On 23 June, around 40 million people will decide from three options – vote Leave, vote Remain or Abstain. The latter is “when a participant in a vote either does not go to vote (on election day) or is present during a vote, but does not cast a ballot” (1). If sixty per cent of the electorate go to the poll and vote then sixteen million will have abstained.
Abstention is mass politics even if we do not know why millions abstain or indeed the particular reasons for each voter. Their decisions will aggregate into a political message. If twenty or fifty percent abstain, this will influence how the country interprets the outcome. It will affect the strength of the Crown’s mandate to act on the result. Non-voting may tip the balance one way or the other.
Interviewed in the Independent on Sunday David Cameron says “My fear is turnout. A lot of people might think: ‘well, in the end, it’s the rational thing to stay, but I’ll let other people make the choice for me’. Don’t. This is very close, no doubt about it”. He says turnout is going to be a “really important” factor. (2) Given his record and the dirty little EU deal he has offered the working class, then let him stew in his own juice.
Many people will abstain because they cannot decide between the competing arguments of bourgeois politicians. Many people will see no direct benefit from the EU and will not trust the ‘jam tomorrow’ promises from either ‘Remain’ or ‘Leave’. So we reject the view of many middle class intellectuals that people abstain simply because they are too ignorant, stupid or lazy.
It is rational for millions not to gamble their future by betting on the outcome of a victory for Cameron or Boris Johnson. Others may instinctively, and with good reason, feel that ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ offers nothing, a feeling that grows stronger the lower you are in the class hierarchy. The Scottish referendum shows this point from the opposite angle. Turnout goes up and abstention goes down when people think they can gain more democratic power and begin to change things for the better.
If the working class in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales votes to ‘Remain’ in the EU and the working class in England ‘Abstains’ then on 24 June we would wake up to find that the UK was still in the EU. But with few votes in England, David Cameron and his ‘negotiated’ anti-migrant deal would have been rejected by the working class majority. The icing on the cake would be Farage and Boris Johnson looking like sick parrots.
The European working class would be cheering too. By simply sitting on their hands the working class in England, supposedly the most backward and anti-foreigner, would have shown their brothers and sisters across Europe we are not anti-European. I am confident that the Scottish and Northern Irish workers will vote to remain. Wales is more problematic. So the big problem is persuading the working class in England to abstain and giving Cameron a ‘victory’ that looks like humiliating defeat.
In England the British ruling class is determined to mobilise working class support for the Tory negotiated anti-migrant settlement. They need working class votes to secure the Tory government. They have given this job to the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy. The Labour right and the TUC are enthusiastic supporters.
Corbyn acts like an ‘abstainer’ even though he has been signed up behind Cameron’s popular front. The Labour right can smell blood. It is an opportunity to damage Corbyn by claiming he is not showing leadership by fighting harder for ‘remain’. So Corbyn is being set up as the big loser. As Andrew Rawnsley reports, the Labour Right are talking privately of an attempt to oust him “once the EU referendum is over” (3)
Heads Cameron wins and tails Jeremy loses! If the Labour leader manages to mobilise working class support Cameron will secure the victory. The more votes that Corbyn can deliver the higher will be the plaudits for the skill and cunning of George Osborne and statesman like leadership of Cameron. It is a repeat of the role that Labour played in the Scottish referendum.
The long term interests of the working class are to integrate more fully with the working class across the EU and beyond. The free movement of workers across the EU is creating a European working class not as the summation of national working classes but as an intermeshing, integration and interchange of workers.
The free movement of labour is not for the benefit of the working class. It is a necessary complement for the free movement of capital and as a means of keeping wages down. But the unintended consequences of this are the necessity for working class organisations to ‘wise up’ and organise across Europe. The Europeanization of capital is the breeding ground for a truly European working class.
‘Remain-Abstain’ is a slogan to sum up a theoretical position. It does not sit in the middle between ‘Remain’ and ‘Leave’. It addresses the long term strategic position and not merely what to do in the referendum. The UK working class should remain in the EU and unite with the rest of the European working class win the aim of the European democratic revolution.
When it comes to the immediate issue of the Tory referendum the working class should oppose both options on the ballot paper. Whether abstaining or boycotting (I set aside the question of boycott) this mean no votes for Cameron’s tick box and none for Johnson-Farage. Taking account of the national democratic movements in Ireland, Scotland and Wales we arrive with the slogan ‘Scotland Remains and England Abstains’.
The EU was set up by the ruling classes of Europe in the interests of capital. ‘Social Europe’ was the promise made to the German and French working class to incorporate them into the process. These benefits have been hard won by the working class only to be stolen and ‘handed down’ as benefits from the European Union. The myth of Social Europe finally died with the cruel and entirely unnecessary punishment of the Greek working class.
