Brexit: the British Working Class has Just Yawned Awake

The referendum has done something more than what the UK’s right-wing media would have you believe. Yes, the result has divided opinion, but it has simultaneously engaged all kinds of people who were politically indifferent 6 months ago.

In many small towns and cities, mainly places that have been persistently overlooked by Westminster and its neoliberal decision makers, there is a growing sense of civic awakening.

For decades UK activists have been urging the masses to engage in the political processes: to respond to the deterioration of citizen’s rights and services; to fight the replacement of secure jobs with zero-hour contracts; to resist the shrinking state which impacts the poorest citizens most of all; to demand that affordable housing for all be more than an aspiration. At the very least, vote.

Last month, the two-headed monster of the official campaigns of Leave (lies and fear) and Remain (fear and lies), both manufactured by the same duplicitous elites, faced off at the ballot. It was generally believed that the Leave camp would be defeated, that by controlling both campaigns the establishment could ensure the outcome and simultaneously provide undeniable proof that the UK is democratically run. Their certainty proved false.

From a leftist perspective, the media coverage leading up to the 23rd June could at best be described as suffocatingly narrow. The limited width of debate wasn’t only exclusive to the mainstream; you really had to dig for arguments borne of the ‘real’ left online too. The lack of a genuine socialist voice (that could see beyond its own party politics) was suppressed cleverly by exploiting the shallow fear within the ‘soft’ left of denting its politically correct image. To vote Leave was instantly seized upon by the establishment as a vote for legitimising fascism and racism; Britain would become and “inward looking” and “regressive” nation once again. With no strong left mainstream voice to argue otherwise, that’s the way it has stayed.

And the masses voted. The result sent tracers into the highest pantheons of world governance, exposing briefly, like in the flash of lightening, the vulnerable face of globalisation. Real democracy alone has this power, so there’s little wonder it is rarely seen – especially in countries where it is promoted it zealously.

The North and South

My home town of Rotherham has always been in the economic shadow of its larger brothers, the cities of Sheffield and Leeds. Many of the working men were miners and steel workers; and when those industries were sold down the neoliberal river, Rotherham saw much of its relevance float away with them.

Nothing relevant has ever replaced Rotherham’s stolen industry. Instead,  the majority of its population feel it has become an abandoned, post-Orgreave wasteland. Former miners and steelworkers from torn apart communities saw their families through by packing grocery bags in supermarkets, delivering newspapers or cold-calling from one of the many call centres that began to spring up all over the region – mainly to exploit the collapse of jobs and wages in the region.

When I attended Sheffield University in the 1990s, l got quite used to seeing men and women in their fifties and sixties applying for the same part-time jobs as me and other students: petrol-station cashier, shelf-filling in a supermarket, bar work in local pubs or some such thing.

Ten years later, I saw similar things in London when I lived there for the best part of the ‘noughties’. Neoliberalism was again at the heart of many of the problems I saw there. As London became more and more expensive, employers of the ‘lower wage divisions’ had been forced out of inner London, making way for big cash injections into places like Islington, hiking the rents even further up. The place would then become gentrified, populated with art galleries and antique shops, coffee shops and up-market bars. All the same, the high-rise, low-hope tower-blocks continued to loom over Upper Street and its exclusive clientele.

Gangs of kids in tracksuits with hoods up hung out on most corners, bored out of their brains and looking for something to do: trouble was what would normally come their way. I’d moved out of London by 2011, but the so-called British Riots still didn’t come as a great surprise to me.

The issues are fundamentally the same for working class people in the north and the south. A race to the bottom is taking place. The basic needs of people are being overlooked in communities all over the country; schools are underfunded and over subscribed; exploitative landlords force families out of areas where there’s a chance of decent work; social housing is something the new generation are yet to see; ‘jobs for life’ are spoken about in mythical terms; and the health service is being (intentionally) driven to its knees by continuous regimes, intent on making profit from illness and misfortune.

