The EU Referendum, Brexit and the Demonization of the Working Class
A 30-year war has been waged on the working class, migrants, the poor, women, people of colour, disabled people, and refugees. We should be countering racism and xenophobia whilst supporting acts of power, resistance, and collective action against the establishment, not pursuing a vitriolic campaign that undermines democracy and dismisses people into the arms of the right.
The EU Referendum, Brexit and the Demonization of the Working Class
Photo credit: Pixabay/ coombesy
By Mari-Claire Price / resurj.org

Misinformation is a weapon of mass destruction

In the lead up to the UK’s EU referendum, in particular over the past six months, we have been faced with what can only be described as an assault of propaganda and media bias from both the remain and leave campaigns. Interestingly, a referendum on something that many UK voters feel utterly detached from - the EU - has stirred up a wave of political debate, conversation, and opinion across the UK, in what had swiftly become a debate about UK politics, engaging people who would have previously described themselves as having little or no interest or faith in politics, and some who have never voted in a local or general election.

The level of misinformation, manipulation, claims, and counter-claims from both sides was abhorrent and only led to people feeling entirely in the dark about the facts. The UK public faced on a daily basis, facts and opinions that were totally polarized. Chalk and cheese, apples and oranges; polar opposites, was the nature of the debate. People simply did not know who to trust or believe, and were undecided until the last moment, with many of the electorate making a decision on how to vote only one month prior to the referendum, and some deciding at the polling booth.

The politics of fear

This became a vote of protest for many. Some remain voters were scared into a vote to remain, based on the suggestion that the alternative was a vote for the right. In the same way, some leave voters were scared into a vote based on an illusion, fuelled by the right, of the alleged “negative” impacts of immigration.

Lexit was the left campaign to exit the EU, led by movements such as the Socialist Workers Party, and was an alternative option to the mainstream siloed debate for many. With no hope in any real possibility of EU reform and questioning the motives of a remain campaign funded by the banks and wealthy elite, many left voters chose Lexit as a vote against neoliberalism and a policy of austerity across the EU, against TTIP and the privatization of public services, against racism and xenophobia, and against the detention of migrants andthe treatment of refugees by the undemocratic fortress of the EU. The Lexit voice was always going to be side-lined in a campaign that kept the debate purposefully siloed to a “left” vote to remain and a “right” vote to leave, but it was a voice nonetheless.

That these were reactive, protest, or misinformed votes for many on all sides, blame should be placed where the blame lies: at the feet of two manipulative, fearmongering, and toxic campaigns and their proponents. However, what has begun to emerge since the results of the referendum is a dangerous blame game and a media fury, stirring up an already divisive debate and threatening to destabilize the situation we are faced with even further.

A divided nation

The result of this referendum should not really come as a big surprise. The likelihood of either a leave majority or a marginal win for remain was always a distinct possibility. This was clear from the gains made by the UK Independence Party (UKIP), lead proponents of the leave campaign, in the last general election and local elections, and for whom support has been growing over the past few years, from 105,000 votes in the 1997 general election, to 3.8 million in the 2015 general election. There has been a palpable xenophobic and racist underbelly of right wing movement growing across the UK and Europe for a number of years, fanned by the likes of UKIP, that has fuelled hatred and division in this referendum and has led to many votes to leave. No one can or should deny the repulsive level of racism and xenophobia in the UK - historical, structural, and systematic, and the increase in racist harassment, abuse, and violence that has taken place in the days following the referendum, documented by social media campaigns such as #PostRefRacism. But what was also palpable before this referendum, was the lack of resistance to, and acknowledgment of racism and xenophobia, by those who are now claiming to be the upholders of an anti-racism agenda in the wake of Brexit, and have until now denied, ignored, or diminished the voices of the anti-racism movement and people of colour, previously “unwilling to take them at their word.” Or as Dr. Akwugo Emejulu perfectly describes it, ‘‘whiteness cloaks itself in innocence by arriving late to scene and adopting an identity of ‘ally’.”

