Here we are, finally. The week of the once-in-a-generation referendum on our continuing membership of the European Union. While the left are largely rallying around Jeremy Corbyn and the Labour Party’s official campaign to stay in the EU, there is a significant portion of the left who are still inherently following in the footsteps of the likes of Tony Benn, Michael Foot and Bob Crow.
A prominent left-wing eurosceptic voice, George Galloway, has joined us to offer a last ditch plea to the left to vote to leave the European Union on June 23rd.
Let’s start by going back in time to the 1975 referendum. Yourself and much of the Labour Left followed Tony Benn and Michael Foot’s lead by campaigning to leave the EEC at the time. Why do you think Euroscepticism on the left, or at least in the Labour Party, has declined so drastically?
This is, as they used to say “the $64,000” question. It has to be answered in two parts. First, has Euroscepticism amongst Labour voters declined drastically? Polls suggest not. At least 40% of Labour supporters are planning to vote leave, and this may prove to be higher. If we vote to leave the EU this week, it will be Labour voters who swung it.
However, you do have a point in that the Parliamentary Labour Party has, with a few exceptions, been fully converted to supporting the EU. But I don’t see any mystery in this. The Parliamentary Labour Party was long ago co-opted by Blairites, and – honourable exceptions aside, once again – just as it backed the Iraq war, just as it backed Blair’s embrace of global capitalism and the financial sector, just as it has consistently failed to fully back Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, it backs the neoliberal EU project.
Ultimately, this comes down to an abandonment of core Labour values and the working class by the great majority of the Parliamentary Labour Party. As most of them have no vision for an alternative to rampant neoliberalism and a deindustrialised, finance-led, low wage economy, they calculate the best way to make this work is within the EU. It is especially painful to see this in the case of specifically left-wing forces which you allude to, often on the left of the Labour Party or outside of it entirely, who one would have expected better from (which is not the case of the Blairites, who have the benefit of being clear about their social and economic project).
Perhaps if we are “generous” and try to give this some kind of “progressive” interpretation, we can say they have so little faith in the British people, that they think we are some kind of uncivilised tribe, painting our faces blue, and only able to vote in right-wing government, and therefore they feel the EU will guarantee some kind of minimal safety net for the very poorest within the neoliberal economic model. But not only is this view deeply insulting, it is also self-defeating and overly optimistic about the EU, which right now is imposing harsh austerity measures and destroying the social fabric of countries such as Greece, Portugal, Spain, Ireland and others.
All of this in large part explains the disconnect between the Labour Party and the left on one hand, and their traditional supporters on the other, leading to the loss of millions of votes to apathy and to UKIP. This also explains the lethargy of Labour’s “Remain” campaign as a whole, which inspires no enthusiasm amongst its supporters, even those who on balance may vote to stay.
Tony Benn’s predictions in Arguments for Socialism (1980) about the future of the EEC are incredibly accurate. A distinct lack of democratic accountability, the decimation of our manufacturing history as well as higher unemployment figures and a higher trade deficit. How much of this do you directly attribute to policies imposed by Brussels as opposed to the national governments of the day?
I think this is a false dichotomy. EU membership strengthens the hand of big business and allows right-wing governments to more effectively drive down workers’ wages. The “free movement of goods, services, labour and capital” is enshrined in the EU constitution, and we are prohibited from running and average annual budget deficit of higher than 3%. Similarly, all proposal and implementation of policy is in the hands of the unelected European Commission (EC), a vast network of unelected and unaccountable bureaucrats, of which virtually no-one in the UK could name a single member.
Can you think of any other constitution in the world which guarantees the free movement of capital in its constitution, and which gives the right to propose and implement legislation solely to the Civil Service? Would the left – or in fact anyone in Britain who places any value on democracy – vote for such a constitution were the UK government to propose it here? Of course not. Why, then, do some want to submit ourselves to such a constitution under the EU?
I must also, on this point, make reference to the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership – TTIP – which is being negotiated by the EC in secret, and would allow American corporations to bid for any public service provided by the British state, effectively spelling the end of the NHS and education as we know them. Undoubtedly some British politicians would like to implement such a deal regardless of EU membership, but we can vote them out, and we can reverse the decision, and I am confident we would do if they attempted it. We cannot vote out the EU bureaucracy which is negotiating this right now, and if we remain in the EU we will not be able to reverse TTIP once the EU signs us up for it without our consent.
So to answer your question, EU membership reinforces neoliberal policies in Britain, and this is why big business, Cameron and Osborne, and the Blairites, are backing EU membership. Undoubtedly, we could still end up with a government which implements similar policies outside of the EU, but they would be harder to impose, and much easier to reverse.
Finally, on this point, you made reference to the late, great Tony Benn, my leader and political father, and lifelong opponent of the EU (then EEC) project. Well as Mr Benn famously said, you have to ask five questions to those in power: “what power do you have; where did you get it; in whose interests do you exercise it; to whom are you accountable; and, how can we get rid of you? Anyone who cannot answer the last of those questions does not live in a democratic system.” Clearly, the EU bureaucracy does not pass the test. I prefer to take my chances with the will of the people.
If Neil Kinnock and Tony Blair had not transformed the Labour Party into a predominantly EU-friendly organisation, would Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage still have a complete monopoly on the Brexit narrative today? It feels like the left has been completely blindsided from the entire debate.
I believe you are right, and I don’t believe they would. The left should have come to the fore to lead the democratic, socialist case for leaving the EU, as we did in the 1975 referendum. What’s done is done, we must now learn our lesson. If the British public votes to Leave on the 23rd, as I believe it will, Jeremy Corbyn must be at the forefront of demanding the people’s will is respected and implemented fully, and he must call for David Cameron to step down immediately and call a General Election.
