Options for the Left regarding the UK’s EU Referendum: A position of Critical Abstention and a Critical, ‘But’ stance? 

Gordon Asher (with considerable thanks to Leigh French and Richard Gunn)

Abstract: In this article I propose taking a critical, ‘But’ stance,  across all three options  with regard to voting in the forthcoming UK EU referendum, whichever decision to vote (or indeed not) is preferred and whatever the referendum result, while outlining my preference for a critical – and hence engaged, public and vocal – abstention.


There is much disagreement across those positioned on the left with regard to the imminent referendum called by the Conservative government on the UK ‘remaining’ within or ‘leaving’ the EU. There is considerably greater agreement as to the current neoliberalising function and trajectory of the EU, if not as to how to tackle this.

As one way of facilitating critical engagement with the referendum and its outcomes, in this article I will advocate for a position of critical abstention. A position that, I believe, can take account of the specificities of how this referendum originated and has developed, alongside the relative weakness of the left(s) in the UK.

I will also propose an overarching stance of ‘Critical, But’ towards the referendum – no matter whether one’s intention is to vote ‘Remain’, ‘Leave’, or not vote at all – that could serve to coalesce the left as pursuing its own agendas and priorities, as actually focused on deepening and expanding ongoing struggles for democratisation and eco-social justice.

I do so with regard to concrete frustrations, shared with others, borne of the dangers inherent in repeating the Scottish Independence Referendum bifurcation of an already fragmented and weak left, and the ensuing ressentiment-based feelings and expressions (‘a sense of hostility directed at that which one identifies as the cause of one’s frustration, that is, an assignment of blame for one’s frustration’ (Tessman, 2014)).

My intention is to contribute to critical dialogues on the broad left (inclusive of both the predominantly institutional/hierarchical and the primarily interactive/horizontal left). However, with specific regard to the latter tradition (where I would situate myself), the radical, non-hierarchical left. A tradition in which the role for autonomous, participatory and democratic social movements, peoples’ assemblies and co-operatives is viewed as central; forms that are predominantly interactive (Gunn, 2014) and prefigurative (Amsler, 2015) in their practices and relations.

1. EU – UK

There is some general agreement across the left as to the neoliberalising, post-political nature and course of the EU.

The Troika – European Commission (EC), the European Central Bank (ECB) and the International Monetary Fund (IMF) – is at the forefront of the intensification of contemporary neoliberalisations (Davidson, 2016a). Most recently, under the banner of so-called ‘austerity’. In reality, Klein’s crisis or ‘disaster capitalism’ (2008); the rapid fire corporate-state re-engineering of societies reeling from shock. ‘The shock-doctrine of austerity – embraced by social democrats….has accelerated the neoliberal project, shrinking the welfare state, deregulating labour and privatising state assets’ (Fakete, 2016). With the Troika’s recent overriding of the Greek government providing an unambiguous example of the realities of EU polices, practices and relations.
Structurally (in how it has become constituted, and is evolving), the EU is fundamentally not un- but anti-democratic, both internally (Con Sal, 2016) and in terms of its disregard for democratic decisions made within its constituent member states (Muller, 2016).

The EU’s multi-level governance is post-political in nature: a restructuring of governance at all levels through the imposition of consensus, through bureaucratic technocracies that serve, to evacuate the political and notions of contestation, dissensus, difference, diversity, and democracy . This reflects Thatcher’s infamous dictum, that ‘there is no alternative’ with regard to both capitalism/neoliberalism and its attendant myth (in for instance much of Europe and the US) of ‘representative democracy’ (Asher & French, 2012). ‘The post-political condition is one in which consensus has been built around the inevitability of neo-liberal capitalism as an economic system’… ‘a political formation that actually forecloses the political’ (Swyngedouw, 2009).
The EU also has a key role (alongside the US and NATO’s expansion) in the ongoing militarisation of the continent (Versami, 2016), engagement in illegal and immoral wars and occupations, and neo-colonialism across the globe (Con Sal, 2016).

Further, rather than combating the existential dangers of climate chaos, resource depletion and environmental degradation, the EU is serving to further exacerbate these threats, as evidenced by the outcomes of COP21 (Roos, 2015).

These latter points serve to emphasise the need for the left to consider not just the impacts of our possible decisions with regard to the referendum within the territorial boundaries of the UK and of the EU, but the impact beyond them, globally.