The same missing ‘real’ left voice, gagged by the satin pillow of the establishment, has made way for the spread of neoliberalism, and the fundamental neglect of our poorest people.

Immigration and Private Profit

Most rational people would probably think that a specialist arm of local councils, under the guidance of national policy, decides the housing location for asylum seekers, refugees and immigrants coming into the UK. In fact, for many places within the UK, this couldn’t be further from the truth.

Yorkshire, the largest county in the UK, is one of many regions to hand over the complex decision making powers of where immigrants, asylum seekers and refugees will be settled in the county, to a private company. And in the case of Yorkshire, not just any private company, but G4S, the world’s largest security firm and to many a prime example of the corruption and collusion that exists between governments and corporations.

Despite contrary talk about ‘expertise’ and ‘free markets’ amongst right-wing commentariats, the primary concern of any modern company is to make profit. With this in mind, it isn’t difficult to see why people coming to the UK to work or to avoid falling bombs and the mayhem of war, are placed in the worst, cheapest flea-bitten, rat infested homes available. Unfortunately, Rotherham is home to far too many quarters that match this criteria.

The council houses, like the one I grew up in, were once solid and well maintained. After Thatcher’s government sold them off, quickly followed by the industry that sustained people’s lives, the houses and the districts around them fell into disrepair, sending house prices plummeting. When a community begins to slide towards total neglect of its neighbourhood, it becomes a vicious circle of decline. No amount of cash injections to ‘tidy up’ the place will achieve anything beyond a temporary veneer to hide the real issues.

Institutions like the EU have done nothing to solve the glaring problems of towns like Rotherham. As EU advocates have angrily told me, many grants have been given to ‘disadvantaged’ areas like my hometown, and “now that we’ve left, things will only get worse for them”. But I’m yet to meet a pro-EU voice that has lived in a ‘disadvantaged’ region, or understands how that disadvantage came to be. Bundles of EU cash has rarely been used to resolve the root cause of problems in towns like Rotherham.  The EU has never made any serious attempt to create a replacement for its stolen industry, only to produce ever more glossy booklets full of buzzwords and pathways to debt.

The EU has little interest in helping to rebuild the former working class industries of the UK. Instead it spends much energy and resources entwining London’s financial services with the European central bank, an industry that creates practically no social benefits for the majority of people. In fact, in regards to any real industry augmentation, the EU has continued to employ the same neoliberal doctrine which Thatcher’s government used to destroy British industry in the first place.

Austerity through Neoliberalism

The last 6 years have seen a simultaneous increase in both austerity and immigration. Unlike in the 70s and 80s, when refugees and immigrants from Pakistan and India were resettled in the UK, now not only is there a lack of dependable work, but also there has been the compounding issue of year after year of unnecessary austerity and cuts to social services. This dangerous combination has been ignored by many on the left, where any regional or community complaint regarding immigration has been interpreted as a form of racism. Ignoring the problem has allowed it to ferment and turn bad, adding to the rise of the far in these regions.

“But what’s really remarkable about the [establishment] response… has been their inability to acknowledge that their own satisfied white-collar class might be part of the problem. On this they are utterly in denial and whatever the disaster, the answer they give is always … more of the same.”[1]

Thomas Frank was writing about the American establishment here, but in many ways, Thatcher and Reagan’s neoliberalism of the 1980s has created identical problems on both sides of the Atlantic.

Tony Blair and Ed Miliband have changed the working class perspective of the Labour Party. There was a world of difference between these men, with their gentrified Islington homes and their children attending private schools, and the man earning £6.50 an hour, living in Rotherham on a zero-hour contract. From his perspective the party has elevated itself high above the rough-edged problems of old industrial towns, and in doing so has merged its authority with the establishment, the natural enemy of the working class.

