EU referendum: many don’t care what happens next, they just wanted change

For many working-class people, this was a referendum not on the EU but on their quality of life, writes Lisa Mckenzie

June 24, 2016

The result is in: the UK is to leave the European Union. The Brexit side has won. And we have all lost – which I think most of us probably thought was inevitable, regardless of the result.

If we had woken up today to find out that we’d remained in the EU, the debate would have been moved on very quickly by the politicians and the media, and business would be back to normal. 

Last night at about 10pm, the markets were betting on the UK to stay and the pound was rising. Within a few hours, though, worried faces were appearing on the BBC’s marathon referendum programme. And no one had anticipated that people would come out in such great numbers to have their say. 

If I was surprised, it was because so many of the working-class people I’ve heard arguing about the finer points of Brexit in recent weeks were the people who had no interest in the 2015 general election. A year ago, working-class voters’ malaise was obvious: they were saying of politicians, “They are all the same” and “not for us”. But this week those same voters have made their voices heard. They are unhappy, they feel let down, and they are very angry. 

For many working-class people, this was not a referendum on the EU. After all, very few of us know very much about it, apart from what the likes of the Daily Mail’s bananagate told us. The referendum, for most working-class people, has been a referendum on their lives today: how insecure they are, how they struggle from week to week, and confront the fear of homelessness that looms over hundreds of thousands of working-class families. And when I say working class, I mean black, brown and white working class.

It’s worth noting that many neighbourhoods throughout the country with strong ethnic minority communities also voted Leave. 

Today is a depressing day. It doesn’t have to be, but it is. And of course the blame game has started: the middle-class Remainers are pointing fingers at the working-class Leavers. This is just the latest in the narratives that they have been rehearsing over the past few months. First it was “the working class won’t be interested and they won’t vote”; next it was “the working class will do what the Labour Party tells them to”; then we progressed to “the Labour Party is not doing enough to tell ‘their’ voters to vote Remain”. 

But as the EU referendum vote loomed closer, the rhetoric became much darker: “the working class are racist, and stupid, and backwards, which is why they are voting Leave”. In the final few days before the referendum, and today in its aftermath, the explanation for Brexit offered up by politicians and the media is that the working class are “dupes”, they have been “conned”, and they are turkeys voting for Christmas. 

I don’t agree with this analysis.

The vote for Leave has been about insecurity and precarity. Working-class communities were not gripped by fear over the warnings about Brexit damaging “our successful economy”. For them these warnings were irrelevant – because they’ve never been invited to the successful-economy party. And today the blame is being heaped on the older generation, too, because they voted in greater numbers for Brexit. Just maybe they did so because they’ve been looking back on their lives and thinking that things have been better for them – and they have – than they are today. 

The referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was a project created by Little Englanders and Conservative Party xenophobes; it has been a cancer in their ranks for generations. But this is not where the referendum stayed. The politicians wanted the British public to get involved, and they did. Politicians and political parties on the Left, and the neoliberal academy and the academics who stood by and didn’t take class inequality seriously, have all had a hand in allowing this outcome to happen, too. 

And if they wish, the liberal middle class, the Left and the Labour Party can carry on with cleansing the “difficult” working class out of their movements and their field of vision, or only allowing them in as “dupes”. But the consequence will be the proliferation of ever-larger political black holes among working-class people, and the Right will fill those holes. 

We can blame different groups, we can tear ourselves to pieces, we can allow deep divisions between class, race, gender and disability to widen, we can become a hateful country that allows the Right to march in their thousands through multicultural neighbourhoods just as they did in the 1930s and the 1970s. But we don’t have to. I think we can move on if we want to – and if we have the balls to do it. 

My priority is to recognise what has been said so clearly across the country, namely that some people in the UK are suffering so badly they don’t care what happens next – they just want something to change. 

My wish is that all you lefty middle-class politicians, academics and media get your hands on that great big ladder that you’re going to need to prop up against your high horse and climb down, and come and see what has been happening while you have been worried about your house prices, your children’s schools and their career paths. Come and see what has happened to the poorest people in the UK. 

And finally, I invite you to join the movements that we are going to need to grow from the grass roots up. Come and support us. Stand with us. And listen to us. 

Lisa Mckenzie is research fellow in the department of sociology, London School of Economics, and author of Getting By: Estates, Class and Culture in Austerity Britain.

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Reader's comments (3)

I agree with the analysis but this last sentence is a gross generalisation, similar to saying that "the working class are racist, and stupid, and backwards, which is why they are voting Leave". Most of us lefty (I would prefer liberal as lefty is a concept from 100 years ago) middle-class, which despite the tone of the author I do not consider an insult, have been constantly fighting to defend the right of everybody to decent standards of life. Why is it such a crime to also be concerned about our own quality of life? The objective should be to improve the conditions of those who are treated unfairly not to criticise us for wanting a decent life.
If the working class identifying left don't see this as a rejection of them and their values, they are in for a shock. People didn't vote in favour of a new left revolution - they voted in favour of far right politics, and a return to the nasty class conflict of the past. Anyone from a university, writing in the Guardian, or inner London is now a target. The incredible naïveté of the call to arms from the left is mind boggling. I'm not a fan of the EU, but this vote wasn't about the EU, it was about the currents of political ascendancy. A vote against the status quo, or a vote against the condescending left who want to co-opt the subjugated classes into a revolution they don't want, that isn't intended for them? The ascendancy has been revealed, and it won't be labour, left, or Greens. The crowing from sections of the far left is telling, however, with regard to the split of votes. If people weren't out fighting for a remain vote because of complacency, they were harbouring dreams of a new socialist revolution that will not come to pass, and voted leave. I don't see a new world of left triumph, I see a nation where I was accepted and felt at home on Thursday, but where, by Friday, my future here has disappeared, along with the future of all of my precarious, young, EU friends living in the UK... No one will give jobs to people whose right to be in the country won't be confirmed for years. Meanwhile, as we leave in droves, will the mobilised left be chasing a self involved and oblivious fiction?
"For many working-class people, this was not a referendum on the EU. After all, very few of us know very much about it, apart from what the likes of the Daily Mail’s bananagate told us" Just me who finds this an odd statement from an LSE Research fellow? You work at LSE (let's leave aside the working class hero bit) and the only information you could find about the EU was in the daily mail?

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