By Rob Schofield
Recently, during a discussion about the recent poll showing majority support for a referendum on the final Brexit deal among members of the three biggest trade unions, I was met with a familiar but infuriating argument. “Don’t you understand the huge growth the far right will gain from a Labour-led new referendum?” we were asked. “No, they don’t” said another.
This is a line of argument I’ve come across frequently in pro-Corbyn circles, socialist writer Phil McDuff also wrote about it in the Guardian. According to this rationale, giving the far right an opportunity to rally around another mainstream campaign risks emboldening them, and will lead to a spike in racist attacks even worse than those we saw during the 2016 referendum campaign and its aftermath.
According to this perspective, everyone who wants to remain in the EU post-referendum is a liberal, middle-class, diehard Remainer willing to let minorities bear the brunt of another wave of racist hatred, so as long as they can retain EU travel privileges in the end. Those putting forward this argument argue that the violence will be worse this time around, because Leave voters will feel ‘betrayed’, their democratic voice ignored, left with no choice but to take to the streets. After all, last time a fascist murdered a Remain-supporting Labour MP, so surely we cannot allow a rerun of this dangerous episode in British politics?
During the Tommy Robinson demo in London on 14th July my comrades and I were attacked by fascists rampaging around the city looking to beat up leftwing counter-protesters (thankfully we escaped unhurt, but only just). In Leeds we are at the centre of the effort to make the Labour Party commit itself to consistent anti-fascist campaigning, after fascists repeatedly targeted Leeds in response to Tommy Robinson being arrested outside Leeds Crown Court. I mention this to clarify that I do understand the fascist threat facing us on the streets. Fascists are more brazen, more organised and more violent than we have seen in decades. But to think a Brexit of any kind will stop or appease fascists is foolhardy and dangerous, and is indicative of a fatal misunderstanding of the root causes of fascism.
We must state the plain truth: Brexit, whatever form it takes, is going to make us much worse off. Theresa May is currently beleaguered by hardline Tory Brexiteers hoping for a free-trade frenzy where they can tear up regulations and impose a new wave of austerity beyond anything the last eight years could have prepared us for. At this point it is uncertain whether May will secure a Brexit deal at all. But any deal the Tories do manage to secure will be seen as a betrayal and will provoke the same backlash from the far-right.
Do the people making this argument really think that the far-right will suffer a collapse after Britain leaves the EU, or that we will see any significant decrease in racist attacks?
Looking at the most recent government statistics, we can see that there was indeed a spike in racially aggravated offences during the EU referendum campaign and lasting well into Autumn 2016, as well as the beginnings of a similar spike after the Westminster Bridge attack. But after the EU referendum uptick finished, attacks appeared to level off at a baseline of around 3500 per month. Is 3500 a month an acceptable number of racist attacks that we should be okay with? Did the EU referendum result appease racists and fascists enough to meaningfully decrease racial animus and make minorities safer in the UK long-term? No.
The UK far-right made significant gains following on from the referendum result, but this does not explain the rise of a well-networked, internationalist far-right that we have seen in recent years, from the spread of PEGIDA across Europe to Generation Identity sending anti-migrant boats to the Mediterranean. The international rise of the far-right is much bigger than Brexit and derives from an existential crisis in global liberal capitalism, it will not recede after March 2019.
We must also recognise that beyond the desire of liberals to uncritically champion the EU as a utopia, there are many who do not agree with with this and desperately want a new referendum simply to protect themselves or their partners, relatives and friends who are increasingly scared about their rights as migrants. Writing off this entire section of society as middle class fantasists is an insult to the international working class.
We must take the UK fascist threat extremely seriously, but if we react by limiting our political horizons to whatever will appease it, then we will only see it grow in strength. Fascism is not a beast that becomes calm and docile if you leave it alone and try not to anger it. Fascism can only be defeated by offering people an internationalist socialist alternative and strengthening our solidarity with migrants, not by conceding to a Brexit that will bring us more austerity and crush migrant rights.