2016 EU Referendum

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Event.png 2016 EU Referendum (Referendum) Rdf-entity.pngRdf-icon.png
Leave Remain 1.png
Date23 June 2016
LocationUnited Kingdom,  Gibraltar

"On Thursday 23 June 2016 there will be a referendum. It's your opportunity to decide if the UK remains in the European Union (EU). It's a big decision. One that will affect you, your family and your children for decades to come" (HM Government).[1]

On 23 June 2016, the 2016 EU Referendum took place, when 72% (33.5 million) of the 46.5 million electorate voted, and 28% (13 million) abstained.[2]

38% (17.5 million) voted to Leave and 34% (16 million) voted to Remain.[3]

The vote was split between the constituent countries of the United Kingdom, with England and Wales voting to Leave, and Scotland and Northern Ireland voting to Remain.[4]

Murder of Jo Cox

Full article: Jo Cox/Murder

On 16 June 2016, EU Referendum campaigning was suspended for two days following the fatal attack on Remain supporter Labour MP Jo Cox in her Batley and Spen constituency.[5]


Vote Leave and Britain Stronger in Europe were designated as the official Leave and Remain campaigns in The campaigns were allowed to spend up to £7 million, get a free mailshot, TV broadcasts and £600,000 of public funds.[6]

Vote Leave

Vote Leave - backed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove - saw off a challenge from a rival campaign Grassroots Out, backed by UKIP leader Nigel Farage. It means Nigel Farage will not feature on official Leave campaign literature, with Vote Leave insiders fearing the UKIP leader would alienate centre ground voters they believe hold the key to winning. The group wants to make a "positive" case for Britain's exit (Brexit) of the EU, with less emphasis on immigration.

Grassroots Out founder, Tory MP Peter Bone, said his campaign would continue, but with a spending limit of £700,000, as he attempted to draw a line under the bitter war of words between his group and Vote Leave:

"We look forward to working closely and productively with all those who want to see the UK set free to determine its own destiny."

A spokesman for Vote Leave said:

"Our focus has always been the real campaign and the £350m we send to Brussels every week which we want to spend on our priorities like the NHS. We will continue to work constructively with everyone who wants to campaign for a Leave vote."

Nigel Farage offered an olive branch to Vote Leave, saying he could work with them as they had accepted his argument that immigration must play a more central role in the debate:

"Regardless of whichever campaign got the designation, UKIP would always have played a big role in this campaign as the only national party committed to leaving the EU and with a substantial £4m spending limit. I have always wanted all on the Leave side to come together and have done my best to try and make this happen. I'll continue to do so in the run up to the referendum to ensure the Leave side wins."

But Leave.EU, a group backed by UKIP donor Arron Banks, which supported Grassroots Out, said it was planning to seek a judicial review of the Electoral Commission's decision, with Mr Banks claiming it "smells of political corruption" and did not make sense.

Europe's Sullen Child

In a May 2016 article entitled "Europe’s Sullen Child", Princeton lecturer Jan-Werner Mueller asks whether the Brexit debate might have played out differently in a calmer, less crisis-ridden Europe:

Maybe the threat of the UK leaving the EU would have caused citizens and politicians across Europe to think about ‘ever closer union’ and what it actually means or should mean for them. It’s a nice thought, but in reality virtually nobody in the last ten years or so has been willing to talk about what used to be known as finalité, the purported end-state of European integration. The European elite hasn’t forgotten either the fear of a European super-state that the ill-fated European Constitution aroused in 2004-5 or its failure to ignite any passion for Europe, as Euro-enthusiasts had hoped. Far from concentrating minds, Brexit has been treated as yet another distraction in an EU facing multiple threats of disintegration.

At last autumn’s summit meetings, convened to address the refugee crisis, other member states made clear their view that dealing with the UK was like trying to manage a narcissistic child. Ten years ago, London might have had a different vision for Europe and been taken seriously, even rallied other member states. Now Britain is seen not just as inward-looking, but as selfish and sullen. The very fact that the Brexit debate is almost exclusively about Britain indicates the extent to which Cameron has removed the UK from the project of determining the Union’s future as a whole.[7]

"Britain Stronger in Europe"

Meanwhile, Prime Minister David Cameron welcomed the designation of Britain Stronger in Europe with a message on Twitter:

"Congratulations to @StrongerIn who have been designated as the Remain campaign in the EU Referendum. We're stronger, safer and better off in."

