Is there a left-wing case for the UK to exit the European Union? This has been a recent topic of conversation among socialists and social democrats, and on its face there are some good arguments in favor.
For a start, the European Union is a capitalistic project to expand and harmonize markets. This is its second-most important goal after preventing European wars (although these two goals and the agreements to pursue them are mutually reinforcing). Harmonization has not uniformly advanced left-wing causes or policies, and the architecture of the EU is reflective of the German ordoliberal tradition (Mark Blyth, among others, has emphasized this point). That structure places constraints on the authority of democratic politics and removes certain capacities (e.g. drawing up primary legislation, monetary policy) from the direct control of elected officials. Add to this the extraordinary conditions of austerity that the European institutions of the troika have dictated to the periphery since the beginning of the eurocrisis—conditions which have created a Great Depression in Greece by political choice, not necessity—and one may begin to feel a serious antipathy towards this international capitalistic project.
I have a lot of sympathy for parts of this view, particularly on the flawed institutional designs and the emphasis on sticking to rules instead of pragmatism. More than 25% of Greek children are in poverty today because of political choices. That fact on its own may motivate some leftists to vote “leave” tomorrow.
The trouble with this argument is that the referendum requires, simultaneously, a vote against a proposition, and a vote for an alternative. And that alternative is—or, more accurately, the various potential alternatives are—much worse. I’ll explain by gaming out the potential results of Leave and Remain. This is, of course, all speculative and based on my judgment of probabilities. But, alas, without a time machine, I cannot offer any superior foresight, so let’s head into possible lands of The Future.
Referendum Result: Leave Victory
It’s Friday morning, and Leave has won—what happens next? First, David Cameron is likely to resign. He may or may not trigger Article 50, which begins the withdrawal negotiation process, before doing so. There will be a Conservative leadership election which will almost certainly be won by an “Out” campaigner, probably Boris Johnson. At this point we hit our first fork in the road:
Permutation 1: A Conservative government is formed under a new, “Leave” Prime Minister
This seems plausible. In the chaos surrounding an “out” vote, the Tories may well come together (perhaps with help from the DUP to shore up their majority) for partisan stability in a challenging period. Would this government be in any way amenable to the concerns of the left? No. They would be far more likely to roll back than to maintain aspects of European regulation that protect workers’ rights and the environment, for example. Their domestic agenda would be at least as right-wing, if not further to the right, than the present government, and the likely hit to the public finances produced by Brexit would provide cover for additional austerity. No sensible leftist should hope for this option.
At this point, there may be an objection—but if the Tories will do all of these awful things, won’t that provide an opening for Labour or a left coalition to win in 2020 and develop a sort of “socialism in one country”? We can’t rule out this possibility, but it isn’t likely. Remember, first, that there was a right & center-right majority of the popular vote share at the last election (UKIP + Conservatives). Add to that the continuing strength of the SNP in Scotland, and the result is that Labour will need to win back a lot of middle England seats to elect a center-left government in 2020. Such a possibility seems distinctly implausible, absent some catastrophic mismanagement or an exogenous shock like a global recession (which we can neither expect nor assume).
Permutation 2: A Snap General Election
Perhaps the new Conservative leader won’t be able to command a Commons majority—maybe Europhilic Tories will split off, and Boris Johnson will have to call an early election. In this permutation, any opportunity from Brexit for a leftist will rely on the chance of a left-wing government being formed after that election. Is that likely? Current polls indicate that it isn’t. While the Conservative-Labour margin has narrowed since last summer, the Tories are consistently ahead, and even a euroskeptic Conservative plurality could be supplemented by UKIP, who are polling around 15% fairly consistently. Further, as noted above, Labour would have to achieve a massive swing in England to even end up as a plurality party.
Following either of the above we may have another joyous festival of internet abuse and spectacular mendacity—I mean democracy. A festival of democracy.
Permutation 3: Scottish Independence Referendum #2
Scotland is likely to vote roughly 60/40 for Remain, so there could be a case for a second referendum. This, of course, would (probably) have to be approved by Westminster, unless Nicola Sturgeon wants to try what the Catalans did with an “advisory” referendum. The “Yes” side needs about a 6% swing, which is not negligible but also not out of the realm of possibility. A “No” vote would probably strengthen the Westminster parties at the expense of the SNP (two referendum losses would essentially destroy the party’s raison d’être), although not necessarily to Labour’s overall advantage; a “Yes” would make a left/Labour government from only England and Wales prohibitively unlikely. In short, a second referendum is unlikely to put a left wing government back in power in Westminster. Holyrood might get a center/center-left post-independence government, but the likely economic and political turmoil that would follow Brexit and Scottish independence would dampen the popularity of the SNP and reduce their redistributive fiscal policy options.
If you accept the qualitative probabilities I have assigned above, then I’d suggest it’s pretty clear that none of them provide an obvious route to a social democratic government following a UK exit from the EU. Leave is not a good option for the left.
Referendum Result: Remain Victory
The most unpleasant part of this outcome will be over quickly—a triumphant David Cameron walks out of 10 Downing Street on Friday morning to announce that his renegotiation has been endorsed by the British public, who have chosen to stay in the EU. He will say that this has been the choice of a generation, and that the issue is settled (it won’t be).
Things will probably get better after that. The Leavers will undoubtedly demand a second referendum, claiming all sorts of spurious and imagined grievances about the conduct of this one. On one hand, the current referendum will almost certainly embolden and increase support for UKIP and the far-right. On the other hand, I think (from a distance) that most British people are pretty sick of the issue and don’t want to hear it debated again for some time. The key players in this scenario will be the Tory leadership contenders. Will Johnson and (maybe) Theresa May (as well as any others on the right of the party) promise another referendum after the 2020 election? There would be plenty of support within the party for a second vote; according to the FT, Conservatives are likely to break +15% for Leave tomorrow. Given what Johnson has said about the EU, accepting continuing membership as Prime Minister would seem to be difficult—but he has gotten away with far more audacious political acrobatics.
All of this is likely to leave left-Labourites no worse off than they are now. In fact, another three years of barely-disguised Tory civil war over Europe and the leadership will probably do the Conservative party no good at all in 2020. If we end up with this outcome, it will be up to Labour itself to make a strong case for returning to power.
That’s enough wild and hopefully somewhat informed speculation. There is another, more important point to be made on the “Lexit” question. If socialism and social democracy can be summarized in a simple belief, it is that the solidarity of workers can produce positive social outcomes. This solidarity does not need to be—and should not be—constrained by national borders. The British left may exist on islands, but it ought not behave as if it is wholly separate from the rest of the European left. Leaving the EU will not put food in the mouths of Greek children or pensioners. It will not protect labor rights in France. It will not produce employment opportunities for young people in Spain. It will not provide long-overdue wage increases in Germany. It will not bolster the cause of Polish and Hungarian leftists against their center-right or right-wing governments. Leaving destroys solidarity. It prevents meaningful cooperation. It is an abandonment of any serious attempt to spread left-wing principles across Europe.
Remaining requires a re-commitment to the European struggle for social democracy. It requires an acceptance that Britain’s left and Labourites will have to work to fix the European Union in adverse circumstances and against much opposition. But the scale of the task is no excuse to renounce it. The outcome is too important for that.