I think we can all agree that the referendum campaign is deteriorating as we get closer to 23 June. A lack of objective facts; both sides playing on our fears; partisan self-interest; and the absence of anyone prepared to give an honest answer have served to bring out the worst in us.
One side, in particular, is cause for concern. It is the side that refuses to offer any coherent plan for what its version of the future will look like. It is the side that insists on banging on and on about just one issue; and will continue to do so right up until 10.00pm on voting day. It is the side that refuses to engage in a serious debate, and instead sticks its proverbial fingers in its ears and hurls insults around in order to stifle discussion of any of the – many – other issues that might be of interest to anyone who is still undecided. I refer, of course, to the Remain side.
In case anyone hadn’t noticed, what passes as reasoned debate on the remain side consists of telling everyone else how much they will lose out economically if we leave the EU and, when this fails, to shout the word “RACIST” as loudly and as often as they can in order to curtail any further argument.
Accusing your opponents of racism is, after all, hardly designed to encourage an opponent to expand an argument so that it can be analysed and challenged. It is, however, something more when it is shouted by the liberal wing of a privileged managerial and professional middle class. In this context, “racist” has always been a dog whistle for the white working class. To that section of the middle class that continues to enjoy a position of privilege either directly within the public sector or within one of the many corporations that now suck on the teat of state welfare, the term “racist” or the nastier “chav” is a means of drawing a socio-economic dividing line without having to use the “C” word that three decades of identity politics have made taboo – “CLASS”.
Think for a moment about how mass media symbolise a racist (see image above for reference) – the working class thug with a skinhead haircut, the flag of St George T-shirt, the word “hate” tattooed on his (it is always a he) knuckles. It is nothing more than a derogatory stereotype of the working class – racism is seldom symbolised, for example, as the CEO of one of the many corporations that routinely and systematically exclude black and Asian people (and women) from employment; particularly at the upper end of the career ladder. Unconsciously, we have been encouraged to regard being white and working class and being a racist as the same thing. And it has one extremely pernicious consequence – it allows the privileged minority to shout down the majority.
Four decades of Thatcherism and its bastard New Labour offspring have caused a growing class divide in Britain. But during those years, we all but stopped talking about class, precisely because a privileged managerial and professional class were doing very nicely out of the deal. Identity politics became a necessary means of papering over this fact, since superficially, identity cuts across the class divide. In reality, identity politics is a means of curtailing all discussion of class. As an illustration of this, in an article of the failure of modern feminism, Eleanor Robertson relates her experience attending a conference session on sexism in the workplace:
“I shifted in my seat, waiting for someone to bring up public daycare, or government-funded parental leave, or the proliferation of underpaid pink-collar jobs, or the economic devaluation of women’s reproductive labour, or any of the issues that have historically been sites of feminist struggle.
“Nobody did, so I raised my hand to mention my sister, who is a part-time childcare worker. How would training women to ask for higher pay help her, as someone who earns a set award wage and has very little power to negotiate anything? How would professional mentoring empower her? How would her life be improved by quotas for women on boards?
“A mildly uncomfortable pause followed. I ploughed on, motivated half by an immediate anxiety about filling the conversational gap and half by raw indignation. Shouldn’t our demands be for universal changes to the structure of society that will help all women, I asked. There was a subdued murmur of assent, and a couple of women voiced agreement. But the matter was soon forgotten, and I spent the rest of the session in a state of tense disappointment.”
Nobody – not even Robertson herself – actually mentions the “C” word. Nevertheless, the unconscious line in the sand being drawn at the conference was a class division. There are the salaried managerial and professional women – the kind that can afford the time out to attend conferences on career enhancement – and then there are the wage-earning working class women, like Robertson’s sister who, for a host of practical and financial reasons are unlikely ever to attend such a conference; still less benefit from it.
When Remain supporters shout the word “racist” at the top of their voices, they are drawing the same class dividing line. The fact of the matter is that the largely pro-remain managerial and professional class have benefited from immigration. After all, without it we wouldn’t be able to afford all of those trades people who carry out the repairs on our houses; or the hospital workers who keep the cost of the NHS down sufficiently that we do not have to pay more income tax for it; or the various emergency and utility workers who keep our cities running without us incurring huge council tax bills; or even the cheap temporary foreign workers who keep the price of food at Waitrose significantly lower than if we paid a half decent wage to agricultural workers.
Consider the other side of that equation – working people whose living standards have fallen remorselessly since the 1970s; working people who can barely afford the rent on a rundown inner city flat, let alone even think about owning a home of their own; working people who have been failed by an education system that was deliberately designed to serve managerial and professional privilege (yes, it has been expanded to allow the banks to turn more of our young people into debt serfs; but the graduates from the handful of universities and courses that really matter are today even more likely to be the sons and daughters of privilege); working people who have been on the sharp end of every cut in public services that has been inflicted since the birth of Thatcherism: the crowded classrooms, overstretched GPs, absent dentists, useless social services, inadequate and punitive policing, obstructive social security systems, absence of public spaces, etc.
The working class do not have an “immigrant problem” of course – but it is all too easy to view their concerns through the prism of racism:
“Despite the vocal discussion on immigration during the EU Referendum, animosity is not being expressed towards European immigrants. It is common to hear people say that there is too much immigration but they “like working with the Polish, they’re alright” or “I would do the same if I was them”. Typical complaints focus on the difficulty in getting a quick doctors appointment or an over-crowded classroom. People see their workplaces, towns and villages change around them and they were never consulted, asked or involved in any way.”