Britain Stronger in Europe - chaired by former Marks and Spencer boss Stuart, now Lord, Rose - was the only campaign to apply for Remain designation. The campaign's executive director Will Straw said:

"I'm delighted that the Electoral Commission have recognised that Britain Stronger in Europe has the breadth of support, the unity of purpose and the campaigning organisation to be the official Remain campaign in the upcoming referendum."

He congratulated Vote Leave on gaining the designation but called on them to "come clean with the British people and say what Out looks like".

Labour In for Britain

Jeremy Corbyn speaking in support of Labour In for Britain

On 14 April 2016, at the University of London's Senate House, Jeremy Corbyn made his first EU referendum speech in support of Labour In for Britain, saying his pro-Europe stance is "not half-hearted":

"In contrast to four decades ago, the EU of today brings together most of the countries of Europe and has developed important employment, environmental and consumer protections. I have listened closely to the views of trade unions, environmental groups, human rights organisations and of course to Labour party members and supporters, and fellow MPs. They are overwhelmingly convinced that we can best make a positive difference by remaining in Europe.
"Over the years I have been very critical of many decisions taken by the EU, and I remain very critical of its shortcomings; from its lack of democratic accountability to the institutional pressure to deregulate or privatise public services. So Europe needs to change. But that change can only come from working with our allies in the EU. It's perfectly possible to be critical and still be convinced we need to remain a member."[8]

Corbyn set out an alternative "socialist" vision for Britain in Europe to the one being promoted by PM Cameron, who will need the support of Labour voters to win the EU referendum. He called for an EU minimum wage to prevent "unscrupulous" employers from undercutting wages, and said:

"Just imagine what the Tories would do to workers' rights here in Britain if we voted to leave the EU in June. They'd dump rights on equal pay, working time, annual leave, for agency workers, and on maternity pay as fast as they could get away with it. It would be a bonfire of rights that Labour governments secured within the EU.[9]

Vote A_F_T_E_R 23 June 2016

In an article published on 4 March 2016, Professor Roger Mac Ginty of Manchester University explained why he's going to Abstain from the Conservative Party's game:

"What is driving me to abstain from this whole referendum campaign is that the staging of this argument suits those in power. It suits them to divert our attention onto the EU issue while they continue with an anti-people agenda of privatising the National Health Service, taking benefits from the poorest in society, de-regulating the City of London, and dismantling universities. Every second of airtime given to this issue is a second that does not scrutinise a government of millionaires presiding over increasing homelessness, less care for the mentally ill, fewer police officers on the streets, and shoddy treatment of doctors."[10]

Inspired by Professor Mac Ginty's article, a 38 Degrees petition "Abstain from the 2016 EU Referendum" was started on 24 May 2016. The petition which is addressed to the British electorate states:

66% of the British electorate voted in the 2015 General Election.
One third of voters therefore abstained.
66% of voters are invited to abstain from the 2016 EU Referendum.[11]

On Thursday 26 May 2016 – four weeks before the vote – the "Abstain from the 2016 EU Referendum" Facebook page was created. Three helpful suggestions for abstention were outlined (and a fourth added later):

1. Sign the 38 Degrees petition and abstain from voting in the 2016 EU Referendum; or,
2. Abstain from signing the petition and abstain from voting; or,
3. Abstain from signing and vote both Leave & Remain; or,
4. If you've got a postal vote, Abstain from posting it![12]

A Twitter campaign began on 7 June 2016 to encourage the electorate to: "Vote ‪#‎A_F_T_E_R‬ ‪#‎23June2016" (‪#‎AbstainFromTheEuReferendum) ‪#‎EUref‬ ‪#‎AdoptAPrincipledStrategy‬.[13]

Scotland Remains and England Abstains

Bella Caledonia writes:

On 23 June 2016, around 40 million people will decide from three options – Vote Leave, Vote Remain or Abstain. The latter is “when a participant in a vote either does not go to vote (on election day) or is present during a vote, but does not cast a ballot”. If sixty per cent of the electorate go to the poll and vote then sixteen million will have abstained.

Abstention is mass politics even if we do not know why millions abstain or indeed the particular reasons for each voter. Their decisions will aggregate into a political message. If twenty or fifty percent abstain, this will influence how the country interprets the outcome. It will affect the strength of the Crown’s mandate to act on the result. Non-voting may tip the balance one way or the other.

