A Working Class Revolt? The Meaning Of The Leave Vote

In the wake of the Leave vote in Britain author and socialist activist John Molyneux breaks down the class nature of the vote.

Socialist Worker

A Working Class Revolt? The Meaning Of The Leave Vote

In the wake of the Leave vote in Britain author and socialist activist John Molyneux breaks down the class nature of the vote.

The UK as a whole voted 51.9% to 48.1% to leave the EU on a 72% turnout. In geographical terms the basic facts of the vote were as follows:

Scotland voted 62% to 38% remain. Northern Ireland voted 55.8 to 44.2 remain and London 59.9 to 40.1 also for remain. Wales voted 52.5 to 47.5 to leave. After that every region in England bar London, i.e. North East, North West, Yorkshire & Humberside, East Midlands, West Midlands, East of England, South East and South West, voted to leave.

Clearly certain nationally specific factors applied in Northern Ireland and Scotland. My purpose in this article is to analyse the meaning of the Leave vote in England and Wales.

Looking more closely at this vote we find that a number of normally conservative, mainly middle class, areas like the Isle of Wight, Havant and Maidstone voted leave but what was key to the Leave victory was the vote that came from the medium and smaller sized towns of the whole of the North and the Midlands, places such as Barnsley, Burnley, Bradford, Hull, Sunderland, Middlesborough, Wakefield, Salford, Wigan, and so on.

These are areas that were once heartlands of the old industrial working class and of the British labour movement and which remain by-and –large Labour strongholds and which suffered devastation under Thatcher and have never seriously recovered or experienced the relative bounce back that has occurred in parts of London and some other major cities.

Looking at the vote overall the BBC reports ‘‘A sharp age, wealth and educational divide between Remain and Leave voters’ and notes, ‘A clear majority of university educated voters went for Remain, while most people whose education ended at secondary school level or earlier supported Brexit.’ But, as research has repeatedly proved, educational achievement is very closely correlated to social class. It is therefore not surprising that they also report that ‘While Remain won the backing of 57% of the top earning AB social group, Leave was supported by 64% of C2Ds [the manual working class – JM ].


The Guardian came to the same conclusion.

‘The decision for the UK to leave the European Union was overwhelmingly supported in parts of England with low income and education levels.
Average educational attainment, median income and social class in English local authorities were the strongest predictors of how residents in that area voted in the referendum. The results indicate that the greater the proportion of residents with a higher education, the more likely a local authority was to vote remain.


What this shows is that in social class terms the Leave vote was a mixed affair – a combination of the non-metropolitan middle class (predominantly lower middle class – the rich were overwhelmingly for remain) and the lower paid working class. However, it is clear that it was the poorer working class vote that was decisive – it was this vote that produced a leave majority right across the entire North, Midlands and East of England, where most of the population live.

Guardian journalist, John Harris, who has been toured the country during the campaign, sums it up ‘If you’ve got money you vote in…if you haven’t got money you vote out. Brexit is about more than the EU: it’s about class inequality and voters feeling excluded from politics’.
Was this a racist vote?

What was the driving force of this working class vote? Was it rebellion against austerity and deprivation or was it fears of immigration and racism? It is a matter of undeniable fact that both of these factors were present but the question is what was the main element and what were and are the dynamics of the situation. To answer this we have to understand that mass working class consciousness (and middle class consciousness for that matter) is always contradictory.

Of course there are some people who are 100% anti-capitalist, pro-socialist, anti-sexist, anti-racist and thoroughly internationalist to the point of supporting world socialist revolution and opposing all immigration controls. But, unfortunately, these are a tiny minority. Just as there are a layer of middle class people who wouldn’t dream of using a racist hate word and would support gay marriage but would also back neo-liberalism and support cuts to working class services, so there are working class people who are angry about austerity, who feel abandoned by ‘the politicians’, hate the Tory government but are also ‘worried’ about immigration.

As socialists we can say that these people are mistaken and misguided and that immigration is not a problem or a threat – and we have to say this loudly and consistently – but that is not the same as dismissing all these working class people as hard line racists, fascists or bigots. Dismissing them in this way actually can help the far right.

