Possibly the most critical development of the last year or two has been the re-birth of left wing Euroscepticism. This is one that has genuinely fascinated me, as the left has many strengths it can bring to an anti-EU coalition. The left have lots of money, thanks to union dues, and they have excellent organisational skills and commitment. They have traditionally used these strengths against the right, but they are now using them against the EU. The EU has traditionally been able to keep the left sweet but it appears it can no longer do so and this may prove critical in the in-out referendum.
It is interesting to see how Europhilia and Euroscepticism have migrated back and forth across the right-left spectrum over the last 40 years. In the 1970s, the right were wildly pro-EU, seeing it as a great playground for business and the free market. By contrast the left were anti-EU and as recently as 1983, the Labour Party ran on a ticket of EU withdrawal. It was only in the 1980s that the left suddenly realised the EU would be a good way of over ruling right-wing laws and progress. Thatcher realised this late in her premiership, stating that we had not rolled back the state in Britain only to see it re-imposed by the EU. The left’s love affair with the EU continued in the 1990s, as they realised the radical left legislation coming out of Brussels and Strasbourg dovetailed nicely with their world view. The EU was pro mass immigration, pro criminals’ rights and wildly environmentalist. This pushed the right towards Euroscepticism. However, two things have caused left wing scepticism to revive.
The first thing that has re-ignited left wing scepticism is TTIP. This is a trade deal that genuinely threatens to enforce privatisation of the NHS, an organisation held in almost religious reverence by the British left. If there is a third rail in British politics, the NHS is almost certainly it. The London Olympics paid homage to it in the opening ceremony of 2012, showing the entire world how proud the Brits were of their health system. The British left often contrast the NHS with the Darwinian health systems of other English-speaking countries. The fact that the EU deal is with the US, a country whose health-care is regarded as the stuff of nightmares by the British left, makes their opposition especially vivid. In Strasbourg this week, UKIP tabled an amendment to specifically exclude the NHS from TTIP, and every British MEP from every party voted in favour (except the sole remaining Lib Dem, who rather curiously abstained). The left may be broadly pro-EU, but in any fight between the EU and NHS, there would only be one winner for the affections of the British left.
The second reason for left wing scepticism being re-ignited is the way the EU has treated Greece. The British left reacted with giddy excitement to the election of Syriza in Greece. To the British left, Greece was and is a symbol that voters can get a hard-left government elected, and Tsipras is held up as a swashbuckling man of the left standing up to more powerful players in the same league as Castro or Chavez. In left wing thought, the concept of the ‘forces of reaction’ is an important one. This states that if a leftist state is ever set up, the forces of international capitalism will react forcefully to destroy it. The way international bankers and forces snuffed out a short lived left-wing Spanish Republic in the 1930s is one example they often use of this concept. So if you are an ideologically committed leftist raised on tales of how the ‘forces of reaction’ snuffed out a left wing government in Southern Europe, the sight of Frankfurt bankers and centre-right figures like Merkel and Juncker bullying a leftist government in Greece looks very familiar.
So are the British left UKIP allies? This depends on what you mean by ally, but a very good definition is an ally is someone with the same enemies as you. Large sections of the British left and some of its key writers and thinkers have the same view of the EU as many UKIPers. Owen Jones, arguably the most influential left-wing journalist in Britain, has come very close to advocating EU withdrawal and has at very least asked the British left to strongly consider it. Guardian writer Suzanne Moore recently wrote that she considered the EU to be a thug and a bully towards Greece, and whilst she didn’t advocate EU withdrawal, she did make clear she would not be campaigning to keep Britain in.
It is absolutely critical that we do not turn this referendum in to a left versus right argument. After years of Euroscepticism being associated with the left then right, it now appears that significant numbers on both the left and right think the EU is a bad thing and leaving it might be a good way forward. There is nothing to be gained by picking arguments or fights on narrow ideological grounds. Until the referendum we must remain friends on this issue and agree to fight each other after it is decided.