Interviewed in the Independent on Sunday David Cameron says “My fear is turnout. A lot of people might think: ‘well, in the end, it’s the rational thing to stay, but I’ll let other people make the choice for me’. Don’t. This is very close, no doubt about it”. He says turnout is going to be a “really important” factor. Given his record and the dirty little EU deal he has offered the working class, then let him stew in his own juice.

Many people will abstain because they cannot decide between the competing arguments of bourgeois politicians. Many people will see no direct benefit from the EU and will not trust the ‘jam tomorrow’ promises from either Remain or Leave. So we reject the view of many middle class intellectuals that people abstain simply because they are too ignorant, stupid or lazy.

It is rational for millions not to gamble their future by betting on the outcome of a victory for Cameron or Boris Johnson. Others may instinctively, and with good reason, feel that Leave or Remain offers nothing, a feeling that grows stronger the lower you are in the class hierarchy. The Scottish referendum shows this point from the opposite angle. Turnout goes up and abstention goes down when people think they can gain more democratic power and begin to change things for the better.

If the working class in Scotland, Northern Ireland and Wales votes to Remain in the EU and the working class in England Abstains then on 24 June we would wake up to find that the UK was still in the EU. But with few votes in England, David Cameron and his ‘negotiated’ anti-migrant deal would have been rejected by the working class majority. The icing on the cake would be Farage and Boris Johnson looking like sick parrots.

The European working class would be cheering too. By simply sitting on their hands the working class in England, supposedly the most backward and anti-foreigner, would have shown their brothers and sisters across Europe we are not anti-European. I am confident that the Scottish and Northern Irish workers will vote to remain. Wales is more problematic. So the big problem is persuading the working class in England to abstain and giving Cameron a ‘victory’ that looks like humiliating defeat.

In England the British ruling class is determined to mobilise working class support for the Tory negotiated anti-migrant settlement. They need working class votes to secure the Tory government. They have given this job to the Labour Party and trade union bureaucracy. The Labour right and the TUC are enthusiastic supporters.

Corbyn acts like an abstainer even though he has been signed up behind Cameron’s popular front. The Labour right can smell blood. It is an opportunity to damage Corbyn by claiming he is not showing leadership by fighting harder for ‘remain’. So Corbyn is being set up as the big loser. As Andrew Rawnsley reports, the Labour Right are talking privately of an attempt to oust him “once the EU referendum is over.”

Heads Cameron wins and tails Jeremy loses! If the Labour leader manages to mobilise working class support Cameron will secure the victory. The more votes that Corbyn can deliver the higher will be the plaudits for the skill and cunning of George Osborne and statesman-like leadership of Cameron. It is a repeat of the role that Labour played in the Scottish referendum.


The long term interests of the working class are to integrate more fully with the working class across the EU and beyond. The free movement of workers across the EU is creating a European working class not as the summation of national working classes but as an intermeshing, integration and interchange of workers. The free movement of labour is not for the benefit of the working class. It is a necessary complement for the free movement of capital and as a means of keeping wages down. But the unintended consequences of this are the necessity for working class organisations to ‘wise up’ and organise across Europe. The Europeanisation of capital is the breeding ground for a truly European working class. Remain-Abstain is a slogan to sum up a theoretical position. It does not sit in the middle between Remain and Leave. It addresses the long term strategic position and not merely what to do in the referendum. The UK working class should remain in the EU and unite with the rest of the European working class win the aim of the European democratic revolution.

When it comes to the immediate issue of the Tory referendum the working class should oppose both options on the ballot paper. Whether abstaining or boycotting (I set aside the question of boycott) this mean no votes for Cameron’s tick box and none for Johnson-Farage. Taking account of the national democratic movements in Ireland, Scotland and Wales we arrive with the slogan "Scotland Remains and England Abstains."

Democratic revolution

The EU was set up by the ruling classes of Europe in the interests of capital. Social Europe was the promise made to the German and French working class to incorporate them into the process. These benefits have been hard won by the working class only to be stolen and ‘handed down’ as benefits from the European Union. The myth of Social Europe finally died with the cruel and entirely unnecessary punishment of the Greek working class.

None of this means we should exit from the EU for the sovereignty of the Crown-in-Parliament. The problem for the European working class is insufficient integration not too much and this requires fundamental democratic change across Europe. The European capitalist classes have proved themselves incapable of uniting Europe not least because this requires a popular democratic revolution.

