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Why They Left

Costas Lapavitsas11 July 2016

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This piece appeared first in Jacobin.

Ed Everett / Flickr

The Leave victory in the British referendum represents a moment of political confusion — a hiatus in the opposition between social classes. No class appears capable of directing events. The ruling class has no clear plans for the future, and seems temporarily stunned.

The working class and the poor have expressed great anger at the state of affairs of both society and nation, but are also deeply divided, with contradictory ideas prevailing in their midst. The formless middle class is deeply frustrated at the turn of events and would like a firm hand at the tiller, but has no idea how to achieve this outcome.

Such moments call for a decisive political force to alter the social balance. Historically, moments like these have been captured by powerful personalities, who placed their stamp on social development, but there is no Churchill, not even a Pitt or a Wellington, in Britain at present.

Instead, the responsibility for taking the country out of the impasse lies with the personnel of the established political parties. Nor will the sense of confusion last long. Already the Tory Party, ruthless electoral machine that it is, has begun to adapt itself to the new conditions. If it succeeds, the outcome for working people will be thoroughly negative. This is the peril of the referendum.

The onus for averting such an outcome and taking the country forward lies with the Labour Party, which also faces profound turmoil. The Labour Party could give shape to the yearnings of the working class and the poor, whether they voted for Leave or Remain.

It is incumbent upon it to present a fresh vision of society and nation, taking Britain down a path that favors the interests of the great majority. This is the promise of the referendum, but for that the Labour Party must put its own house in order.

The referendum has created this sharp choice for Britain because it represents a shift of the tectonic plates in British society. A careful look at the results together with an extensive exit poll of more than twelve thousand people conducted by Lord Ashcroft polls  — considered in the context of preceding political events — reveal two rifts, one far more profound than the other.

The Minor Rift

The minor rift is present within the British ruling class: the majority of financiers, industrialists, merchants, real estate speculators, and others favor staying in the European Union, while a much smaller minority have opted for Brexit. The evidence of the relative size of the two sides is undeniable.

More than 80 percent of Confederation of British Industry (CBI) members have come out in favor of Remain, while a mere 5 percent have declared for Leave. While a veritable roll call of British business leaders signed letters to the press advocating Remain, a vocal and well-connected minority has come out in favor of Leave.

This state of affairs is not surprising. The economic interests of the bulk of the British ruling class lie in close connections with the European Union, particularly in the freedom to trade without barriers within the Common Market.

In 2015 44.4 percent of British exports went to the European Union, while 53.6 percent of imports came from the same; there is no doubt that any significant disruption of these flows through tariffs or other barriers would have a negative effect on British big business.

Furthermore, the financial operations of the City also dictate remaining in the European Union; the City operates as a huge offshore center for the European Union, and despite the fact that the putative integration of European banking would probably have a negative impact on its activities. The Single Supervisory Mechanism and the rest of the regulatory institutions created by the European Union to oversee its Banking Union are likely to affect the freedom of the City to engage in speculative and other business.

Despite this interdependence, Britain is far less integrated into the EU networks than the core countries of the union. Trade links between Britain and the European Union are actually among the weakest within the twenty-eight-member union, similar by order of magnitude to trade flows between Greece and the European Union as well as Italy and the European Union. In contrast, for both France and Germany trade with the EU accounts for nearly 60 percent of exports and 70 percent of imports.

By contrast, the Leave side of the ruling class is a motley group without a strong sectoral character, who partly hope to trade more intensely outside the European Union. More than that, however, Leave supporters hope to advance a more thorough neoliberal agenda by ridding Britain of EU regulations and further reducing labor rights and social protection.

These noble aspirations certainly do not leave the rest of the British ruling class unmoved, and the relatively modest size of the Leave group should not obscure its considerable social weight and significance.

Above all, the Leave side reflects the long-standing suspicion of the entire British ruling class toward the economic and political ambitions of the EU project. Leave supporters have acted as the inner voice of the British establishment, reminding even Remain supporters that something is not quite right with the European Union, even if no-one is entirely clear what that is.

