With many of the old political certainties breaking up, Lindsey German argues that the left have to rise to the challenge.
I expected a vote Leave from the beginning of the referendum until the last few days, when I thought support for Remain was growing in the wake of Jo Cox's murder. Even on Thursday night, all accepted wisdom seemed to be that Remain would win. Right until the first votes came in from Sunderland, most people seemed so convinced that even the print media first editions declared victory for Cameron.
But it was quickly clear from then that there was going to be a very different outcome. In such a closely fought and conflicted contest, dominated by two wings of the Tories and with the left so divided, it is impossible to take one simple lesson from the vote. It reflects an extremely polarised situation and one whose full consequences are still to be played out.
So let's try to establish a few things that the left ought to try to agree to.
1This is an election where 17 million people voted to leave the EU. We know that some will have done so on a racist basis, but that does not explain it for most people. Even the opposition to immigration is for large numbers of workers a shorthand for opposition to what is happening to their lives: wage cuts, worsening conditions, insecurity, no future for their kids,
2We deal with this not by dismissing them as racist, ignorant or uneducated. One of the most obnoxious arguments I have heard is that remain is stronger in areas with high levels of graduates. As if everyone else is too stupid to make a sensible judgement. Incidentally, older people are also much less likely to be graduates, and they too are being pilloried for voting leave.
3As a general rule, the poorer and more working class people were, the more they voted leave. There is also some anecdotal and polling evidence that numbers of non white British voters also went for leave.
4All this suggests that the vote represented a kick against austerity and everything that has happened to working class people under Blairism and since. Responding to the racism and scapegoating in this campaign was made harder by Labour adopting a much stronger remain position than the Tories, even though everyone knew that many Labour voters would want to leave.
5Jeremy Corbyn's refusal to campaign alongside the Tories and to resist calls for immigration controls was principled and correct. The Blairites who insisted on the remain position are now trying to no confidence him. They should look in the mirror. Margaret Hodges' Barking seat was one of the few in London to vote majority leave, as was Mandelson's former seat of Hartlepool. Why did they and other Blairites in safe seats not win over their constituents?
6Cameron's departure is good news; there is nothing liberal about a man who used the most disgusting racism against Sadiq Khan.
7British politics has entered a new phase with both challenges and opportunities for the left. We have to deal with them. Many of the old political certainties are breaking up.
8That means major twin track campaigns on both austerity and racism, and that the left has to talk to working class people, and campaign for what we believe in rather than writing them off.
9The left has to rise to this challenge. That means defending Corbyn, fighting against government policies and combating racism.
As national convenor of the Stop the War Coalition, Lindsey was a key organiser of the largest demonstration, and one of the largest mass movements, in British history.
Her books include ‘Material Girls: Women, Men and Work’, ‘Sex, Class and Socialism’, ‘A People’s History of London’ (with John Rees) and ‘How a Century of War Changed the Lives of Women’.
More articles from this author
- Jubilee: pantomime for a failed state - weekly briefing
- Lindsey German statement at Spycops Inquiry
- The Tower Hamlets revolt explodes the election stalemate – weekly briefing
- Winston Churchill: His Times, His Crimes - book review
- This is the real face of the Ukraine war – weekly briefing
- Living with shadows: memory and struggle - Interview with Merilyn Moos
- Russia and Nato: the crocodiles with Ukraine in their jaws