The European democratic revolution is a European wide political revolution. It is a revolution crowned by a secular, democratic and federal social republic including the constitutional right of self determination for all nations including Ireland, Scotland, Wales, and Catalunya. It means mobilising and organising a European-wide movement which will overthrow the existing bureaucratic EU constitution and win a majority for a new democratic constitution for Europe.

If this seems a tall order we should remember the European democratic revolution is a combined and uneven process. Democratic revolution in the UK is part and parcel of a European process which is already brewing up. Lenin was absolutely right to understand that the 1916 Easter uprising was a European, and indeed a world, event not simply an Irish one. It was the overture for the Russian democratic revolution.

Only a narrow nationalist would think Scotland’s democratic movement was a purely Scottish affair. It has a direct impact of Ireland, England and Wales. Wider still, the mobilisation around Scotland’s referendum placed Scotland in the vanguard of the European democratic revolution linked most obviously with Spain. No wonder in 2014 the European Commission, so desperate for the UK to remain in the EU, threatened to eject the Scottish people from the EU if they voted for independence. There is nothing more dangerous for the EU than the threat of democratic revolution. This is why the slogan ‘Scotland Remains and England Abstains’ does not come from nowhere. It germinated in the actions of the working class in Glasgow and Dundee in September 2014 who came out in large numbers to strike a blow against the British Crown, the Cameron government and toadies who led the British Labour Party.

All this now tests the Scottish left. Nicola Sturgeon and the SNP have recommended not simply Scotland Remains but a general UK remain. She is calling in effect on the English working class to join Cameron’s popular front. Should Scottish socialists back Sturgeon and Cameron by calling for a universal Remain or ally themselves with socialist Abstentionists in England?


Writing in Bella Caledonia, socialist historian and activist Neil Davidson, begins his socialist case for leaving the EU by identifying the most obvious alternative. He says “Faced with the impending referendum on British membership of the European Union (EU), and the reactionary arguments which dominate on both sides, socialists might be forgiven for echoing Mercutio’s dying cry in Romeo and Juliet of “a plague o’ both your houses” and opting for abstention”.

If abstention is the logical and sensible option, Neil claims that “refusing to take a side is also untenable”. Abstention is not “refusing to take a side”. It can of course be presented in that way by anarchists for whom avoiding bourgeois politics is a principle. For communists and socialists abstention is about opposing both reactionary options. It means giving no support for the lesser evil. Suppose in trade union negotiations the employer makes two proposals, both of which worsen pay and conditions. The employer organises a ballot to ask workers which of the two options they prefer. The trade union official says workers should vote for the lesser evil. The branch committee and shop stewards reject both options. They therefore call on the workforce to abstain in the ballot and boycott the whole thing. Abstention is the simple and logical way to express opposition to both options on the ballot paper. We reject Cameron’s nationalist retreat from Europe and Johnson’s nationalist exit. Both evils are inimical to the interests of the European and UK working class. As socialists we want the working class to lead a European democratic revolution. This aim is diametrically opposed to the politics of ‘Leave’ or ‘Remain’. Turkeys voting for Christmas is not the policy for a militant class. It is a futile waste of time arguing whether Cameron’s dirty little deal or Farage’s British road to nowhere is a better or worse evil. Opposing both is not a refusal to take sides. It is taking the side of the European working class. From that opposition, in words and deeds, come the seeds of independent class action.

Class struggle

Right wing commentator Peter Hitchens concludes his article in the Mail by saying “I still plan to stay at home on Referendum Day. I don’t wish to endorse or in any way contribute to this futile exercise…. whose result will be used to proclaim for years to come, that the issue is now closed”. He asks:

“If we voted to leave, who would implement the decision? I myself am baffled as to how a referendum could decide the issue, when huge majorities in both Houses of Parliament, plus the bulk of the media, plus businessmen, plus the civil service, the education sector and the judiciary are committed to our continuing membership.[14]
"I point to this for two reasons. Abstention is not some purist location where socialists can hide untainted by association with rights wingers like Cameron, Johnson and Farage. There are right wing abstentionists who will do the same thing as me on 23 June. But take note that Remain-Abstain is not the same as Exit-Abstain. The former represents the interests of the working class not the latter."

