UCL European Institute


Where are we now? A response to the referendum

6 July 2016

The left has good reasons to be critical of the EU. But its problem was not that they didn’t address immigration. Rather, they went into this battle with no vision, no plan and no ideas.

Where are we now? A response to the referendum

Philippe Marlière

In 2005, the French went to the polls to ratify the proposed EU constitution. They emphatically rejected it. Frexit was not on the cards then, but I remember that there were passionate debates across France. People organised reading groups in cafés to discuss the long and tedious text – one of the best-selling books of the year. There were conflicting narratives: some argued that the new constitution contained progressive provisions, others that it read like an appalling neoliberal prospectus, or even that it was an attack on French sovereignty. The debate helped to clarify the choice the French people would be making.

Despite the high stakes and emotional investment of campaigners on both sides, the debate around Brexit failed to do that. The Remain camp sought to defend an EU that many who were supposed to be on its side – notably Cameron and Corbyn – were not particularly fond of. The Brexit camp was often confused and confusing, but it at least seemed to offer solutions to concrete issues. This is why, in the end, Brexit prevailed.

As a French academic who has been in the UK for the past 22 years, I certainly could not support Brexit, which is going to hit British universities badly. I am the father of a 13-year-old Franco-Portuguese daughter who was born in London and is quintessentially ‘European’. Despite all this, I was not enthused by the Remain message. I am of the view that the EU has shown no interest in fostering solidarity and greater equality. It may be good for business and the markets, but it is not kind to ordinary people. Nonetheless towards the end of the campaign, I outed myself as pro-Remain, because I could no longer stomach the xenophobic message of the Brexit camp.

My French friends, who are for the most part liberal progressives and radical lefties, assumed that British voters had kicked the ‘neoliberal EU’ in the teeth. I explained to them that while this may have been some voters’ intention, Brexit was dominated by conservative and xenophobic forces, and neoliberalism and austerity had therefore been strengthened by the vote.

Afterwards, reflecting on Corbyn’s campaign travails, I wondered why Labour had failed to propose an alternative narrative to that of the Tories. If the EU is undemocratic and harmful to ordinary citizens, why was there no attempt to formulate a Lexit? A positive take on the EU would have talked up the benefits of being part of it, and promoted the idea of a common space in which the values of co-operation and solidarity can thrive. The free movement of people is at the heart of this vision, and contrary to tabloid propaganda, it is a popular idea in Britain and across Europe. Millions of Britons experience the benefits of it when they travel to the Continent to work, study or take holidays. The Labour leader awkwardly tried to articulate this viewpoint, but he was isolated within his own party.

As usual, the Labour right wanted to have its cake and eat it. Most of Labour’s Remain campaigners had no qualms about sharing platforms with Cameron and Osborne. This was highly problematic: though not subjected to the European Stability and Growth Pact, this government has been one of the most zealous proponents of austerity policies in the EU. Yet the Labour campaign kept using the Tories’ discredited economic language, bombarding people with data about GDP, inflation and trade surpluses. Why would any of that appeal to the ‘left behind’ in the Labour heartlands?

While campaigning for the economic status quo – broadly speaking, an EU tailored to maximise the gains of business and the markets – the Labour right went along with the idea that immigration was the reason for people’s misery. Obviously, immigration has to be monitored and organised. That is the responsibility of the government, and the current Tory executive has been inept at it. Successive governments have turned a blind eye to the fact that companies have been paying migrants less than British workers. But the Labour right didn’t question this situation. Instead of looking at raising the minimum wage and protecting the rights of British and foreign workers, Hilary Benn and Co gave credence to the idea that immigration was responsible for the nation’s ills.

Could the left have defended a Lexit? The idea was floated by journalists like Owen Jones and Paul Mason in the early days of the campaign. Both quickly retreated when they realised that the mainstream left had nothing positive to say to its constituencies. They felt that supporting Brexit in the context of a campaign dominated by nationalists, bigots and right-wing careerists would not only be useless but would also backfire for the left. They were right. When xenophobes and demagogues are on the rise it is not the time to argue about the shortcomings of capitalism in a liberal democracy.

The left has good reasons to be critical of the EU in its current form. But it also needed a positive message. The problem for Labour and the unions was not that they didn’t address the question of immigration, but that they went into this battle with no vision, no plan and no ideas.

  • Philippe Marlière is Professor in French and European Politics at UCL
  • This post was first published in the London Review of Books, online here
  • The image is a detail of Anne Rothenstein's cover for the LRB.