WHAT HAPPENED AT THE EU REFERENDUM was remarkable – the working class delivered an unexpected poke in the eye to the whole political establishment. Cameron, the PM responsible for austerity, was forced to announce his early departure the very next morning. The Hong Kong stock exchange reacted badly to the results in Sunderland. Since when did global finance capital care what workers in Sunderland thought? Now they were having to.
True, for activists in many of Labour’s traditional heartlands – especially the ‘left behind’, predominantly white working class districts of former manufacturing towns– the referendum was an unnerving experience. The issue of immigration was a pretty ubiquitous topic of concern among whole communities which were overwhelmingly voting for Leave.
Like Gordon Brown’s encounter with Gillian Duffy, some on the left were too quick to simply dismiss those raising immigration as bigots. But look at it from the other perspective. This was a referendum not just about membership of the EU but on the whole way we are governed. It was an opportunity to reject a system which has denied us agency, voice or identity over three or more decades of neoliberal attack.
Yes, there were racist views mixed up in this consciousness, but there’s was a burning sense of anger and resentment at austerity, at Thatcherism and its continuation by Blair, and the destruction of decent jobs in favour of zero-hours and agency labour. It was an angry, alienated response to a whirlwind of neo-liberal damage and destruction that has torn through working class communities.
Gone, in many cases, are the manufacturing industries that were the economic lifeblood of these areas. Gone with them are jobs for life on decent pay, in favour of zero-hours, a minimum wage or fighting to keep your benefits. Gone are the unionised workplaces where people collectively fought to uphold their pay, terms and conditions. Gone too is any chance of getting a decent home of your own, or any security, now that council houses are few and far between, and house prices have rocketed.
What sense of control did people have over the changes which tore apart these communities? Were they listened to, even for a second? Did what they say count? For many, the issue of ‘immigration’ has become a cipher for a lack of control over the forces of globalisation. While clearly this involves a racist framing of the issues, it plays into a much wider sense of having been dumped on by the élite.
Listen to voters on run-down working class estates and you get a sense of them having been abandoned, ignored, and betrayed. So when Farage says, ‘we can take control over our own destiny’ or ‘we can regain the power’, of course it resonates.
And what was Labour’s alternative offer on the doorstep? Basically a large dose of ‘no you can’t’, there is no alternative, with an occasional hint of ‘we’re scared of you’. The élite were apparently closing ranks – that’s how it looked.
The idea that a Blairite Labour leader would have succeeded by pumping pro-EU propaganda more enthusiastically at an angry and alienated working class is utter madness. The gulf between the leadership of the movement and ordinary voters and trade unionists was only accentuated by the parade of Labour and TUC figures on Tory platforms.
Jeremy did well to avoid this mistake, giving a basis to recover lost ground. His leadership must be defended at all costs. But Labour won’t win back these voters without a serious fight.
How should we respond? We must not despairingly write off all Brexit voters as racists or proto-fascists. But neither is it a case of conceding to UKIP’s agenda on immigration controls. That is both wrong in principle and would in any case look like a cynical move from remote politicians.
To his credit, Corbyn began to emphasise the need to contest the terms on which immigration has been experienced. He talked of closing down the loopholes which see bosses exploit cheap migrant labour in order to drive down the pay and conditions of UK workers. An early General Election is possible, even likely.
Some of the momentum lost during the campaign can be won back with a real fightback on austerity and exploitation. But if we don’t make serious inroads here, among those who feel betrayed by Labour, then piling up increased majorities in inner London is not going to help. No one should be in any doubtwe’ll have our work cut out.