None of this means we should exit from the EU for the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament. The problem for the European working class is insufficient integration not too much and this requires fundamental democratic change across Europe. The European capitalist classes have proved themselves incapable of uniting Europe not least because this requires a popular democratic revolution.
The European democratic revolution is a European wide political revolution. It is a revolution crowned by a secular, democratic and federal social republic including the constitutional right of self determination for all nations including Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Catalunya. It means mobilising and organising a European-wide movement which will overthrow the existing bureaucratic EU constitution and win a majority for a new democratic constitution for Europe.
If this seems a tall order we should remember the European democratic revolution is a combined and uneven process. Democratic revolution in the UK is part and parcel of a European process which is already brewing up. Lenin was absolutely right to understand that the 1916 Easter uprising was a European, and indeed a world, event not simply an Irish one. It was the overture for the Russian democratic revolution.
Only a narrow nationalist would think Scotland’s democratic movement was a purely Scottish affair. It has a direct impact of Ireland, England and Wales. Wider still, the mobilisation around Scotland’s referendum placed Scotland in the vanguard of the European democratic revolution linked most obviously with Spain. No wonder in 2014 the European Commission, so desperate for the UK to remain in the EU, threatened to eject the Scottish people from the EU if they voted for independence. There is nothing more dangerous for the EU than the threat of democratic revolution.
This is why the slogan ‘Scotland Remains and England Abstains’ does not come from nowhere. It germinated in the actions of the working class in Glasgow and Dundee in September 2014 who came out in large numbers to strike a blow against the British Crown, the Cameron government and toadies who led the British Labour Party.
All this now tests the Scottish left. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have recommended not simply ‘Scotland Remains’ but a general UK remain. She is calling in effect on the English working class to join Cameron’s popular front. Should Scottish socialists back Sturgeon and Cameron by calling for a universal ‘Remain’ or ally themselves with socialist Abstentionists in England?
Writing in Bella Caledonia, socialist historian and activist Neil Davidson, begins his socialist case for leaving the EU by identifying the most obvious alternative. He says “Faced with the impending referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU), and the reactionary arguments which dominate on both sides, socialists might be forgiven for echoing Mercutio’s dying cry in Romeo and Juliet of “a plague o’ both your houses” and opting for abstention”.
If abstention is the logical and sensible option, Neil claims that “refusing to take a side is also untenable”. Abstention is not “refusing to take a side”. It can of course be presented in that way by anarchists for whom avoiding bourgeois politics is a principle. For communists and socialists abstention is about opposing both reactionary options. It means giving no support for the lesser evil.
Suppose in trade union negotiations the employer makes two proposals, both of which worsen pay and conditions. The employer organises a ballot to ask workers which of the two options they prefer. The trade union official says workers should vote for the lesser evil. The branch committee and shop stewards reject both options. They therefore call on the workforce to abstain in the ballot and boycott the whole thing.
Abstention is the simple and logical way to express opposition to both options on the ballot paper. We reject Cameron’s nationalist retreat from Europe and Johnson’s nationalist exit. Both evils are inimical to the interests of the European and UK working class. As socialists we want the working class to lead a European democratic revolution. This aim is diametrically opposed to the politics of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’.
Turkeys voting for Christmas is not the policy for a militant class. It is a futile waste of time arguing whether Cameron’s dirty little deal or Farage’s British road to nowhere is a better or worse evil. Opposing both is not a refusal to take sides. It is taking the side of the European working class. From that opposition, in words and deeds, come the seeds of independent class action.
Right wing commentator Peter Hitchens concludes his article in the Mail by saying “I still plan to stay at home on Referendum Day. I don’t wish to endorse or in any way contribute to this futile exercise…. whose result will be used to proclaim for years to come, that the issue is now closed”. He asks “If we voted to leave, who would implement the decision”?
“I myself am baffled as to how a referendum could decide the issue, when huge majorities in both Houses of Parliament, plus the bulk of the media, plus businessmen, plus the civil service, the education sector and the judiciary are committed to our continuing membership”. (Mail on Line 4 February 2016)
I point to this for two reasons. Abstention is not some purist location where socialists can hide untainted by association with rights wingers like Cameron, Johnson and Farage. There are right wing abstentionists who will do the same thing as me on 23 June. But take note that ‘Remain-Abstain’ is not the same as ‘Exit-Abstain’. The former represents the interests of the working class not the latter.
Hitchens is more Marxist than most Marxists! He understands that exit depends on organised political forces and the classes that back them. It is not simply or even mainly the outcome of a referendum. Only those with illusions in bourgeois democracy (‘parliamentary cretinism’) would think that an Exit from the EU will happen because a majority vote for it. A Tory referendum organised by the Tories for the Tory Party will not bring a clear cut exit in the teeth of determined opposition from the ruling class or the organised working class.
1) Wikipedia accessed 18 March 2016.
2) Independent on Sunday 20 March 2016
3) Andrew Rawnsley Observer 27 March 2016