Recent days have seen a succession of ex-MPs, commentators, absurdly posh people and people-who-used-to-be-famous unveiled as candidates for the forthcoming European elections. They range from Rachel Johnson and Annunziata Rees-Mogg to Stephen Dorrell and Anne Widdecombe.
These candidates are all standing for either the Brexit Party or Change UK, both of which have been launched only in the last few weeks.
On the surface, these two parties might seem very different. The Brexit Party was founded by Nigel Farage, former UKIP leader, privately educated stockbroker and man of the people. They insist that leaving the European Union is more important than any other issue.
Change UK on the other hand was founded by former Labour and Tory MPs who like to describe themselves as “moderate” and “centrist” despite their support for welfare cuts, fracking and the renewal of the Trident nuclear weapons system. Change UK’s interim leader Heidi Allen described her party as the “natural home” for remain voters. She talks as if remaining in the European Union was more important than any other issue.
Despite being respectively strongly pro-leave and strongly pro-remain, these two new parties have much in common.
Firstly, they both talk as if Brexit were the only issue that mattered. They want us to put aside other concerns in order either to achieve Brexit or to stop it.
Secondly, neither of them are interested in any fundamental change to the social and economic structures of the UK. Both the Brexit Party and Change UK are firmly committed to capitalism.
Nigel Farage’s right-wing views and love of Thatcherism are well-known. Change UK have said they would back Theresa May in a no-confidence vote. They may be to the left of Theresa May on economic issues (which isn’t saying much) but they have all to some extent accepted austerity and consistently voted for pro-war policies (the four who were MPs at the time of the Iraq invasion all voted for it, with Joan Ryan acting as a teller for the Ayes in the crucial vote).
A glance at the candidates announced this week reveals that Change UK and the Brexit Party are united in their loyalties to the interests of the wealthy.
Anne Widdecombe once called for anti-capitalist demonstrations to be banned. Rachel Johnson’s vile quotes include the line “a house without an aga is like a woman without a womb”. Annunziata Rees-Mogg defended massive bankers’ bonuses just after the financial crash on the grounds that “if people cannot earn the big money here, they will simply move to where they can,” (is she unaware that the vast majority of people cannot “earn” this sort of money anywhere?). Change UK had to drop Joseph Russo as a candidate for saying “black women scare me”.
Another Brexit Party candidate is Claire Fox, hilariously described as a “left-wing activist” in some of the media coverage this week. Back in the day, Fox was the sort of Trotskyite who refused to condemn IRA murders. She now spouts equally vile, but far more right-wing, views on Radio 4. When I appeared on The Moral Maze some years ago, Fox suggested to me that young unemployed men should be deprived of literally all benefits. She justified this by claiming that her comment was merely a “thought experiment”.
It’s no surprise that people who think that Brexit is the only issue that matters are also people who don’t want to change anything else.
I’m in favour of Britain remaining in the EU, and am opposed to a hard Brexit in particular. But I have nothing in common with those whose reasons for supporting EU membership are about making it easier to manage the international movement of finance and people in the interests of capitalism. I am as far away from right-wing remainers are as I am from right-wing leavers. And while I may profoundly disagree with socialist leavers, I probably have more in common with them than I do with the sort of remain-voting MPs who cheer austerity, fracking and arms exports.
Thankfully, I can vote for a left-wing anti-Brexit party by voting Green. But if forced to choose, I’d choose a left-wing leaver over a Tory remainer.
Any claim that a particular issue is “the only thing that matters” involves doing nothing about other issues. As such, however radical the people who make such a claim, they tend in effect to be people upholding the status quo. The left needs to resist any party that offers no challenge to the injustices of capitalism – whatever their position on Brexit.