In my book The Consciousness of Sheep, which is about the profound crisis facing all of Western civilisation – written before we had a Tory government, still less a referendum – I observed that:
“Several factors have combined to undermine people’s livelihoods and to plunge ever more people into poverty. Government attempts to reverse the deficit and run budget surpluses suck money out of the productive economy. In such depressed conditions, right-wing anti-immigrant parties can gain traction by selling the narrative that the problem is the result of immigrants unfairly competing for jobs.”
Of course the Vote Leave campaign is going to play the immigrant card as loudly as they possibly can, in exactly the same way as the Remain campaign will continue to play their economic Armageddon card. That is what political opportunism does. But the issue that we must address does not concern the referendum itself – we must come to terms with the massive gulf that has opened up across the Western world between the elites and their managerial and professional class running dogs on the one hand, and an increasingly impoverished working class on the other… failing to do so risks pushing them further into the arms of right-wing false populism.
In a pro-Remain column, Polly Toynbee stumbles upon the nub of the issue:
“Try arguing with facts and you get nowhere. Warn these Labour people what a Johnson/Gove government would do and they don’t care. Warn about the loss of workers’ rights and they don’t listen – maybe that’s already irrelevant to millions in crap jobs such as at Uber or Sports Direct.”
People in the managerial and professional class – especially those within the Labour Party – simply assume the British working class are “Labour people” (as if that is stamped somewhere on their birth certificates). What they cannot entertain – because it threatens their own privilege – is that the British working class had already become an explosive mix of anger and frustration long before the referendum was announced. Labour can no longer assume that this automatically translated into votes for them. They need to provide a positive vision:
“For a start labour movement activists have to stop dodging working class objections to low-wage inward migration, or assuming it can all be resolved by an appeal to anti-racism.”
John Harris, who has recently toured the UK getting people’s view on the referendum, is clear that the rift that has opened up in British society is about class not bigotry:
“Hardly anybody talks about the official campaigns, and the most a mention of the respective figureheads of each camp tends to elicit is a dismissive tut – but just about everyone agrees that this is a fantastically important moment, and a litmus test of the national mood…
“In Stoke, Merthyr, Birmingham, Manchester and even rural Shropshire, the same lines recurred: so unchanging that they threatened to turn into cliches, but all the more powerful because of their ubiquity. ‘I’m scared about the future’ … ‘No one listens to us’ … ‘If you haven’t got money, no one cares.’
“And of course, none of it needs much translation. Instead of the comparative security and stability of the postwar settlement and the last act of Britain’s industrial age, what’s the best we can now offer for so many people in so many places? Six-week contracts at the local retail park, lives spent pinballing in and out of the benefits system, and retirements built on thin air?”
Former Welsh First Minister Rhodri Morgan both gets the deeper issue, and unconsciously discloses one of its causes:
“There is an anti-politician mood out there at the moment. Even retired politicians like me face it. People are anti-establishment. There is a rampant Them and Us divide.”
This is undoubtedly true. But notice that seemingly innocuous “out there”. That, too, is a dog whistle for the class divide. The “out there” that politicians and pundits talk about is precisely those urban and ex-industrial regions where the working class lives.
It was ever thus, of course. In the days before Thatcherism, nobody would expect anything other than that the British working class (or at least a large part of it) would be “anti-establishment”. When working people fought and lost the miners’ strike in 1984/5 they were being anti-establishment, just as they were when they defeated Thatcher on the hated Poll Tax, and when they took on Churchill in the miners’ strikes in 1926 and 1944 (yes we had strikes in the war). Chartism, the Merthyr Rising, Red Clydeside, the election of Annie Powell and the National Health Service were all examples of working people being anti-establishment. But back in those days, the Labour Party both embraced and provided a political focus for that anti-establishment sentiment.
What the referendum campaign has revealed is that Britain’s working class still is an anti-establishment force. After 35 years of being ignored by the establishment even as their living standards collapsed, a significant proportion of them are prepared to tear down the whole national and European political edifice if that is what it takes to get a hearing.
As Andy Shaw succinctly puts it:
“The commentators and what now passes for ‘left wing’ activists have no relationship with the working class. They are shocked that the EU Referendum has ignited interest, discussion and passion. Their detachment from ordinary people means that they misunderstand their motivation. They genuinely fear the people because, up until now, they have been able to ignore them. If you live in a reified world where the only views you hear are within an echo chamber of reinforcing group-think, it is a shock to realise that most people do not think the way you do.”
The Labour Party in particular must consider its role in abandoning so many of the people it blithely considers to be “Labour people”. Between 1997 and 2010, Labour presided over a widening class divide that its policies accelerated. When the inevitable crash in New Labour’s “relaxed about people getting filthy rich” casino economy came, Labour’s true class affiliation was all too clear – they sacrificed the people in order to save their friends in the City. And while Gordon Brown and Alistair Darling have been rewarded with sinecures in the global banking industry, the people have been left to shoulder the burden of austerity.
Whichever way the vote goes on Thursday, the deeper class divide in British society will continue to widen. In the absence of a positive vision for the future, abandoned by the left, the British working class – like their American and European counterparts – will continue along the path of false populism. It is an ugly vision of the future. But if the best we can do is put our fingers in our ears and shout “racist”; it is the future that we are most likely to get.