"While the disempowerment of white working class people is a key factor in the leave vote, we cannot hope to engage with people until we attempt to engage with both of the products of this problem; the legitimate and the illegitimate"
While there have been innumerable analyses of why Brexit happened, the majority can be categorized into two distinct camps; the leave supporters were either engaging in valid political protest against Westminster and the EU, or it was an act of illegitimate xenophobic irrationality. I wish to present a slightly different analysis; one in which both camps can be explained by a single factor, and highlight the problems this factor presents.
As we look at demographics who voted for Brexit, we see a broad variety of ethnicities, socioeconomic positions and ideologies, but within this is a core block of white working and lower middle income families; a section that has been repeatedly the bedrock of Labour voting. For this section of society, the Bexit vote functioned as a legitimate rejection of their political status, but was simultaneously an act informed by xenophobic undercurrents within British society at large. It managed to be both a legitimate and illegitimate act simultaneously, and the Labour party’s response must be of the same kind; one that addresses the legitimate and illegitimate concerns that were produced by same factor; the economic and political decline of white working class and middle income Britons.
To begin, let us focus on the ‘legitimate’ nature of Brexit; the protest vote. As many declared, their decision to vote leave was an attempt to both demonstrate their existing power and attempt to reclaim power that they have lost. When we look at white working class voters, the current agony of the party, we see this anger blazing. It is nearly a truism to state that this group has been economically and politically disenfranchised over the last few decades.
In economic terms, the stripping away of industry and unionized labour has removed secure and well-paying jobs. All of this has aided in the process of reducing the economic power of this demographic; they have been stripped of economic security and stability, which is a prerequisite for enjoying any political power.
Political power and engagement requires a certain level of economic security; you cannot volunteer or work within political parties without the ability to support yourself or your family. The reduction in economic power causes a decrease in political power, as the lack of funds entails an inability to engage politically, which in turns leads to a lessening of the political clout of such a group. If a group is unlikely or unable to promote or engage in political causes, then why should political parties take them seriously? Why should they not simply throw a few token policies to placate such a group?
This dual natured attack upon the power of the white working class has been consciously and unconsciously carried out by Westminster and the EU, on both the left and right wings of the political spectrum. Westminster has failed in the last 20 years to enact policies of wealth redistribution or egalitarian education policies that could have provided support for economic development. In doing so they enabled and are responsible for the economic stagnation of this group. They are therefore also responsible for the political disempowerment of the group. Furthermore, Westminster has actively produced policies supporting those with economic and political power, at the expense of those without; pursuing policies of austerity and tax cuts that directly increase the economic and political power of those already at the top.
While the EU has enacted legislation to fund areas of decreasing wealth and provide security for workers, it has also engaged in policies designed to enrich those at the top, whilst failing to address the power imbalances that now exist between the rich and the poor. Its treaties concerning free trade and corporate rights have explicitly placed exploitative companies and executives ahead of the needs of lower income people. The EU has presented itself, to a certain extent, as focused upon enriching the wealthy rather than supporting the rest of us.
This situation helps demonstrate the legitimate nature of the protest vote. The choice to actively leave the EU was contra to the wishes of Westminster and the EU; two systems that have been key at economically and politically disenfranchising the group we have been discussing.
The protest was twofold. It was firstly a clear rejection of the EU and Westminster, and the policies that have taken away economic and political power from many. Secondly, it was a clear rejection of what the voters ‘should’ have done. The EU and Westminster both ran campaigns designed to scare people into voting remain; they focused on the dangers of losing the EU and condemned those who considered leaving. In voting to leave, the populace rejected this attempt at domination and asserted its autonomy; they chose that which they believed in, in the face of overwhelming pressure from two entrenched political entities. They produced an effective protest, as they not only achieved the goal of leaving, they nullified the power of two institutions that had been involved in removing the group’s power over the last 20 years.
It would be wonderful if this were the end of the matter, but we must examine the illegitimate nature of the leave vote. In terms of the illegitimate nature of Brexit, it must first be noted that while the economic and political power of the white working class has been on the decline, it is still a force to be reckoned with. The simple fact that the group comprises such a large segment of society gives it an intrinsic power. Furthermore, the very ‘whiteness’ of the group provides power through privilege, especially in comparison to the power or lack thereof of some minority groups. We must be careful to neither over, nor understate the power of this group. While this group has lost power in the last few decades, that loss was not a total one and nor has it lowered the power of the group to the bottom of our society. It is the combination of the actual power loss and the perceived power loss that functioned as a motive for Brexit.
