“Remain is not an option.”

Worker’s rights, the price of beer and champagne socialism – just days ago I sat down with a quiet warrior of the lesser known side in the Brexit battle: John Sweeney of Labour Leave

“That’s fine”, he says in response to a photo request, as a slightly trembling hand brings a cigarette up to pursed lips. “Just don’t get me smoking though. I don’t wanna look too much like a rebel.”

With leathery skin, scarred on one side, a ring in one ear and a few teeth short of a camera ready smile, North Londoner John Sweeney is not a familiar political representative and orator to most – but much like the “millions of Labour voters not given a voice in this referendum debate”, he is a underseen, underheard figurehead of a little reported movement – that of Labour Leave.

Representing the trade unions, and what he calls the “old kind of Labour” spearheaded by a pre-referendum Jeremy Corbyn, John has been speaking his way across the country, and Europe, to fire up the far left “ regular-working people” who are dissatisfied with the EU project:

“Many from the new left are actually not from the working class. Their intellectual arguments do not hit home. Voters say, I don’t understand that – does it mean I’ll be employed tomorrow, does it mean I’ll get pay rises, does it mean we’ll get cheaper beers? The intellectual content sometimes confuses the voters.”

The referendum vote is days away. As we sit in the heart of a yummy-mummy-territory West London park, he exudes an exhausted but tenacious passion, asserted over the wind and gentle screaming of playing children: “We were late forming our Labour Leave campaign. We only started in November. But in fact we have been campaigning for a referendum for two years. We are the original Eurosceptics.”

Despite a humble-bordering-on-nervous appearance, John speaks of meeting with politicians and delivering speeches from podiums at rallies across all the major cities – Paris, Barcelona, Athens: “This is an internationalist movement that already and has always been there. And we are in a position to lead those who after our referendum will also be clamouring to leave. There is a growing consensus and it is only going to grow.”

Of Jeremy Corbyn, who he “knows well”, he speaks fondly but with an edge of disappointment: “Jeremy is the most left-wing leader we have ever elected. He had opposed everything EU since Maastricht. And he hasn’t indicated anything to say his view has changed significantly. We are a bit perplexed to be honest. We think if he wasn’t the leader he would be fighting this campaign with us.”

He agrees that such divisions within the Labour party exist haven’t had much coverage in the press. “I think the Parliamentary part of the party is for remaining. But what is underestimated is that 40% of the membership, 40% voters, are for Brexit. I think as we don’t have a high profile spokesperson like Jeremy, these voices haven’t been heard.”

I ask about being left to share a platform with the likes of Johnson and Farage. On the latter, his eyes roll. “That’s all anyone seems to ask me. With Boris, I think – I could have a pint with him. But with Farage… We avoid it at all costs. Our biggest challenge has been to keep our own space. In the first few weeks, I spent most of my energy convincing people I wasn’t a racist. And that’s before putting forward any other argument.”

“UKIP for example only have one policy. It’s all centred around immigration. For us it is everything but. We need workers from Europe to keep our country running, our NHS for example. I’m proud of the diversity of our country, and of my city. My family came from Ireland for heaven’s sake, it would be hypocritical to say anything else. And for me that is not what this is about.”

“It’s about worker’s rights. That worker’s rights have emanated from the EU is a myth – we had plenty before we joined the EU and even now go far beyond what they set out. In fact, it demeans the men and women in this country who fought for them to suggest otherwise.”

Playing devil’s advocate, does he think it’s the concept of the EU project itself that is the problem, or whether with a blank sheet of paper we could start again: “The EU is one of the only institutions that has got capitalism at its core. It’s based on capital, not on worker’s rights. It’s about freeing up lots of money for the people who have already got lots of money. It can’t be reformed. And if it can, why hasn’t it in last 40 years? Have we got to sit here for the next 20 years as it takes more and more power from national governments?”

“It’s a huge decision to be made on the 23rd, not just for ourselves but for our children and grandchildren. Our chance to say we are not prepared to be in this unelected millionaires club. Or should I say billionaires.”

There is little speculation about a negative outcome: “Remain is not an option. We’re not even looking at it. If we fail here, it’s onto pushing for another referendum. Though I don’t even want that on the table now. It’s like we’re admitting defeat before even going into battle.”

As we part ways on the tube, he extends an invite to a Vote Leave gathering on Millbank on the eve of the vote, over the roar of the train: “I will be there but not for long: Farage will be there. And champagne. And if there’s one thing I can’t tolerate, it’s champagne socialism.”


Interview conducted with Alessandro Ricci.