The vote to leave the EU, declared in the early hours of Friday morning, was a result of the fissures in British society. Of itself, it will do nothing to mend them, but it will provide an opportunity to do so – if we seize it.
What are these fissures? First, parliament does not reflect the class structure of the people it claims to represent. Thanks to First Past the Post, tolerance of lobbying by Big Business and private ownership and control of the mass media, Big Business is far better represented in parliament than you or I. Our MPs didn’t vote 52:48 for exit: the vast majority of them wished to stay in the EU. This bias was buttressed by the fact that, as individuals, they are, excluding a significant sprinkling of millionaires, largely drawn from the professional middle class. MPs like the veteran Labour MP Dennis Skinner, who worked as a miner and trade union rep, are a fast dwindling minority. Having first hand experience as a worker and trade unionist, Dennis opposes the free movement of labour and capital within the EU because it damages the former and benefits the latter. As reflected in his autobiography Still Sailing Close to the Wind, there is not a hint of xenophobia in his attitude: it is based on the need for all workers, irrespective of colour and creed, to stand together and not to under-cut each other’s wages. Most MPs who supported Leave are Tories who either reflect the interests of smaller capitalists and landowners or who, like Boris Johnson, are driven by naked personal ambition.
The second fissure in British society is the wealth divide – a divide that is increasing due to the policy of Austerity. Under this policy, which George Osborne grotesquely threatened to intensify if voters dared to vote leave: public services, including health, education and social support are cut back; nothing is done to address the need to house ordinary working people; and income and wealth distribution is further skewed in favour of the wealthy. In the absence of a Labour Party able to explain the situation to them, many working class voters concluded that the EU was the cause of their problems. In that the EU was not doing anything to help address their problems, they were not wrong. The real issue, nevertheless, passed most of them by. If we are to build a better tomorrow, we need democratically controlled public ownership and a strong, democratic presence in the workplace . When the time comes to secure this, the EU would have stood in the way. The EU, under its various treaties, is committed to the free movement of labour. This means workers moving into areas where workers have secured for themselves better terms and conditions and driving them down to the ‘market ‘ rate. As Karl Marx demonstrated, this market rate tends to a minimal one – in the long run a subsistence rate. Opposing the treatment of labour as a commodity is the real case for voting to leave – and the Labour Party failed to make it.
A third fissure in UK society did not, however, contribute to the leave vote but cannot be ignored. The leave vote in the UK and the stay vote in Scotland have brought the break up of the UK closer. The Scots have every right to independence if that is their settled wish, but communists recognise that this could undermine working class solidarity in what is now the UK. The blame for the growth in the SNP and the eclipse of the Labour Party in Scotland can be laid at the door of the Blairites. Whether it is too late to re-assert Scottish Labour’s socialist commitment remains to be seen.
Nothing will, however, be gained if we sit back and await the coronation of Boris Johnson at the Tory Party Conference in the autumn. While a better world will require fundamental changes to our democracy and a communist/socialist government which prioritises the interests of ordinary working people, the immediate aim for Labour MPs and the TUC should be to press for an end to anti-trade union legislation and a strengthening of trade union rights under the legislation that will be needed following withdrawal from the EU. For the rest of us, including Croydon CP, we could do a lot worse than campaign in opposition to the view that it is for the Tory Party Conference to select the next Prime Minister and that it is no time for Labour MPs to try to unseat Jeremy Corbyn.