Brexit is not a working class revolt, or a resurgence of racists. It was an Oldie rebellion, pure and simple

One Saturday morning a few weeks before the referendum there were two Vote Leave stalls on the streets of Thrapston, the Northamptonshire market town a few miles from my home. I was in a hurry, buying eggs and vegetables at the market, and in no mood for a political discussion when I was approached by a friendly-looking 60-something man in a red Vote Leave T-shirt. I had to think on my feet to politely decline the leaflet he offered. “No thanks, I’m a Labour voter,” I told him foolishly. “So am I,” he replied.

Amidst the torrent of political shocks since the referendum – Cameron’s resignation, Corbyn’s leadership crisis, the defenestration of Boris Johnson and the voluntary departure of Nigel Farage – one question has been too little pondered. Why exactly did so many Middle Englanders  – many of them Labour voters – vote to leave the EU?

In the ten days since the results trickled in, it’s been repeatedly claimed that this was a working class revolt: a two-fingered salute to globalisation, and the political establishment, by the dispossessed and disenfranchised. But if it was a working class revolution, it was a very uneven one. Although nine of the ten most prosperous local authority areas  in the UK  voted to remain, at the other end of the scale the picture is a lot more confused. Of the ten most deprived areas only four voted Leave by a landslide (Hull, Middlesbrough, Sandwell and Barking & Dagenham). Another three voted heavily for Remain (Liverpool, Manchester and Tower Hamlets) and a further three voted Leave by a narrow 51%-49% margin (Knowsley, Birmingham and Nottingham).

In fact, the correlation between Brexit support and social class is weak, as analysis by the Guardian has pointed out. If we define class simply in terms of median household income, then its relationship to Brexit support is even weaker. In any case, it’s questionable how meaningful the term “working class” is these days. Although the latest edition of the annual British Social Attitudes survey shows that six in 10 people regard themselves as working class, statisticians reply that the traditional working class now accounts for only 16% of Britons, and that their average age is 66. The BBC’s new class calculator shows that this ageing rump is rapidly being replaced by two newer groups: the “precariat” and “emergent service workers” (younger, white-collar workers who may not earn a lot, but who have better career prospects than their parents did). There is no clear evidence that there was a majority for Leave among either of these younger, less traditional working-class groups.

Although polling by Lord Ashcroft (a respected pollster, whatever one thinks of his politics) has found that people with degrees voted 57-43 for Remain, and that a majority of those without degrees voted Leave, this is not a reliable indicator of income or social class nowadays  (there are plenty of young people with degrees in poorly-paid jobs, and plenty of wealthy pensioners who never went to university).

The clearest correlation of the lot is between age and Brexit support. It was overwhelmingly older people who voted Leave: the graphic of YouGov’s exit poll, at the top of this post, speaks for itself. Other polls have shown slightly  less contrast between generations, but still the same trend: Ashcroft says that 73% of 18-24s voted Remain, falling steadily to 40% among over -65s.

What’s interesting is that the average Remain vote of these four age groups in Yougov’s analysis is 53.5%. So why didn’t Remain win? Firstly, the numbers of people in each age group are not equal, but secondly we have the old chestnut of differential turnout: older people were more likely to vote than the under-25s. Not for the first time in British politics, the result was decided by older voters turning out in droves: According to Sky’s respected analysis, just 36% of 18-24s said they would definitely vote in the referendum, rising to 58% among 25-34s, 72% among 35-44s, 75% among 45-54s, 81% among 55-64 and 83% among over-65s.

Other factors were at play. Race was, of course, one – Ashcroft has found that white voters voted Leave by 53% to 47%, while 67% of those describing themselves as Asian, and 73% of black voters, voted Remain. But the deplorable  wave of racist attacks in the last ten days should not distract us from the reality that the main faultline is between generations, not races.

So while many post-mortems have concluded that it was working-class voters that swung it for Leave, it was really a particular kind of working class voter: older suburban and small town dwellers with (small c) conservative values, and not many educational qualifications, but who are often comfortably off, having long ago paid off the mortgage (one pro-Remain minister told the New Statesman‘s Stephen Bush that it was “homeowners without mortgages” that swung it for Brexit: better-off people who have little to lose from the economic consequences of their vote). These people tended to vote Labour in 1997 and 2001, but since 2005 have tended to vote Conservative or UKIP, and the referendum result shows that most have no plans to come back anytime soon.