It is not hard to find evidence of the skeptical attitude toward the European Union that extends across the British ruling class but takes a sharp form only with the Leave side. Britain refused to join theEuropean Monetary Union (EMU) and the chances that it would eventually adopt the euro were almost nil.

Avoiding the EMU turned out to be a wise decision in the wake of the 2008–9 financial crisis, but it also gave rise to a long-term problem for Britain, given that the European Union as a whole has come increasingly to rely on the institutions of the common currency. The European Central Bank, the Eurosystem, the European Stability Mechanism, and a host of other institutions that are vital to the monetary union have become the locus of policy-making within the EU.

Indeed, the European Union has effectively reshaped itself since 2010 to ensure the survival of the euro. It is far from clear how Britain would have continued to function within the EU while refusing to participate in the EMU.

Trade relations between the two are certainly important, but trade alone would never have been enough to ensure the integration of Britain into a changing European Union. The Leave side, in its own inarticulate manner, has reflected this core difficulty faced by the entire British ruling class.

The Major Rift

The true significance of the referendum, however, is that the rift within the British ruling class has acted as catalyst for the emergence of a far deeper rift within British society. This is a common occurrence when great historic events take place.

If the ruling is class is uniform in its outlook, it is much harder for deeper rifts in society to come to the surface; the dominated classes have few opportunities to voice their desires and demands. But if the ruling class itself is split, deep social rifts have the potential to become yawning chasms. This is precisely the state that Britain finds itself in.

Income and Employment

It is undeniable that the majority of the poor and the working class in Britain have voted in favor of Leave. According to the Ashcroft poll, 64 percent of the C2, D, and E categories voted for Brexit; these are basically skilled and unskilled manual workers, casual workers, those who depend on the welfare state for their income, and so on.

In contrast, groups A and B — higher and intermediate managerial, or administrative layers — voted to stay. Group C1 — junior managerial, or administrative layers — were split roughly down the middle.

These sociological descriptions correspond poorly with the traditional class categories in Marxist analysis. For one thing, they don’t include a ruling class, or even a well-defined capitalist class. Yet they still highlight the social composition of the voting camps. The poor and the working class have voted, by and large, for Leave.

The middle class, on the other hand, especially the higher professional and managerial groups have opted for Remain. This seismic shift reflecting a profound divide in British society, lies beneath the class hiatus in the country at present.


The significance of this rift is made visible by the geographical distribution of the referendum results (which have been provided by the BBC). The social balance always has a geographical dimension reflecting the distribution of skill, the local accumulation of wealth and poverty, and the historical accretion of class struggles.

Britain as a whole voted 51.9 percent for Leave and 48.1 percent for Remain. Within these percentages, England voted 53.4 percent for Leave and 46.6 percent for Remain — very similar to Wales’s 52.5 percent and 47.5 percent, respectively.

In contrast, Scotland voted 38 percent for Leave and 62 percent for Remain, while Northern Ireland voted 44.2 percent and 55.8 percent, respectively. Thus, there is no doubt that the overall result for Britain was driven by England, which calls for closer examination.

A simple way of capturing the geographical rift in England is to consider the “stronger” results, that is, the local percentages exceeding 60 percent in favor of either Leave, or Remain. This would provide an indication of the geographical concentration of “stronger” views, thus affording sharper insight into the class composition of the vote.

The list below includes the majority of referendum areas that voted at or above 60 percent in favor of Leave, as well as the majority of the referendum areas that voted at or above 60 percent in favor of Remain (hence 40 percent or less for Leave).

More than 60 percent for Leave:

Barnsley 68.3%, Basildon 68.6%, Barking & Dagenham 62.4%, Dartford 64.2%, Doncaster 69%, East Riding of Yorkshire 60.4%, Epping Forest 62.7%, Fenland 71.4%, Havering 69.7%, Hartlepool 69.6%, King’s Lynn & West Norfolk 66.4%, Kingston upon Hull 67.4%, Mansfield 70.9%, Medway 64.1%, Newcastle under Lyme 63%, North East Lincolnshire 69.6%, North West Leicestershire 60.7%, Oldham 60.9%, Peterborough 60.9%, Redcar & Cleveland 66.2%, Rochdale 60.1%, Sandwell 66.7%, Scarborough 62%, Shepway 62.2%, South Staffordshire 64.8%, Stoke on Trend 69.4%, Sunderland 61.3%, Tameside 61.1%, Telford and Wrekin 63.2%, Tendring 69.5%, Thanet 63.8%, Thurrock 72.3%, Torbay 63.2%, Wakefield 66.4%, Walsall 67.9%, Wigan 63.9%, Wolverhampton 62.6%.