However, such a starting critique need not automatically lead, in our present contexts, to voting ‘Leave’. For these critiques similarly apply to the dominant views of, and present options for, a ‘separated’ UK (or indeed, Scotland), to the extent that is even possible regarding neoliberal globalisation processes (Asher & French, 2012).

The UK – like the EU – is increasingly un/anti democratic (Merrick, 2016), increasingly neoliberal and post-political (Asher, 2015). Its policies and actions are similarly neo-colonial in nature (Curtis, 2003) and are responsible for intensifying the existential dangers associated with rapid anthropogenic climate change (Monbiot, 2015). Rather than being the victim of EU imposed neoliberal governmentality, ‘designed to expand the market as the dominant social form of interaction’ (Campos, 2014), the UK has played a central role in the neoliberalising trajectory of the EU itself and its peripheries (Anderson, 2016).

2. UK 2016 EU Referendum

It would seem that the present nature and likely future course of both the EU and the UK (either within or outwith the EU) holds little in the way of optimism for the left. The options before us are even less promising when we take into account the specific contexts – the nature, realities and likely consequences – of this referendum.

The referendum has come about, not because of popular or democratic pressures, nor even as a reflection of disagreements amongst the main political parties (Horner, 2016). Rather, it reflects an internal dispute in the Conservative party (Seymour, 2016). ‘Referendums are not, by and large, demanded by the governed; they are offered at choice moments by elites, mostly to settle constitutional issues that scramble the usual categories of parliamentary politics’ (Stafford, 2016). As such, the central issues behind the referendum do not actually concern the nature or trajectory of the EU or the UK’s likely political direction and capitalist relations – ‘[t]he mainstream Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe campaigns effectively reduce to a battle internal to the Tory party, and not much else can be gleaned from them with respect to the shortcomings and benefits of the EU’ (Murphy, 2016). ‘No third option has caught the public imagination or been given significant media coverage’ (Barnett, 2016).

Reflecting these contexts, the dominant ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ positions place the left in an even more unfavourable situation, as both are intimately comfortable with contemporary capitalism – ‘both sides are equally committed to deepening austerity and have collectively driven an agenda several steps to the right of anything emanating from Brussels’ (Hore et al., 2016) – and the nation state (Plan C, 2016). Neither ‘Lexit’ nor a left-wing Remain are likely outcomes…..given the sheer dominance of the traditional forces of international finance on both sides of the mainstream debate, talk of a Lexit or a

Left Remain become highly misleading: There will be only a ‘Rexit’ or a right-dominated Remain’ (Murphy, 2016)
If the UK ‘Remains’ under present proposals there will be a further neoliberal intensification, and all else I’ve outlined as problematic of the EU – a deepening and expansion of ‘austerity’; of competition, privatisations, imposition of markets/market like imperatives, and ‘the rule of money’ (Holloway, 2016), alongside a continuation of attendant assaults on what little remains of democratic mechanisms, public services, collective protections and human rights.

If the UK ‘Leaves’ under present proposals, the left will have to contend with capital’s inevitable response exploitative of crisis: hostility of the markets, ratings agencies, corporations and financial institutions – as well as of other governments – due to the threat posed by such an example (Anastasakis, 2016). We have witnessed, most recently in Greece (and they weren’t actually leaving!), the response of the neoliberal system to those who would dare take a different approach (Varoufakis, 2016).

Further, a ‘Leave’ result would place (3 million – 5% of the population) resident non-UK, EU citizens hoping to continue to live and work in the UK in an invidious position (Finlay, 2016).

To the extent there exist proposals from the more radical end of the left, these are almost invisible in public debate, are having little impact on the dominant campaigns, and likely to have comparable negligible influence in terms of likely consequences post-referendum, whatever the result (Salvage, 2016; Plan C, 2016).

It follows that there are questions the various left positions recommending ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ must address.

The left pursuing exit from the EU need to provide a notion of what this would look like (Chapman, 2016). How would this nation-state operate and relate to other states and trans/supra-national blocs and networks, such as the EU, the UN, IMF etc., in ways that would speak to the lefts’ espoused values? Especially, given the globalised neoliberal discourse and project, of which the UK has been a key proponent.

