By Steve Dobbs
Comrades, I write this in very difficult circumstances. Following the collapse of all public utilities, my candlelight has nearly run out and I can hear Nigel Farage and his legions of storm-troopers fast approaching, punctuated with the sound of sirens as EU migrants are rounded up by the state for immediate deportation.
Or so you would think based on how the liberal Left and even many Marxists are acting in the wake of the majority vote to leave the EU (52% to 48%) in last month’s referendum. In this article I want to explain why Marxists should acknowledge the democratic mandate for Brexit and address the various accusations of the Remain camp that Brexit is bad news. But first, some background is needed.
Roots of UKIP and the EU Referendum
The UK Independence Party was founded in 1993 as the successor to the Anti-Federalist League by Alan Sked, professor of international history at the London School of Economics (Guardian 2014). As well as being in favour of leaving the EU, members were expected to endorse the following statement on the organisation:
It is a non-sectarian, non-racist party with no prejudices against foreigners or lawful minorities of any kind. It does not recognise the legitimacy of the European parliament and will send representatives only to the British parliament in Westminster (ibid).
Sked saw UKIP as a minor liberal party opposed to the EU and clearly opposed racism and prejudice. This immediately puts a lie to the false notion that leaving the EU equates to racism!
Unfortunately for Sked, the party was later hijacked by right-wingers who wanted an explicitly nationalist and populist programme, and Nigel Farage assumed leadership in 2006.
Somewhat ironically, UKIP have been more electorally successful in the European Parliament than the Commons, gaining 27.5% of the vote in 2014 and 24 seats. In this sense, voting UKIP was more of a protest vote, sticking two fingers up to Brussels and the distant, hidden workings of the EU that mystifies most Brits. Compare this to the British Parliamentary results, where UKIP received only 3.1% of the vote and zero seats in 2010. It is only following the election of the Tory-Liberal (or ‘Con-Dem’) government in 2010, accelerated austerity and the ongoing effects of the crisis of global capitalism that UKIP’s vote increased significantly to 12.6% in last year’s General Election, giving them a seat in the House of Commons. During the same period (2010-2015), UKIP membership increased from 15,500 to 47,000, and the party began to have a more obvious influence on the mainstream political scene, with Farage becoming a regular on TV shows such as BBC’s Question Time. It is under the pressure from UKIP and the eurosceptic Tory Right in the run up to the 2015 General Election that David Cameron, as leader of the Conservative Party, agreed to hold a referendum on membership of the EU. As we know, the Tories went on to win the 2015 General Election with a thin majority of 12 MPs and thus agreed to carry out the referendum on membership of the European Union that took place on 23rd June 2016.
Official Remain and Leave Campaigns
In the months running up to the referendum, two camps were formed amongst the ruling class. The Remain camp was supported by the Labour leadership and the majority of MPs, the Tory leadership and the majority of their MPs, the Trades Union Congress (TUC) and the Lib Dems. However, it should be noted that Corbyn and his real allies in Parliament did not share the Remain platform with Cameron and company. Correctly, Corbyn and McDonnell recognised that sharing a platform with Tories would be a PR disaster; Labour voters and the general public want a real alternative to the slick establishment politicians of Westminster, which is, in part, an aspect of the appeal of UKIP as ‘outsiders’.
Remain largely campaigned on the basis that access to the EU market created jobs and that our economy was reliant on having access to the single market. The TUC emphasised workers’ rights and protections, although Bruce Wallace in a previous article has already showed this to be a red herring (Marxist World 2016). Corbyn’s campaign was on the basis of creating a more equitable ‘social’ Europe for workers, in contrast to his previous lifelong opposition to the EU.
The Leave Camp was a motley crew of dissident Tories such as Boris Johnson, UKIP and ‘Labour Leave’ MPs such as Kate Hoey. What is interesting is that the initial literature produced by the Vote Leave campaign had their primary policy proposition to take the alleged £350 million a week spent on EU membership and use it to fund the NHS. Thus the Leave campaign had a progressive appeal, particularly to working class voters who could feel their NHS under strain with waiting times increasing and wards being closed down.
Of course, one of the major narratives in the official campaigns, and especially for UKIP, was immigration. ‘Concerns around immigration’ has become the catch-all phrase for pretty much everything. On the one hand, it represents, through a distorted lens, genuine concerns about lack of affordable housing, falling wages, lack of job security and crumbling public services, but with blame wrongly apportioned on immigrants instead of crisis-ridden capitalism. On the other hand, it obviously draws support from racist elements who want to ‘send the immigrants back’.
The Vote Leave campaign put forward the idea of an Australian points-based immigration system to control who can enter the country based on skill set. However, it should be clearly stated that none of the parties were in favour of deporting existing EU migrants. So whilst in the subjective minds of some racists Brexit meant ‘sending them back’, objectively it meant no such thing. Objectively Brexit meant leaving the European Union. Whatever policy programme would be adopted post-referendum, including policies around immigration, would be decided by the Government, not any of the campaigns as such. As Leave campaigner and Tory MP Iain Duncan-Smith said, ‘Our promises were a series of possibilities’!
