Lexit or Remain Part II: What’s Best For Women?

Sara Khan


It is truly lamentable that socialist arguments for the UK to remain in the EU cannot be more optimistic. As I am about to expound upon, however, the problem with many left-wing arguments to leave is that they are often too optimistic, ignoring many of the awful realities that leaving the EU would entail.

It is completely valid to say that it is grassroots action, not EU bureaucracy, that afforded women in the UK the rights we have today. The Equal Pay Act of 1970 was the victory of the women that led the Dagenham Ford strike of 1968, not the Labour politicians who enshrined equal pay in their 1959 manifesto promises, nor the Trade Union Congress, which vowed to support the right to equal pay in 1965. The fact that the gender pay gap continues to persist today in spite of this legislation is testament to how little bureaucrats care for gender equality even now. As far as the EU is concerned, its supposed dedication to equal pay has not warranted any substantial progress either, a testimony to the fact that the EU is an organisation primarily concerned with furthering the agenda of the ruling class.

Austerity measures disproportionately affect women, as domestic violence services and childcare benefits are attacked alongside other public services that women are more likely to need. Does voting to leave the EU really offer a tangible alternative to austerity, though? Voting to remain in order to alleviate the possibility of a Boris Johnson government is ludicrous – Cameron is no less right-wing than Johnson, even if he is somewhat more tactful – but it is equally ludicrous to vote to leave in the hope that they can be overthrown as a result. The Tories are already rapidly losing public support, and it is extremely unlikely that the government could collapse immediately as a result of a majority vote in favour of leaving the EU. If the dispute over the NHS has not compelled Hunt to resign, and millions of protestors against the Iraq War could not force Blair to do the same, why would a majority in favour of ‘leave’ push Cameron that far?

In addition, when we are told that Corbyn would be unable to nationalise the railways under the EU, we are often presented with a glaringly incomplete analysis. The argument is valid to an extent – it is true that EU laws are supposed to prohibit ‘public monopolies’ – but it is important to note that nationalisation has been possible throughout the EU anyway. While the NHS is currently under attack in the UK, a public monopoly on healthcare continues to exist in the EU states of Denmark and Sweden, which provide education completely free of charge as well. Corbyn wishes to renationalise the railways – how could the EU stop him, when it has failed to stop France, Italy, and Spain? In Sweden, full nationalisation of the banking sector has been hotly debated since its partial nationalisation in 2009, and in Germany, talks about the nationalisation of energy are still ongoing. It is perfectly fair to say that what we, as socialists, ultimately want is for an end to any EU prohibition of public monopolies, but if other EU states have done it, then there is hope for reform. In the meantime, nationalisation is possible within the EU, and EU legislation presents no truly tangible obstacles for Corbyn in this regard.

Thus far, I have only discussed why voting to remain in the EU is the lesser of two evils. The most important facet of this debate to me, however, is the argument that, in spite of its long list of flaws, the EU’s freedom of movement policy is something that can only be celebrated. As socialists, we must advocate the prohibition of restrictions on the right to move, live and work on the basis of nationality. Freedom of movement within the EU is an extremely important step towards a world in which all national borders are dissolved, in which people have the right to live as citizens of the world, not of nations. If we leave the EU, what will become of EU and non-EU migrants living in the UK? Tories in support of the vote to leave want to limit the rights of EU migrants even further, and to use the excuse of no longer being subject to EU policy to withdraw even further from the duty to aid Syrian refugees. In the UK today, countless women of colour are held in detention centres such as Yarl’s Wood, physically and emotionally abused on a daily basis on account of their citizenship. The EU may be an organisation which exists primarily to further the interests of the ruling class, but we cannot allow this to blind us from the fact that leaving the EU would devastate working class women from other countries. The erection of borders is an act of violence, and while left-wing arguments to leave the EU may not come from a place of xenophobia, we cannot believe those who say that leaving the EU is somehow more internationalist than remaining.

Having listed some of its facets above, I sincerely believe that there is a strong critique to be made of the EU from a socialist feminist perspective. However, I do not believe that critiquing the EU should entail the desire to leave it, especially when one takes into account the devastating effects that this would have on working class women living in the UK, especially women of colour. Leaving the EU would not advance equality for people of all genders, sexualities, ethnicities, and so on – it would be an enormous step backwards.

Sara Khan

Lexit or Remain: What’s Best For Women?

Given it is so difficult to find many genuinely progressive debates about the EU Referendum in the mainstream media, it’s becoming increasingly hard for many people to feel equipped to make a decision on how they will vote on 23rd of June. Two women are going to put their cases forward for a progressive leave vote and, next week, for remain.

