Seb Cooke argues that only a sense of shared struggle can unite different sections of working class which were divided over last year’s referendum vote
The EU referendum of Jun 2016 showed working-class anger but also revealed division. Across many of the poorest strata in Britain today, and in former bastions of working-class organisation, the Leave vote won by hefty margins. But in other very important sections of the working class, people voted to Remain.
Since the vote, there has been an attempt to define and divide people based on these two camps. This attempt been undertaken both by the pro-Brexit right and the anti-Brexit liberal centre.
Both of these strategies, despite gaining a degree of traction, have so far failed to fully bear fruit. What their adherents lack is an understanding of how the crisis which produced Brexit has brought class antagonisms to the fore. These antagonisms contain within them the possibility to go beyond a crude Leave / Remain division.
We can point to clear class-based motivations why people voted Leave and Remain, but we can also highlight elements within those votes that run contrary to those motivations.
Over the last year, to explore some of these contradictions, I’ve spoken to people who voted Leave in areas of South Wales which have a strong tradition of socialism and international working-class solidarity. Part of my desire to do this stemmed from a conversation I had on the day of the referendum itself. I was collecting money for museum workers in PCS Wales who had been on all-out strike for several weeks.
A man and a woman in their fifties or sixties donated to the collection and stopped to talk to me about their experience of the Miners’ Strike. The man had been a miner and the woman, his partner, had been involved in the legendary groups of women who organised solidarity. The man in particular impressed upon me that I should read about the role of women in the strike. They had both already voted Leave that day, saying they didn’t see the point of the EU. Then they brought up immigration, where both insisted that refugees and migrants were able to easily access luxury goods, like TVs, off the state. Immigrants were taking jobs, they said, advocating a radical ‘close the borders’ position. They backed away from this particular stance when challenged but the idea that immigration was a problem was more deep-rooted.
In one way or another, the patterns of this discussion have been repeated in many other encounters I’ve had.
In February I visited Blaenau Gwent, the most pro-Leave constituency in Wales. There I spoke to a woman called Helena Llewellyn about her reasons for voting Leave. “I want my children to have a better future,” She told me. “Everybody I know voted out because we remember what it was like when everyone had work… Look what they’re doing to people now on this minimum wage nonsense. It’s not enough to live on!” Helena was affected by the inequality in state pension eligibility ages between men and women, and had very little money. She was surrounded by in-work and out-of-work poverty. She was furious with David Cameron, and when I asked Helena about the EU money that areas such as Blaenau Gwent benefited from, she pointed to boarded up buildings and asked “Well, where is it? They’ve taken the industries from the valleys; they’ve replaced the steelworks and sewing factories with lots of little companies that just exploit people.”
Then she raised the issue of immigration. Helena also favoured a radical ‘close the borders’ option. She spoke about a ‘Romanian family’ who were given a house straight away, but then admitted that immigration was almost invisible where she lived.
In other conversations, it became clear that class anger against enforced poverty in post-industrial areas was meshed with a general anti-immigration sentiment among many leave voters. This was usually presented as common sense – ‘if there are less people coming in, then there will be more houses for locals’, etc.
On several occasions, I’ve written about Kay Harris, an anti-Bedroom Tax campaigner who lives in the former mining village of Betws, South Wales. After being hit by the bedroom tax Kay – a lifelong Labour voter – tried to organise others on her estate against the measure. Like most people in her community, she voted Leave.
In conversations I had with Kay before and after the vote, immigration did come up, but only ever in the context of jobs, and was nowhere near the level of importance given to the Bedroom Tax or the general feeling of betrayal by the political class. I think this was why Kay supported Jeremy Corbyn over Owen Smith in the summer of 2016, despite the latter’s cynical attacks on immigrants. When I campaigned for Corbyn with Kay on her estate during the election, she remarked how few people were raising the issue of immigration compared to previous years.
Last year, during the 50th anniversary of the Aberfan disaster in Wales, class anger bubbled up again. When I spoke to people at the memorial centre in Aberfan, and listened to the voices that flooded the airwaves on that day, it was clear that people were not simply talking about loss of life and tragedy – they were angry that working class people, and specifically children, had been the victims of industry’s ruthless pursuit of profit. Mixed in with this at that time was also a class antagonism around Hillsborough, Orgreave and the release of the film ‘I, Daniel Blake’. These cases became intertwined examples of the way class divisions play out in Britain.
It was hard to ignore the fact that many – although certainly not all – of the people who were most angry about these injustices would have voted Leave. And like the people I had spoken to, a lot would have had strong associations with various aspects of class struggle yet also held anti-immigration ideas.