Opposition to immigration has been stoked by the mainstream media and political parties for decades. One of Labour’s six election pledges under Ed Miliband was ‘controls on immigration’! All sections of the bourgeois bare responsibility for stoking up racism and division. For example, anti-Muslim hate crime increased by 200% from 2014 to 2015, over a year before the referendum (Huffington Post 2016). Therefore it is wrong to blame the vote to leave the EU, or even the referendum itself, solely for the recent increase in xenophobia and racism. The EU referendum has brought out the tensions that have been simmering away in the background for a long time, but in itself did not create them.
Is UKIP a Fascist Party?
UKIP is a right-wing populist and nationalist party. Many would argue it has racist undertones and draws support from racists. This is absolutely correct. But then again, so do the Tories! Why is UKIP singled out for racism, but not the Tories? Is UKIP qualitatively different? Some have gone as far to argue that UKIP are indeed different and describe them as far-right or even fascist. Are people who vote for UKIP fascists or the basis for a mass fascist movement?
I’m afraid such a conclusion is a false one. Historically, fascism has only arisen as a mass movement as a response to the threat of a strong workers’ movement and socialist revolution. Since the workers’ movement is at relatively low ebb historically, the turn towards right-populism amongst some voters cannot be explained on this basis. Instead, we have to understand the class composition of UKIP voters and the eclectic mix of policies that UKIP stands for.
UKIP should not be seen simply as the right-wing of the Tories, nor some sort of working class party. It is a very contradictory formation, with its ideological cross-breeding reflected in its manifesto. Here you have left-wing policies such as increasing funding in the NHS, scrapping the ‘bedroom tax’, ending zero-hour contracts and utilising empty houses, alongside traditional right-wing policies such as allowing British businesses to choose to employ British workers first , cutting EU red tape and introducing an Australian-style points-based immigration system (UKIP 2015). On this basis, UKIP draws the bulk of its support from two distinct groups: small business owners/self-employed and lower sections of the white working class (LSE 2015).
Mainstream commentators often point out that UKIP supporters tend to be old. Whilst having some truth, this is often exaggerated in order to put across a liberal narrative of a ‘generational divide’. Yet both the Conservatives and Lib Dems perform better with voters aged 25+ than those under 25. It is true that UKIP perform slightly better with those aged 65+ compared to those aged 45-64, but then again nearly half of 65+ year olds voted Tory in 2015! (Ipsos Mori 2015).
Things become more interesting when looking at social class and vote cast in the 2015 General Election. Labour and UKIP are the only parties that show a clear trend of increasing support as you go down the social class categories (ibid). The opposite is the case for the Conservatives and the Lib Dems, whereas support the Greens seems consistent across all social classes (ibid).
Another indicator is the housing tenure of voters. As one would expect, the Tories draw majority support from those who own their house or have a mortgage, whereas Labour obtain majority support from those in rented accommodation. UKIP is somewhere in the middle, thus indicating no obvious class bias (ibid).
A cross-class social base, such as that associated with UKIP, is the basis for populism, either of the right-wing or left-wing nature, but not fascism. For example, in 1930’s Germany, the parties were very much class based. The KPD’s (Communist Party’s) membership was almost exclusively unemployed workers, and the SPD (Social Democrats) were based on the traditional labour movement. In the last ‘free’ election in Novemeber 1932, the two parties combined drew 37% of the vote against the Nazi’s 33%. The Nazi’s support base was neither predominantly working class nor the unemployed, but mostly the ruined middle classes who had lost their savings and livelihoods in the Great Depression and saw the rise of the socialist/communist Left as a danger to their social status. In today’s situation, since there is no mass socialist/communist movement threatening the capitalist social order, the existing mainstream bourgeois parties are generally sufficient to keep the aspirations of the petit-bourgeois in check and the system relatively stable. Whilst we should not be complacent, there is presently no material basis for a mass fascist movement in Britain.
Unfortunately a sober analysis is lost on the mainstream liberal left, which is largely populated by the middle class. For them, Brexit is UKIP is fascism. I was warned by many friends, including some Marxists, of the dire consequences for voting Leave – including a ‘far-right’ Nigel Farage-Boris Johnson government in power, EU migrants being taken away and UKIP storm troopers battering down my door!
When the referendum result to leave the EU was announced, the liberals could barely contain their frustration and contempt for those that voted Leave: Idiots! How dare these morons be given the right to vote! We demand the result is voided! We demand a second referendum!
And yet it was the working class who carried the vote to leave. Every social class voted in a majority for Brexit except for AB, the high-power middle class professionals and managers (Lord Ashcroft 2016). In fact the trend was: the lower the social class, the bigger the majority for Leave!
The thin veneer of radicalism that these liberals had has now washed away, and they are now running in to the hands of the very bourgeois establishment that they supposedly opposed, their contempt for the working class exposed.