When it comes to leaving the EU, the debate is being so dominated by the right-wing that the legitimate arguments for a left-wing exit are being largely left out of the conversation. The remain campaign of course have the Labour Party arguing that we should remain in the EU and many progressive voices in the media, such as Owen Jones, have now firmly given their support to the remain camp. In a debate where there are right-wingers on both sides, how should lefty women be voting?


In the debate about the EU, it is common to hear lefties arguing that there is no vote to leave that is not racist or xenophobic and that, particularly when it comes to women, we will have our workers’ rights stripped from us and the battle for equal pay will become even tougher. People warn that the potential for a Boris Johnson government would mean a swing to the right and that this would have disastrous consequences for women, however, there are many reasons why these arguments don’t ring true.

To begin with, the argument that it is the EU that has given women workers’ rights is ludicrous – these rights were won from the bottom-up through women workers demanding them, not by bureaucrats in the EU. It is insulting to suggest that women who went on strike over issues such as equal pay, like the women at the Dagenham Ford factory in 1968, have simply been handed these rights. It was those striking working women in Dagenham who were the catalysts for the 1970 Equal Pay Act and not politicians. What’s more, as has been made obvious in France and Belgium in the past week, being an EU country does not protect workers’ rights.

The pessimism that surrounds the main left-wing arguments for remaining in the EU is lamentable – it is predicated on the notion that social reform at home is impossible outside of the EU. The people of Greece are testament to the fact that the EU can be a crushing, neoliberal force and not the progressive haven it is often described as. Additionally, a recent Guardian article
(http://www.theguardian.com/careers/2016/may/24/what-would-leaving-eu-mean–employment-rights) detailed how it is highly unlikely that there would actually be any major shift in employment rights, regardless of the supposed swing to the right that Johnson would bring to the table. Women already do not have equal pay in the UK despite the EU Gender Equality Recast Directive. It would be pessimistic to argue that any detrimental changes would come about through leaving, given that the EU has already failed to tackle the issue as has the Tory government – why would this change?

The EU has adopted a policy of austerity that is entirely ideological. As has been made obvious in Greece, even when an anti-austerity party is democratically elected to government, they will be trampled on by the EU. The politics of austerity hits women hardest, as has been made evident in the UK, where cuts being made in the public sector disproportionately affect women and where domestic violence services are being dangerously decimated, with 2 in 3 women being turned away from refuges. Although there are people on the Left, such as Paul Mason recently (http://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2016/may/16/brexit-eu-referendum-boris-johnson-greece-tory), arguing that Boris Johnson’s post-exit leadership is the overriding reason to vote remain, this is based on the notion that David Cameron and Boris Johnson are somehow totally ideologically opposed – this is simply untrue. There is no way that anyone could argue that Cameron has been some kind of feminist beacon. He has chosen the politics of austerity and continued to make decisions that hurt women the most. Women are not protected from the crippling effects of the politics of austerity at the moment in the UK, and neither are women protected from it in EU countries.

Outside of the EU, the kinds of progressive policies that Jeremy Corbyn will be campaigning for will be able to be implemented if he were to be elected. There are many EU directives that enforce privatisation of our public services – Royal Mail was privatised by the Conservatives, but the EU began the process when they liberalised the postal market. It is the kinds of progressive policies that Corbyn has campaigned for his whole life that will genuinely improve the situation for women, and not the pro-austerity stance of the EU. Lexit could be the start of building a grass-roots movement towards the kinds of progressive government we need to bring about social change for women – this is not going to be possible within an un-progressive EU that would would limit the potential policy changes of a Corbyn government.

Lexit would not vindicate the right any further, we are already in the 6th year of Tory rule and it is an unconvincing argument that things would genuinely get drastically worse just because of a change of leadership. The Tories are already decimating the NHS, refusing to take in refugees and limiting EU migrants access to benefits. These are issues that directly affect women – the NHS provides vital care, particularly as women’s services for domestic and sexual violence are cut and it is obvious that the EU does not protect us from these cuts, nor does it force us to be a socially progressive country, as is highlighted by the despicable way the Tories have handled the refugee crisis. Women and children in European refugee camps, especially those without documentation, are vulnerable to trafficking and sexual violence. The EU response to the refugee crisis has been revolting and it is important to point out that this is an issue that does directly affect women, as is the Islamophobia and racism at the centre of the EU and Tory response. It would be false to suggest that the EU has been a progressive, anti-racist force.

Progressive women should not vote to remain within the EU, which crushes anti-austerity politics, even where reforms have been attempted democratically. The only legitimate way to bring about the kind of liberation that women need to achieve equality in the long term is through voting to leave and building towards a more progressive, anti-austerity UK that has the interests of ordinary women at its heart and not those of big business and bankers.