I’d never heard the slogan “white working class”, before I moved to London.
In Dover, where I grew up, the distinction simply wasn’t made; we were just all poor. My childhood friend Tylor, was born in the hospital bed next to mine. I knew that he – a mixed race British-Jamaican – was different to me. As we grew older together, I learnt that his ethnicity meant that his experiences of the world were different in some ways to mine.
But, despite what some say – this week, claims were made by some prominent Lexiteers that to have a second referendum would be a betrayal of the “traditional working class” – that doesn’t mean our claims to our economic class were somehow differently valid. My upbringing was no more or less “traditional” than his.
So let’s unpack what we’re really talking about here.
There are four fundamental freedoms which come as a part of being a member of the European Union’s single market. Freedom of goods, services, capital and – drum roll please – people.
And a disproportionately significant amount of debate in our country’s politics for the last three years, have been essentially centred around how the UK reap the benefits of the first three, without having to deal with the sticky issue of the fourth.
In fact, Theresa May appears to have made removing the hard-won rights of UK citizens to be able to live, work and move abroad easily, her life’s mission.
It’s based on the erroneous idea that those from the 26 other European Union nations (and by association, all immigrants and/or non-white people) were somehow the singular cause of British society’s significant ills. It is a classic trope of Stephen Yaxley-Lennon and company. That the “real” working class communities (read: white), are being undermined, undersold and underpaid because of freedom of movement and immigration.
In this, the prime minister appears to be supported by a notable supporting cast, which includes everyone from the ERG’s Steve “I’m a Brexit hardman” Baker, to Ian Lavery, the Labour Party’s chairman. I doubt I’ll ever be able to convince someone like Mark Francois of the benefits of freedom of movement. But, my hope is I can at least try and convince some on the left.
So, first things first. There is quite simply nothing less left wing, or more distinctly un-radical, then defending the rights of goods and capital to cross borders, but not feeling strongly enough to do so for human beings. It boggles my mind how there are some who claim that money should be able to move freely, but not people, and still say they are a socialist with a straight face.
Then there’s the practical consequences of tearing away a fundamental right like freedom of movement. Who will be the people most negatively affected? The working class – “traditional” or otherwise. Rich people have always had freedom of movement. It is one of the many benefits of having a significant amount of money, and an economic system which is created for and by them. It’s poor people for whom easy travel, the ability to study abroad or finding jobs in different countries will become a distant memory, in our brave post-Brexit world.
The third issue is one of political expediency for my party, the Labour Party. I watched as scores of migrants quite rightly expressed their concern and dismay this week, as Labour appeared to turn its back on the very communities it’s meant to represent. Why should we give up our hours, expertise or votes for a party that seems willing to throw us under a bus, they argued. It’s unfortunately a view that’s quite hard to argue with.
That’s in the short term. A bigger strategic issue, is that the generation changing the face of British politics right now – and a core of the Labour party’s support base – believe in open, diverse and outward looking politics. It’s why we back radical action on the climate crisis, want a people’s vote and defend freedom of movement to the hilt. Putting your party on the other side of a generational culture war isn’t just cowardly – it’s bad politics.
I urge defenders of the “traditional working class” to open your eyes and look around you. Like that famous Mitchell and Webb sketch, if you’ve got a skull and crossbones on your uniform and Nigel Farage agreeing with every word you say, you’re probably one of the bad guys.
So here’s the reality. Dividing “white working class” communities and working class migrants and people of colour helps no one. Except, that is, the far right.
It’s an old fashioned argument – traditional, some might say. But instead of the middle classes telling working class people to scapegoat immigrants for society’s problems, why don’t we acknowledge the real causes; bad policy and unrepresentative politicians.
Richard Brooks is a co-founder of For Our Future’s Sake
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