The Tory right mobilised on 24 October, with the help of the right-wing tabloid press, to demand a referendum on British withdrawal from the European Union. They recorded 81 votes against the government.
The Tory right resents the limited legal rights which British workers get from European Union legislation driven by countries where labour movements are stronger and less legally shackled than in Britain.
They would like to see Britain become “offshore” from Europe economically as well as geographically, offering transnational corporations a low-cost production site close to Europe where exploitation can be carried on free from EU regulation. Many also want to see Britain more closely linked to the free-marketing, low-welfare, weakly-unionised USA than to continental Europe.
The Tory right’s mobilisation displays the real meaning of anti-EU agitation. It is not, except demagogically, a protest against the EU’s capitalist nature, or its lack of democracy. Anti-capitalists and democrats can best fight those issues by campaigns for social provision and for democracy across Europe, not by striving to re-erect the barriers between countries.
The Tory right, and UKIP and the BNP, want a Britain outside the EU which will be more unrestrainedly capitalist and whose international connections will be decided by global markets with no democratic control at all.
Yet some of the left and the labour movement still let themselves be the “useful idiots” whom the Tory right can employ to give themselves cover as “patriots” and “democrats”.
Forty years ago, when Britain joined the EU, it looked more as if “keep out of the EU”, or “get out of the EU”, were left-wing causes. Trade unions, the mainstream Labour left, and almost all left groups other than Workers’ Fight (forerunner of AWL) campaigned for Britain to keep out of the EU and then for a vote to withdraw in the 1975 referendum. They dismissed the concurrence of their views with the Daily Express and some right-wing Tories as a secondary detail.
It has long been clear that the alleged secondary detail was the truth of the matter. Maintaining or restoring barriers between countries is a right-wing, not a left-wing, cause, even when counterposed to a botched, bureaucratic, capitalist lowering of barriers like the EU.
To say you want to maintain or restore those barriers as a step to a socialist united states of Europe, as some would-be Trotskyists do, makes the argument more stupid, but not more left-wing.
Much of the mainstream labour movement has corrected itself on the issue, but in an unspoken way. Groups like the SWP and the Socialist Party have never admitted they were wrong. They have just gone relatively quiet, presumably hoping that people will forget.
Logically they should applaud the 19 Labour MPs who voted with the Tory right on 24 October. Logically they should applaud the People’s Pledge campaign, fronted by former Labour left-winger Mark Seddon, though founded by former Tory students’ chair Marc-Henri Glendenning and “pro-car” campaigner Stuart Coster, and boasting sponsorship from many Tory right-wingers. In fact they have been quiet on the Tory rebellion.
The usually shameless Morning Star has been muted too. It quoted RMT rail union leader Bob Crow (who is politically close to the Communist Party of Britain, the group behind the Morning Star, and supported a “No2EU” slate in the 2009 Euro-election). Crow claimed that MPs’ choice on the Tory right-wingers’ parliamentary motion had been to “kowtow to your supine [party] leaders and endorse this drift towards fiscal fascism or stand up for democracy and represent the people that elected you”. (“Fiscal fascism” presumably means cuts. As if the Tory right has any objection to cuts!)
But the Morning Star noticeably did not quite endorse Crow’s comment. It “balanced” it by quoting George Guy, assistant general secretary of the construction union UCATT, who “warned that David Cameron may try to appease Eurosceptic backbenchers... by seeking to remove Britain from many of the existing EU directives on employment, social affairs, and safety... UCATT said that the European legislation underpinned many of the most basic rights enjoyed by British workers”.
As the eurozone plunges into crisis, demagogic right-wing nationalist responses are likely to flourish. The left should clarify itself on the issue.