The result of the EU referendum was as unexpected as it was historic. Until now, no sovereign state, once having become a member of the European Union, has ever left.
There were many Left and progressive arguments—based primarily on internationalism and democratic accountability—for advocating a British exit from the EU. Many organizations on the Left made these arguments, but they were often drowned out by arguments from the Right. The case for Brexit presented in the mainstream media was almost entirely an anti-immigration, nationalist case.
We are now in a situation which presents us with both opportunities and dangers. Because of the way the debate was presented in the media, the result can be claimed as a victory by the far right. But it would be a mistake to suppose the primary motive of those who voted to leave was racism.
While the press organs of the establishment systematically ignored the Left case for Brexit, it’s clear that UKIP cannot possibly have gone from mobilizing c.4 million votes at the general election, to mobilizing 17 million at a referendum. A good proportion of those votes have to have come from people voting for democratic and socialist reasons, not for nationalistic and racist reasons.
Certainly, those who voted in favour of Brexit were by and large the working class, and it's incumbent on any serious socialists to work with the proletariat as they find it, not in some ideal state.
A common thread running through the popular support for Leave was a healthy mistrust of the political elite. Since the Iraq war and the financial crash there has been a far greater tendency for people to disregard establishment consensus. This has been reflected not only in the Brexit vote but also in Jeremy Corbyn becoming leader of the Labour Party, the Bernie Sanders and Donald Trump phenomena in the USA, and non-mainstream parties making electoral gains across Europe in recent years.
The Left now has a historic obligation to discuss, to think, and to analyse. We need to develop an understanding of the new situation and to devise a strategy to address it. This is a huge task.
The situation right now—in the immediate aftermath of the result—is complex and rapidly developing. Nevertheless, one theme which stands out clearly is that of the political establishment frantically scrabbling around and engaging in organizational manoeuvres to overturn clear democratic expressions of the will of the people.
Last week, with the whole of the political establishment calling for a vote for remain, the people voted in a referendum to leave the EU. Yet already, discussion is focusing on how to undermine the result. Even the right-wing leaders of the Brexit campaign are themselves now stalling. Their commitment to the Establishment outweighs, apparently, their commitment to their stated position on the referendum.
And the ongoing attacks on Corbyn are part and parcel of an establishment lashing out against genuine expressions of democracy. In September, Labour Party members, affiliated members, and registered supporters overwhelmingly voted for Jeremy Corbyn to lead the Labour Party. This gave hope to huge numbers of people, not just in the Labour Party but also beyond it. The Blairite coup attempt is the culmination of a poisonous campaign in the press and by some Labour MPs to undermine the democratic wishes of the membership, and to restore the status quo.
Corbyn has resisted the anti-democratic pressure against his leadership, and has also spoken out against the anti-democratic pressure to ignore or circumvent the result of the EU referendum. He has quite rightly called for Article 50 to be invoked immediately, so that the democratic will of the people can be implemented. It is important that the Left rejects attempts to set aside the referendum result. If socialists conspire with the bourgeois establishment against a popular vote, they risk pushing the proletariat into the arms of fascists.