It is equally important to ask those on the left recommending remaining within the EU how they envision that from a radical, left perspective (Asher, 2016). How they propose to roll back and transform the EU’s neoliberal project and neo-colonial expansion?

It seems most relevant (whether we ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’) that domestically all recent, present, and likely future governing parties are content to pursue neoliberal restructuring, without pressure from the Troika (Seth-Smith, 2016).

The left campaigning for ‘Remain’ and the left campaigning for ‘Leave’ will both (without any significant impact (Salvage, 2016)) have expended considerable time, energy and resources that could have been better focused on ongoing struggles for eco-social justice, while in all likelihood causing further divisions between those (different groups and organisations, parties and movements) who should be working together. Such realities only serve to underline the historical and contemporary weakness of the left(s) nationally; reflected in a significantly unpromising balance of forces in the UK at present. Whether ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’, given these circumstances, we are likely to see a consolidation towards the right, rather than towards the left, post-referendum. ‘The EU referendum is a choice between two shit options – neither offer any hope, any liberatory potential, any improvement in living conditions, any increase in wages or in job stability, any reduction in rents, any opportunity to reappropriate and promote the commons, any slowing down of greenhouse gas emissions, any turn towards more democratic control (however we interpret it), or indeed anything that we could see as building blocks of a desirable future society’ (Plan C).

3. Critical Abstention

Of course, there is a further option to voting that should figure in the lefts’ strategic and tactical calculations – that of abstention. Referendum debates should not be merely between ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ positions and competing claims internal to these positions – be it Lexit or Brexit – or the ‘Remain’ equivalents. What Gunn (2016) has called a rejection of ‘the spurious democracy that the referendum on E.U. membership seems to offer’, in reality, ‘an institutional binary choice between two positions that amount to a civil war between nationalist neoliberalists’.

A critical assessment of UK contexts at this particular temporal juncture, the weakness of the left (both in terms of parties and movements), and the probable post-vote realities of either ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ positions, for me, indicates a position of abstention. One that is distinguishable from positions characterised as apathy or disengagement . Hence my suggestion of a critical abstention. One that is public and vocal, outlining what such a position is and why one might take it. One that engages with the referendum through critique – and a focus on visions, and strategies/tactics to achieve them, across the broad left – enabling working together where there is sufficient common cause, so as to resist neoliberalisation as experienced at different territorial scales, and to build alternatives to it.

The ‘critical’ prefix to ‘abstention’ is important in being indicative of a position that says:
– Yes, it’s important to try and engage critically with the (institutional) political event that is the referendum.
– However, direct engagement by the left with the positions of ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ is unlikely to have positive influence due to the specific contexts of this referendum, including the weakness of the left.
– Further, getting involved with either a left ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ campaign – pouring people, time, energy, money and other resources into it – which is unlikely to have any serious impact on the campaign and result, or the likely consequences and terrain post-referendum, is a distraction from ongoing struggles, while probably serving to divide the left further (Franks, 2016).
– That we should instead be focusing our time, energy and resources on building and evolving broad networks of resistance and alternatives in the UK, in Europe, and beyond.
– That focusing on doing so, is probably a more effective means of struggle, a potentially prefigurative and strategically/tactically coherent option, than the others that are actually available to us in our contemporary conjuncture.

Were the balance of forces, and thus possible outcomes and consequences, differently arrayed then perhaps a different strategic and tactical decision – a much stronger case for either ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ position – could be made by the left. As they are not, critical abstention provides a third option.

4. A Critical ‘But’ Stance

However, of greater importance than the abstention is the position’s focus on resistance and alternatives to the evolving neoliberal status quo. ‘Vote IN, vote OUT, or don’t vote at all – but more importantly vote yourself into a renewed responsibility to rally against Europe’s ruling classes, at home and abroad’ (Virasami, 2016). Which is why I’m proposing an overarching ‘Critical, But’ stance with regard to the referendum.

Richard Gunn (2014a), and others (Asher & French, 2014; Swann, 2014), during Scotland’s Independence Referendum argued for a ‘Yes, But’ stance as providing a useful framing and orientation to that referendum. I’m drawing on this positioning here, due its clarity of stance; where the ‘But’ indicated a rejection of the mainstream campaign and likely consequences, and instead indicated a radical left orientation as to values and objectives – as ‘this …., but with these and these conditions and priorities’ (Gunn, ibid). Further, for its outlining of some broad aspects of a desirable radical left position, as focusing on interaction; on interactive forms, choices, actions and politics (Gunn, 2014b).

