For the second time in less than a year, the British public have voiced an opinion in direct opposition to the vast majority of established political and economic power. The election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader came against all warnings by all major newspapers, intellectuals, academics and bookies. Today, after an even larger swathe of the establishment backed the Remain camp (three-quarters of the Commons supported it), Britain has voted 17.4m to 16.1m to leave the European Union at a 72% turnout. The position Conservatives, Labour, Liberal Democrats, Greens, SNP and Plaid Cymru adopted was summarily rejected. From London to Newcastle to Birmingham, predicted safe Remain zones turned out to be far less secure.
The sheer force of the 17.4m Leave vote cannot be analysed by simply claiming that some people are racist little Englanders and don’t like foreigners. Only 3.8m voted for UKIP in last year’s general election. It’s particularly depressing to see academics lamenting the vote as purely a victory for reactionary demagogues, ignoring many of the crucial factors influencing the Leave vote (not all 17.4m voters hate immigrants). Many Leave voters, according to serious polling, have alarming and legitimate grievances, but it’s also critical to acknowledge that the Leave vote represents in part a frantic cry against the existing mechanisms of representative democracy, which are neither representative nor democratic. We should be very clear about this point: The EU is a valid target for this resentment, for reasons explained by many over the past few weeks, and it’s no use Remain voters exasperatingly pointing to the EU’s mild environmental protections as some kind of devastating rebuttal of deep-seated working class resentment.
Early this morning, Tim Farron said he was ‘utterly gutted and heartbroken’ by the result, and Richard Branson recently claimed Brexit would make him ‘sad’. In contrast, Corbyn shed no tears but proved himself to be much more in touch with the public than the rest of the political and business world with his mature resolve throughout the referendum and his “7.5” support for the EU, as he put it. It is also to the eternal shame of much of the young, student Left that in its various pro-Remain campaigns it put forward arguments without any genuine acknowledgement of the EU’s monumental failures, things that the Bennite Left and other sectors of the traditional socialist movement in Britain would have pointed to straight away (and in fact did), even if their decision was to ultimately push for Remain. There was zero consideration of the EU’s unique, instrumental role in strengthening far-right forces across its member states. The degree of sheer dishonesty on the part of Remain students, academics and business leaders has frankly been staggering.
That said, many on the Left voted Remain for sensible and justifiable reasons, and the Left now needs to reunite against the common threat of looming xenophobia infiltrating mainstream circles. We should recall that the racist right inhabited both sides of the debate, and anyone who thinks Boris Johnson is any worse than Cameron on immigration is simply kidding themselves. Cameron’s performance on last week’s Question Time revealed as much. The prime minister came out with some of the most vicious anti-immigrant rhetoric imaginable, boasting about his goals for severe migration controls and cheerleading plans to deport any immigrant who doesn’t find work within four minutes of being in the UK.
The divisions in the Tory party become extremely apparent when only shortly after Johnson, IDS, Gove and others signed a letter calling on Cameron to stay on as PM (afraid that their in-party disagreement may have more severe repercussions than they bargained for), the prime minister politely rejected their wishes and promised to resign by October. Theresa May or Johnson seem likely candidates.
The goals for the Left should now be to propose a serious EU-free economic agenda (plans for McDonnell’s People’s Quantitative Easing, for instance, will no longer be deterred by EU law, as I wrote in ‘Another Tamriel is Possible’) combined with a socialist message which resonates with the legitimate anti-EU working class resentment so clearly exposed by this morning’s results. Perhaps more urgently, the Left should rally around a coherent anti-racist, anti-fascist, pro-immigration message against the newly emerging establishment Leave winners: Donald Trump has arrived in Scotland today, not without timely symbolic significance. Demonstrations are also being organised outside Downing Street tonight from 6pm onwards showing solidarity with immigrants amongst other things. The serious amounts of pro-Remain/Leave voting energy need to translate into concrete political action from today onwards. This energy needs to be sustained, with the conviction many on the Left had for the ‘Another Europe is Possible’ campaign needing to be redirected against the forces who orchestrated and directed this referendum from the outset: The fractured, ageing, increasingly isolated Tories.