The UK’s ‘shock’ referendum result has been a fascinating exploration of the failures of the traditional ‘left’ and ‘right’ parties to grapple with the diversity of their modern bases.
Consider the Tories for instance, who had their leader, David Cameron, espousing the merits of the neoliberal economic model; that of free trade and the free movement of people as key tenets on which the UK should remain in the European Union. Economic arguments to be sure, and arguments heavily tied to the prosperity of London and The City, where the greatest share of these benefits have been felt.
But a significant part of the Tories, and indeed their base, was diametrically opposed to these ideas and arguably, has been ideologically distant for sometime. A push for protectionism, concerns over the erosion of British sovereignty under a increasingly powerful EU, and in concert with people like UKIP’s Nigel Farage, an appeal to the xenophobic base, carried significant weight among UK voters.
Certainly, Farage, and to a lesser extent former London Mayor Boris Johnson, waged a diabolically divisive campaign that was outright deceitful at times (this is a very good read), but it would be simplistic to see the 51.9% ‘Leave’ vote entirely as a product of that campaign. The numbers in the areas that formerly represented the UK’s industrial heartland, the areas around Yorkshire, Manchester, and Newcastle on the whole voted against remaining in the EU. All of these areas are (and have been for a long time) struggling to adapt their working class populations to the UK’s ongoing move to a professional service economy. While they may reap indirect benefits from being part of the EU, the high value of the Pound (until very recently), and surplus labour coming in from other parts of the EU, has made the cost of employing people in those areas expensive, and uncompetitive.
Equally for UK Labour, there was division before, during, and after the Brexit campaign. Part of Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s own reluctance to campaign hard in favour of the remain cause, was down to his political disdain for Cameron. But his ambivalence was also a product of his personal opposition to a lot of what the EU represents. From a traditional ‘leftist’ point of view, the EU is bit-part in the headlong rush toward globalisation, and for many within traditional labour institutions, this sits uncomfortably. Globalisation undermines existing industrial regulation and labour laws, the very things these institutions have spent hundreds of years fighting to build and protect. Corbyn is very much old-school in this regard — so hardly surprising then his almost invisible campaign presence.
To the non-Corbyn Labourites, Brexit was a campaign for social inclusion, multiculturalism and was firmly pro-immigration. These are marquee issues among the educated and cultural elite in cosmopolitan cities such as Edinburgh and London, as much as the reverse is true for the less-educated in poorer, less diverse areas in the broader UK. The difficulty in uniting Labour supporters in this regard is that outside of the major centres, these sorts of issues appear to be trumped by concerns of future employment and well-being. A lot of people, at least in principle support the idea of a multicultural Britain, as long as it doesn’t threaten ‘my job’, or ‘my future’.
These divisions have been festering for a long time, it’s just that this referendum is the first time in near three decades that there’s been a ballot where there hasn’t been a unity ticket between the two major parties in support of free-markets and globalisation. For once voters have made a very real choice about their socio-economic future that isn’t as trivial as a minor cut/increase to the marginal tax-rate.
The funny thing about the reaction to Brexit has been the united disdain both for the ‘leave’ camp and those who voted for it, and the mischaracterisation of the vote as a misguided one. The Labour caucus voted overwhelmingly against Corbyn’s leadership only earlier today, all while polling suggests he still enjoys significant public support among Labour voters. Go figure. The Tories are equally confuddled. This was a divisive vote for a lot of reasons, but it shouldn’t necessarily be seen as a ‘right’ or ‘wrong’ outcome. The economic case is stronger for remain, but there’s a valid social and philosophical case for ‘leave’ that is subtler than xenophobia. It should however send a wakeup call to both major parties, although particularly to Labour, (which nominally was united in favour of remain) to better understand their bases.