Whitesplaining and Poorsplaining

Space should never be given to a debate or opinion based on racism or xenophobia. In the days following the referendum, we have witnessed whitesplaining of racism and xenophobia, and the debate central to the referendum was seeped in “sliding scale” approaches to both (I’m not racist, but immigration…). Since the referendum, there has also been a high level of “poorsplaining” of why working class/poor voters have voted the way they did, grouping them into a homogenous group of the electorate. I wholly agree with analysis such as that of Dr. Emejulu who challenges any position that claims “a focus on race and ‘identity politics’ fractures the left at a time of crisis and undermines class politics.”

However, when 17 million people voted leave on June 23rd, but only 3.8 million voted UKIP at the general election only last year, the theory that solely a racist, xenophobic, rising right and support for the likes of UKIP has manifested in the result of the referendum, does not add up.

It is a reductionist and dangerous approach that likens every leave vote, and consequently every working class leave vote, with racism and xenophobia, and in turn credits racists with power and influence over these votes. This same approach and assumption as to the reason for a leave vote is being directed towards the older generation and towards poor and underprivileged areas of the UK. The right, UKIP in particular, have used the tactic of countering challenges of racism, to build support and swing voters to their side, offering “sanctuary” and vowing to “protect working classes” from classist attacks, or accusations of racism and xenophobia. Many of us on the left have stood by and allowed them to take on this role.

There is no legitimacy in the arguments around immigration that have fuelled misinformed votes to leave, including arguments that sought to position working class (namely white working class) as victims in a delusion that painted mass immigration as putting strain on the NHS, public services, and the welfare system, and as some sort of catalyst for cultural decimation. However, many on the left have failed to support the anti-racism movement in the UK by not taking responsibility within our own movements, to counter these views. Instead, we have simply chosen to ignore them. Countering these views does not mean breathing legitimacy into them or considering them “genuine concerns” that need to be heard. Something can’t be a genuine concern if the concern is based on lies, hatred and fearmongering. This is about countering racism and xenophobia, not welcoming it as a reasonable part of the debate.

Votes of resistance

Voting turnout was high, 72%, and higher than the turnout for the 2015 general election. The results shone a light on a number of divisions within the UK. Older generations voted overwhelmingly for leave, whilst younger voters showed overwhelming support for remain, and the regional divisions were also clear. What has also been overlooked is how support for brexit differed by race and ethnicity; for example, 53% of white voters voted for leave, mixed race and Asian voters voted 33% for leave, and black voters voted 27% in support of leave.

Significant to the debate that has followed in the days following the result were the clear divisions in the voting of different social classes, with the rich, metropolitan and middle class areas of the UK backing remain by 57%, whilst poorer areas voted 64% for leave. Two thirds of council and housing association tenants voted to leave.

30 years of war has been waged by the Tories and the establishment: profit over people, demolishing of industry and jobs, crushing austerity, welfare reform, and cuts to and privatization of public services. The poor, working class, disabled people, migrants, refugees, women, and people of colour have seen their concerns and experiences ignored and placated for decades. People have said they don’t trust the Cameron government, they don’t trust the EU, they don’t trust the banks or big business and they blame the wealthy elite and neoliberal policy on the crushing of industry and jobs.

What seems to have been forgotten entirely is the wider political and economic backdrop of many of these votes to leave. The global economic crisis and the greed of the banks, bank and government collusion, MP’s expenses scandals, Payment Protection Insurance scandal, tax avoidance, the Panama Papers expose, political corruption, cash for influence scandals, investigations into election fraud, and the role of London City as the heart of illicit financial flows.. the list is endless.

The economic argument was never going to work for remain. At a basic level, the architects of austerity, David Cameron and George Osborne, attempting to convince those most impacted by austerity, to vote remain in the interests of economic stability, was frankly ignorant. Threats to introduce an emergency budget in the event of a leave, with promises of further cuts to services, would prove fruitless, and deepened the mistrust for many of the millions driven into poverty by EU and UK economic policies that have resulted in economic wastelands across the UK. I heard one person say recently, “Me and my family been skint (no money) all of my life, I’ll survive no matter what, why would I vote for remain so the rich can survive and banks can be stable?” A sentiment that is felt by many.

