The EU referendum campaign began as farcical attempt to set aside divisions in the Tory Party but it has turned into a debacle for Cameron. Overall anti-immigration rhetoric and racism have dominated.
The entire responsibility for this lies with Cameron, the leadership of the Tories and their allies in the media. Cameron called the referendum for purely venal reasons, to maintain his own position. He gave a series of false and impossible promises on curbing migration with a ‘new deal for Britain’, that even he no longer mentions. He called for the vote to take place in the middle of an austerity offensive and so invited a referendum on his own leadership.
The campaign itself has been dominated by racism and xenophobia. Under those circumstances the most nakedly racist UKIP/Tory right faction promoting Brexit have won the campaign. From the recent polling evidence, there is a risk they may win the referendum even despite the opposition to leaving the EU of the majority of big capital.
Cameron has no answer to Farage’s overt racist claims on immigration because he has been humming the same tune in less strident notes for six years. In the middle of the Brexit fight he endorsed an odious and openly Islamophobic Tory campaign against Sadiq Khan.
To defeat such a reactionary immigration campaign it has to be tackled head on and explained that it is wrong.. It is austerity not immigration that has made people worse off, and without migrants living standards would fall even further.
The attempt to blame Jeremy Corbyn for the current debacle is a project to shield Cameron and the Tories from paying the price for their own spectacular failures, while opening up a new anti-Corbyn front. The endless repetition of the claim that “less than half of Labour voters know its position on the referendum” does not make it true. It is a straightforward lie as well as an attempt to conceal the situation with the Tories. The YouGov poll used to support this assertion shows 55 per cent of 2015 Labour voters correctly identify a majority of Labour MPs being for Remain. Only 34 per cent of Tory voters could do the same.
This slur is part of a wider pattern. The two official EU referendum campaigns are factions of the Tory party, sanctioned by the Electoral Commission. Corbyn has been systematically excluded from the debate, with one academic study finding that mainstream media had included a Labour spokesperson in just 4 per cent of TV coverage. The only time a Corbyn speech was reported was to provoke a fake hue and cry because a reporter was hissed. It has been a more important priority to exclude and denigrate Corbyn than to win the referendum. He would only have been allowed into debate if he had shared a platform with Cameron subordinating Labour to the Tories in the same catastrophic way that occurred in the referendum on Scottish independence. Corbyn was absolutely correct to refuse this.
The vote on 23 June is unlikely to be the end of the matter and an outright political crisis may follow. Even with a majority for Remain Tory divisions will be difficult to heal. In the event of a vote to leave the EU 65 Tory MPs declared they would vote against Osborne’s emergency budget of more cuts – if he dares to introduce it. This would amount to a separate parliamentary formation.
But it is a law of British politics that the weaker the Tory party, the greater the divisions that must be fomented inside Labour, genuine or otherwise. This explains the Labour fringe MPs supporting Brexit, the charge of sexism specifically among Corbyn supporters and the slur that Labour is rife with anti-Semitism.
The situation where Remain wins will be followed by repercussions inside the Tory and Labour Parties. But a vote in favour of Brexit is the most uncertain outcome of all.
The most powerful social structures favour remaining in the EU – the City of London, the Confederation of British Industry, the Financial Times, the Economist, more than 75 per cent of the Cabinet, 75 per cent of MPs, a majority of Conservative MPs and 95 per cent of Labour MPs. There is no prospect that pro-Brexit MPs can form a stable government capable of coherently delivering their programme.
The governments of every major European country want Britain to remain, as does the US because Britain promotes US interests within the EU.
There is already a well established pattern in Europe that when referendums on EU matters go against the views of a government then the referendum is either retaken or the result bypassed. In 1992 Danish voters rejected the Maastricht Treaty, so following minor alterations to the treaty, in 1993 there was a second Danish referendum which backed the Treaty. Similarly Irish voters rejected the Nice Treaty in 2001 and again after minor changes they voted on it again in 2002 to approve it. Ireland also held two referendums on the Lisbon Treaty, the second one in 2009 overturning the rejection vote of the previous year.
If Leave wins the referendum on 23 June a Remain-dominated government and Parliament will be in charge of negotiating the Brexit terms. Plus even supporters of Brexit want to maintain free trade with the EU, which is only possible by reaching agreement with the EU. So the necessary negotiations with the EU can be used to get round a Brexit vote, either with a straightforward reversal or with measures that circumvent the decision in practice.
Remain supporters in Britain will certainly consider a second referendum. They could legitimately claim the terms for Britain leaving the EU were not put to the vote this June so the actual Brexit terms subsequently negotiated with the EU should be put to a second referendum, If these terms for leaving were rejected Britain would remain in the EU.
One way or another the huge social forces that back Remain would continue to fight and the immediate period after a Brexit vote would be chaotic, with the increased possibility of political realignment.
Throughout the referendum campaign Jeremy Corbyn has kept the correct framework, that “the main enemy is not the EU – it’s the Tories”. It will continue to serve Labour well in any turbulent period ahead.