A week ago, I attended a Welsh Labour Brexit Summit in Cardiff and heard Labour’s Shadow Spokesman for Exiting the EU, Keir Starmer MP, give a passionate speech about how the vote to the leave the EU was an expression of the political will of the people who had been left behind; and that we, the political elite, in London and the remain-voting cities, had no right to argue that it was a vote made in ignorance. Starmer argued that we had to respect it, because the politcal class had to share responsibility for it.
It’s a view that has a wide currency, especially on the left and centre-left.
But evidence has emerged that challenges that view. In a piece in today’s Western Mail (not yet available online but a PDF can be accessed at Shipton EU20180223 ), the newspaper’s Chief Reporter Martin Shipton, a long-standing and respected commentator on the Welsh political scene, reports on a conference held by Leicester University earlier this week, at which a very different story emerged.
In particular Shipton reports on the work of Dr Ipek Demit, based at Leicester University, that the vote tended to depend on cultural attitudes rather than economic circumstance. Dr Demit concluded that:
- 81% of people who regarded multiculturalism as a force for ill voted for Brexit;
- 80% of those who saw immigration; 78% of those who saw social liberalism; 74% of those who saw feminism; and 60% of those who saw the green movement as forces for itt voted for Brexit;
- But only 51% of those who saw capitalism as a force for ill voted for Brexit.
- Regardless of wealth or income, 67% of Asians; 73% of black voters and 70% of Muslims voted remain; while 58% of those describing themselves as Christian voted to leave.
- But whites backed Brexit by 57% to 43%
Dr Demit is quoted as saying:
“The data do not show that support for Brexit mainly came from the poor exclusively. White, middle-class, older English voters who own their house and pick up a nice pension swung the vote for Brexit [my emphasis]. It is true that council and housing association tenants voted for Brexit; but so did those who own their homes outright (55%).
The stark difference between whites and ethnic minorities in my view was borne by those whites who have been unhappy with the loss of privilege over the decades, but also those for whom the idea of “more sovereignty” trumped the xenophobic and offensive racial undertones, and occasionally overtones, of the Brexit campaign.”
And if this is accurate – and this looks very much like a case of evidence trumping politically-loaded anecdote – it fundamentally undermines Keir Starmer’s and Labour’s case for their current position on Brexit. It means that retaining links to key EU institutions like the Customs Union or Single Market – or indeed remaining in the EU itself – is simply not about respecting Labour supporters who have been left behind. Indeed, one could conclude it’s about pandering to the instincts of people who are never going to vote Labour, least of all for Jeremy Corbyn. And, as Dr Demit points out, there is something fundamentally unsavoury about the conventional line in focussing on the poor and left-behind, and their apparent dislike of immigration and the political establishment, as the deliverers of Brexit at the expense of cultural factors; because ultimately it comes down to the bad old tradition of blaming the poor and making them responsible for the unsavoury politics of Brexit.
To quote Dr Demit once again:
“The deep yearning for Great Britain is in fact not a yearning for a place, but for the past, for the great old days when white Christian Britain sat at the top of the table. ‘I want my country back’ indicates a desire to take the country back not just from Europe and EU ‘immigrants’ but from ‘other citizens’ who questioned the upper hand the dominant subjects held and didn’t know when to shut up. It’s about harking back to a 1950s Britain – when people knew their place, especially the immigrants, or non-whites, or those from the colonies. The post-Brexit desire to revive the Commonwealth should also be seen in that light, not in terms of rekindling old friendships.”
There is a vast irony at work here. This is the vision that Labour’s leadership appears unwittingly to be backing; against the will of a Party membership who the Corbyn leadership are doing everything in their power to ensure don’t get a voice in that decision. We are told that this is the most radical leadership Labour has had since Attlee, but, whether wittingly or not, the vision of Britain to which its line on Brexit pays lip-service is a deeply reactionary one, in which the people for whom Labour has traditionally spoken are devalued and ignored, in pursuit of what looks like a convenient myth.
Surely it’s time for Labour to turn away from the myth, to acknowledge that Brexit will damage hardest the very people for whom it speaks, and to understand that Brexit is about a poisonous, nostalgic reaction which is the absolute antithesis of the rational, progressive politics that has driven the Labour movement since its inception. The next few weeks will show whether Corbyn and his supporters can deliver the leadership that Labour’s people so desperately need.