“The EU referendum is about migration, basically” – interview with Michael Chessum

Michael Chessum is a member of the Momentum national steering committee and organiser for Another Europe is Possible.

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Another Europe is Possible was set up to be the radical “In” campaign in the referendum, going public in October last year.

People initially involved were left NGOs, like Global Justice Now, with a lot of Labour members but also a lot of Green Party support, and a lot of activists who’d been around in social movements in the past few years. We wanted to shift the whole debate to the left as well as persuade the left to go for “in”.

It’s been more difficult that we anticipated to get everyone on board. In the labour movement there is a reluctance to get involved on this issue. The big unions are slowly coming on board, but in a very general way. Jeremy Corbyn’s office is saying the right things, but not necessarily very loudly. There’s a need to bring new layers on board, with a more labour movement orientation.

We need a rank and file approach, or at least activist-based approach — go into every union branch you can, pass motions in support, get people involved. I don’t think we’re precious about being a centre for the radical “In” campaign — trade unions are doing their campaigning, Clive Lewis held his own meeting separate from the official Labour campaign, there is Workers Europe… but we need to develop a base, making this a topic of conversation in union branches and Labour Parties across the country.

Until the 7 May elections people will be just focused on those, legitimately so. The disenchanting nature of the debate is also a problem. But, still, we need to get organised now.

There is a London-wide AEIP student meeting co-hosted with the National Campaign Against Fees and Cuts at the end of April. The key thing is not so much how students are going to vote, but getting them to turn out. Students are overwhelmingly for an “in” vote. Even in NUS, there was no real argument, the issue is the bureaucracy ignores calls for a left campaign.

What about the official Labour campaign?

The main argument I’ve seen it use online is, stay in the EU so we can barter better trade agreements with China and the US. That’s terrible from an internationalist perspective; it’s a pure ruling class and right-wing argument. And what does it mean from the perspective of workers? Free trade with America and China is part of capitalist globalisation, negotiating a better deal means our living standards and working conditions going down towards their levels. In some ways the Labour campaign is to the right of Britain Stronger in Europe. It’s very inactive.

At the launch of Clive Lewis’ initiative, which doesn’t have a name but was reported in the Financial Times, apparently Hilary Benn and lots of “moderate” Labour MPs were there and were congratulating it. So possibly they recognise problems with the official party campaign. That’s partly why the Labour right are going to Britain Stronger in Europe. And BSE are the only people doing public activity door-knocking and so on.

What about Momentum taking a position?

We will take a position at the 21 May national committee meeting. I imagine the two main positions will be campaigning to stay in, and not campaigning. There could be an “out” motion, but I don’t think there’s a serious Eurosceptic bloc. I imagine the supporter base, if you polled it, would be 80 per cent “In”. I think we will go for an “in”, which is positive, and meanwhile local groups should debate it.

Of course it’s not necessarily the top priority at the moment, given the election, the junior doctors strike and many other things, but the debate can start. Groups should get a speaker to the meeting, they can contact me.

What’s your assessment of the “out”left?

They seem incredibly weak. I recently had a debate with a Eurosceptic officer of a London Labour Club. What he was arguing was better than the Bennite position, quite lucid, but then the guy said, actually I’m not going to vote!

Some Momentum groups have polled their members and said things like, we’ll only take a position if it’s 75 per cent or more, and they got it for “in”. The Socialist Party isn’t what it was, certainly the SWP isn’t. You’ve got the RMT of course I guess in a way the biggest labour movement bloc for “out” is the trade union wing.

What arguments should we raise in the referendum?

A lot of people, who feel European, think that should be the focus for the “In” left. But I don’t think even people on the left feel European. That’s fine, but it’s not an argument in the referendum. This referendum is about migration, basically. If we lose freedom of movement, even on the lines we have now, it will be lost for a generation. Even a Corbyn government in 2020 would find it hard to re-establish it. So this is a referendum on migrants.

Of course we should make a pro-active case for a better Europe for a social Europe.

Doesn’t that idea need clarification? After all plenty of neoliberal social democrats say they support a social Europe.

Sure. The key thing in democracy, and workers rights. A workers Europe, a socialist Europe. But to be honest I’m not sure whether anyone takes the German SPD’s arguments seriously. Also this is not a concept or a phrase that has been used much in Britain. We have open territory to define the argument.

We need to talk about pan-European solidarity. If a Corbyn government is going to have a chance it will need to have a Podemos government in Spain, a left-wing Greek government, a left-wing French government. Socialism can only be a trans-national project and if we withdraw from Europe it’s less likely.

There is a very direct defensive argument here too; about what will happen to migrants and to British politics. The only thing the nationalist left has to counterpose to that is dubious arguments about leaving making it easier to carry out left-wing policies, which are just absurd from a class-struggle point of view. The EU is a bosses club? So is every country in the EU, so is Britain.

If this is a choice between two capitalist options why not abstain?

Because this is a clear cut choice, one side needs to win, and the left needs to be relevant. This isn’t simply a split in the ruling class, though it is that, but it also has very clear impacts for us, for our movement, for the working class.

If Britain leaves the EU we will lose limited free movement, our workers will lose certain protections, and most importantly it will be a mandate for the right wing of the Tory party and UKIP to run riot in their attacks on migrants but also with turbocharged austerity.

There’s an idea on the left that after an “out” vote we can somehow define the vote, but there won’t be that discussion. it will be a victory for Nigel Farage. This is not an issue we can stay neutral on.

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