The Tory referendum
“Blue on Blue, heartache on heartache” – Bobby Vinton song 1963
On 23 June we are given an opportunity to vote in a Tory referendum, designed by the Tories, with Tory questions to achieve Tory goals. The truth of this became more apparent when the press nicknamed it a ‘Blue on Blue’ referendum – a military term for firing on or killing your own side. The Tories are shooting at each other as Cameron and Osborne faces up to Johnson and Gove.
When Cameron became Prime Minister in 2010, he hoped to steer around controversy over the European Union, so toxic for the Tories. The EU had had ten years of growth (1998-2008) before it suffered a massive economic crash. Debt, austerity and unemployment began to shake the EU to its foundations. For the Tories keeping banking regulation at bay and detoxifying the banks went to the top of the agenda.
In 2011 Cameron clashed with the European Commission over plans to increase regulation of the City of London. The City expected their Prime Minister to protect them from EU regulation. In December 2011 Cameron used the British veto to block an EU wide treaty on the single currency. The government demanded concessions and exemptions from regulation of European financial markets. (Guardian, Traynor, Watt, Gow and Wintour 9 December 2011)
Cameron failed to get concessions for the City and the other twenty six decided to go ahead. The British government found itself on the outside of a new EU treaty. Cameron suggested “that Britain’s membership was no longer a given”. (Guardian, Traynor, Watt, Gow and Wintour 9 December 2011). Boris Johnson declared that Cameron had “played a blinder” to the delight of the Tory right. This schism started with the interests of the City.
As the Crown was taking a harder line with the rest of the EU over banking, UKIP began to gain ground. With austerity, unemployment and rising poverty, Tory MPs became nervous about the threat to their seats. Cameron responded in January 2013 with the promise of an In/Out referendum. Tory strategists saw this as a way to counter UKIP and put pressure on the Labour Party at the same time. It was included in the 2015 Tory election manifesto.
Cameron, Osborne and political strategist Lynton Crosby, the Lizard of Oz, are skilled opportunists not democrats. Their class instinct is to exclude the people from all major decisions. But now was an opportunity for political advantage by gambling with EU membership. The plan was to use the promise of a referendum unite the two wings of the Tory party and shoot the UKIP fox.
Labour leader, Ed Milliband, warned against the danger of Tory plans for a referendum and warned it would pose a “clear and present danger”. He said Labour would not match the Tories offer. Cameron and Osborne saw a chance to claim they would be the only party offering the British people an EU referendum in the forthcoming general election. (Telegraph Steven Swinford 12 March 2014)
Milliband predicted “The Conservative government would be dominated by an all-consuming and damaging obsession with his party about whether Britain should leave the EU”. (Telegraph Steven Swinford 12 March 2014). This stand divided the Labour Party with some MP’s praising Milliband’s strong leadership and others that “his decision not to match Cameron’s pledge is a profound misjudgement”. (New Statesman George Eaton 12 March 2014).
Price worth paying
In January 2015 Cameron promised an early referendum if the Tories win the 2015 general election. With the election won, Cameron still feigning hostility to the EU, now had to get out of the hole he had dug himself into. He promised renegotiation as an opportunity to lever more concessions from the French and Germans. He would aim to secure more for the City of London, reduce workers rights, clamp down on immigration and thus maximise support among the Tories.
Yet a referendum relies on working class voters and the Labour has nine million it can mobilise. So Cameron needed the Labour Party, the TUC and the trade union bureaucracy to dig him out of his hole. As he needed the TUC to get trade unionists to back remain, he dropped the plan to remove more workers’ rights. Once he has won the referendum he can come back for his pound of flesh.
In the official story, the UK is a democracy and voters will decide on 23 June to remain or exit the EU. The reality is much more complex. Whatever the ballot result there is much further to go before the final outcome is decided. Boris Johnson’s call for a second referendum, which was made and soon withdrawn, indicates the battle will not end in June.
The future of nations is decided by those with power and who are ready to use it. Nobody should underestimate the influence of Washington or Berlin if the vote is wrong. Power in the UK is bureaucratic, financial, corporate, and military. It is concentrated in the Crown and the City and made into ‘common sense’ by the national media. The productive power of the millions of workers, especially those organised in the trade union movement is usually ignored.
Voting in the referendum is not irrelevant but not decisive. People will vote and reveal a majority. But the people are not the sovereign power in the land, either in theory or practice. The interpretation of the result, the next steps and the longer term outcome will be decided by those with power. Extra-parliamentary struggle is already in play and will ratchet up after 23 June if there is a wrong result.
The idea of ‘Democracy’ is one of the main weapons of the rich and powerful to protect and secure their interests. Parliament serves as a camouflage for the secrets of power. It helps convince the working class to leave decisions to politicians and confine their involvement to the ballot box. The political elite, the City and the business lobby conduct their politics outside parliament and inside the corridors of power.
The referendum campaign has shown the British Establishment, represented by the Crown, the Prime Minister, most Ministers, and Senior Civil Servants, are for remain. The Treasury and the Bank of England are for remain. So too is the City of London, the Banks, and big business. The Hedge Funds lean more to exit, as do sections of small business. There is big money resting on the result.
The referendum is a small part in a long political battle to reshape Europe. Win or lose this fight will continue. The big problem is that the working class, as represented by the trade unions, has no plan of action. The socialist movement has no coherent programme. A militant working class campaign over the future of the EU must not start and finish by putting all its eggs in one ballot box.
