THE EU REFERENDUM AND THE FAILURE TO ENGAGE STUDENTS

by Lucy Auger

Increasingly I am being forced into situations that leave me feeling incredibly conflicted politically, and the EU referendum is no exception. By the 23rd of June I will either have to vote in line with a bland collection of right-wing moderates under the banner of the ‘Britain Stronger In’ campaign, or cast a vote that is seen by many as a vote for isolation and a complete rejection of European solidarity. This is not an article about which way you should vote or why, and it’s not even an article about why you should care. This is an article about why, in spite of months of propaganda, all sides of the debate have so far failed to inspire myself and the other 47% of students that are expected to stay home on 23rd June.

First in our depressing line up of utterly uninspiring EU campaigns we have ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’. The oddly nationalistic branding alone is enough to unsettle even the most moderate of lefties, but this aside I think what offends me most is the thought that somehow Labour, the Conservatives, and the Liberal Democrats (not that anyone asked them) have managed to find enough common ground to launch a campaign together. This is off-putting for two reasons.

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Firstly, due to ‘Britain Stronger In’ representing such a broad coalition, it follows that their main arguments are often hollow and always lacking in integrity. When politicians attempt to appear united, pretending that there is consensus where there so clearly is not, the arguments become vacuous and boring, and ultimately it turns people off.

The second reason I find ‘Britain Stronger In’ so unpalatable is that, because of this, it has resorted to using baseless threats to manipulate the electorate, not least through its almost complete dependence on what its critics are calling ‘project fear.’ Instead of constructing a positive case for staying in the EU, this campaign team of assorted moderates aim to scare the electorate out of their homes and into the polling stations with the threat of job losses and even more public spending cuts.

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With ‘Britain Stronger In’ inspiring so little hope, you would think that the debate would be crying out for a positive, progressive campaign, and when I came across the progressive left’s ‘Another Europe Is Possible’ I thought I had found it. ‘Another Europe Is Possible’ did not leave me with the sour taste in my mouth that ‘Britain Stronger In’ did, but in many ways, the disappointment I felt after it failed to win me over was much greater.

On the home page of the ‘Another Europe’ website, the main arguments seem to focus primarily on the protection of workers’ rights, and our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. At the first of UEASU’s EU referendum debates, the argument that the EU protects our human rights was refuted by Nick O’Brien, a teacher and LGBT+ activist who was there to represent the Left Leave campaign. He argued that it is us who protect our rights through ‘grassroots campaigning’ and activism, and that rights are not simply ‘handed out’ by unaccountable bodies like the EU. This argument has much in common with views often articulated by modern standard-bearers of the left such as Owen Jones. As he often repeats, ‘universal suffrage wasn’t given because those in power woke up feeling generous one day’, and why are workers’ rights any different? If our rights are to be protected, they will be protected by us, the people, and not them, the unelected commissioners and far-right MEPs of the EU.

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Aside from this, the weakest argument put forward by anothereurope.org is that because ‘many of those who advocate British exit also want to abandon the European Convention’, this somehow threatens our membership of the European Convention on Human Rights. As far as I can see, the worrying belief of many on the right that we would be somehow better off without the ECHR, bares no relevance to the argument against our membership of the EU. Just because a section of a campaign believes in one thing, this does not mean that a vote to leave the EU equates to support for that view. Just as a vote to stay in the EU does not equate to endorsement of Tory policy, despite David Cameron seeming to be at the forefront of ‘Britain Stronger In’. I want to be convinced by ‘Another Europe’, I really do, but as far as I can see, for the most part the campaign consists of tenuous human rights links and vague notions of solidarity.

I won’t waste time here attempting to discredit the Vote Leave campaign of the far-right. On that front the battle has been won, and it would be a waste of time to deconstruct it again here. On the leave side, the much more interesting discussion to be had is the one surrounding the Left Leave campaign, and more specifically, where on earth it’s been. When I find myself conflicted in politics, I tend to do what any stereotypical lefty would do and default to using Tony Benn as a signpost to point me in the right direction. Therefore in this case, it would make sense for me to turn to the left-wing case for leaving the EU, but it seems they may have missed the memo. Apparently Left Leave so far consists of an array of twitter accounts and articles in The Socialist Worker and Socialist Review. If Jeremy Corbyn had not made the tactical decision to pretend he has any faith in the EU then perhaps there would be a more coherent Left Leave campaign, but here we are.

This is why we are unengaged. The combination of the politics of fear being perpetuated by ‘Britain Stronger In’, and the lack of a coherent, inspiring Left Leave campaign has left many voters frustrated by a lack of information from both sides. Whichever way people decide to vote on 23rd June, the one certainty is that they will do so reluctantly unless campaigners let go of fear tactics and turn instead to optimism to fuel their campaigns.

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