Hitchens is more Marxist than most Marxists! He understands that exit depends on organised political forces and the classes that back them. It is not simply or even mainly the outcome of a referendum. Only those with illusions in bourgeois democracy (‘parliamentary cretinism’) would think that an Exit from the EU will happen because a majority vote for it. A Tory referendum organised by the Tories for the Tory Party will not bring a clear cut exit in the teeth of determined opposition from the ruling class or the organised working class.[15]

Break-up of the EU?

In June 2016, Sweden's foreign minister Margot Wallström warned that other nations could follow the United Kingdom with referendums and demands for reform after the UK votes in the EU referendum on 23 June.

“The spill-over effect will be unfortunately felt, deeply felt,” she said on the BBC's This Week's World programme.
"That might affect other EU member states that will say: 'Well if they can leave, maybe we should also have referendums and maybe we should also leave.’
"If they stay, it might also lead to other countries saying: 'Well, they negotiated, they asked and demanded to have a special treatment so why shouldn't we?'"[16]


Both sides of the referendum campaign used social media to search for new things to frighten you with.

After Vote Leave claimed that staying in the EU will result in vast rises in clowns with sharp teeth sleeping under your bed, the Remain camp said leaving the EU would result in more unannounced week-long visits from your mother-in-law.

With the UK electorate demonstrating more clearly than ever that they are more willing to vote against things that scare them than vote in support of things they like, both sides have stepped up the fear rhetoric.

A spokesperson for the Remain campaign said:

“We’ve done recession, taxes, pensions and unemployment – so today we’re doing mothers-in-law, hand-sized house spiders and bin juice. We’d planned to be talking about the positive things the EU has done, like workers rights, the single-market and its associated economic growth, or allowing us to visit and work in Europe more easily than ever – but no-one’s interested, so spiders dipped in bin juice it is.”

A spokesperson for Vote Leave said:

“We’ve done immigrants, house prices and "terrorism" – so today we’re doing clowns with pointed teeth, wasps, and the bits of food that get stuck in the plug hole after washing up. We’d planned to be talking about the positive things we could do outside of the EU, like negotiating our own trade deal with China, creating production standards optimised for British businesses or even creating an international workforce that more accurately meets our needs, but no-one’s interested, so clowns under your bed it is.”

Voters across the country have said they have almost decided who to vote for, and will visit the polling booths on 23rd June as long as they are not still paralysed by fear.[17]


Results of the Brexit Vote

Having championed the Remain campaign, David Cameron announced outside 10 Downing Street that he would step down as UK Prime Minister by the time of the Conservative conference in October, saying "fresh leadership" was needed. UKIP leader Nigel Farage hailed it as the UK's "independence day", while Boris Johnson said the result would not mean "pulling up the drawbridge".[18]

Scottish First Minister Nicola Sturgeon said it was "clear that the people of Scotland see their future as part of the European Union," and the Government of Scotland announced on 24 June 2016 that officials would plan for a "highly likely" second referendum on independence from the United Kingdom.[19]

"Brexit means Brexit"

"Brexit means...er, stupid"

On 11 July 2016, two days before she became Prime Minister, Theresa May famously declared:

"Brexit means Brexit, and we're going to make a success of it."[20]

On 19 October 2016, the Daily Mirror's "Fleet Street Fox" parodied the PM and summed up the uncertainty and confusion caused by the UK vote to leave the EU in an article entitled "Brexit means stupid - so who voted for this?":

In our new post-Brexit era of being as thick as mince, we are told that people voted for less migration, more migration, greater parliamentary sovereignty than the one we've already got which allows MPs to block Brexit, hard Brexit, a Royal yacht, soft Brexit, a proper job for Boris Johnson, trade deals with China, staying in the single market and leaving the single market.
This is despite the fact that most of us can remember what the ballot paper looked like and that it didn't have that many words on it.
The question posed was to leave or remain. The consequences were unknown, both sides warned of fire and brimstone if we got it wrong, and in the end lots of people who were badly off felt things couldn't possibly get any worse and decided to remove token from board and smack David Cameron in the face with it on the way.
The upshot, so far, is that the badly off are now worse off and Dishface is about to embark upon a multi-million pound moneyspinning career that may, or may not, involve Panamanian bank accounts.
The question posed was, in hindsight, the wrong one.
The ballot paper should have said: "Would you like Britain to be remain as stupid as it is now? Or would you like it be more stupid?"[21]


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