What’s more, many of the UK population have struggled to forge and retain a sense of European identity in comparison to our European neighbours. This was a referendum on EU membership in one of the three most Eurosceptic countries in the EU (alongside Spain and Greece).

Jaywick, Essex

Jaywick, Essex 

The nuances of a vote to leave

I live and grew up in Essex, a county north-east of London with a mix of affluent and middle class areas, alongside working class areas, some with high levels of deprivation. Two of the UK's five districts with the highest percentage of people who backed brexit were in Essex. 14 out of 18 Essex districts voted, overwhelmingly in some places, to leave. One of the most highly deprived areas in England, is Jaywick, Clacton, part of the Essex Tendring district. Tendring also happens to be the only place in the UK with a UKIP MP, and also voted strongly for leave.

That many of the most deprived areas of the UK voted significantly for leave cannot be underestimated.

Although the case for many, some that voted to leave, did not do so because they were ‘hijacked’ by UKIP’s despicable and dangerous scaremongering tactics on issues such as immigration. To say so underestimates and dismisses the myriad of concerns about UK politics and the EU, held by disaffected voters across the UK that have swung this vote. It dismisses the votes to leave that were simply an act of resistance, a finger to the establishment, the Tories, Prime Minister David Cameron, and the EU, for any way in which they have supported the Tories to wage their war. It also disregards the number of left wing votes for Lexit, the moderate and undecided votes, and those votes based on decisions made at the polling booth on the day. If the working class leave vote was “hijacked” by UKIP, the same could be said for the middle class remain vote being hijacked by Cameron based on fear of the right. But for both, it’s just not that simple.

A massive assumption has been made that a leave vote constitutes a hard-line right wing, racist, or xenophobic majority in the UK. The demonization of the working class, given that many working class areas voted for leave, comes hand in hand with this.

The demonization of the working class

Rhetoric and response to the referendum in the past few days have been troubling to say the least. It is not just the level of fear mongering and political manoeuvring we have witnessed on a scale that even goes beyond what we saw in the campaigns leading up to the referendum, but also the rhetoric and blame being placed on who voted for leave, why they voted for leave, and what problems they have caused for the rest.

MPs themselves took to the media to blame the result on the “white middle class,” and many descriptions of “dumb,” “stupid,” “uninformed” working class and poor voters flooded the posts of middle class remain voters. The classism and finger pointing continued, with social media sharing vitriolic messages about leave voters “regretting their decision,” “not being informed enough”, and “not realizing their vote would count”. One video in particularwas shared by a number of mainstream media and remain supporters on social media, with angry unspoken references to an ignorant vote by someone who didn’t realize the power of their vote. In reality, many people’s votes have not counted in past political processes in the UK, with the undemocratic first past the post system, our electoral system that sees the candidate with most votes in a constituency, winning, and disregards all other votes. To use these few examples as a way to undermine 17 millions votes is unfair, especially that voting regret and hindsight happens in every country in the world lucky enough to have one.

Political leaders have spoken out, calling for the House of Commons to reject the referendum result and stop a leave from the EU. Scottish first minister Nicola Sturgeon suggested that the Scottish parliament could veto the brexit result, following the high level of support for remain from the Scottish vote.

Reactions from remain voters, ironically angry at the outcome of a democratic process that went against their vote for democracy, have been unashamed. A petition calling for a 2ndreferendum, has to date, 4 million signatures. In an open letter to Europe by a young remain voter, rather presumptively on behalf of the 48% that voted remain, the author urges other EU members not to blame those that voted remain for the votes that “plunged a dagger into the heart of Europe.” The author accuses leave voters of choosing to “play wrecker with the EU,” urging other Europeans to know “we are not all like that.” As well meaning as the author is in pleading other EU countries to “stand with the other Britain: open, optimistic, tolerant and outward-looking,” the irony in the fact that their letter is the exact opposite of any of these things, and places a silent blame on certain UK regions, is astounding. However, the author is not alone. A waterfall of blame and mocking of the working class, the poor, and those from disadvantaged areas of the UK has followed suit.