A few obvious reactions began to develop. People stopped looking to Labour for answers that were not forth coming and instead began pointing their fingers squarely at the only tangible aspect of the problem: the immigrants and settlers themselves. That both the working class and the immigrants share all the same problems has been conveniently overlooked by the UK media’s ‘analysis’. Growing right-wing parties like UKIP have exploited the situation and benefitted from a surge in new supporters. However, the reality is these ‘political’ groups have no solutions for the problems places like Rotherham are facing, at least not beyond scapegoating innocents and further dividing the people.

This dangerous situation has been purposefully intensified by almost all of UK media outlets, chief among them The Daily Mail and The Sun – but all, including so-called liberal news services like the Guardian and the BBC, share a proportion of blame. They know very well their survival depends on the silencing of the real left and the perpetual division of working class people.

People Power and the Labour Party

The same issues of division are now occurring in France, where the recent reforms to labour laws have forced huge protests in the cities and towns. Unification of the workforce on such a grand scale petrifies the European establishment. The UK, to a large extent, has already been through the painful process of stripping away workers’ and unionists’ rights in the early and mid 1980s.Then, the unified working classes of the north were battered into submission by the full weight of government forces. Justice for the terrible crimes that were inflicted on working class people is still being ‘kicked down the road’ by the same political parties that facilitated and committed the crimes in the first place.

Again, because there is no mainstream political voice representing the working class, instead of understanding, the narrative has been to vilify and label populations like Rotherham as ‘racists’, ‘fascists’ and ‘stupid’. This narrative has not only been accepted by the ‘privileged’ left, but intensified by them; the reality is they simply cannot understand why their ‘well meant’ warnings were discarded by people who have nothing left to lose.

But something is changing.

The reported ‘chaos’ in the Labour Party is actually nothing of the kind. It is being carefully orchestrated by certain NEC members and a handful of MPs; the other ‘rebels’ are confused sheep, unable to widen their vision beyond party politics. Even the ‘lukewarm’ Rotherham MP, Sarah Champion – who writes regularly for the Blairite Progress website – who was awarded a shadow minister post, has chosen to oppose the present leader. The various reasons given for the opposing MP’s “loss of confidence” in Jeremy Corbyn has one common feature: they are all subjective.

“He’s not a leader,” they cry, despite his landslide election and Labours swelling membership. “He’s passionless,” they proclaim, because he refuses to pontificate in the commons and for the press. “He cannot communicate,” they expound, even though Corbyn does not fall foul of the hypocrisy ubiquitous everywhere else in British politics. Subjectivity is like offering dry tinder to the media incinerator, burning up anything that opposes it.

There’s a whole lot of bad reporting and misinformation being splashed about regarding the Labour Party, so I’ll try to simplify it. Basically, it boils down to this: there are essentially two different types of politician (and people, for that matter), there are politicians who want real change, and politicians who don’t. You could regard the latter groupas the political arm of the establishment. The establishment think that there is nothing fundamentally wrong with how things are – the needless wars, the growing global inequality, the violence that is poverty, these are just the way things ‘are’. All that is needed is a little gentle ‘tinkering’ to get things back on an even keel. The most ‘radical’ amongst them would perhaps want things to not get any worse, but have no real desire to eliminate these appalling situations altogether. The system works for them.

Jeremy Corbyn belongs the ‘real change’ group. He wants to quite radically alter the path this country has been set on. Amongst many other policies, he wants to invest heavily in the north; a whole infrastructure of modern energy systems needs building, running and maintaining, creating essential jobs and stability in areas forgotten about for decades. Relevance can return to Rotherham, but parties like UKIP are not who can deliver it.

Brexit, and Rotherham’s strong vote for it, whether knowingly or not has for its population lit a distant ray of hope, something missing for far too long. But this light can only grow brighter if the working classes manage to see through the anti-Corbyn spin of the establishment – just as they did when they voted to leave the neoliberal confines of the EU.

Johnny Gaunt lives in Wales, UK. He is a peace activist, political writer and occasional radiographer.

[1] Frank, Thomas, “The World is Taking its Revenge Against Elites. When will America’s Wake Up?“, The Guardian, 19th July, 2016.