Leave Has Lessons For Us

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Chris Napier

I am angry and I am afraid. Thursday’s referendum result feels like the start of something very dark, a turn towards insularity and xenophobia for the UK and Europe as a whole.

However, I will not turn inside myself. I cannot. We must not.

It’s very easy for folks like me (university educated, under 40, politically engaged) to make sweeping generalisations and characterise Leave voters as uneducated racists and/or baby boomers determined to pull up the ladder behind them in pursuit of a nostalgic vision of a great nation.

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That is a gross simplification and serves more as a sop to our ego than a meaningful insight into why so many of our neighbours, our relatives and our friends voted to leave EU. Instead, we must ask why so many people felt so threatened by the current state of affairs that they would vote to reshape our world in such a drastic fashion.

In our current state of being angry and afraid, we must ask why others felt the same emotions and voted the way they did and not ‘Other’ them in the same way that the mainstream media has ‘Othered’ immigrants, refugees and the whole European project.

The root cause of the Leave vote is twofold.

Firstly, the widening disconnect between the political class and their core support over the last generation has left a void open for populists with a good story to gain traction.

The Labour party are the most obvious culprit here but not the only culprit, the Conservatives had triangulated as well and the whole political class & process must bear it’s share of the responsibility.

A combination of Labour’s policy slide to the right – adopting neoliberal economics and failing to use a massive parliamentary majority and healthy economy to reduce wealth inequality – led to a slow attrition of loyalty and political interest among working class voters. Rather than tackle the root causes of working class disillusionment, Labour fussed over the centre ground, focusing its campaigns on tiny numbers of “swing voters” in marginal constituencies and cosying up to big business.

This is shown in the poor turnouts and Labour losing ground at every* Westminster election since 1997.

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* OK, the 2015 election actually showed an increase in Labour votes (by both total number and %) over 2010, but at a net loss of seats and still with four million less votes than 1997.

Where did those voters go? Most of them stayed at home, some returned to their usual loyalty to the Conservatives and a few have changed loyalty to anti-establishment parties such as the SNP, UKIP and the Greens (I’ll come back to this.)

Secondly, the financial crash and the austerity policies which followed created a sense of desperation for ordinary people who already felt disconnected from their politicians.

The crash in 2007 was caused by the banks and irresponsible financial speculation. The government of the time propped the banks up almost unquestioningly and passed the cost of that onto the taxpayer, gradually at first but drastically once the Conservative-Liberal coalition took power in 2010.

Student loans became more expensive, benefits were slashed, investment in local government (schools, social care, social housing) and infrastructure was choked off. People began to suffer. People – especially the most economically and socially vulnerable – started to die.

So you have a population which feels like their political leaders do not truly represent them and economic conditions causing genuine deprivation and fear for many. The perfect conditions for a new force to rise, give those disillusioned and desperate people a cause and a scapegoat. That could just as easily be Germany in the early 1930s or France in the late 1780s.

Note: In Scotland, we are very fortunate that the populist force who took advantage of Labour’s open goal was the SNP. While undoubtedly a populist force – big tent of supporters united by a common cause & scapegoat, in this case independence & Westminster – they are also mostly composed of and led by genuine social democrats (with a few small-c conservatives and proper socialists thrown in) with an inclusive social and outward looking world view.  This is one aspect that explains why Scotland as a whole voted strongly to Remain.

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In England, elements like UKIP, Britain First and the EDL took advantage of the same disconnect – lacking a proportionally elected regional parliament to make electoral headway, they’re gains throughout the 00s were mostly in the European elections.

Nonetheless, the message that the troubles of the working people were caused by immigrants stealing jobs, claiming benefits and using up infrastructure combined with the cost of the EU supposedly being responsible for benefits cuts and a failing NHS had a resonance which was supported by the mainstream media.

Indeed, as UKIP made serious gains in the 2013 council and 2014 European elections, the mainstream parties tacked towards this narrative, rather than opposing it.

So, Leave voters are in fact the very people that progressive parties – Labour, the Greens etc. – should be reaching out to. They are the disadvantaged and the disenfranchised. People who feel abandoned by politics, who feel patronised and exploited.  It does us a disservice to marginalize and patronise them further in our assessment of the situation.

So, what’s the lesson?

I believe it is incumbent on progressives of all stripes to reach out to Leave voters, to address their concerns, to be visible in their communities and to seek to involve them in the politics they have been excluded from for a generation.

Many of the strongest Leave areas are places which are considered safe seats, especially Labour seats – seats where local canvassing and campaigning had atrophied as an apparently unnecessary Labour. This cannot be allowed to continue and progressive parties must become active, visible and inclusive in these communities again.

It is also important that progressives do not abandon our duty of care to the migrant communities, be they from the Commonwealth, the EU or further afield. The Leave victory has already been seen to have emboldened racist elements and this must not go unchallenged. We can not triangulate towards one demographic of vulnerable, disillusioned people at the expense of others.

Leave voters have used direct democracy to stick two fingers up at a system of representative democracy that they feel has failed them and as such we need to look at our electoral systems, our methods of keeping MPs accountable and improve them. A move to proportional representation with a robust system for MP recall would be a start – but it would be meaningless without attempts at genuine inclusion by the parties.

I believe Labour need to reconnect with their core support but instead they seem about to double down on the Blairism that caused this great disconnect in the first place.

I believe the Greens need to work harder to shed our middle class image, to be present in working class areas and seek to ask what people need and want, rather than telling them what we think they need.

Above all, we must not give in to fear and anger, we must not fall to the temptation to ‘Other’ our opponents and we must reach out in empathy with the aim of cooperation.

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