It is true that there has been an upsurge in racism recently, and the mainstream media is opportunistically and suddenly showing concern for these problems that have been around for decades, which they have helped fuel. However, the notion that a Remain vote would have prevented this surge in racism is ridiculous. The problem is not ‘Brexit’ – the problem is the crisis of capitalism.
Marxists and other anti-fascists are continuing the same work they have been doing for years: taking on the far-right on the streets. Only today, a far-right anti-migrant ‘Brexit party’ march was expected in the post-industrial working class city of Southampton. But far from a festival of racist reaction predicted by the liberals, a pathetic 20-30 fash turned up at the train station, only to be chased away by 500 anti-fascists, including local trade unionists, workers and socialists (Daily Echo 2016).
The lesson is it’s important to understand that even many UKIP voters have no desire for a ‘fascist’ government, and it is precisely those workers who are fed up with the status quo that are ripe for being won to Marxism and socialist revolution. If you write off the working class as inherently racist, you also write off socialism.
The Post-Brexit Split in Socialism
In the run up to the EU referendum, Marxists were very much split down the middle as to what position to take. Arguments were put across by the Marxist Left for Remain, Leave and even abstention. However, the split I allude to is not based on the vote advocated in the referendum. Many Marxists who advocated voting to remain in the EU, whilst understandably disappointed with the result, accept the democratic mandate and the fact that we will be leaving the EU. This is formally accepted by the Tories and Labour.
Unfortunately, a minority of the Marxist Remain camp have not been able to accept the democratic mandate to leave the EU. Their analysis has been based on the superficial notion that Brexit is a far-right project, and therefore Brexit is inexorably tied up with racism. Based on this flawed schema, anyone who voted to leave the EU has been denounced as racist or for entering a ‘red-brown’ alliance (i.e. socialists allying with fascists). Like the liberals, they too believe that leaving the EU is a major step towards a ‘far-right’ government or some sort of alliance between Tories and UKIP. Unfortunately these comrades have bought into the liberal hysteria and many are joining the legions of the stampeding middle class in calling for the democratic mandate of the referendum to be overturned. Yet aren’t we meant to be defending Jeremy Corbyn on the very basis of his democratic mandate? So much for principles.
The split that is manifesting in socialism is exposing the liberal-opportunists as supporters of the establishment and the capitalist state. On the basis of the so-called threat of ‘Brexit fascism’, many would-be socialists are now declaring the need for alliances with petit-bourgeois and even bourgeois forces, such as a Labour-Green-Liberal coalition! This plays straight into the hands of the Blairites who are already eyeing up such a pro-establishment, pro-EU ‘national coalition’.
In reality, what has happened since Brexit is that the Tories are disintegrating due to in-fighting over who to lead the party (with Boris Johnson no longer in the running), George Osborne has removed the Tory commitment to paying off the Government debt by 2020 and the Blairites have launched an unsuccessful coup attempt to oust Corbyn, and in doing so have galvanised the membership against the bulk of the Parliamentary Labour Party!
The establishment are in turmoil. Marxists should be taking advantage of the opportunities opening within the Left of Labour to put across a radical socialist programme to raise living standards for all, defend migrants and leave the capitalist EU. Let’s ‘leave’ the campaign for rejoining the EU to the frenzied petit-bourgeois.
Daily Echo. 2016. ‘Anti-fascists descend on Southampton city centre to counter far-right march’. http://m.dailyecho.co.uk/news/14594577.Anti_fascists_descend_on_Southampton_to_counter_far_right_march/
Guardian. 2014. Ukip founder Alan Sked: ‘The party has become a Frankenstein’s monster’. http://www.theguardian.com/politics/2014/may/26/ukip-founder-alan-sked-party-become-frankensteins-monster
Huffington Post. 2016. ‘Anti-Muslim Hate Crime In Britain ‘Jumped 200% In 2015’ Tell Mama Report Shows’. http://www.huffingtonpost.co.uk/entry/tell-mama-report-reveals-200-jump-in-anti-muslim-incidents-in-2015_uk_5772837ce4b0d257114a6f3e
Ipsos Mori. 2015. ‘How Britain voted in 2015’. https://www.ipsos-mori.com/researchpublications/researcharchive/3575/How-Britain-voted-in-2015.aspx
Lord Ashcroft Polls. 2016. ‘How the United Kingdom Voted and Why’. http://lordashcroftpolls.com/2016/06/how-the-united-kingdom-voted-and-why/
LSE. 2015. ‘Working class votes and Conservative losses: solving the UKIP puzzle’. http://blogs.lse.ac.uk/politicsandpolicy/working-class-votes-and-conservative-losses-solving-the-ukip-puzzle/
Marxist World. 2016. ‘Why I’m voting to leave the EU on 23rd June’. http://marxistworld.net/2016/06/why-im-voting-to-leave-the-eu-on-23rd-june/
UKIP. 2015. ‘UKIP 2015 Election Manifesto summary’. http://www.ukip.org/ukip_manifesto_summary