Two weeks on, a lot of progressive people in Britain are still in deep shock or fury or despair – or alternating rapidly between all three emotional states. A full 51.9% of British people voted to Leave the European Union (Brexit), and 48.1% voted to Remain in the EU. It was 17.4 million votes to 16.1 million. The rush of events since the vote has been stunning, almost overwhelming.
The day after the EU referendum result was announced, there was a small demonstration in the English town of Hastings, where I live. People at the rally didn’t just stick to austerity and the cuts to services and wages.
There was some loud chanting about Tory scum (the Conservative Party, whose infighting led to the referendum being held), and about refugees and racism, “Welcome every refugee, throw all the racists in the sea.”
An Anti-immigrant Element …
I’m a first-generation immigrant to the U.K., not a refugee. But I thought that if I were a refugee, I would be pretty worried by a crowd of white people shouting angrily about refugees. The words were about welcoming, but the atmosphere was about rage. Most people on the demonstration were furious about the result, and the way Leave campaigners had stirred up anti-migrant feeling to get people to vote Leave.
One key issue during the referendum debate was the EU principle of freedom of movement, which gives people from Eastern European EU states such as Poland and Romania the right to settle in Britain. Anti-migrant racism has recently been more about white people who’ve just moved to Britain from places like Poland (850,000 Poles in the UK) than about brown people whose heritage is from places like Pakistan (1.1m).
After the demonstration in Hastings, Jenny, a white woman who’d taken part, told me she regretted getting into a shouting match with a white man passing by. He had responded to the refugees’ chant by saying Britain should take care of its own poor people before looking after refugees. Looking back on it, she realized that he was probably worried about his job, and she had sounded like she didn’t care about that at all – which was not how she felt. She had gotten caught up in the wrong fight, she thought.
Also afterwards, another demonstrator pointed out that, nationally, people who voted Remain tended to be younger, middle-class and university-educated, while people who voted Leave tended to be older, working-class and without a lot of formal education.
… But a Stronger Class Component
The rally had looked like a group of young middle-class people recently come from London shouting at the working-class people of Hastings. Maybe not the most useful thing in the circumstances, he thought, looking back on it.
There was a striking class difference in the voting. Owen Jones, the author of Chavs: The Demonisation of the Working Class, wrote, “This – perhaps the most dramatic event in Britain since the war – was, above all else, a working-class revolt,” According to one poll, 57% of managers and professional middle-class people voted Remain, while 64% of manual workers and people dependent on benefits voted Leave.
Given the class differences, it is not surprising that Leavers and Remainers felt differently about the average British person’s life position and life chances.
Changing Opportunities by Class
More Leavers believed that life in Britain today is worse than it was 30 years ago, and that, for most children growing up in Britain today, life will be worse than it was for their parents. In contrast, Remainers felt strongly that life was better today than it used to be, and tended by a small margin to think that most children in Britain would have better lives than their parents.
An opinion poll back in April found that most folk in Britain believed that Brexit would be least harmful for people looking for work and people in low-paid jobs. That is probably the reverse of what’s going to happen now, but there is a kernel of truth in there.
There has been a class difference in the impact of EU immigration on people’s incomes. Research at University College London found that wages for the lowest-paid 5% in Britain have gone down a little as the result of immigration – but wages for the best-paid workers have gone up a bit. Quite a few studies suggest that there has been a small reduction in the wages of low-paid UK-born workers as the result of EU migration. At this end of the income scale, there is a material interest in reducing the inflow of low-pay-accepting workers from the EU.
Boosts and Busts
The trouble is that EU migration as a whole has boosted the economy, with migrants buying goods and services and creating new jobs, sometimes bringing needed skills and paying taxes. According to one study, between 2001 and 2011, immigrants from Poland and the other A10 countries (which joined the EU in 2004) paid almost £5bn more in taxes than they took out in benefits, social housing health and education. Other recently-arrived European immigrants contributed another £15bn to government income. Over the same period, the “fiscal cost” of British-born natives amounted to almost £617bn.
Over this same period, the government has cut public services as part of its austerity program, adding to decades of de-industrialisation and leaving many working-class communities reeling. Guardian journalist John Harris reported that, across England, “the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into cliches, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. ‘I’m scared about the future’… ‘No one listens to us’… ‘If you haven’t got the money, no one cares.’”
Given the class differences, it is not surprising that Leavers and Remainers felt differently about the average British person’s life position and life chances.”
Harris heard from a woman living in Collyhurst, a deprived part of Manchester, about the lack of a park or a playground in the area, and the sense that all the good stuff went to big city |Manchester, down the road. She said, “If you’ve got money, you vote in. If you haven’t got money, you vote out.”
White working-class academic Lisa Mckenzie, who researches British working-class communities, argues that the referendum debate in white working-class communities has not been about immigration, despite the rhetoric. She writes, “It is about precarity and fear. People are concerned for their children and their elderly parents. They’re worried about the lack of public housing, rising rents in the private sector, inadequate education in schools, and low wages.”
Classist Policies Run Amok
All these pressures are the results of government cuts and the weakness of trade unions hit by anti-trade union laws, the result of policies carried out by both Conservative and Labour governments. Instead of mobilizing against the economic and political system that is rigged against them, a lot of working-class people have channeled their anxieties and suffering into resentment against immigrants, particularly the Eastern European migrants who have been entering Britain in large numbers since 2004.
This resentment, and the widespread anger against interfering “Brussels bureaucracy” (the EU’s headquarters is in the Belgian capital), is shared by some in the earlier waves of migration. Around a third of British Asians and a quarter of black voters voted Leave despite its anti-immigration message. The Indian newsagent family around the corner from me was all for Leave until just before the vote, when one person was persuaded by the economic forecasts that Remain was the safer option.
Multicultural London and the university towns Cambridge and Oxford were Remain cities. Otherwise, England and Wales were pretty solidly for Leave. Radical journalist Paul Mason points out, “In a big, multi-ethnic city, absorbing a lot of migrants is easy. In small towns, where social capital is already meagre, the migrant population can feel unabsorbed.” He concludes, “’It feels as if, through migration, the establishment got to create the kind of working class it always wanted: fragmented, dislocated, politically distant, weak.”
Shifting from Fear to Fair
The establishment has also managed to direct the fear and suffering of a lot of working-class people into hostility and sometimes hatred of outsiders, especially Eastern Europeans. This is going to be a difficult thing to shift, but we are going to shift it, because anti-migrant racism is getting in the way of making a better, more equal, more just society. It won’t be done by shouting at people, or ignoring their real concerns, but by building together with mutual respect, so that no one will ever have to say again, “No one listens to us.”