Like it or not, the UK (as it is currently constituted) has decided to leave the EU. What this means for us in socioeconomic terms will only become evident over the coming decade. Likewise what it means for Britain as a unified whole will only become evident over the course of the next couple of years. The one thing we can be certain of is that the entire process has laid bare the terrible state of politics and democracy in Britain, right here, right now.
From the very beginning the referendum was a farcical affair. What we needed was a year-long process (at the absolute minimum) of information, education and debate. What we got, for what was billed as ‘the most important decision in a generation’, was a short-lived barrage of sound-bite, fear-mongering, popularist jingoism and media hype.
If we have learned anything from this referendum it is that the powerful and the political on both sides of the debate have nothing but contempt for everyday people. By ‘everyday’ I mean the people I spend every day with; the former – and formerly loved – ‘working class’ people of the regions which, once upon a time, made up the Labour heartlands. I live in Doncaster, where 69% of voters ticked the ‘Leave’ box.
Neighbours and work colleagues I’ve spoken to (not so much friends, as I inhabit largely left wing circles, but more on that later) were all hungry for more information. Rather than focusing on the immigration debate – which made up 90% of the vox pops in the media (a propaganda strategy used to reinforce classism for the last 50 years) – the majority of people voiced concern for the immediate welfare of their friends and family and many spoke about their fears for an uncertain future… the kind of thing which should be at the heart of every political decision (more on that later too).
People were truly torn and many felt that they were making a decision between a rock and a hard place… it is not as if we’re exactly thriving under the EU, despite the £millions of EU funding which has been pumped into the region. None of this was reflected in the media or in the attitudes of politicos… both left and right.
The right have always seen us as feckless, lazy, uncultured and lowly. We should never be surprised by the undisguised hate which comes from a class of people who depend on others to do their work for them; if they did not look down upon us they would be forced to admit their complicity in our suffering. But it is the allegations from some on the left this morning which have uncovered the real crisis in modern democracy.
Apparently Britain’s poorest communities are full of ‘ignorant’, ‘uneducated’, ‘bigoted,’ ‘racists’ who fail to understand the enlightened message of the supposedly left-wing and socialist Remain campaign.
Ignoring the fact that this was a decision between which neoliberal, largely unaccountable, top-down bureaucracy would have the greatest sway over our lives, it is exactly this attitude towards poor working class communities from some on the left which ensures the mistrust of poor communities and ultimately guaranteed the Leave vote in the majority of England’s and Wales’ forgotten towns. In fact it was the blatant arrogance of the mainstream left which caused much of the current political isolation in the first place; as the IWCA wrote after the defeat of Labour in last year’s general election:
The New Labour project was underpinned by the belief that Labour could ditch Clause 4, embrace neo-liberalism and orientate entirely to the middle class, safe in the knowledge that its working class core vote could be taken for granted because, in Peter Mandelson’s words, they had ‘nowhere to go’.
Cruddas says that its current plight ‘could be the greatest crisis the Labour party has faced since it was created. It is epic in its scale’. Post-New Labour, what is the Labour party for? If it cannot retain working class support in its heartlands, if it is no longer seen as the party of the class by a significant and growing section of the working class, what is its reason to exist? Can this ever be resolved? Having lost Scotland, and facing constituency boundary changes that will likely work against them, will it ever be able to form a national government on its own again? Labour, like the Lib Dems, are finding out the hard way that there is no need for three neo-liberal parties, or even two; and that gaining votes in Guardianland doesn’t compensate for the loss of the core it took for granted.
One only has to look across the Channel to mainland Europe to see the vacuum being filled by Euro-nationalist parties […] the French think-tank the Jean Jaurès Foundation, founded by the former French PM Pierre Mauroy to ‘promote the values of Democratic Socialism’, issued its analysis of the factors behind the rise of the Front National. It reported:
‘With no political offer from the left, working-class French people feel they have been abandoned economically, socially and culturally. The FN has stepped into the breach: it says to these people: “you are the most important and we will fight for you”.
‘The left is trying to make up to what it calls ‘real minorities’ who it believes are discriminated against. In doing so it has become indifferent, even scornful, of the wider French working class. They say to these native French “you have not understood, you are racist and sexist”, and so these people have said, so be it. They are ready to admit voting FN because the left has abandoned them and the FN is interested in them.’
In short, the left in France has abandoned class politics, embraced identity politics and taken the core working class vote for granted, and is now reaping the whirlwind.
The IWCA has been warning about the political vacuum in the former Labour heartlands for years. I believe in a different politics (which I shall elaborate upon in a future post), but, as somebody who lives and works in one of the poorest regions of Britain, I have the utmost respect for their analysis and a first-hand understanding of the classism which their work has helped to highlight. Labour and the left in general have no idea what it is like to live in impoverished Britain.
Every basic security has been swept away and every basic need has been hijacked by the neoliberal money machine. One of the most basic of human needs, shelter, has become a pension scheme for the affluent, causing the widespread return of absentee landlords and a rise in sub-standard living conditions. This has also helped to make house ownership all but an impossible dream for the vast majority of people living in impoverished towns. Without the dream of a better life who can really be enthused by the prospect of low-paid, zero-hour, menial work which will do little more than pay the bills and put food on the table until you die (usually prematurely of a poverty related disease). Despite the lack of truly attractive career opportunities the vast majority of us living in the former Labour heartlands are in employment – regardless of what the BBC would have you believe – most of the children living in poverty today (a full third of children in the UK) have one or both parents in work. Education might have helped to break us out of the poverty trap (we are all ‘ignorant’ and ‘uneducated’ after all), but the vast majority of local schools focus more on discipline than they do on education. Small wonder that British children are the loneliest and most prone to depression in Europe. As for that other poor epidemic, obesity (can’t they just exercise and eat quinoa?), our communities are surrounded by arable land, but our towns have become food deserts where its easier to buy pizzas than potatoes (unless, of course, they’re chipped!) and lettuces tend to be sold wrapped in pitta with kebab meat. Can anyone really fail to understand the bitterness, cynicism and anxiety which runs through these communities.
An influx of new people to towns where resources are already stretched to breaking point is always going to cause resentment. But to see this as racism, bigotry or ignorance completely misses the point. Sure there are dickheads, show me a single human community which doesn’t have its fair share of haters, but the truth is that these areas – even ‘too white, too working class’ Donny – are incredibly tolerant despite the socioeconomic crisis we’ve been suffering for years. Yes there are flash-points, but the haters are a noticeable minority.
Far from being ignorant bigots the majority of the one-time salt-of-the-earth are simply trying to make the best of a very bad situation; a situation exasperated by the fact that they have been abandoned by the political elite. But just because the political have abandoned impoverished communities it doesn’t mean that the people in those communities have abandoned politics. The myth of apathy does not hold water when over 70% of people actually registered to vote in the referendum. The EU referendum result was, in part, a protest by a people who feel – not without good reason – completely abandoned by the existing political status quo.
People are obviously desperate for change, but the changes which have been offered are all but meaningless because the power to affect change at a local level has been all but stripped away. I believe that, far from bemoaning our lot and attacking people for taking sides in an ill-thought out, farcical referendum, this result opens up an opportunity for new and expanded political debate and, more importantly, a new way of doing politics.
But, if we are to be truly democratic (and, for that matter, truly progressive) this debate must include the forgotten people of the former Labour heartlands.