Brexit and the left: heading deeper into the void?

27 June 2016

Owen Parker - Associate Fellow, SPERI, & Senior Lecturer in Politics, University of Sheffield

The support in traditional Labour party heartlands for leaving the EU should serve as a wake up call for the British and European left

The decision of a sizeable number of working class Britons to vote to leave the EU on 23rd June was a significant factor in the outcome of the EU referendum. According to polling data 60+% of C2 and DE social groups supported Leave, with much higher percentages of those same groups likely to have backed Brexit in post-industrial parts of the country such as south Wales and the north of England.

Photo by Sam Fry on Unsplash

As the dust settles in the aftermath of a highly acrimonious and divisive campaign, one of many key questions for analysts of British and European politics is: why did traditionally left-wing Labour communities – with much to lose from Brexit (among many others, see here and here) – fall behind a campaign that was run by the most unnatural of allies (namely, Boris Johnson and Michael Gove’s Conservatives and Nigel Farage’s UKIP)?

By its very nature the referendum encouraged these groups to channel their legitimate and longstanding anger — at post-industrial decline, limited employment prospects, low and stagnating wages, poor working conditions, eroded welfare settlements and widespread cultural demonisation — into a simplistic anti-European/ immigration narrative. These – as Alan Finlayson has argued in his excellent analysis – are the losers of globalisation in both its cultural and economic senses. Notwithstanding a minority who will have voted for a ‘lexit’ – an understandable (but in my view misguided) counter to a neoliberal EU – for most, a Brexit vote was related to a long-term shift from an ideological ‘left-right’ to a nationalist ‘us-them’ politics: establishment/expert versus ‘ordinary’/’decent’ people and Brit versus foreigner. The frequently mendacious champions of Brexit have, of course, done much to encourage and stoke such divisions during the campaign.

But such a politics was signalled already in the context of the 2014 European Parliament elections, the 2015 general election and recent local elections, all of which saw considerable gains for UKIP in these areas (including the extraordinary political resurrection of Neil Hamilton, who now leads a contingent of seven UKIP AMs in the Welsh assembly). And beneath the surface of electoral politics such shifts have arguably been underway since as long ago as the 1980s and reinforced by the hollowing out of the traditional left under New Labour.

In his desire to capture the median voter Tony Blair neglected the struggling Labour heartlands, while at the same time adopting a pro-EU, pro-flexible labour markets, pro-free movement agenda that has come back to bite the Labour party. A populist UKIP has occupied the space left by traditional Labour, filling it not with anything substantive, but with a fear of immigrants – and, of course, a strong antipathy towards an EU that, so they tell us, renders both their numbers and characteristics ‘uncontrollable’.  Such is the success of these tactics that Farage, the former city commodity broker and Conservative party activist, was, during one of many victory speeches delivered in the early hours of 24th June, able to present himself – not for the first time – as the champion of a post-industrial working class Britain.

But free movement need not have become ripe for political exploitation by UKIP and elements in the Tory party had Labour done more to engage with its heartlands, protecting welfare, workers and promoting significant investment when economic conditions were favourable. Notably, Sweden – which also immediately opened its labour markets to the new member states in 2004 – did not receive anything like as many migrants from those states, in large part because of its much stronger and better enforced worker standards, protections and collective bargaining mechanisms.  These make both labour market access and exploitation – particularly the undercutting of local workers’ wages and rights – far more difficult.  The issue has consequently not been politicised anything like to the same extent.

Those who persuaded the traditional Labour heartlands to back Brexit – and will soon assume political office – will never support a substantive social/worker rights agenda or fill the gaps in regional investment left by the EU.  It is imperative therefore that the British left robustly asserts a positive message on these issues. Sadly, given Labour’s intensifying internecine warfare and a regrettable desire among many in the party to assert a tougher line on immigration, it seems that it will struggle to do so any time soon.  In such conditions it will be difficult to contain the nationalist — and often outright xenophobic and racist — forces that the referendum campaign has unleashed and legitimised.

For mainstream EU leaders beyond the UK the parallels between these dynamics and events in their own countries will be of serious concern. The increasingly popular leader of the Front National in France, Marine Le Pen, has described the UK referendum result as a ‘victory for freedom’ and called for a French referendum on EU membership.  Recent polling suggests that in this founding member of the European project, anti-EU feeling is running at even higher levels than in the UK in a broader atmosphere of political unrest related to labour market reforms. Similar dynamics are playing out in other member states.

In the short term, the reaction from the EU mainstream is likely to be a tactic of deterrence, based on making exit look as difficult and costly as possible for the UK (and one imagines with trepidation the xenophobic reactions in the British tabloid press).

In the longer term political leaders will need to seriously engage with the possibility that the EU has come to represent for many part of the problem; part of a broader turn to a post-ideological and technocratic neoliberal politics that has created the void currently being occupied by anti-European and far-right nationalists. For all of their flaws, Renzi in Italy, Tsipras in Greece and Iglesias’ Podemos in Spain – despite their third-place finish in Spain’s re-run election on Sunday – offer a glimmer of hope inasmuch as they have shown a willingness to at least engage in such reflection. That said, consensus across the continent remains a very long way off.

Whether or not the UK can still be kept in the EU following the referendum result has been the subject of fevered speculation. It seems unlikely, but the politics will be extremely difficult either way (and the victory may certainly prove a pyrrhic one for Johnson et al.).  Whatever the final outcome of this far-from-finished saga, the referendum should serve as yet another urgent wake-up call to progressives in both Britain and Europe.  Greater engagement, radicalism and solidarity are urgently required to offset the rise of the nationalists and far-right.

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