“Some would have you believe that the values and principles you have always stood by are now obsolete, because all of our politics can now be broken down to a binary choice fixed on the 23rd of June 2016: Leavers vs. Remainers. This is rubbish. If you sit out the European elections because it’s too hard, or you split the Labour vote, then the only victory will be for Nigel Farage’s values.” This was the message I recently gave to Labour activists and trade unionists gathered in Durham’s historic Miners’ Hall to celebrate May Day.
As postal votes start to drop for the European elections, we should not lose sight of the bigger picture. Whether we voted to leave or remain, Labour members and supporters have a higher common purpose: building a fair and equal society, where privileges are for the many. While we are in the EU, that means electing Labour MEPs.
Brexit, and what we do with it, matters a great deal. But it is just an episode in a much wider crisis that is shaking the very foundations of our society. Not since the 1980s have we witnessed so many threats mounting against equality and fairness. Not since the 1930s have we seen the far right on the march as we do today.
Last year, I spoke at the 85th commemoration of the Battle of Stockton – when Teesside dockers chased Oswald Mosley’s Blackshirts out of town. It horrifies me, the granddaughter of a Holocaust survivor, to see those who stoke hate and fear rising in the polls.
This government might be a shambles, but the Tory plan has always been clear: destroy everything Labour built. All the rules and all the rights that protect and empower workers. And Brexit is just another way for the Tories to erase 150 years of Labour struggles from the statute book. It’s not that they want to leave the EU because of its neoliberal agenda – they want to leave because they think it isn’t neoliberal enough. Farage is no different.
It used to be that Europe was a Tory obsession, an all-consuming question that dominated every other issue. But we know that politics is about far more than whether we are in or out. In our labour movement, we have our own obsession, called social progress. How you voted in the referendum does not define you, and we must be vigilant not to fall in the trap of EU identity politics set by liberals and the fascists.
We mustn’t confuse the European elections for what they are not: another referendum. This is about electing representatives for our communities. Having a Labour MEP matters – in the last three years, we’ve fought and won: for tax justice and tackling corporate tax avoidance and evasion, for climate action and a just transition taking every community with us, and for social justice and fair employment rights, especially for those in precarious work.
As things stand, we remain part of this club and we should use this opportunity to steer the EU in the right direction, as the Party of European Socialists (PES) manifesto sets out. Apathy and inaction will only leave the Tories and fascists free to continue on their path to destroy everything we stand for.
Just as those Stockton patriots stood up for their values of tolerance and justice in 1933, fighting – literally – for these values, how we respond to this challenge will be our generation’s legacy to the next. Let’s use the ballot boxes on May 23rd to send a signal: they shall not pass.