The upbeat atmosphere at the weekend's 'Another Europe is Possible' conference in central London belied the campaign message, which must rank among the most cynical and defeatist ever. A collection of Left politicians, activists and academics came together to tell us that, yes, the EU is dreadful; yes, it is a vehicle for neoliberalism and privatisation; yes, it is fundamentally undemocratic; yes, it has caused immense suffering - but at the same time British workers aren't capable of building a better society outside of it. We would all be lambs to the slaughter of a post-Brexit Boris Johnson government apparently. Never mind that we could turf out that government at the ballot box in a way that we could never do with the EU commission. No, British workers couldn't be trusted to do the right thing. So strip away the radical rhetoric, and you end up with a strategy that offers little more than: 'Better the devil you know'.
Oh, but they did agree a declaration calling on 'people across the UK to rise up' and 'change Europe'. They recognise that the EU is not fit for purpose and - a novel one, this - they want to reform it. That's right: those same workers incapable of resisting Boris Johnson are called upon to be in the vanguard of a campaign to transform an institution that has long proved utterly impervious to any serious reform. As strategies go, it isn't the most consistent.
The irony is that the Another Europe gang is stuffed with people who throughout their lives have supported every other instance of workers throwing off undemocratic power. Wherever on the globe workers have organised to demand greater democratic freedoms, those packed into the weekend's conference have expressed their solidarity in a heartbeat. There were never caveats about not knowing what the alternative might look like, no warnings about Right-wing politicians lurking around the corner, no concern that workers might be biting off more than they could chew. All that mattered is that workers were engaged in a democratic struggle to wrest power from the unelected and unaccountable, and they knew which side they were on.
Yet when it happens in their own back yard, their revolutionary spirit suddenly deserts them. They become hesitant and pessimistic. This can only mean one of two things: either their support for all those other campaigns was completely phoney, or they really do hold British workers in such contempt in believing that we are somehow different and less capable of taking advantage of greater democracy.
Speaker after speaker at the conference rose to say how this must not be a referendum focused on the issue of immigration - then proceeded to dedicate an enormous chunk of their speech to the issue of immigration. So we heard the predictable stout defence of the EU's policy of open borders and a liberal sprinkling of the usual trite slogans such as 'Immigrants are not to blame'. Such statements sound wonderfully progressive but, in the end, miss the point spectacularly. No-one outside the ranks of Britain First argues that immigrants are personally to blame for such things as the pressure on public services and wages caused through open borders. Of course we must place responsibility at the door of bad governments and unscrupulous employers. But for anyone claiming to speak for working people to stubbornly ignore the negative consequences for working-class communities of EU-driven mass migration, or to seek to deflect legitimate debate about it by trotting out the same old unresponsive platitudes, is inexcusable.
No civilised society should permit personal attacks on immigrants, and those of us on the Left must be at the forefront of any campaign to integrate and organise migrant workers. But neither must immigration as a topic be off-limits. Much as the likes of those fronting Another Europe may wish it were not so, soaring levels of immigration remain a concern for millions of working-class people, not through some innate racism, not even because they are anti-immigration, but simply because they have ordinary aspirations to live in stable communities that aren't subjected to sudden social and economic disruption through unsustainable surges in the population. These people are not uneducated bigots, and they won't be bought off by tired slogans or a worldview which tries to convince them that it's really all about class and their anxieties are misplaced. And why should they be? They aren't suffering from 'false consciousness'; they're just, well, normal.
All of this would be obvious, of course, to a Wolverhampton factory worker or a Tilbury docker or someone toiling in a call centre in Glasgow with a family and mortgage to pay. Ordinary working-class people, in other words. But these sorts of people aren't part of the milieu of the sophisticates leading Another Europe and never will be. They are patronised, but not really welcomed. They certainly didn't feature heavily at the weekend's conference.
In the end, there's something distasteful about members of the liberal intelligentsia pontificating in a Bloomsbury university about how there must be no compromise with the working-class over open borders, when they show no willingness to understand the impact of such a policy on the lives of those they claim to speak for.
And to do so in the knowledge that their strategy of sticking their fingers in their ears and shouting 'La-la-la' has for years now led to the haemorrhaging of working-class support from the Left, often to the benefit of Ukip, suggests they are more interested in maintaining ideological purity than finding real solutions to tough questions.
So no doubt those at the Another Europe conference came away feeling good about themselves, in spite of the essential pessimism of their message. And no doubt they continue to believe they are serving the interests of working people by fighting for a remain vote. In reality, they are driving a further wedge between the Left and the millions for whom the EU's contempt for democracy and enthusiasm for austerity and open borders are compelling reasons to leave.
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