Scottish literature researcher at the University of Glasgow Christopher McMillan writes that the legitimate sense of working class betrayal is being dismissed as racism by elitist Remain campaigners
I’M A working class, unemployed PhD candidate. I’ve lived and worked in Europe and my partner is European, and after much indecision I will be voting to remain in the EU. But, like many on the left will do so holding my nose.
For me, one redeeming feature of the EU is its tenet of freedom of movement, which, contrary to Vote Leave’s rhetoric, is one of the few EU regulations with the potential to benefit everyone. Yet clearly it hasn’t and consequently immigration has become – to coin an overused but topical phrase – a political football. While Leave employs a rudimentary long-ball tactic, the Remain campaign is stuck in defence and may look back on their reluctance to tackle immigration as an own goal.
Let’s be clear, immigration is not the cause of Britain or Europe’s ills. The blame lies with neoliberal economic policies, complicit governments, and rising inequality. Immigrants are not responsible for the housing crisis or for low wages. The Tories under Thatcher sparked the housing crisis, which succeeding New Labour and Tory governments did nothing to reverse, and in light of increased and lawful immigration, did nothing to alleviate. The primary cause of low wages is unscrupulous employers exploiting both native and immigrant workers. Immigrants and emigrants seek a better life, while refugees are typically fleeing for theirs.
The Tory leadership called this plebiscite expecting to win, but there is now genuine concern that the plebs might vote to leave.
The failure of present and previous governments and opposition parties to candidly confront the ‘immigration’ issue has damaged their credibility and current justifications for staying in the EU. But for me immigration is something of a red herring. What Vote Leave is tapping into, as UKIP continues to do too, is working class resentment and a legitimate sense of betrayal at Britain’s systemic inequality. In ducking their responsibility for creating such conditions, successive UK governments have expediently enabled blame to fall on immigrants, fuelling an erroneous suspicion of the effects of immigration.
The Tory leadership called this plebiscite expecting to win, but there is now genuine concern that the plebs might vote to leave. YouGov polling indicates that social status will have a significant impact on voting patterns: 52 per cent of middle-class voters back remain with 32 per cent for leave, while among the working-class it’s 36 to 51 per cent. Lately, Labour has attracted criticism for failing to mobilise ‘traditional’ working-class voters, many of whom are undecided or favour Brexit, despite the party’s pro-EU position.
The tone of the Leave campaign might stem from the right, but its relative success is a failure of the left.
Labour’s problems ought to have been anticipated given the manner of their defeat in 2015. Moreover, during thirteen years of New Labour things did not ‘get better’ for the working class, while the subsequent economic crash, bank bailouts, austerity, and growing rich-poor divide, all explode the current Tory mantra that ‘we’re all in this together’. Andy Burnham’s comment that there has been “too much Hampstead, not enough Hull” sums up the state of affairs.
In seeking to shut the door on decades of Tory Euro-scepticism, Cameron opened the door to two decades of working-class frustration and resentment. Cameron’s carelessness is typical of detached political elite who reduce people to spread sheets and statistics. Even the benefits of European immigration – an annual net contribution of 2 billion – are described in cold economic terms. Remain, quite rightly, frequently cite this figure, but wrongly assume that it ought to kill any other argument stone dead. Meanwhile they skirt around the edges of the potential and perceived effects of immigration on wages, public services and living standards among already struggling working-class communities.
The primary cause of low wages is unscrupulous employers exploiting both native and immigrant workers.
Cameron and other pro-union party leaders fail to grasp or choose to ignore the reality: that for a vast number of voters’ immigration, like the EU, is not a binary issue. Their reticence not only reinforces Leave’s Ukip-influenced immigration propaganda, but implies an indifference to working-class concerns, which Leave is similarly adept at exploiting. The tone of the Leave campaign might stem from the right, but its relative success is a failure of the left. So averse are Remain – especially Labour politicians – to engaging honestly and critically with this issue that the chief spokesperson for the low-paid, disenfranchised and disaffected is Ian Duncan Smith!
Lately Remain have warned that a win for Leave will usher in a ‘hard’ right tory leadership, an outcome unlikely to frighten the thousands of people using food banks who see no end in sight and for whom the status quo is simply no longer an option. This happened during the Scottish referendum when the four poorest regions in Scotland voted Yes. In spite of the No campaign’s dire economic predictions, many felt that they had nothing to lose.
Cameron and Osborne have taken to belittling those considering voting leave, calling them ‘quitters’ and – exposing the Anglo-centric nature of the debate – ‘little Englanders’. At best these terms paint working-class leave voters as parochial and at worst xenophobic and racist, and will likely alienate them further. It reeks of classism. We’ve all seen the talking head news segments when a identifiably working-class person is asked a leading question by an Oxbridge graduate such as “people say immigrants put pressure on local jobs and public services, what do you think”? The interviewee’s response typically confirms the question. Both government and media like to offer scapegoats for their failings, and then balk in liberal horror at the thinly veiled racism they encouraged.
It is extremely unlikely that a vote to leave will improve the economic and social conditions and life chances of the working-class and poorly paid, nor will it and nor should it halt immigration. My fear is that once again there are too many voters who feel they have nothing to lose.
Picture courtesy of hash
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