The loudest supporters of Brexit are on the right, but plenty on the left want to leave, too

What could go wrong?
What could go wrong?
Image: Reuters/Toby Melville
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The campaign for Britain to leave the EU is dominated by voices on the right calling for tighter restrictions on immigration. As a result, the leave campaign has been branded as racist, xenophobic, backward, and demeaning.

Yet, a surprising number of people from the British left are backing Brexit, too.

At least a third of Labour voters are expected to vote to leave the EU (paywall). While some are blue-collar workers backing Brexit in the hopes of curbing immigration, others are explicitly pro-immigration. Their qualms with the EU are about democracy, austerity, and free-trade agreements that might undermine workers rights.

This is where Enrico Tortolano, campaign director for Trade Unionists against the EU, fits in. He tells Quartz that “the EU is anti-democratic and beyond reform.” He argues that working people fought fiercely for their right to elect those in power and their right to get rid of them, but believes this right is seriously hampered by seemingly distant EU institutions. “We cannot get rid of the European commissioners,” he notes.

Tortolano points to the EU and US trade pact, the Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), as a prime example of an EU assault on democracy. Asked about public opposition to the deal, EU trade commissioner Cecilia Malmström reportedly said: “I do not take my mandate from the European people.” (She would later claim the quote was fabricated.)

Critics warn the trade agreement would grant corporations the right to sue national governments if they don’t open up public services, like Britain’s national health service. They’ve also slammed the secrecy around the negotiations, and the lack of public consultation.

“Over the last 15 years or so, the EU has pursued an aggressive, free market, neoliberal project,” says Chris Nineham, a spokesman for Counterfire, one of many socialist organizations that have come together to launch “Lexit: The Left Leave Campaign.”

These Lexit campaigners points to countries like Greece, Portugal, and Ireland, which have had to accept tough austerity programs as part of their bailouts, as a reason to leave. They remember all too well when the Greek electorate overwhelmingly voted in an anti-austerity party, but nonetheless were forced to live with more imposed austerity.

Nineham suggests that a similar fate could befall the UK, with the Labour party in the role of Greece’s Syriza party. Labour took a hard left turn last year when it elected self-described socialist Jeremy Corbyn, who is in favor of nationalizing the railways, a maximum wage to limit top salaries, and scrapping tuition fees for universities.

“If Jeremy Corbyn was to be elected [prime minister], I think being in the EU would make it harder for him to pursue the kind of policies that he’s been elected on,” Nineham says.

Is another Europe possible?

There are many who remain unconvinced by Lexit, but acknowledge that the EU is not free from problems. “You get out of Europe what you put into it,” says Amelia Helen Womack, deputy leader of the Green Party and a spokeswoman for Another Europe is Possible, a radical “in” campaign that wants the UK to stay in Europe to change it.

The campaign has former Greek finance minister Yanis Varoufakis on board. While the situation in Greece is often used as a reason to leave the EU, those who want to stay point out that a staggering 75% of Greeks are in favor of remaining part of the EU.

Though the radical in campaign shares the same grievances with Lexit campaigners, they insist this isn’t the time to leave.

“If there was anytime to be discussing Europe leaving the EU, it wouldn’t be during a conservative government,” Womack says. “Any hesitation I have about being pro-EU is completely wiped out by the fact that I wouldn’t want this government to be at the helm of renegotiation.”