Less than 40 percent for Leave:

Barnet 37.8%, Cambridge 26.2%, Camden 25.1%, Hackney 21.5%, Hammersmith and Fulham 30%, Hackney 24.4%, Islington 24.8%, Kensington and Chelsea 31.3%, Kingston upon Thames 38.4%, Lambeth 21.4%, Lewisham 30.1%, Oxford 29.7%, Southwark 27.2%, St Albans 37.3%, Tower Hamlets 32.5%, Waltham Forest 40.9%, Wandsworth 25%, Westminster 31%.

Several conclusions are immediately apparent:

  1. The “strong” Leave vote was widely and evenly spread across England.
  2. Large groups of the working class in the North voted strongly for Leave.
  3. Areas of pronounced poverty across England voted strongly for Leave.
  4. There were “strong” Leave votes in working-class areas in the South, particularly around London; these are sometimes called “white-flight areas”.
  5. The “strong” Remain vote was extremely concentrated in London, particularly in the working-class areas that contain large concentrations of second- and third-generation immigrants. Note, though, that several of these areas have also been undergoing a process of gentrification and have substantial concentrations of the middle class.
  6. The better-off areas of London voted strongly in favor of Remain. Very few other areas of the country voted similarly, including Cambridge, St. Albans, and Oxford.

There is no evidence at all that the Leave vote was heavily concentrated in parts of the country that have presumably suffered disproportionately from the form of capitalist development of Britain during the last several decades.

On the contrary, the Leave vote was spread fairly evenly across the country, even at its “strongest”. In contrast, the Remain vote was far more heavily concentrated, indeed its “strongest” instances were extremely concentrated in London.

London has always been different from the rest of the country, as all those with even a passing awareness of English history know. At present its concerns and aspirations reflect the large resident middle class whose cosmopolitan outlook typically favors Remain. This class has exceptional access to the media, and its views are transparently out of kilter with the rest of the country.

The concerns and aspirations of London also reflect the large concentration of second- and third-generation working-class and poor immigrants, evident in the strong Remain vote in areas such as Hackney, Lambeth, and Lewisham.

It should be stressed, however, that the cosmopolitan middle class of London enjoys a strong ideological and cultural preeminence in many of these areas as a result of advancing gentrification. This is strengthened by the relatively peaceful coexistence of communities within the areas undergoing gentrification.

The outer periphery of London, in contrast, particularly the so-called areas of “white flight,” exhibits a very different behavior, often strongly in favor of Leave.

In sum, it is apparent that the working class and the poor across England have voted for Leave. This conclusion is further backed by some of the qualitative findings of the Ashcroft poll. While a majority of those who are working full- or part-time voted to remain, most of those who are not working voted to leave, as did two-thirds of those on a state pension. A similar proportion (two-thirds) of tenants of council and housing association tenants also voted to leave.

The poorest had few doubts, it seems. They wanted out.

This also consistent with another finding of which no little fuss has been made in the international media: those with university degrees, especially higher ones, voted to remain, while a large majority of those with only secondary education voted to leave. The international chatterers discovered to their horror that the working class and the poor, by and large, do not go to university.

Quite obviously then, the strong majority in favor of Leave must have been the result of ignorance, and possibly obtuseness . . . in days of yore the habits of personal cleanliness and the dress codes of Leave voters would also have come in for mockery. Class prejudice against the poor, especially when they dare to express strong views, has never been subtle.

Why Vote Leave

A referendum is by its nature a binary choice: yes or no. It is undoubtedly an exercise in democracy but of a very special nature conducive to expressing frustration and rejection. In the case of EU-related referenda there is a long history of rejection votes in several countries, most prominently in the Greek referendum of July 2015.

