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CNC0010.1177/0309816817711558Capital & ClassBailey


Capital & Class

Class struggle after 2017, Vol. 41(2) 333372

The Author(s) 2017

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DOI: 10.1177/0309816817711558

David Bailey
University of Birmingham, UK

The Brexit debate has highlighted major divides within British politics and the politics
of the left. During the referendum campaign, the Labour Party seemed to divide roughly
between lukewarm support for Remain among the new Corbyn leadership, and enthusi-
asm from the partys more liberal or centrist membership and, especially, parliamentary
elite. Likewise, the trade union movement saw most unions with the exception of the
more militant Rail, Maritime and Transport (RMT) support Remain. In contrast,
some on the far left advocated Lexit, in opposition to the neoliberal European Union
(EU), most notably the Socialist Workers Party. This then combined with the fact that a
significant proportion of the Labour Partys natural constituency voted Brexit, and that
low income correlated with support for the Leave vote. That lower income voters also
adopted a position that contrasted with that of most of the political elite has also been
interpreted by many as a sign that Leave was an anti-establishment vote, as well as being
prompted by fears that falling wages resulted from heightened immigration. Since the
Brexit vote took place, however, we have seen growing concern that the effect will be
detrimental for workers rights, and produce damaging divisions, especially between
those same groups with low incomes, and increase the potential for xenophobia, racism
and racially motivated abuse and violence.
Brexit therefore clearly raises difficult questions for anti-capitalists. As such, Capital
and Class has put together the present forum in an attempt to foster further discussion
around the issue, specifically from the perspective of class struggle and what the vote
means for the left. This forum therefore represents an attempt to bring together a num-
ber of important contributions to the debate, reflecting a range of positions that are
united only by the fact that we share a concern for how class struggle can be advanced in
the complex context of Brexit. The forum initially arose from a roundtable debate which
took place at the British International Studies Association-International Political
Economy Group (BISA-IPEG) annual conference, at Leeds Beckett University in
October 2016. The roundtable highlighted the contentious nature of the Brexit issue,
and as such we have since sought to turn contributions to that roundtable into the writ-
ten contributions in the following pages.
334 Capital & Class 41(2)

In that earlier roundtable, each contributor was asked to consider the issues raised by
Brexit, specifically in terms of the impact that it would have upon class struggle: How
can we avoid any economic harm that might result from Brexit falling on the shoulders
of the least privileged? How do we avoid an exacerbation of nationalism and the scape-
goating of migrant workers? What should class struggle look like in the context of deep
political divisions and a potential Brexit-induced economic crisis? How should workers
organise in the current context? How does Brexit impact upon the parliamentary left, the
Labour Party and Jeremy Corbyns leadership? And who, anyway, is the working class in
this new Brexit context?
The responses to these questions were, perhaps predictably, not straightforward. The
decision to hold a Brexit referendum represented a compromise between the more pro-
market, pro-austerity wing of the Conservative Party, led by David Cameron, and its
more traditionalist, anti-immigration wing, particularly prevalent among the party
membership and represented at the parliamentary level by Jacob Rees-Mogg, John
Redwood, Iain Duncan Smith and Bill Cash (Moore 2015). Either outcome that the
referendum offered, therefore, was likely to be unpalatable to the left. Faced with a
choice between pro-market, austerity-focused neoliberalism and anti-immigrant
nationalism, it was always difficult to see how the referendum could end well for those
in Britain seeking to advance some form of egalitarian politics. Despite this, the fact
that the Leave vote was most popular amongst both the low paid and those regions
where austerity measures had been most sharply felt (Becker et al. 2016), combined
with the fact that the majority of the mainstream political elite advocated a vote for
Remain, ensured that the Leave vote was at the same time considered an act of rebellion
by the so-called left behind working class (Ford & Goodwin 2017). Given all of this,
it would be surprising if Brexit did produce a straightforward response from those on
the left of the political spectrum.
Perhaps the point on which contributions to this forum do agree, is that any
response to Brexit requires a continued need to build collective campaigns around
principles of solidarity. In her article highlighting the vitality of a number of on-going
and contemporary struggles, conducted by precarious workers, Kelly Rogers shows
how, rather than representing a plight on the so-called native working class, migrant
workers are in fact, often by necessity, more able and/or willing to organise in such a
way that secures an improvement in pay, working conditions and job security, for all
precarious workers. Likewise, as Sanaz Raji points out in her reflections on the post-
referendum anti-Brexit campaign and the emergence of new forms of migrant-rights
activism, it is all too easy for the perceived negative connotations of Brexit to result in
an unthinking association between the EU and a sense of progressive politics. Yet, it is
difficult to consider the EU a progressive endeavour when its militarised borders have
contributed to the deaths of over 15,000 non-EU migrants. Similarly, there is some-
thing problematic when campaigns for migrant rights are de facto translated into
demands for EU migrant rights.
There needs, therefore, to be continued and sustained social struggle, informed by
principles of social solidarity. But the question, perhaps, is whether this is something that
would be (or would have been) best pursued within the EU, or whether it is better off
taking place outside of it. As Owen Worth shows in his article, it was the conviction by
Bailey 335