In 2014 the Scottish people voted in an SNP referendum. People had to choose between the status quo, the conservative option, or by voting Yes beginning a constitutional revolution. The future plan was set out in the draft Scotland Bill, which included the abolition of the Act of Union, a single chamber parliament (no House of Lords), elections by proportional representation, and the incorporation of the European Convention on Human Rights.
Republicans were highly critical of the limited nature of these democratic reforms. Nevertheless there was a democratic option and this was supported by the overwhelming majority of progressive opinion in Scotland, including the working class of Glasgow and Dundee and socialist movement. In the Scottish referendum there was a conservative option and a democratic reform option.
Unlike the Scottish referendum, the Tory referendum has no progressive options. At first it seems there is a reactionary option of going back to British independence and the conservative option of remaining the same in the EU. In fact there is no conservative option because Her Majesty’s government has made an agreement with the European Commission.
This negotiated settlement will end the possibility of closer union, discriminate against migrant workers and secure advantages for the City and encourage competition. Both sides will be pandering to popular fears and prejudices about immigration. Nothing good or progressive can or will come from such a political contest.
On 23 June the ballot paper will say “Should the UK remain in the EU or leave the EU” and then voters will be able to tick ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. This is not a true representation of what people are voting for. If Remain wins a majority this will give a mandate to the Crown to carry out the deal Cameron negotiated with Brussels.
A letter in the Guardian in September 2015 claims that Jeremy Corbyn is in danger of falling into a classic Cameron trap. “The Europen referendum will offer the electorate a wholly inadequate, even improper, choice between staying in on the Tories terms or quitting. Why aren’t we being offered the option of sticking with the current treaty”? (Guardian 16 September 2015 Tim Shelton-Jones)
All those who simply want to stay in the EU and reject Cameron’s dirty little deal will have been ‘conned’ into giving endorsement to anti-working class politics. Every vote to remain will add to Tory myths that immigration, in-work benefits and overburdened regulation of the City are the main problems with the EU.
The fundamental failings of the EU – the corrupt exercise of Corporate power, the unelected bureaucracy and the austerity policies doing so much damage to working people in Greece – are not being addressed. The Tory ballot paper has no ‘progressive’ option and not even a conservative option. Whichever reactionary option wins a majority, all these problems will become worse.
The timing of the referendum is one of the levers which the Crown can deploy to give Cameron a better chance of winning. Evidence suggests that victory is more likely within a year of a newly elected government. Cameron will win more easily in June 2016 than October 2016 and before 2017. Matt Qvurtrup predicted that Britain would vote to leave with a close vote about four percent between the two sides. (Campaign for Human Rights, Matt Qvortrup 26 January 2016).
The First Ministers for Northern Ireland, Scotland and Wales – Arlene Foster, Nicola Sturgeon and Carwyn Jones – all opposed the 23 June date because it was too close to the Assembly elections. They argued that it was more democratic to allow a longer time between their national elections and the EU referendum. This is not about democracy.
None of above
When you vote ‘Remain’ the votes will be counted as a mandate for Cameron’s deal. It will be used to justify further restrictions and discrimination against European migrant workers. Some people are doing a trade-off between voting to remain in the EU by sacrificing our European brothers and sisters. Opportunism goes so far as to say that we can sacrifice these workers for the ‘greater good’ of remaining in the EU.
There should be a third option on the ballot paper for those who say “none of the above”. The right to oppose both proposals is not recognised. This part of the electorate can stay away but cannot register a vote. What is on the ballot paper is indicative of bias. Officially there are only two options and the debate has only two sides.
There are millions of people who have a legitimate reason to vote in this referendum who are excluded. There were forty six million eligible voters in the 2015 general election. Of these there were 3.4 million from Commonwealth countries, British overseas territories and Crown dependencies and Ireland.
There are an estimated 1.5 million 16-18 year olds who were able to vote in the Scottish referendum who are excluded from this one. There are 2.7 million EU citizens living and working in the UK who are excluded except those from Malta, Cyprus and Ireland who can vote because they are from Commonwealth states. Christian Allard, a French born member of the Scottish parliament (MSP) is not allowed to vote. There are 1.8 million British citizens living in the EU, many in Spain who will be directly affected by the outcome and have no vote. (Alberto Nardelli Guardian 13 May 2015)
Nothing progressive, never mind socialist, is on offer in the Tory referendum. We are invited to participate in a Con-Game with two reactionary Tory proposals on offer. We are pushed into backing one side or the other by a mixture of empty promises, threats and fear of the future. We should have the courage to oppose both options.
The Tory referendum will have a biased result because of the exclusion of EU citizens resident in the UK and young people (16-18 year olds). We should not accept it as a fully democratic test of public opinion. As democrats we stand for popular sovereignty and the constitutional right of all citizens to call a democratic referendum as many times as people demand it.
The working class should not be dragged out of the EU as a result of a war between Cameron, Johnson and Farage. There are good reasons to oppose both exit from the EU and to oppose Cameron’s reactionary negotiated settlement with the European Commission, Germany and France.
In the event of a majority vote for Brexit, the working class movement should mobilise for direct action, including demonstrations and strike action, against any Brexit induced austerity, in protest against the exclusion of young people and EU citizens in the UK, and for a fully integrated democratic Europe.