This significant discrepancy between the middle class metropolitan left and the working class of the Labour heartlands has been starkly revealed by the EU referendum debate. On one side, prominent politicians have been busy emphasising how the Remain campaign has not done enough to reach out to the working class, being “far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull”, while on the other, similarly prominent voices have criticised the Leave campaign’s “disingenuous campaigning” for luring the working class from voting against their genuine interests.
Of all the political discussions in recent memory, the Brexit debate is unique in the extent to which it reveals these sharp divisions along class lines.
The debate has been disturbingly full of innuendo about Essex man in his white van, pubs and taxi drivers, and studies approvingly shared that reveal Remain voters are more likely to have a degree, and live in traditionally middle class or urban gentrified areas, and less likely to live in towns in industrial decline, as though this represents that the Leave camp are simply a bit thick. “Are you sophisticated, cultured and cosmopolitan, or an uneducated pleb?” is implicit in much of the discourse.
For many middle class people on the liberal left, this failure to engage with the concerns of the working class is not incidental, but is indeed central to their campaigns to persuade others to vote Remain. Rather than framing the debate as one of a strategic decision – basically the “least worst” option from the narrow neo-liberal options we’re given to choose from - for many, positioning on the EU has come to represent a broader social signifier.
This is a worrying development as firstly it clearly cannot be a strategy for popular engagement with remaining in the European Union (at least until we have done the groundwork in national politics whereby Lexit may be possible), and it further fans the flames of conflict that have made this debate so pernicious.
This divide reflects the discourse on immigration more generally. Middle class liberals are often actively involved in a “divide and conquer” strategy with recent immigrants and the established working class. They disingenuously praise immigrants not out of any sincere commitment to open borders, but rather as a way of distancing themselves from and expressing their disdain towards the working class. They reiterate a version of the Tories’ “skivers and strivers” rhetoric through appeals to a dichotomy of plucky hard-working immigrants versus our own feckless, lazy underclass.
Needless to say, this does neither group any favours. Essentially they are praising immigrants for being easier to exploit and framing it as industriousness: an argument a lot harder to swallow when you lay it bare. Meanwhile, criticism ends up falling to the British worker, who is no longer willing to work in poor conditions for poverty wages mainly because of the trade union movement. This is reframed as uppity entitlement. These types of so-called liberal thinkers shake their heads in horror as the tabloid press stirs up hatred by blaming immigrants for unemployment among the working class, all the while ignoring a huge irony: they themselves reiterate this very idea of inherent competition over work and space between immigrants and the established working class. They just don’t want to see it that way.
Rhetorically distancing ourselves from the masses is a terrible way to convince people to vote Remain. Not only that, but more fundamentally it perpetuates the sense of competition and conflict that leads to the toxic scapegoating of immigrants. Finally, it prevents those with the least resources from looking up towards where the power actually lies – and means that however we vote this week, there will be no room for genuine social change.
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