In spite of some of the emotions or interpretations surrounding the Brexit vote, we are left with the fact that a majority of the British people said ‘no’ to an immediate question about the European Union. Of course, there was a lot of misinformation, simplification, fear mongering and confusion and we are now faced with massive political turmoil, in which the establishment has thrown itself into a panic. The Conservative Party is severely divided and elements of the Blairite New Labour are launching a full-scale assault on Jeremy Corbyn.
The knee-jerk reaction of an establishment in turmoil, both in the Conservative and Labour Parties, confirms and highlights some of the grievances underlying the ‘No’ Vote. Britain is a divided nation, but the debate about the EU only scratches the surface. We need to come to terms with some of the longer-term factors that have sparked the anger, frustration and fear which has been mobilised and is now unfortunately primarily being directed at immigration.
A long time coming
It is tempting to say that the issues which have been articulated by the ‘LEAVE’ campaign, have wide support across the nation. This would mean the fears of immigration and Islam are fairly widespread in Britain. This been one of the favourite reproaches of an insulted middle-class intelligentsia in the wake of Brexit, accusing some of their opponents of being racists or simply ignorant. Although understandable to an extent, as our national media and politicians have been spouting a lot of nonsense, this type of response misses the mark and reinforces the ‘us’ against ‘them’ feeling that sparked the ‘NO’ vote in the first place. Reducing the Leave vote to racism can also be challenged when looking at strong votes for Leave in areas like Newham in East London, a very multicultural area, where racists have been repeatedly rebuffed in their attempts to get a foothold over many years. Likewise in Leicester, a city with a very diverse population and a former center of textiles and clothing manufacturing which recorded a strong Leave vote
I would argue that the ‘NO’ vote has to be interpreted first and foremost along the lines of what Labour MP Diane Abbott has called ‘a roar against the establishment.’ The vote for Leave was overwhelmingly a working-class vote. According to statistics from YouGov, 60 percent of the support for Remain was found among what social scientists call ABC1 voters (capitalists, middle class and some sections of the working class) while 60 percent of the support for Leave came from the C2DE, broadly speaking the blue- and white-collar working class people, mainly from the north of England.
Britain in 2016 is a deeply unequal society. Growing inequality is not a force of nature, but rather the outcome of an ideological, policy-driven approach called neo-liberalism, first promoted by Pinochet in Chile and later popularised by Thatcher in Britain and Reagan in the US. It is no coincidence that inequality has risen parallel to the adoption of the neo-liberal approach by political establishments in most countries. In fact, the devastating effects of neo-liberalism are now even being criticised by its former champions.
Thirty-five years of economic policy based on neo-liberalism has eroded the foundations of the welfare state. It has hollowed out the principles of solidarity and trade-unionism and has replaced it with a ruthless individualism which encourages people to see each other as competitors on a liberal market and more importantly, while it encourages the free movement of labour, it naturally places poorer newcomers (ie. immigrants) at a disadvantage while evoking the spectre of a ‘race to the bottom.’ Britain now has a considerable amount of people who can be counted as the ‘working poor.’ These people have borne the brunt of unbridled open markets and naturally feel threatened by immigrants who could potentially become competitors for jobs and livelihoods. At the same time, they are being told by their politicians and business leaders that staying in Europe is good for them.
This is the Europe that has actually institutionalised neo-liberalism into its constitution. It has the support of broad sections of both the Conservative and the Labour Party and especially in the latter case, the underlying issues of the ‘LEAVE’ vote are being battled out as we speak. Let’s not forget that Labour has been instrumental in implementing the harsh neo-liberal policies which have unravelled the fabric of British society. The Blair years simply took forward the Thatcherite project of economic growth based on privatisation and deregulation. New Labour embraced neo-liberalism, as did most other social-democratic parties across Europe. Any economic ‘growth’ accomplished in the 1990s generated wealth which made the rich richer, while impoverishing the poorest. The Labour Party became an accomplice in the assault on the British working class. Only now, has this narrative been challenged. The struggle for the leadership of the Labour Party must be seen as a battle for direction. And if Labour wants to have any relevance in the future, it must remember that when faced with a false choice between a neo-liberal Tory party and a neo-liberal Labour party, people often much rather choose the ‘original’ than the hypocrisy of the ‘opposition.’
The fact that bigots have been able to exploit working class misery and turn the entirely legitimate anger of many towards scapegoating immigrants is something that must be fought vigorously. In the words of the British commentator Richard Seymour: “Establishment figures like Farage and Johnson have successfully (and ironically) articulated a broad anti-establishment sentiment — originating in class injuries, regional decline, postindustrial devastation, generational anxieties, etc. — along bigoted, national chauvinist lines. The vote cannot be reduced to racism and nationalism — but that is the primary way in which it has been organised and recruited and directed, and, for the foreseeable future, that is the primary way in which the outcome will be experienced.”
Whether there is any other outcome to be experienced hinges partly on the results of the coup within the Labour Party at the moment. If the Blairites are successful in their attempts to remove Corbyn; bigoted, neo-liberal and dystopian Britain wins. If however, the broad base of the Labour Party, the trade unions and the new, young membership can fight off this siege, Brexit might actually clear the way for the politics of hope.