It appears that the people of Europe, when asked about the European Union, express alienation and distaste; united Europe appears not to be a grassroots project.

No wonder that the established powers within the European Union avoid referenda like the plague and take extraordinary action to repeat votes until the “right” result is produced, or even altogether ignore a “wrong” result, as happened most egregiously with the Greek referendum.

The British referendum is indisputably an instance of accumulated frustration among the working class and the poor in England resulting in a protest vote in favor of Leave. The question is, what were they frustrated and angry about, and why was their frustration channeled toward the European Union?

Pressure on Wages, Disposable Income, and Welfare Provision

One key underlying cause is not hard to find: British workers and British households have faced stagnating and even falling wages and disposable incomes since 2000, as Figures 1 and 2 show. The bulk of the British population has faced ever-tighter living conditions for a decade and a half.

Fig. 1 OECD

Fig. 2 OECD

The problem of wages and disposable income became especially severe after the major crisis of 2008–9, although there has been some improvement after 2014. That gigantic shock came after three decades of exceptional expansion of finance that has resulted in pronounced financialization of the British economy.

Financialization has produced tremendous profits and benefits for a narrow elite that is often associated with the City of London, while piling up insecurity and economic pressures for working people.

The global crisis of 2008–9, pivoting on a few banks, brought large deficits to the British government and has thus resulted in a sustained policy of austerity, designed and implemented by the Tory government and its chancellor, George Osborne.

Austerity has brought sustained pressure on welfare provision across the country, particularly on the National Health Service, education, and benefits for the poor. The last five or six years have witnessed not only unremitting tightness on wages and disposable income for British workers but also a general scrimping on social provision.

To cap it all, during this period there has been no reckoning for the bankers and financiers who took advantage of the boom conditions of the previous years and who have rightly attracted the ire of working people. There is absolutely no mystery about the accumulated frustration among the working class and the poor in Britain.

Migration, Racism, and the European Union

Frustration, however, is rarely expressed simply or directly in social affairs. It is almost always a mediated process, and it is impossible to predict the spill-over point. In Britain today the issues of migration and racism have been paramount during the campaign of the referendum and afterwards.

There is no doubt that the Leave camp made hay with the issue of immigration during the campaign. However, to ascribe up the referendum result to racism or hostility to migrants is nonsensical, and smacks of the contempt toward workers and the poor often exhibited by their social “betters”.

There is certainly racism within the Leave camp, but to appreciate the reaction of the workers and the poor to the issue of migration it is vital first to have a look at migration flows.

During 1991–99 the average net inflows of migration into Britain (excluding flows of British nationals) came to 233,000 a year, of which 14,000 were from the European Union and 53,000 from the Commonwealth. The annual average during 2000–3 increased to 284,000, of which 9,000 were from the European Union and 101,000 from the Commonwealth.

In the years that followed the net inflow rose further and its composition changed heavily toward EU nationals. In 2005 the net inflow was 294,000, of which 96,000 were from the European Union and 120,000 from the Commonwealth. By 2014 the net inflow was 375,000, of which 178,000 were from the EU and 86,000 from the Commonwealth.

In short, precisely at a time when British wages and disposable incomes came under sustained pressure, and exactly when austerity was imposed on the country adding pressure on welfare provision, the net inflows of migrants increased considerably. Within these flows the proportion from the European Union increased dramatically, particularly from the countries of Eastern Europe whose people had recently acquired the right to reside in Britain.

It would have required very focused and detailed political and social campaigning for this difficult social situation not to create tensions among British workers and the poor. When the queue at the accident and emergency section of a hospital or at a general practitioner’s surgery is hours long and half of it comprises migrants, the immediate reaction of many would be to blame migrants.

It would certainly be a wrong reaction and it might even have racism attached to it, but unless someone systematically explained the impact of the disastrous policies of Tory governments and offered realistic options, frustration would turn toward the obvious targets.

There is little evident racism in the referendum result, at least as far as the Ashcroft poll is concerned, and certainly none addressed to the usual victims of racism in Britain, i.e., Asian and black people. Indeed, it appears that about one-third of those who describe themselves as Asian and one-quarter of those who describe themselves as black voted for Leave.