Corbyn has been effectively forced into committing the party to supporting Remain by his own MPs on this issue, who would have gone into open revolt had he not done so. He obviously felt he had to do this. But to his credit, his lack of enthusiasm for the cause has been patently obvious – painfully so for Europhile Labour MPs – and anyone who thinks he is sincere in his support for the EU has never seen a hostage reading out a list of demands.
So Corbyn is actually reasonably well-placed to benefit should “leave” triumph this week. This will be seen as a rejection of Cameron’s government and of the neoliberal status quo. I believe Boris Johnson and Michael Gove would have no legitimacy to lead the British government and to negotiate our terms of withdrawal from the EU, and that Corbyn is well-placed to defeat either in a General Election.
How can you address concerns from many who are intent on voting to stay because British politics could move further to the right after a Brexit, resulting in the potential degradation of worker’s and human rights? Many of these voters don’t believe Europe can be reformed, but don’t want the EU leash to be taken off the Tories.
I refer you to my answers above. The EU is no “leash” on the Tories, it reinforces the status quo in Britain and is on a course towards ever greater freedom for capital and ever less rights for workers. This is why big business, Cameron and Osborne, and the Blairites, are the only ones with any enthusiasm for it.
I must say it is very confusing why anyone who understands the EU cannot be reformed would vote to remain. If we do stay, there will not be another chance for at least a generation to get out, and we will be constitutionally bound to have neoliberal economics imposed on us, on the pain of severe austerity should we try to resist, as has been shown in the cases of Greece, Portugal, Ireland, and others. Outside of the EU we can change course, inside the EU we cannot.
I want to add, once again, that this betrays a real lack of faith in ourselves. As I have said many times in speeches up and down the country, outside of the EU we were quite something. London in the 1960’s was the cultural capital of the world, we were global leaders in workers’ rights, LGBT rights, women’s rights, were building hundreds of thousands of council houses every year – under Conservative as well as Labour governments, imagine that – and we had a thriving industrial sector providing well-paid, meaningful employment. When we joined the EEC, we had 13 million trade unionists, and they were powerful, able to bring down governments, with their leaders household names. Now we have 6 million trade unionists, almost exclusively in the public sector, with virtually no power to defend themselves, and not a single trade union leader is known by the general public.
So again, the EU is not there to defend the workers and it is not a civilising mission, in theory or in practice. This surge in the vote for leave is dividing the country along class lines, it is an insurgency by those disaffected and dispossessed by unrestricted global capitalism, and the left must be on the right side of this debate.
Is the European Union the cause of or the cure for the rise in far-right extremism?
Undoubtedly a cause – can anyone deny this? The brutal austerity it imposed on Greece led to mass support for an openly Nazi party for the first time in decades, something unimaginable only a few years previously, and the far right is growing in every country where the EU neoliberal economic project is wreaking havoc. As I implied above, if the left fails to provide clear answers to pressing questions, and instead vacillates, causing to reform the unreformable, then the benefactor will be the far-right. The solution to this is to be at the forefront of opposition to the EU, from a working class, internationalist perspective.
Criticism has been leveled at Lexit campaigners for their supposed lack of internationalism and the need to stand by side with our Greek, Portuguese, Spanish allies in the European Parliament and fight within the system. Is this a fair argument to make? Or should our allies follow our lead and depart from the Eurozone?
This is an absurd criticism. The way to show solidarity is to shine a beacon of hope that another way is possible. If we vote to leave it will inspire revolt across Europe, and will weaken the very institutions which are crushing the peoples of Southern Europe as we speak, creating the conditions for them to escape the straitjacket of the Euro, and take back control of their own economic policies and currencies. Britain outside of the EU is in a position to support that, within the EU we are of course prohibited from doing so.
In the case of a Brexit, followed by a Corbyn win in the next election – what kind of policies would you like to see enacted that were previously impossible by being a part of the European Union?
I would like to see us protect and reinvest in our industries to create real jobs for working class people, re-nationalise key public services and infrastructure, crack down on tax-dodging corporations and banks in order to meet the social needs of the population and the needs of the wider economy, seek equal and co-operative relations with the rising nations of the East and South – rather than prioritising the fading, failing economies of Europe as we are currently bound to do – and implementing a fair, sustainable and controlled immigration policy.
I want to emphasise this last point: There is nothing left-wing about unlimited mass immigration. It decapitates the countries from the immigrants leave, and drives down wages in those where they arrive. The wealthy benefit from it, as they can afford cheap labor for their companies, or cheap au-pairs, cheap baristas, cheap plumbers. But the working class suffers. Likewise, there is nothing left-wing about what is effectively a “whites only” immigration policy.
As it stands the entire population of Romania could move here if it wished to do so, overnight, yet our brothers and sisters from the Commonwealth, with whom we share so much and to whom we owe so much, have to jump through hoops of fire, rendering it virtually impossible for a Jamaican husband, an Indian son or a Pakistani sister, to get a Visa for their respective wife, mother or brother, even to visit. I have nothing against the people of Romania, in fact I like Romanians, and I believe I am the only British politician to have a book published in Romanian. But this, clearly, is grotesquely unfair and unsustainable.
So returning to your question, I believe there is a good chance Jeremy Corbyn will be the next Prime Minister, and that only by leaving the EU will he be able to implement the economic and social policies this country so desperately needs. By leaving the EU, we will not be leaving Europe. The EU will not stop trading with us: it exports more to us than we export to it, and more jobs in the EU depend on trade with the UK than vice versa. We will however be rejoining the world, free to trade on our own terms with the BRICS countries and the Commonwealth, free to rebuild our ties with the Commonwealth which were so unfairly cut when we joined the EEC. And we will be regaining some belief in democracy and in ourselves, and putting ourselves in a position to build a better, fairer, outward looking, and more prosperous society.