Tomorrow the British will go to the polls to decide whether UK should stay within the European Union or not. I truly hope that the majority will vote to Remain.
Whatever the final result, the referendum debate has shown there is a worrying rise of xenophobia across all sectors of British society, in a country where migrants have always been welcomed and that has featured among the most cosmopolitan in the world. Many on the Leave side have openly campaigned against migrants and for national chauvinism, spreading incorrect information and unfounded arguments to fuel hate and resentment.
Even more worrying, the debate on immigration around the EU referendum saw many on the left opening the way for the legitimisation of the widespread resentment against migrants. Several prominent figures – including union leaders, intellectuals and Labour party members – have stressed the need for “controlled immigration” and the protection of British workers vis-a-vis all other workers.
Admirably, Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn has stuck to his principles and insisted on his pro-immigration stance. The priority should be solidarity across all those hit by the crisis to fight the devastations of neoliberalism and austerity. Migrants are a convenient scapegoat to divert the public’s attention from the real cause of their plight: the drastic reduction of state welfare, widespread privatisations and a wholesale attack on workers’ rights.
Other sectors of the radical left have maintained their commitment to internationalism and inclusion, but campaigned for Leave, hoping that a Leave victory would open a crisis within the Tories from which the left might emerge victorious. Like sectors of the Sanders’ base in the US, and leftists across Europe, they are unwittingly paving the way for the rise of the far right, in the hope that this pragmatic short-term convergence of interests will topple neoliberal technocracy and lead to systemic change.
The reality is that the Tory right and the far right UKIP are much better positioned to capitalise on UK exiting the EU, and they have been the real protagonists of the Leave campaign. Brexit would be one major step towards a global advance of far right populism. It could be followed by a Trump victory in the US presidential election in November, a Le Pen victory in the 2017 French presidential elections, and a victory of the left/right populist 5 Star movement in Italy in 2018.
The EU is in deep crisis and British PM Cameron’s EU deal means that if Britain votes to Remain, the way will be opened for a technocratic curtailing of freedom of movement – all member countries would be allowed to put a temporary break on migration from other EU countries, if they can prove that their state budgets are under substantial pressure. This would be no victory either. But handing the UK to a right-wing alliance that thrives on hate and xenophobia is undoubtedly far worse.
Today Swiss people are voting in a referendum that will determine whether to include a universal basic income in the federal constitution. The constitutional amendment proposes the institution of a basic income to be given for life to the whole population unconditionally, that is, without any specific requirement like income assessment or job status. The basic income should be set at a level that guarantees human dignity and meaningful participation in public life.
Whatever the outcome of the referendum, it is a major achievement that the discussion has gone so far in a country like Switzerland that is at the centre of global capitalism.
It is also time however to reflect more critically about the wave of interest basic income has spurred around the world. We need to avoid the misuse of basic income as a tool to dismantle the welfare state in the global North, and legitimise the advance of austerity and free market capitalism. In the global South, the danger is that previous pilots have set basic income at very low levels, reinforcing double standards about what a decent livelihood should be for Southern citizens vis-a-vis people in the North. Here too, the danger is that a low payment that does not cover the basics would be used as a way to avoid building strong states that deliver decent public services to their citizens.
These risks are real. We need more engagement from the left, to make sure that we push for a basic income that complements a strong welfare state. This also means that we can’t uncritically endorse any move towards basic income just on the basis that “it is good for the movement”. Let’s keep our critical minds switched on, and contribute constructively to make sure that basic income works for people, and not against them.
The original vision of the concept stresses the need for a safety net that guarantees a decent living to all. Pushing for a modest cash check as a substitute for welfare provisions and labour rights would work in the opposite direction.