many on the political left, that something within the institutions of the EU fundamen-
tally precludes the pursuit of solidaristic struggles, which prompted the emergence of the
so-called Lexit position. Yet as Worth also argues, this position failed to properly consider
the likely outcome of the Brexit vote, and the way it would facilitate an even more inhos-
pitable political environment for the left, now that we appear to have the conditions in
place for an ultra-neoliberal socio-economy, both promoted and legitimated by a nation-
alist and xenophobic discourse engendered by the very act of seeking to negotiate the
process of achieving Brexit. Similarly, as Phoebe Moore highlights, the EU may have its
faults but it has also created a number of important workers rights, many of which we
stand to lose at the hands of a Conservative hard Brexit. In this sense, the campaign for
the continued free movement of labour is an important and fundamental demand, around
which contemporary class struggle can and should be built.
A further question, therefore, is whether the benefits arising from the workers rights
that have become enshrined in EU law are themselves nevertheless offset by the EUs
market liberalisation project, which much of the EUs employment legislation has
arguably in part been adopted to help create. That is, whether the legislation that is
typically heralded by sections of the left as a development in Social Europe, is out-
weighed by the neoliberal, pro-market, pro-austerity consensus that has typically pre-
vailed at the supranational level (Bailey 2017). Certainly, it would seem that sections of
the British working class appear to have taken this less optimistic view. As Jamie Gough
argues in his article, the Leave vote represented the only feasible coping strategy for sec-
tions of the British working class, in the context in which they found themselves at the
time of the referendum vote. Our hope for internationalist class struggle to emerge, and
be successful, therefore needs also to consider ways in which this can be a feasible strat-
egy, in order to be one that can be adopted by working-class people.
Without offering a definitive answer to the question of what class struggle looks like,
or should look like, after Brexit, we therefore nevertheless hope that the contributions
that make up this forum at least provide an opportunity to consider the obstacles that we
currently face and some suggestions for how they might be overcome.

Bailey DJ (2017) Obstacles to Social Europe. In: Kennett P and Lendvai N (eds) Handbook of
European Social Policy. London: Edward Elgar Publishing.
Becker SO, Fetzer T and Novy D (2016) Who voted for Brexit? A comprehensive district-level analy-
sis, Working paper no. 305. Coventry: Centre for Competitive Advantage in the Global
Economy, Department of Economics, University of Warwick.
Ford R and Goodwin M (2017) A nation divided. Journal of Democracy 28(1): 1730.
Moore L (2015) What explains Euroscepticism in the conservative party? OXPOL, 20 November
2015. Available at:

Author biography
David Bailey is Senior Lecturer in Politics at the University of Birmingham and book review edi-
tor for Capital and Class.