There has also been a number of concerning reflections on the high turnout of voters from working class areas. MP Ian Duncan Smith, mentioned in referendum coverage on Thursday that there had been an unusually high turnout from council estates in areas such as Essex, and that “for once their vote will actually count for something.” Regardless of the irony of such a statement from the man who left behind a cruel welfare legacy as former Secretary of State for Work and Pensions, that their vote and voice was stronger than ever in this referendum is undeniable.

Some from the left, however, have spoken in support of the leave vote, others hopeful that aprogressive spin could clench this way from the right, or even joyous at the idea that a new form of politics would emerge from this result, and this sentiment and rhetoric is thankfully growing day by day.

Hypocrisy

I have only seen a handful of left voters declaring their genuine, undying love for and commitment to the EU. Most have weakly stated that the “dream” of the EU is still alive, and argued that reform is still possible. The referendum ballot papers had no box for a left case to leave, and similarly no box for a left, or reform, case to remain.

It has more than shocked me to see the same people that have taken to the streets to protest the housing crisis, austerity, cuts to public services, racism, and the treatment of refugees, the people who have sat in coffee shops across London and university towns in past years discussing the lies, manipulation, neoliberal agenda, and divide and conquer tactics of the Conservative government, corporations, and the wealthy elite, vote for a Conservative-led and big business funded remain campaign. Not as pro-EU, not even as optimistic EU reformers, but as actual Eurosceptics, voting against their own politics to solely counter the right’s.

Similarly, remain voter’s amnesia of the xenophobic actions and policy of Cameron and other pro-EU and remain leaders has been staggering. Cameron, the very person who referred to migrants as a “swarm,” and that has struck deals within the EU that are wholly xenophobic and anti-refugee, sought and gained massive support from a anti-xenophobia electorate.

This is a liberal bourgeois middle class that has to be held to account. As John Pilger so brilliantly put it: a “patrician class for whom metropolitan London is the United Kingdom” sees itself “as liberal, enlightened, cultivated tribunes of the 21st century zeitgeist” when “what they really are is a bourgeoisie with insatiable consumerist tastes and ancient instincts of their own superiority.”

Hope

We have spent the past few days in a whirlwind of political wrangling, scaremongering, confusion, and chaos. It was our biggest mistake and regret to allow the right to take ownership of a campaign to leave. We cannot undo what has been done and undermine the democracy we hold so dear; we cannot seek to find blame, denigrate or demonize 17 million people, as much as we cannot disregard the voice of 16 millions others.

But this could be our chance. This referendum result, with our support, could spell a new type of politics for the UK and across Europe. The result could see the end of a neoliberal, Thatcherite system that has, for years, held only the interests of the elite at its core, and that has sought to divide us throughout this campaign and this result. To those who voted remain through fear of a win for the right, a large part of nearly half the population who voted remain, it’s time to come out of the pits of hopelessness and blame. It’s time to realize that with an untenable UKIP and broken conservative party, we have a window of opportunity for a new type of politics, and we must consider what that could really mean for ending racism, xenophobia, and inequalities.

We must come together to support those that are calling for unity and justice, such as Jeremy Corbyn and the movement supporting him, fight the establishment that seeks to and will continue to seek to prioritize the interests of the wealthy elite and disregard those who have suffered at the hands of a neoliberal agenda and structural racism and xenophobia. We need to continue to bridge a new politics that dismantles the right, weakens the establishment, crushes racism and xenophobia, and functions as a catalyst of power and resistance for all of us.

And a final word...

As we say in Essex:

Corbyn: We got your back son

Farage: Jog on you si


Mari-Claire Price is a member of RESURJ, a global feminist alliance working for Sexual and Reproductive Justice.

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The EU Referendum, Brexit and the Demonization of the Working Class