A crucial factor in this equation is whether or not the left and the socialists are perceived by bitter and impoverished working people as standing with and for them, articulating their anger at the system. If they are not seen as doing this it leaves the door open to the populist right – the Farages and Johnsons.

Let us look at this concretely. If you examine the sort of towns that typically and decisively voted Leave you find that many are safe Labour seats. Bradford for example voted 54.2 to 45.8 to leave. Bradford is a city with a large Asian population. It has three parliamentary constituencies and three Labour MPs; each of these Labour MPs won big majorities in 2015 and each of them polled more than the Tory and UKIP vote combined. Bolsover is another example – represented for decades by Labour MP Denis Skinner with a huge majority, Bolsover voted 70.8% for Leave.

The same pattern was repeated in town after town: Hull, Barnsley, Wigan, Sunderland, Hartlepool, Walsall and so on. In these leave voting areas Labour in 2015 was consistently polling more votes than the Tories and UKIP together. Ebbw Vale in South Wales really epitomises this. Ebbw Vale is practically the cradle of the Labour Party and the British Labour movement – it was the constituency of Nye Bevan and Michael Foot, and is still a safe Labour seat – but it now has unemployment standing at 40% (!!) and it voted 62% for Leave.

If Blairite Labour had not ignored and abandoned these areas for decades in favour neo-liberalism and the elite and if Corbyn had stuck to his convictions (like Tony Benn before him) and Labour had campaigned for Leave there would have been NO opening for Farage or Johnson in these areas. As it is these right wingers were given a relatively free run, while at the same time their anti-immigrant arguments were actually accepted and conceded to by the Remain camp, including not only Cameron and co, but also leading Labour ‘moderates’.

Despite all this there is no reason to believe that the vote in places like Bradford, Bolsover and Ebbw Vale is anyway an active or virulently racist vote as opposed to a cry of rage against the pro-EU political establishment from people who have been impoverished and feel forgotten. Fascism and neo- Nazism (the BNP, EDL, Britain First etc) have been beaten back and are in utter disarray in Britain.

As John Pilger has put it;

This was, in great part, a vote by those angered and demoralized by the sheer arrogance of the apologists for the “Remain” campaign and the dismemberment of a socially just civil life in Britain.


Who benefits from the Brexit vote?

It is widely claimed that the Leave vote will inevitably benefit UKIP and the right of the Tory Party. There are many things wrong with this claim.

First as we have said this vote is a blow to neo-liberalism and capitalism internationally – it profoundly destabilises our rulers on a global scale and they know it.

Second it has already brought down Cameron and split the Tories. And in this context it is worth saying that Cameron and Osborne were not in any sense ‘left’ or ‘moderate’ Tories but hard anti-working class right wingers and there was no reason to see them as in any way better or more anti-racist than Johnson, (who may not win the Tory leadership anyway). On the contrary they were perfectly willing to play the immigration card whenever it suited them, which was often.

Third there is opinion poll evidence to the contrary. A poll by Survation on 24-25 June, after the leave vote, showed:

Tories down to 32 percent (from 34%)
Labour up to 32 percent (from 30%)
UKIP down to 16 percent (from 18 %).

Of course if the Blairites are able to bring down Corbyn and wreck the Labour Party or plunge it into civil war this could be undermined. But this would be due not to the victory of the Leave vote but to the fact that the Labour Right puts its commitment to the system, i.e. to capitalism, way above its commitment to the Labour Party and would prefer a Tory government to a Corbyn led Labour Government

Fourth the political establishment and its media find the notion of working class revolt frightening and hard to conceive; for them it is much easier to see working class people as ‘ignorant’ and prejudiced – so they will deliberately play up every minor incident that feeds this narrative, but that does not make it true.

Overall it should be said these things are not mechanically determined. There will be a political struggle over the direction Britain is heading and in this the left can and should seize the initiate to come out fighting against both austerity and racism, the Tories and Ukip.

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