It was a recommendation intended to orientate and bring together the left, regardless of whether ‘Yes’ or ‘No’ won the referendum (while reluctantly preferring a ‘Yes’ vote as ‘the least worst option’ (Gunn, 2014a)), and through doing so to enable ongoing struggles focused on autonomous and democratic social movements, peoples’ assemblies and co-operatives (as setting their own agendas and priorities); speaking to both resistance and necessary interactive alternatives to institutional structures (of corporations, states, governments and bodies such as the EU), and their practices and relations, policies and parties (as hierarchical, authoritarian and non-democratic) (Gunn, 2014b). As such, serving to draw out the tensions between primarily institutional choices such as elections and referenda, and interactive/autonomous ones.

My proposal is an evolution of Gunn’s work for the contexts of the EU referendum, inclusive of the left while foregrounding its interactive forms, focusing on resistance and alternatives to the evolving neoliberal status quo, whether the choice to engage with the referendum is a left ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’ or a critical abstention. It’s this focus on inclusivity amongst the left that I’m calling a ‘Critical, But’ stance, I believe ‘the left’ could cohere around. Thus an overarching critical/left orientation as voting ‘Leave, But’, or ‘Remain, But’ or choosing to ‘Abstain, But’. As Rosen (2016) phrases it – ‘I am going to vote this way but I’m doing it as part of why I disagree with the proposition and there is another world possible.’

It’s a stance that serves to extricate left positions from the neoliberalism of both dominant ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ campaigns, while also distinguishing radical left positions from reformist proposals for a return to social democratic capitalism and ‘representative democracy’. Thus, enabling rejections of pro-capitalist and national populist agendas espoused by the dominant orientations of these campaigns, amidst which the left positions are either deeply reformist or almost invisible with regard to public discourse (Plan C, 2016).

In doing so it encourages coalescence and networking across the left, foregrounding ongoing struggles for radical democratisation and eco-social justice, through a focus on evolving and building predominantly interactive/horizontal forms – autonomous and democratic movements, peoples’ assemblies, co-operatives etc. While acknowledging the need to link, work and network with predominantly institutional/hierarchical left forms – political parties, unions, NGOs etc. (Asher et al., 2016), reflecting the ‘pressing need to engage with state power, representative institutions and national and global capital’ Kioupliois & Katsambekis, 2014).

This would hopefully lessen the likelihood of further divisions on the left, caused by approaches to the institutional, dichotomic choices of referenda – as we have witnessed both during, and even more starkly since, the Scottish Independence Referendum 2014 (McCabe, 2014), with a similar outcome seeming likely around the EU referendum. ‘[M]ost of the opportunities to come together in a concerted effort to seize an opportunity have been lost. We have instead seen a deepening divide, parties falling apart, many sinister coalitions cropping up’ (Virasami, 2016).

Not just during but, vitally, after the referendum, a critical ‘But’ stance would orient the left as working collectively, to the extent that it is possible, towards deepening and expanding our most vital ongoing struggles. ‘Our role as agitators for the abolition of domination is not to be trapped in the binaries of referendums. Not that we must disengage, but that the majority of our role is to do the work before, and especially after’ (Virasami, ibid).
The ‘Critical’ prefix indicates the stance’s cautionary orientation and framing. The ‘But’ suffix, drawing on Gunn’s formulation (2014), qualifies greater priority than the result of the referendum – that there is something much more important and necessary. It emphasises the claim that, whatever our responses in terms of voting or not, our time and energy, resources and commitment should be focused on achieving our espoused objectives and priorities, while prefiguring our espoused values – namely, evolving and building struggles and movements for radical democratisation of all spheres of society and eco-social justice – not taken up, distracted and constrained by institutional choices, avenues, agendas and forms, such as elections, party politics and the referendum. This critical positioning is concerned with attempting to ensure that we have the most promising terrain to work on, and movements to work with, whatever the actual referendum result.

