Next Thursday voters will be asked to make an historic decision on the UK's membership of the European Union. I have always had an ambivalent view of the EU and in 1975, with my first ever ballot paper, I voted against membership. However, on this occasion I have cast my postal vote for Remain.
Essentially, I believe that we are now so integrated into the EU that Brexit would create economic turmoil at a very dangerous time for the world economy. It will be workers who will pay the price of that turmoil, not the fat cat owners of the news media punting Brexit. I don't buy all the suspiciously round project fear numbers, but the basic premise is correct. Brexit would have a destabilising impact on the economy with consequential public service cuts. It would be austerity all over again.
I also believe there is a positive case to be made for the EU. As a lawyer I would argue membership has brought a coherent and generally progressive body of employment law to the UK. As a historian, I am painfully aware that the history of Europe was very different before the EU brought the nation states of Europe together in cooperation rather than conflict.
UNISON members rely daily on employment rights that are enshrined in EU law and upheld by the European Court of Justice. Brexit would mean that hard won rights like paid holiday, fair working hours, equal rights for part-time workers and maternity and paternity leave would no longer be guaranteed. You only have to listen to the views of Brexit Tory MPs like Priti Patel, to understand that outwith the EU; workers in the UK would be part of a race to the bottom.
I accept that 'Social Europe' has been undermined in recent years and that European institutions have been cheerleaders for austerity. However, the idea that there is a socialist nirvana to be had following Brexit is dangerously naïve – this isn’t a referendum on neo-liberalism. Instead we should be taking a progressive reform plan into Europe along the lines articulated by Jeremy Corbyn, Gordon Brown and others.
I would have to admit that I was also shoved into the Remain campaign camp by the antics of the Leave campaign. The £350m a week claim was obviously misleading - actually it qualifies as a lie. However, it has been their cynical use of concerns over immigration that has been the most despicable element of the Leave campaign.
They know full well that EU migrants have an overwhelmingly positive effect on the British economy. Migrants have a higher employment rate than people born in the UK, are less likely to claim benefits or use the NHS. Migrant employment neither deprives British workers of jobs nor depresses local wages, as a study by the London School of Economics’ Centre for Economic Performance (CEP) shows. There aren’t a fixed number of jobs to go around. EU migrants don’t just fill jobs, they also create them: when they spend their wages and in complementary lines of work. While EU migration has risen in recent years, so has the employment rate of people who were born in the UK.
Nowhere in the UK is the economic and social case for immigration stronger than in Scotland. Our working age population is not projected to increase at the same rate as the rest of the UK. This fact was brought home to me recently when researching for a presentation on future jobs in Scotland. The biggest increase by far was in health and care – 65,000 extra jobs will be needed by 2020. The numbers of working age Scots to support our ageing population is not going to be there without immigration.
As Gary Younge argues in today’s Guardian, we are paying the price of avoiding a debate on immigration for 50 years. Voters think migrants comprise 31% of the UK’s population, when the actual number is 13%. If you think something’s twice the size it really is, you’re bound to find it frightening. We need to be honest and open with people about immigration and consider steps that address legitimate concerns. Yvette Cooper and Tom Watson have made a start on this.
So why are we in a position, if the polls are to be believed, of imminent Brexit.
A recent YouGov poll shows that the lower down the social ladder you are, the more likely you are to opt for leave. 52% of middle-classes are voting for remain, and just 32% for leave. Among the working-class, the figures are almost reversed: 36% for remain, 50% for leave. Owen Jones put it well saying: "When presented with a vote on the status quo, it is no surprise that those with the least stake in it vote to abandon it. Threats of economic Armageddon resonate little with people living in communities that feel ignored and marginalised."
It’s hard not to feel some sympathy with this view, but Brexit isn't the solution. In reality it would further concentrate wealth and power in the hands of the few. When the experiment crashes, they will fly off to their tax havens leaving the workers to pay the price. Johnson, Gove, IDS and Farage are not part of an anti-establishment insurgency - they are the establishment!
In the final days of this campaign, we should argue that housing shortages, falling real terms wages and a decline in public services are the fault of corporate greed and failed government policy - not migrants or the EU. There is a positive reform agenda for Europe, and Britain should be leading it.