The town centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where 69% voted out. Photo: Wikipedia The town centre in Doncaster, South Yorkshire, where 69% voted out. Photo: Wikipedia

The vote to leave the EU was fuelled by class divisions, argues Alastair Stephens

It is the small incidents that sometimes throw a beam of light on to big questions, illuminating otherwise hidden truths.

Sat outside a pub in Shadwell (now part of the Shoreditch-Hoxton hipster complex), I saw one such minor social confrontation.

Once a dive, the establishment has now been refurbished and gentrified. Older clientele still frequent it though, probably for lack of local alternatives. A (as it happens white) middle aged working class guy was taking his leave and, as he did so, his mates reminded him to vote on Thursday.

Two well dressed, fluently English speaking, Italian women interjected: “Yes, don’t forget to vote remain”. He responded “I’m voting to leave”.

The women screwed up their faces in horror. Seeing this reaction he added “It’s not all about immigration, you know. I have lots of reasons to leave, like do I want to be part of a federal super-state?”. But it was too late. He had already lost them.

“Maybe now isn’t the time to discuss this” one said as they turned away. Italians (without wishing to generalise too much) are not normally reticent about discussing politics with strangers, or telling each other how to vote, but they clearly were not interested in finding out what his reasons were.

This small incident tells you much about the result, the campaign and reactions to it. Already the idea that it was all just about immigration, and that this is a victory for Farage and the right, is being trotted out.

It took that old war horse of the right, Norman Tebbit, on the television to throw doubt on this. How can this just be a victory of the right when it is Labour’s voters who voted for it?

Who voted Leave? 

A quick look at the electoral map tells its own story. The Labour heartlands of old industrialised regions voted to leave.

In the Midlands only Warwick and Leicester had majorities for staying. The greater urban conurbation of the West Midlands, including Birmingham (a highly multi-cultural region as well), voted to go.

In greater Manchester only three of the nine local authorities voted to remain: the city of Manchester, Trafford and Stockport. In the Yorkshire and Humber region only Leeds, Harrogate and York voted to stay. The famous working class towns and cities Sheffield, Doncaster, Barnsley, Selby, Kirklees, Hull were solidly for out.

In the whole North East only Newcastle voted to stay (very narrowly) whilst the rest of Tyneside, Gateshead and Sunderland voted the other way. Wales – against expectations – voted to leave as well.

With the exception of Scotland, where a rather different political dynamic was in operation, the only part of the country to solidly back staying in the EU was London and the Home Counties.

The islands of Remain support also tell you much. They are islands of affluence. So Harrogate and York in Yorkshire or Warwick are traditionally the more affluent and middle class areas, compared to their neighbouring areas. It is also notable that the core towns of urban regions which have much money poured into them, and which have ‘reinvented’ themselves – Manchester, Liverpool and Newcastle – voted to remain whilst most of their surrounding regions voted to leave.

The map of the south of England is an even more stark illustration of the same pattern. Inner London and the stockbroker belt voted overwhelmingly to stay. It is a map of privelage: the people who have done well, or felt they have done well, out of the last two three decades of neo-liberalism. It is very noticeable that in much of inner London most Remain posters seem to be in the windows of houses worth £1 million or more.

Many of the people who voted to leave have, on the other hand, been the losers for so long. Just for once they have been able to turn the tables and are on the winning side.

Not all about immigration

The media and the establishment’s sour grapes can be tasted by all: the ignorant masses have made a mistake and the vote only signals the triumph of parochialism and xenophobia.

This is a gross distortion. It is clear that millions of working class people, including the majority in Labour’s heartlands, have voted to leave. Was this all driven by racism? Certainly immigration is what much of the media and in particular the press has gone on about. But working class people have many reasons to vote Leave.

It would be amazing if, given the endless media onslaught, immigration wasn’t an issue for many. Most people’s views on the question have been distorted by gross misinformation. But this does not necessarily mean that we have seen a massive sea-change in attitudes and that people are becoming more racist. People of all races in inner city areas, for instance, express similar concerns.

Racists have certainly been emboldened, and the sort of rhetoric we thought was part of the past has be come more openly expressable. This is a phenomenon which also preceded the referendum though.

However, there was no effective counter to the bigotry and misinformation and scapegoating around immigration. Certainly not from the official Remain campaign, led by Cameron, whose party has just fought one of the most racist campaigns that anyone can remember in the London Mayoral election.

It should also be remembered that the ‘reforms’ to the Union he negotiated were precisely the right to attack EU immigrants. Thus it is shocking that Sadiq Khan, target of the Tories’ Islamophobic campaign in London should, the week after his election, share a platform with Cameron.

Missed opportunity 

There was an opportunity to bring together the opposition felt by millions of people to the EU with the widespread opposition to racism. Sadly this opportunity was missed. Opposition to the EU has been almost entirely refracted through a right wing lens.

A Left Leave campaign was formed but it arrived late and its forces were minuscule in comparison to the task. The reasons for this was that the big battalions of the left were lined up with the Remain campaign.

Practically all the unions backed Remain and there was immense pressure on people to toe the line. Some unions had been swaying on the question of a referendum, but that stopped with Corbyn’s election.

But the main reason was the fact that Corbyn and the leadership of what there is of a left in the PLP decided to follow party policy, rather than their conscience, and campaign for a Remain vote. The tacit deal was that the right would ‘allow’ him to be leader but he would campaign to stay. They could tolerate possibly even a change of policy on Trident, but not on Europe. This is too fundamental a tenet of faith for them.

Blairite legacy

The right may well now move against him. Certainly the language of invective is plumbing ever greater depths, Chris Bryant reportedly saying he wanted to punch Ed Miliband in the face being a new record low.

But really it is the right and the party establishment who should be facing the music. The Blairites have always prided themselves on (in their minds) being more in tune with working class opinion on subjects like crime and immigration than the ‘effete’ leftists of the Corbyn set.

The vote to leave the EU marked a class division, argues Alastair Stephens

on this most fundamental issue they have now been shown to be wildly at odds with the party’s electorate. It is a pity that, when interviewing Peter Mandelson, David Dimbleby did not take the opportunity to ask him what he thought of his old constituency, Hartlepool, voting to leave. The answer would have been interesting whatever it was.

The party was able to get away with this disjuncture between itself and its own base for such a long time due to our electoral system. MPs could easily win in safe seats despite ever-declining turnouts, and the party was the only real alternative when it came to keeping the Tories out. Labour voters had few other places to go (except in Scotland and Wales).

The same rules don’t apply in referenda, and Labour voters were free to vote with their conscience. And so for once the true gap between them and their representatives was revealed.

It seems likely that a majority of Labour voters, especially in the Midlands and North, voted to leave. But at most a dozen MPs, out of a Parliamentary Party of 232, were for leaving.

The election of Corbyn has not ended the crisis of working class representation. Withdrawal from the EU and the possibility for change, for good or ill, will dominate British politics for the next few years. That practically the entire Labour party establishment were on the opposite side of the argument from so much of the electoral base does not bode well.

There is still much that needs to change in the Labour Party.

Tories must go

But for now the crisis will focus on the Tory party. Cameron put the authority of the government on the line, and lost.

He is trying to squiggle out of this by sacrificing himself. The country should not have to wait for the Tory party to cobble together some kind of united front around a new leader. The government is broken and the Tory party split down the middle. We should have our chance to give our verdict on its failures.  

Alastair Stephens

Alastair Stephens has been a socialist his whole adult life and has been active in Unison and the TGWU. He studied Russian at Portsmouth, Middle East Politics at SOAS and writes regularly for the Counterfire website.