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Workers’ rights, migration and some necessary realism – why another Europe is (still) possible

Sol Gamsu looks at some of the arguments for Brexit in light of Another Europe's recent gathering


Last Saturday, Another Europe is Possible held a day of workshops on the left-wing case to remain in the EU. It was also my dad’s birthday. Pulling these two together, I argue the left case to vote in to build a European alternative.

It was my dad’s 67th birthday at the weekend. He died of lung cancer four years ago from being exposed to asbestos as a builder in the 1970s. I’m not the only one to have lost a parent (or both) and of course I won’t be the last. As I’ve posted before, he spent his working life fighting for workers’ health in the workplace – steelworkers and miners to begin with but as time went on working with cleaners and other night workers in hospitals, teachers with stress and office workers. He was an internationalist within Europe and beyond, part of a network spanning the USA, India and China in particular.

At the European level he worked with the European Trades Union Institute and others to lobby and campaign for better health and safety legislation. He was a socialist and he knew it wasn’t revolutionary work but it concretely acted to protect workers’ health in Europe. He was of course, not supportive of a neo-liberal Europe, but he saw the possibility of a radical alternative and knew that there were small, valuable victories that could be won within the EU. Quitting the EU will empirically mean that workers’ rights to health at work will get worse and I’m as sure as I can be that he would have been opposed to leaving.

One of the arguments that I find problematic about the radical left case for leaving is that it will weaken global capitalism and benefit the Global South by proxy in weakening the EU. Empirically in the short term there will undoubtedly be a crisis both for the British political elite (quite capable of destroying itself on its own as we have seen over the last few weeks) and for the EU, but in the medium to long term, a few banks will move to Frankfurt and that will be that. Germany and France will not let the EU fall apart completely. Within the UK, none of these arguments will gain any kind of political traction on the doorstep whatsoever. There are not the conditions for a “lexit” case to gain any kind of public attention or sympathy. Far less an argument about the Global South couched in theoretical terms that many voters will not understand, much less have sympathy for.

I’m an internationalist – there is no struggle which is not about overcoming the major economic division between North and South, or that is not intersectional and just keeps on banging on about class. But I don’t think we can wave a magic wand and somehow turn substantial anti-migrant, sexist public sentiment into altermondialiste ultra-leftism – we need to start with where people are at. That also means recognising our political strength within any particular situation. Weakening the structure of capitalism globally will not strengthen the left nationally or internationally. At a local level a vote to leave will undoubtedly strengthen xenophobic, anti-migrant sentiment even if it weakens the current leadership of the Conservative party. Within Europe, Brexit would strengthen racist right-wing populist parties who are most opposed to the open migration policy which is so desperately needed. How this would benefit the millions of migrants from the Middle East and Africa, I don’t know. Fortress Europe is brutal and horrific, but it does not follow that a weakened EU would change this predicament.

There is no quick route to building up a radical left movement to the global imperialist, capitalist system we currently have or the nasty neoliberal state at a national level. The EU referendum is not a political opportunity for radical left debate about the global economy – it just isn’t. This debate is not being led by an insurgent party to the left of Labour which is causing Labour political problems in their heartland – it has been forced by UKIP manipulating Tory right-wingers and working class alienation, disillusionment and decades (if not centuries) of disinvestment by the British state.

Something which I find deeply frustrating is that fighting for empirical improvements in workers’ right at an EU level is dismissed by autonomist ultra-left figures as reformist. Fighting within existing structures does not mean that we support them. It is a recognition that we are not powerful enough to overcome them right now and that alongside and through fighting smaller battles, we build for a radical alternative.

For me, my dad and his broader generation taught me the importance of the long march through the institutions – that 1970s New Left strategy which clearly has not succeeded but remains politically valuable. At a local level, within our own workplaces, I don’t see that we have any other choice but to be in and against the state or whatever fragmented public or private institution we find ourselves working for. It might not be politically sexy to fight for EU regulation of vibrations or noise or the use of chemicals at work, it is clearly not the sum total of what we want, but it matters.

There are tangible reasons why in a UK context specifically, leaving the EU will likely push us towards a more market-oriented economy with fewer employment protections and even more xenophobic migration controls. Recognizing that fact does not mean we turn away from building solidarity with people in the Global South and Southern Europe who have borne the brunt of EU economic policy. There is no short-cut to building an international alternative to current European and global economic system. Voting to leave and the temporary crisis in capitalism it would bring about will not somehow magically create the movement we need. In the UK it would do the opposite by strengthening the most racist elements of the mainstream political right, not to mention entrenching Conservative political control in England if Scottish independence followed. It would also bolster right-wing anti-EU sentiment across Europe, strengthening xenophobic political parties at precisely the moment when a radical, open migration policy is needed.

Building an alternative Europe is a much longer, slower task, but it will not be made easier by leaving.

Sol Gamsu is a PhD student and education campaigner at King’s College London. You can read his blog – where this piece was originally published – here.

14th April 2016