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Referendum Result – First Thoughts

24th June 2016

Referendum Result – First Thoughts

What a difference a day makes

Ian Ilett assesses the dangers and opportunities from the referendum result

Whatever you voted, or not at all, don’t let us succumb to the hyperbole and even hysteria that Brexit has unleashed. This was never our referendum. It was always about the deep divisions within the right. The two Project Fear campaigns turned the entire campaign into a deeply negative and divisive diversion from the real issues. Neither Remain’s economic scares nor Brexit’s immigration rhetoric will create a single job nor build a single home for ordinary people.

Brexit voters weren’t stupid or misled to reject the absurdly positive story of the EU that most of the Remain camp told. They weren’t racist to worry about wages, jobs, housing, hospitals, social services and their kids’ futures. They are sick of establishment politicians feathering their own nests and doing nothing for the working class people they are supposed to represent.

After decades of de-industrialisation and relentless assaults on the working class at every level, from lay-offs and the destruction of trade union rights, a vote to ‘Leave’ can represent an inchoate anti-establishment mood. How will that angry mood evolve?

While leaving the big business, rightward moving, neoliberal EU club is not in itself reactionary, victory for Brexit will fill the most reactionary politicians and their small band of followers with confidence. That is a serious risk, but a swing to the right is not inevitable. Cameron cynically called the referendum to settle the Tory leadership debate for once and all. His gamble has failed. Who will his successor be? There will be civil war within the Tory Party however much they try to camouflage it. It’s impossible to predict the outcome of that struggle but, given the small government majority, an early election must be possible.
That raises the prospect of turning the discontent manifested by the Brexit vote against the real curses of working class existence - austerity and the casualisation of labour. UKIP will no doubt do a total U-turn and try to reinvent itself. But there must be a question mark over its future now its sole objective has been achieved.

Yes or no, in or out, never offered anything major to the working class and the left. The political crisis and economic blowback are symptoms of a developing capitalist crisis. In the short term the economy will suffer. Capital outflows have been hit. Sterling and share prices are in turmoil. The Bank of England is desperate to cut interest rates, but they are already so low that will have little effect. Especially given our trade deficit, increased cost of imports will hurt, but cheaper exports and import substitution will also come into play.

Government economic policy will make a difference. Cutting demand with austerity policies will make things worse quickly, and reducing infrastructure investment make it even worse in the long run. Jeremy Corbyn has pledged to fight an austerity budget that Osborne threatened in the event of a ‘Leave’ vote.

An accurate quantification of medium and longer term economic implications is extremely difficult. But domestic Brexit effects are secondary to the existing negative economic trends at work domestically and internationally. The EU economy outside Germany is very weak. As Michael Roberts argued in the last issue of Briefing our fundamental problems are rooted in the problems and contradictions of capitalism, not Brexit, though it will to an extent exacerbate them immediately.

It is more vital than ever that Labour moves beyond the divisive old politics to address the frustration and anger so many feel. The media and right wing in Labour will try to scapegoat Jeremy Corbyn for the ‘Leave’ vote. But Labour’s leadership has been pro-EU for half a century; he’s been leader for months. The loss of Scotland to the SNP is the most extreme case of the damage New Labour has done to our traditional electoral base.

Corbyn has played an honest and decent role in the referendum campaign and respects democratic decision making. Especially in the wake of economic problems and Tory infighting he will get respect for principled politics.  Labour can get a hearing for the pro-working class anti-austerity programme he campaigned on in the referendum.

This is also the only way to cut across the anti-immigrant mood which has undoubtedly been whipped up by the Brexiters. They were keen to emphasise Britain’s ‘great’ economy for their own purposes, We have to show that wealth and power can be harnessed to build a decent future for all. We must not be divided!

This article will appear in the forthcoming issue of LABOUR BRIEFING, the magazine of the LRC

See Michael Roberts’ view of Brexit here

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