Brexit has split the nation in many ways. It has exposed significant divisions between the North and South, young and old, the degree-havers and have-nots. One of the strangest is the division it has exposed the political left. There was certainly an anti-immigration, racially charged aspect to the Brexit voter. However, there were also many people who had been ignored by the left and right for decades giving two fingers up to the establishment. The fact that the Brexit vote is both of these things has confused those of us on the left.
There is certainly a class element to this debate, a debate mainly being had by middle class people. It is important to remember that Leave would not have won had it only been supported by poor people in economically deprived areas. More scrutiny is needed of middle class hostility to immigration. The people who have something to defend are the ones most incensed by change, as they feel the most threatened.
There is also a racial element to this debate. White people are removed from the consequences of racism and thus approach it as an academic question. There has been a 58% year on year increase in racist incidents in the weeks following the EU referendum. Middle class white people are not aware of the impact this is having on the lives of ethnic minorities. While we are debating our response to Brexit, people are suffering.
There are two distinct interpretations of the Brexit vote: either it was an expression of anger directed at the political elite motivated by the decline in living standards experienced by vast areas of the country, or it was an expression of racism by people who are unhappy about how Britain is changing. The former means that we need to address the economic circumstances of some people to fight racism. The later needs to be directly confronted to stop racism and make this a more harmonious society. The fact that Brexit can actually be both is frequently overlooked.
There are those on the right of the Labour Party who want to connect with alienated voters by taking a tough stance on immigration. Chuka Umunna wants to leave the single market to end freedom of movement. This is an example of centrists wanting to move to where voters are, rather than showing leadership. Aside from the possibility that, as an electoral strategy it may not work, if the Labour Party adopted more aggressively anti-immigration rhetoric, it is only likely to fan the flames of hatred, not extinguish them. Merely putting “progressive” on the front of something does not stop it being racially or ethnically divisive.
My inclination, as a middle class white person, is that state spending can address the problem of the Two Britains. If we can genuinely tackle the issues of affordable housing, school places and access to GPs, then we can help everyone and tackle the problem of our increasingly divided society. Re-establishing the immigration impact fund - set up Gordon Brown and abolished by David Cameron - would help to alleviate the pressures caused by new arrivals. Steps to redistribute wealth, to ensure that more people benefit from economic growth (itself partly fuelled by immigration), would also help reduce tension.
The problem with this is that this will require more taxes and middle class people are unwilling to pay them. I have lost count of the number of times I have been told by middle class people in London’s craft beer and pulled pork establishments that they cannot afford to pay more taxes. It is the role of the left to convince people to be altruistic and accept higher taxes so that we can create a more harmonious and equally prosperous society. Middle class selfishness, and economic policy that has redistributed wealth away from poor towards the middle class, is one of the key reasons why we are such a divided nation.
There is a cultural gulf opening up on the left: a gulf between those who worry about the cost of commuting and those who have no jobs to commute to; between those who criticise austerity and those who are victims of it; between those who cannot afford to buy a house and those without a roof over their heads; between those who are worried about the statistics showing a rise in racist incidents and those who experience them as part of everyday life.
In a recent Guardian long read, John Harris tells a story about an argument between young Labour activists and a UKIP voter in Broadstairs. It illustrates how divided the left is and makes the point that in the past these two people would be allies in a common cause and now they are diametrically opposed. The division Harris illustrates seem too big to gulf and thus there are many middle class lefties who do not want to bother trying. “They’ll never listen.” I have heard a lot recently, accompanied by a shrug. “They” usually refers to anyone who disagrees with the speaker.
The EU referendum vote was many things and we cannot pigeonhole it as either an anti-elitist uprising or a knee jerk nationalism. The left needs to make it a project to address the issues of poverty, lack of opportunity and racism wherever it is found. Neither of these goals is more or less important than the other.
Responding to the Brexit vote is huge challenge for the Labour Party and the left as a whole. With Theresa May pushing on towards a ‘hard’ Brexit that is heavy on rhetoric but short on specifics, it is imperative that the left finds ways to bridge the gap Brexit has opened up.
If the Labour Party cannot reach the people who voted Leave it will suffer and may be reduced to being an irrelevant political force. Political debates are changing and lines are being redrawn and if the left cannot make itself relevant to people’s daily struggles then UKIP and Tories will eat into their support from both ends and leave only a new right-leaning political spectrum, divided between racist nativism and neoliberal globalisation.