terms of the agreement David Cameron has negotiated if we remain in the EU involve protecting the financial sector. If we remain we might lose the chance to reform the banks, and we won't get it back for at least another 10 years."

Many Lexit campaigners see the EU as essentially a neoliberal prison, which locks in austerity for any nation that signs up. They cite the 2015 Greek crisis in as an example of both the EU's neoliberal ideology and lack of democracy. When the Greek people nominated radical left-wing party Syriza to power amid financial collapse, the troika (that's Greece's creditors, and it consists of the European commission, the International Monetary Fund and the European Central Bank) demanded the country accept crippling austerity measures, against the wishes of the Greek people. In 2015, journalist Paul Mason (who is actually voting Remain – more on that later) wrote that the EU's main powers had attempted to "ritually humiliate" the Greek government. He added: "By countermanding first the landslide victory of an elected government and then a 61% plebiscite majority, the EU functionally vetoed the outcomes of Greek democracy."

The Left-Wing Argument TO Remain

Most left-wing campaigners who want to remain in the EU think the EU needs serious reforms. But they have calculated that, even with the EU's problems, it is still better for Britain to remain a member than to leave. Many left-wingers have made this decision because they believe it is likely that if Britain leaves the EU, the country is likely to move to the right, not the left – and it won't have the more progressive elements of EU law to rein it in.

I can't imagine Michael Gove and Boris Johnson fighting to protect our rights at work while they desperately seek trade deals with other countries.

Caroline Lucas, the Green MP for Brighton Pavillion, is one of the leading leftwing figures calling on Britons to vote Remain. In a recent piece, she wrote: "The EU is, as it stands, a real brake on attacks on our rights. Cross-border rules mean that we're not forced to work more than 48 hours per week, that we're entitled to four weeks' paid holiday and that part-time and agency workers are entitled to equal pay and conditions. Women are guaranteed equal pay for equal value of work by an EU ruling. Crucially these rules apply to every single country across the entire EU – thus stopping multinational firms engaging in a ruthless race to the bottom as they hop, skip and jump across borders in search of a less protected workforce. If we leave, then what? I can't imagine Michael Gove and Boris Johnson fighting to protect our rights at work while they desperately seek trade deals with other countries, can you?"

These "brakes on our rights" are also the reason that most trade unions in Britain back a Remain vote.

But left-wing campaigners aren't just concerned about the effect of Brexit upon workers' rights. They also argue that the government has only attempted to tackle air pollution, clean up our beaches, and prevent catastrophic climate change because it has been compelled to do so by EU law.

And here lies the nub of the left-wing argument to remain in the EU. Yes, the EU has its problems, remain campaigners concede, but the mainstream Leave campaign has been so right-wing that Brexit would realistically result in a surge for the hard right. Paul Mason, after deciding on balance to vote Remain, wrote, "The conservative right could have conducted the leave campaign on the issues of democracy, rule of law and UK sovereignty, leaving the economics to the outcome of a subsequent election. Instead, [Boris] Johnson and the Tory right are seeking a mandate via the referendum for a return to full-blown Thatcherism: less employment regulation, lower wages, fewer constraints on business. If Britain votes Brexit, then Johnson and Gove stand ready to seize control of the Tory party and turn Britain into a neoliberal fantasy island."

Then there's the issue of migration. With public hostility towards migrants increasing, and migration becoming the lynchpin for the entire debate, remain left-wingers worry that Brexit could trigger an explosion of xenophobia. As Priyamvada Gopal, an academic from the Cambridge University, puts it: "From this point on, a vote to leave is a vote for Little England, hostility to immigrants, xenophobia and, worst of all, perhaps, a vote for the magnificent and deliberate lie that exploitation, austerity, greed and impoverishment have all come to Britain from the nasty outside, whether in the form of the EU or those of us who have come here for work."

So basically either you can vote Leave, removing Britain for the lock of the economic austerity that is orthodoxy in the EU and hope that a left-wing Labour government gets elected with a huge mandate and then is untempered by the neoliberals in Brussels. Or you can vote Remain for fear of Britain becoming Boris and Nigel's Little England island, a place where xenophobia and Thatcherism run free, untempered by EU safeguards on workers' rights. On the left, this is in essence, a battle between idealism and pragmatism.

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