The mainstream conclusion to all of this was that such people constituted a ‘white working class’ who had been ‘left behind’ by the ‘cosmopolitan elite’. The concerns of this group were often painted as unique and defined by Brexit, as if they were detached from the wider working class and their grievances could be mostly solved by a commitment to reduce immigration and deliver on Brexit. But a year after the referendum, the idea that this group of people existed in isolation from other sections of the working class was blown apart.
The fire in Grenfell tower matched the horror of Aberfan, yet was inflicted upon a group of people who could never be described as ‘white working class’. They were, however, the working class. The appalling pain and injustice experienced by those affected by Grenfell could never be channelled into reactionary ideas around immigration.
The multiple concerns raised by tenants before the fire, and the way in which those concerns were ignored, were strikingly similar to what many people had said on the anniversary of Aberfan – that the deadly slag heap above the school was an accident waiting to happen.
In general, the total dismissal of Grenfell residents by the Tenant Management Organisation would have come as no surprise to Kay and others in Betws suffering under the bedroom tax. They were repeatedly ignored and eventually threatened with eviction if they refused to pay the increase.
In July, I visited residents of two high rise tower blocks in Butetown, Cardiff to speak to them about how they were feeling after the fire in Grenfell Tower. Most associated strongly with the people who had lived in Grenfell Tower. Like West London, Butetown has a proud history of being a multi-racial and working-class area. But what was striking was how people talked about the fact that those in Grenfell were working-class and therefore their lives didn’t matter. The issue of race was also seen as a key factor in explaining what had happened, but was often framed in terms of its relationship to class. One young Muslim man said to me: “I don’t think it was to do with them being Muslim, but was to do with the people who were living there. They are seen as the lower-class people.”
The class issues which were articulated by Butetown residents and which were central to Grenfell would have been common to many working-class leave voters. But all of the people I asked in Butetown about the referendum told me they had backed Remain, often because of the racism of the Leave campaign.
The ideas around immigration among many of the Leave voters I had spoken to would, in the popular imagination, mean that they were unable to find common cause with some of the residents of Grenfell who didn’t fit the ‘white working class’ image.
On the issue of housing, however, it was clear that a united struggle could have been formed. Such a struggle would have the potential to break down reactionary and racist ideas among a section of the working class for whom issues of poverty and housing are the main political motivator. It would also show both sides that they have more common cause with each other than they do with the ruling-class elements on the either side of Brexit.
I should emphasise here that this unity cannot be built by making concessions around immigration, and should be coupled with a total rejection of the racism of the likes of Nigel Farage. We must win people away from these things.
But a deliberate strategy by the right and liberal centre since the referendum has been to drive a wedge between these two groups of working class people. This has partly been done by making Brexit the defining political issue, and treating the delivery or non-delivery of Brexit as the central concern for Leave or Remain voters respectively.
Ultimately, this polarisation around Brexit has failed to materialise, as the common class concerns among both sets of voters have proved to be more important than different establishment forces recognised.
However, this has not happened by chance, but only via a renewal of left-wing political struggle in Britain. Immediately after the referendum, Jeremy Corbyn was forced to take a radical-left message to large rallies up and down the country to see off the challenge from Owen Smith. These rallies didn’t take notice of a Leave /Remain divide. They happened everywhere and to everyone. At the rally I attended – in the overwhelmingly Leave-voting town of Merthyr Tydfil – 1,000 people filled the central square to hear Corbyn speak. It was through events like that the political upheaval post-referendum began to be shaped by the left, not by the right as had been widely anticipated, as a sense of struggle bridged the referendum divide.
This is also why Labour under Jeremy Corbyn did very well in the general election in June 2017, as he made class issues around education, housing, health and so on the main feature of the campaign. The strategy pursued by Theresa May, on the other hand, centred on her promise to pursue a hard break from the EU. The Tory campaign ended up being confused and calamitous, but it broke down in the face of an opposition that understood far better what ordinary people were politically motivated by. Had Corbyn listened to the right within his own party, and focussed heavily on voters who self-identified as Remain supporters – the strategy employed, with poor effect, by the Liberal Democrats, he would have faced the kind of electoral collapse currently being experienced by centre-left parties across Europe.
Real class division does exist, but what these events show us is that the left can turn enormous political upheaval to its advantage, even if those events arise because of the actions of completely different political forces. It is by fighting continuously for class unity against the numerous injustices suffered under capitalism, which become sharper during a crisis, that the left can build upon the experience of the last two years and open up the space required for more fundamental change.