There is no doubt, nonetheless, that the majority of the Asian and black communities have been deeply concerned about a possible racist backlash following a Leave vote, in view especially of the political leadership of the Leave camp.

The main concern of the Leave voters (49 percent) appears to have been “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK.” A third (33 percent) said that the main reason for leaving the European Union was that it “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.”

The working class and the poor were explicitly concerned with democracy and sovereignty in relation to the European Union, even if these concerns had been overlaid by the issue of migration. The frustration accumulated over the years found vent in EU membership because workers and the poor felt that the EU directly affected the political levers and the democratic mechanisms available to tackle their problems.

Britain voted Leave not simply because working people and the poor were angry at the condition of the country. The real point is that they viewed the European Union as an alien, undemocratic set of institutions that would not provide a suitable framework for tackling problems of economy and migration. Sovereignty is a summary term for command over one’s own environment and it is fundamental to exercising democracy.

The working class and the poor understood the point clearly: in contemporary capitalism, transnational bodies, such as the European Union, are remote from the levers of democratic control and become a natural terrain for big business. In contrast, the nation-state provides a field within which it is possible to fight for certain basic rights and demands.

People in Britain have had ample opportunity over the last few years to observe the performance of the European Union, particularly in connection with the bypassing of democracy and its domineering attitude toward Greece, Italy, and elsewhere.

Given that the core of the British ruling class as well as the main beneficiaries of the policies of the last few years came out openly in favor of Remain, the decision of the majority of workers and the poor to leave was quite natural. Frustration found its natural outlet in rejecting the European Union, and with good reason too.

A Political Crisis

The main contradiction and chief political problem of the referendum result is that the anger and the justified concerns of working people and the poor in England have been exploited by a brazenly neoclassical and unprincipled right.

The Left, in contrast, has been unable to formulate a set of proposals or a radical program that would appeal to the great majority of the British people. The voice of workers has been muted or confused. This is the vital element in the class hiatus in the country at present.

The result of the referendum has thrown the Tory Party into a major upheaval, reflecting the rift within the British ruling class. The Remain side, led by the ex-prime minister David Cameron, has shown boundless arrogance and lack of understanding of the true state of the country, as befits a bunch of Public School and Oxbridge graduates.

Confident that they express the interests of the main section for the ruling class, and thus that they would win, they have been thrown completely out of balance by the result.

Cameron had gambled on an “easy” victory in the referendum to deal with the division within the Tory Party, and thus paid with an ignominious demise. Even more staggering, however, has been the frivolity of the Leave side, led by the Chief Pretender Boris Johnson, another Oxbridge graduate, who in truth did not expect to win.

His even more ignominious demise, stabbed at the back by his erstwhile ally, Michael Gove, is a token of just how disjointed the Leave side is. Further evidence to this effect has been adduced by the departure of Nigel Farage from the leadership of the United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP). The leading lights of the Leave camp, by and large, have proven incapable of offering leadership to the British ruling class at its time of confusion.

The confusion will soon abate, however. In the near future there will be a leadership contest in the Tory Party to elect someone with the authority to speak for the ruling class a whole. It is likely that the main contest will be between Teresa May, the voice of the Tory electoral machine and traditional pragmatism, and Michael Gove, the ambitious right-winger from a fairly humble background who could perhaps give expression to the harsh neoliberalism within the Leave side.

In view of the victory of Leave, the long-standing rift within the Tory Party is likely to be bridged in favor of a pragmatic exit from the European Union. This will also probably be the choice of the British ruling class as a whole.

It will not be an easy route for Britain to take and the country will have to renegotiate a series of treaties with the European Union over a period of time. The Tories will probably adopt a harsh neoliberal agenda domestically, coupled with a compromising attitude with regard to the EU and aiming for some sort of “special relationship.”

No one should be rash enough to think that the European Union will deal with Britain from a position of strength. The vote to leave has delivered a body blow to an EU that is already reeling under the failure of the EMU and the lack of growth across the continent. Even worse, there is a widespread perception that that the “project” of Europe is undemocratic and failing.

