The British people’s vote to leave the European Union (EU) on 23 June 2016 – by 52% against 48% – was a massive blow against monopoly capitalism in Britain, Europe and the world. The wealthy capitalist elite are aghast that ordinary people could dare to challenge their right to rule the world through their control of the economic levers of power, of which the EU is a key component.
They clearly expect to win and continue with business as usual, and are now panicking to manage the chaos which has hit their stock exchanges, currencies and investment strategies. The Brexit vote wiped out a record $2.1-trillion on the world stock exchanges, with more money disappearing than in any single market day ever. The value of the British pound crashed 12% in just two days to its lowest levels for 30 years, and Barclays Bank lost one-third of its value.
Britain has already suffered something that South Africans are familiar with – a downgrading by ratings agencies which have lowered the outlook for the UK’s credit rating from stable to negative.
As in most referendums, the outcome reflects not just people’s response to the specific question on the ballot paper – whether to remain inside or leave the EU – but their feelings about other issues. The 17-million who voted for Leave were expressing their anger at big business making the working class pay for the economic crisis in recent years, through low pay, zero-hour contracts, benefit cuts, the lack of affordable housing, public service cuts, growing unemployment and the virtual destruction of the manufacturing industry.
The biggest votes for leaving were in the poorest working-class areas, where people used the referendum as an opportunity not only to oppose the undemocratic, remote capitalist EU and to protest against its effects on their lives, but to condemn attacks on jobs, living standards and the quality of their lives.
As well as the economic turmoil, the referendum has further destabilised the increasingly “DisUnited” Kingdom, with both Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to remain in the EU, while England and Wales opted for leaving. This has led to calls for a second independence referendum in Scotland and another for Northern Ireland, which will be the only part of the UK with a land border with the EU, as the Republic of Ireland remains inside.
It has also led to chaos within the main political parties. David Cameron has resigned and his Conservative Party is voting for a new leader who can unite their deeply divided ranks. The Labour Party’s left-wing leader, Jeremy Corbyn, has suffered a motion of no-confidence from right-wing MPs who condemned his luke-warm backing for the party’s campaign to remain in the EU, though this may well be reversed by the party’s rank and file members at the National Conference in September.
Worryingly however, right-wing politicians, on both sides of the debate, created a dangerous atmosphere by using racist and xenophobic propaganda, which increased the danger of hatred towards immigrants and racist and far-right attacks like the murder of Labour MP, Jo Cox.
This sends out a warning to the labour and socialist movement to ignore this danger at their peril, and to counter it with an internationalist campaign against the EU around the slogan “For a united socialist Europe”.
Interestingly, one of the shrewdest responses to the Brexit vote was published across the Atlantic in the New York Times on 28 June 2016 by Bernie Sanders, the left-wing Democratic Presidential contender, who viewed Brexit from an international perspective.
“Surprise, surprise,” he wrote, “Workers in Britain, many of whom have seen a decline in their standard of living while the very rich in their country have become much richer, have turned their backs on the European Union and a globalised economy that is failing them and their children.
“And it’s not just the British who are suffering. That increasingly globalised economy, established and maintained by the world’s economic elite, is failing people everywhere. Incredibly, the wealthiest 62 people on this planet own as much wealth as the bottom half of the world’s population – around 3.6-billion people. The top 1% now owns more wealth than the whole of the bottom 99%. The very, very rich enjoy unimaginable luxury while billions of people endure abject poverty, unemployment, and inadequate healthcare, education, housing and drinking water.
“Could this rejection of the current form of the global economy happen in the United States? You bet it could.”
“In the last 15 years, nearly 60,000 factories in this country have closed, and more than 4.8-million well-paid manufacturing jobs have disappeared… Despite major increases in productivity, the median male worker in America today is making $726 dollars less than he did in 1973, while the median female worker is making $1,154 less than she did in 2007, after adjusting for inflation.
“Nearly 47-million Americans live in poverty… Frighteningly, millions of poorly educated Americans will have a shorter life span than the previous generation as they succumb to despair, drugs and alcohol. Meanwhile, in our country the top one-tenth of 1% now owns almost as much wealth as the bottom 90%; 58% of all new income is going to the top 1%”.
But Sanders also warns about the negative aspect of this rejection. “We need real change. But we do not need change based on the demagogy, bigotry and anti-immigrant sentiment that punctuated so much of the Leave campaign’s rhetoric — and is central to Donald J. Trump’s message.”
Some of those who voted for Leave were undoubtedly motivated at least partly for racist or nationalist reasons, but it would be wrong to suggest that the voters had a predominantly racist view. Even many of those using anti-immigrant arguments were not directed so much at people who have come to Britain, but at employers using workers from other countries to drive down wages.
The fundamental character of the exit vote was that it was a working class revolt. There was a correlation between the levels of poverty in an area and the size of the vote for Leave. And this was the case not only in white working class areas, but also in more ethnically diverse working class areas like the city of Bradford.
It is crucial that socialists in Britain, the US and here in South Africa step up their campaign against racism and xenophobia and for workers’ unity, which can build on the support that the British vote against the bosses’ EU has received from workers all over Europe.
One of the biggest decisions now facing British workers is how to respond to the crisis in the Labour Party, which the majority have supported for decades. A left-wing grouping, Momentum, the organisation initially set up to organise support for Jeremy Corbyn, reacted by correctly saying that: “Millions appear to have chosen ‘Leave’ to vote against the unfettered globalisation that has seen living standards stagnate or fall, as the cost of living rises.” But it was late in the day to recognise that truth after their leaders spent the referendum campaigning for Remain!
Although Jeremy Corbyn did refuse to appear alongside Conservative politicians, his support for Remain was exploited by David Cameron to try to win a majority for Remain in the EU. He declared that he couldn’t “be accused of an establishment stitch-up” because he was “saying listen to Jeremy Corbyn and the Green party”.
And unfortunately the majority of trade union and Labour Party leaders who did support Leave failed to campaign on an independent working class platform and adopt a socialist, internationalist campaign for Leave and oppose the “Little Englanders” of United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) and right-wing Conservatives who opposed the EU for fundamentally opposite capitalist reasons.
As the Socialist Party of England and Wales said: “The political situation would have been transformed if Jeremy Corbyn had stuck by his own historic position of opposition to the EU because, as he said at the time of the Maastricht Treaty: ‘It takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers…’.
“The complete absence of a mass working class voice in the referendum has left the ground free to the ex-Conservative, ex-stockbroker and [now ex-]leader of the UKIP, Nigel Farage to falsely pose as the voice of the ‘’little people’. In reality, of course, the divisive Little Englander ideas of UKIP offer no way forward for working class people.”
Corbyn’s election as Labour leader reflected the growing anti-austerity mood in society. There is now a serious challenge from the right wing in the party, which could lead to the re-emergence of a new leadership like that of Tony Blair, whose policies became indistinguishable from those of the neoliberal Conservatives.
Now, with labour, and indeed the whole country in turmoil, there has never been a better opportunity to build a genuine socialist party of the workers which will challenge the power of monopoly capital and its political mouthpieces in Britain, Europe and the world. DM
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