Building upon the fact that this group still has power, we can see another factor that delegitimizes the Brexit vote; the fact that the anger towards the EU was in part directed by xenophobia and racism. The vote was inherently an act against migrants and ‘other’ people in the UK; it was a vote by people with power to punish those who have less power.
This element was unequivocally immoral. We can attempt to exculpate leave voters by appealing to other factors both legitimate and illegitimate that have been mentioned, but the truth of those reasons does not eliminate the truth of this one. In voting to leave people accepted both the xenophobic backlash that was to follow and vindicated the xenophobic rhetoric used within the campaign. It was and is not morally wrong to desire separation from the EU, but it was wrong that people were willing to do so at the expense of those who would suffer the backlash.
We finally stumble upon one of the key delegitimizing factors of the leave position; for white working class people, it was inherently self-destructive. An example would be the Welsh countryside. In general, the Welsh countryside voted definitively to leave and yet it was one of the highest beneficiaries of EU funding. In leaving, that area will suffer massive budget cuts and even more austerity. Writ large, we see that many who voted to leave also desire key elements of the EU; they desire the ability to move overseas, often for retirement, or for continued trading benefits between the UK and the EU.
Furthermore we can appeal to the oft overlooked benefits; worker’s rights and employment legislation that has constantly been used to protect British workers from exploitation. These benefits however were eclipsed by the idea that in voting leave, ‘the people’ would regain power and prestige. This obsession is the best way to understand the legitimate and illegitimate Brexit, and it must feature in our response.
At the start of this piece, I claimed the analysis to be novel because I intended to show the duality of Brexit. The legitimate protest and the illegitimate factors to be discussed, both stem from the single issue of the disempowerment of white working class and middle income people. If we are to use this problem for political advantage, we must acknowledge and interact with the legitimate and the illegitimate.
The question remains however, how can Labour use this?
This diagnosis indicates an obvious policy direction for Labour; empowering white working class voters in economic and political terms. While this may sound like simple left-wing populism, we can devise realistic policies to deal with the problem. Firstly, we need to identify the key factors in the reduction of this groups power. While the descent of our industrial economy is key, such a thing cannot itself be changed. What can be developed however, is our response to this change. The party can focus on policies of anti-austerity, education funding and secure social security, and present the such policies as methods of empowering those who feel disenfranchised.
In terms of anti-austerity, we need to focus on reducing taxes for those earning the least, whilst funding the social programs that help build communities. If such policies were enacted, people would begin to have the financial abilities to engage with politics, at local and national level. Basic tax cuts will help give people the chance to earn enough to have a functioning disposable income; a situation that is fundamentally necessary for becoming politically active. People need to be able to afford to travel to political events, purchase party memberships, or fund campaigns.
Furthermore, in funding social policies such as Sure-start centres, libraries, social care for the Elderly and those in need, we can provide much needed support for many people and in doing so, provide the ability to cultivate their political power. In providing nursery places for children, we remove a burden for newer parents, which allows them time to be politically active if they wish to be. In providing large scale library/general education access, we give them the tools to learn more about politics and develop their own attitudes. In providing social care for the Elderly we can support them to remain independent whilst also preventing burdens falling upon other family members.
All of these policies can be seen as a means to empowering ordinary people in economic and political terms. We can extend this into more general socialist policies of wealth redistribution, and we can present such policies as attempts to empower those who have lost their power. We can produce populist socialist policies that are both realistic and socially transformative.
We can even use the funding of such programs as an example of empowerment. These policies would need large scale funding based on increased taxation for the top earners and enforcement of currently avoided corporate taxes. Our funding policy could be explicitly linked to the anxieties and anger that helped produced the leave vote. We can focus on instituting taxes upon unoccupied second homes, with higher taxes for those owned internationally, or increase duties on buying property within the UK if you lack residency status. Now whilst such policies would not necessarily be great money spinners, they would at least present the Labour party as attempting to put British people first, without targeting venerable migrants or expats.
Such an attempt would also be able to salve some of the illegitimate elements of the Brexit vote. In leveeing taxes against rich multinationals and focusing the story of migration upon such individuals, the Labour party can present itself as defending the British people, whilst simultaneously shifting the narrative from blaming all migrants, to punishing those who are actively exploiting the UK or those failing to contribute to a society that they enjoy. This will certainly not solve all of the problems of mentioned, but it will at least be a start.
While the disempowerment of white working class people is a key factor in the leave vote, we cannot hope to engage with people until we attempt to engage with both of the products of this problem; the legitimate and the illegitimate. Our understanding and the policy we form in response to Brexit must deal with both conceptions. I hope that my suggestion that we focus on empowering this demographic through viable social policy is one you will at least give thought to, even if that thought is one of deep amusement.
Angus Ryan is a Young Fabians member