Euroskepticism has sunk roots during the last few years. If there is a major crisis in Italy at the end of 2016 — as is more than likely, given the state of Italian banks — the pressures on the European Union will become enormous.

Germany, the real leader of the European Union, is fully aware of how intractable the situation of the European Union is, and its leaders will be very careful in dealing with Britain. Whoever governs Britain in the coming period will probably have some room to maneuver.

In this context the role of the Labour Party will be critical. The party has been led by its left wing since the surprising ascendancy of Jeremy Corbyn in 2015. The new leadership has suffered from ceaseless internal strife motivated by the parliamentary group that leans to the right and could not contemplate policies that would decisively break with the neoliberal framework of the last four decades.

Yet the country is ready for drastic change, as even the referendum result has shown in its own warped way. Corbyn still enjoys substantial support from the Labour grassroots expressed through Momentum, an organization that has achieved national status in a matter of months. He also has clear support from the main trade union leadership, always a vital factor in British politics.

Corbyn’s problem, however, is that under his leadership the Labour Party has misjudged the referendum campaign, and thus finds himself under enormous pressure. Referenda are by their own nature “yes or no” choices, and those who sit on the fence pay a price.

The Labour Party adopted the stance of a mealy-mouthed Remain, while its natural constituency, the working class and the poor, voted for Leave. Even worse, at least a third of Labour voters also voted to leave. Corbyn was not alone in taking a middle-of-the-way position in favor of Remain.

Much of the trade union leadership also did the same, worried by the neoliberal agenda of the leadership of the Leave camp and the direct threat to labor rights and loss of social protection in the eventuality of an EU exit.

The result has been confusion and bewilderment among Labour supporters, not least because the right-wingers and racists across the country have had a spring in their gait since the result was announced.

The confused state of the Labour Party has offered a golden opportunity to its conservative wing to challenge Corbyn on the flimsiest and most extraordinary of excuses: apparently he should have offered stronger support to Remain precisely as his natural constituency in the country was moving toward Leave in great numbers! That would indeed have been an interesting way to commit political suicide.

The aim of Labour conservatives is clear: defeat the Left on any excuse and force it into the wilderness, thus returning politics to the tried and tested formula of the past four decades.

To cap it all, there is also the threat of a new independence referendum in Scotland, which voted strongly in favor of Remain. The prospect of a United Kingdom dominated by neoliberal Tories brings shivers to Scottish spines. For the Labour Party, which has lost its support in Scotland during the last two decades, Scottish independence would eliminate any prospect of radical government in Britain for the foreseeable future.

Yet an element of caution is required in connection with Scotland too. The Scottish National Party, which has effectively inherited the mantle of Labour in the working-class areas of Scotland, has actually performed very similarly to Labour in the referendum.

According to the Ashcroft poll, 36 percent of SNP supporters voted for Leave, even though their leader, Nicola Sturgeon, was one of the most vocal supporters of Remain in the country. The working class and the poor in Scotland might not be so different from those in England, after all.

Labour, led by the left wing, should break the hiatus and offer the country the program and the direction that it clearly wants.

It is apparent that Britain craves more democratic institutions that would ensure sovereignty. The European Union is not the answer to any of the demands of the working class and the poor, and Britain has already opted to leave. The Labour Party should put forth proposals that expand democracy and sovereignty from the perspective of workers and the poor.

In effect, it should help to redefine the nation in an inclusive way for the conditions of today. The concept of the citizen, transcending gender, race, and ethnicity, is the lever for democracy and sovereignty in Britain and across Europe. It also provides a foundation for policies on migration that protect the rights of migrants as well as of the existing inhabitants of countries.

On this political basis the Labour Party should offer an economic and social policy to the British people that could deal with the pressure on the National Health Service; tackle the growing housing pressure; lift austerity; nationalize transport, steel and banks; and engage in a determined campaign to “definancialize” the country.

The research and knowledge on how to engage in such a strategy already exist. If the Labour Party went confidently down this path, it would secure the support of the great majority in Britain, thus taking the country out of its historic impasse.

Britain could then act as a beacon of hope to a failing European Union that is already raising the specter of chaos. That is the path of hope.

Filed under: brexit, eu-referendum