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.