It is of particular concern that, if the UK votes to ‘Leave’, but with a majority within Scotland’s territorial borders voting to ‘Remain’, it seems distinctly possibly that this will open the door to a second ‘Independence Referendum’ in Scotland (as both the SNP and significant sections of other ‘Yes’ leaning parties and movements have indicated that they would see this as a sufficient change of material facts to justify calling one). This would inevitably deepen the increasingly noticeable and wide splits and fissures on the left(s) in Scotland and a revisiting of much else that was negative about the referendum and its aftermath; as all those who would vote ‘No’, or would choose not to vote – variously labelled as unprincipled, as sell outs, traitors, as ‘not of the left’- are ostracised from left politics and movement-building by pro-Yes organising (McCabe, 2014; Asher et al, 2016). It would also serve, yet again, to distract people, attention, time, energy and resources away from working collectively to build and evolve movements and struggles focused on eco-social justice.

A legitimate worry, from the evidence of the campaigns and positions, communications and relations to date, is the likelihood of analogous splits on the UK left over the EU referendum. Where left positionings are again leading to division through their being portrayed as concerning central left principles (thus, as concerning what is necessary to be considered genuinely of the left), rather that primarily strategic and tactical considerations with regard to a hierarchically (non democratically) institutionally imposed binary, and ‘predominantly neoliberal ‘choice’’ (Gunn, 2016).

A final point relates to the lefts’ views of and relationships with the nation-state. Ontological and methodological nationalism (hence ideological and affectional as well as territorial) (Asher et al., 2016) is at the ‘heart’ of nearly all strands of the various campaigns, on both the left and the right. An assumption and normalisation of the nation state container as if natural or inevitable. Whether a left Leave, Remain or Abstain, we need to build and connect movements and networks that are not limited to or focused on the nation state or the borders of the EU. But that are inter/trans/supranational in terms of organising, though oriented to thinking, acting and moving beyond nation states entirely, beyond bodies like the EU and beyond Europe: ‘we need to stop trying to construct an argument for either side of this debate being a credible ‘progressive’ option, and start focussing on building serious political movements that are for neither leaving nor remaining, but going beyond Europe’ (Plan C, 2016) – ‘the option beyond state, nation and capital brought about by anti-authoritarian struggle and self-organisation’ (Beyond Europe, 2013).


My personal preference is to ‘Abstain, But…’; a position of critical abstention which engages with the EU referendum through critique. That, in terms of the ‘Leave’ v ‘Remain’ binary foisted on us ‘we should just reject the imposition of this politics, not stoop to it, and get own with our own transformations’ (Lazaraus, 2016). However, I see the taking of a wider ‘Critical, But’ stance as of considerably more importance.

Taking account of: the deeply neoliberal nature and trajectory of the EU and the UK; the contingent realities of the referendum; predominantly right-wing domination of the campaigns, reformist social democratic and proposed left ‘Leave’ and ‘Remain’ positions – and their likely impact post-referendum; alongside considerations as to what’s actually important (struggles for eco-social justice) and what’s to be avoided (both a distraction of the lefts’ time, energy and resources, and further unnecessary splitting of the left), I’ve proposed an overarching ‘Critical, But’ stance to the referendum.

This could serve to focus the radical left on working together, in prefigurative ways (before and vitally after the vote) no matter the result of the referendum; in the contexts of either the EU’s intensification of neoliberalisation while remaining within it, or the inevitable backlash and all that would come with that, if we leave.

A focus on both resistances and the evolution of alternatives, a foregrounding of predominantly interactive politics (while acknowledging the need to (net)work with predominantly institutional politics and its forms), and doing so in a manner that addresses the weakness of the left – including divisions that have and are being created by left responses to referenda; working collectively to alter the present unfavourable balance of forces (which includes the linking of UK struggles and movements with EU and global ones). An orientation speaking to the radical democratisation of all spheres of society and eco-social justice – to both post-capitalist alternatives and a world beyond nation states.

* * *

This article is based on a talk given at Assemblies for Democracy Open Space/Roundtable, in the CCA Glasgow, on Saturday 2nd April 2016. Four ten minute talks – that outlined three possible ‘left’ positions of ‘Leave’; ‘Remain’ and Abstain – were used to spark discussions. Contributions were from Neil Davidson, Alan Armstrong, Penny Cole and myself.

All four of the talks are available at https://vimeopro.com/stuartplatt/re-imagining-a-democratic-europe/

* *  *


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