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What then does all this mean for Jeremy Corbyn (who at 67 is the average age of these older, working class voters who backed Brexit)?

The psephologist John Curtice’s analysis of the referendum vote – which argues that it is wrong to blame Corbyn for Brexit as no Labour leader could have bridged the generational, cultural and class divisions – misses the point. It’s odd that Curtice assumes that the anti-Europeanism of less affluent white voters was so immutable, given that the fickle views of such voters often decide the outcome of general elections. If white C1 and C2 voters often flit from Labour to Conservative (and vice versa) then why could they not be lured from the Leave camp to Remain?

The left’s failure to persuade such voters that British workers are better off in the EU was a long-time coming, and pre-dates Corbyn’s arrival as Labour leader. For years the rhetoric of UKIP and the Tory right that British people have “lost their country” has been allowed to dominate the airwaves. Time and time again, the right has bleated that “we” are not allowed to talk about immigration,  just as large sections of the media have increasingly talked about little else. No fewer than three times in 2014 the New Statesman – the in-house journal of the centre-left intelligentsia – quoted the Tory pollster Michael Ashcroft’s assertion that British schools “can’t hold nativity plays and harvest festivals any more” without challenge (from 2010 to 2014 my daughter attended an inner-London primary school whose pupils are 70% non-white, and which celebrated both traditions as enthusiastically as ever).

And when political leaders on the left have tried to articulate a new, rights-based worker’s settlement that welcomes immigrants but rewards those who have lived here the longest and contributed the most, they have often been shot down in flames. When Gordon Brown made his common-sense appeal for “British jobs for British workers” back in 2007, too many on the left accused him of pandering to the right, or even of outright racism (if the British Labour party does not stand for British workers, then what does it stand for?)

Time and again, opportunities for the left to reframe the debate about globalisation, migration and cultural identity have been missed.

I did not vote for Corbyn last year, but I respect his integrity and wanted to give his leadership a chance to prove itself.  Firstly we had the unforced error of Corbyn not singing the national anthem at a Battle of Britain remembrance ceremony at St Paul’s Cathedral: a basic gaffe that any sensible leader would have avoided. Secondly, there were repeated failures to miss the open goals left to us by the Tories on welfare reform, IDS’s resignation, not to mention Europe.

Then we had the May 2016 local election results. The Guardian, scrabbling around for something good to say about Corbyn’s leadership, recently said he had “avoided the wholesale blood-letting in the English councils that was widely predicted in May”. In fact these local election results are a good metaphor for Corbyn’s leadership as a whole: he has only performed well when expectations have been set pathetically low.  By any sensible yardstick the results were very poor: as the Tories began to tear themselves apart over Europe, Labour made a net loss of 18 council seats. Yes, Labour did win mayoral races in Bristol and London, but this was largely down to credible candidates in Marvin Rees and Sadiq Khan, not the party leader.

Never mind Scotland: even if Labour support north of the border does recover, to have any chance of returning to government Labour needs to make  gains in Midland and southern towns like Nuneaton, Rugby, Great Yarmouth, Redditch, Thurrock, Stevenage, Southampton, Portsmouth, Watford and Tamworth – all places that had Labour MPs until 2005 or 2010. But the detailed results show that Labour lost council seats in all these towns in May. Ominously, Remain then lost heavily in all these towns in June – sometimes by two Leave votes to every Remain one.

Party loyalists who argue that Cameron worked so very hard during the campaign, or that Corbyn did very well to get  63-65% of Labour supporters (estimates vary) to vote Remain, are a bit like doctors who insist that the operation was a complete success until they’re forced to admit that the patient died.

Labour – or at least the party leadership – seems to have repeated the same mistake Ed Miliband made in 2015: assuming that assembling a 35% voting bloc of trade union members, students, ethnic minority voters and middle-class liberals would be enough to carry the Remain camp over the line. Notwithstanding the fact that a 50% voting bloc is required to win a binary referendum (very different from a multi-party election) this strategy had a second, fatal flaw. Assembling such a winning coalition could have been possible (or even easy) if Labour had started speaking up more loudly about the benefits of EU membership – consumer rights, employment protection and environmental standards for starters – years ago, rather as an afterthought during a referendum campaign. If Labour voters had been clearer about where the party stood, and the leader had lead the party rather than reluctantly followed it, the disaster of Brexit could have been avoided.

Instead, throughout the campaign both Labour, and the cross-party Remain campaign, were defensive about Europe or scaremongering about the risks of Brexit, rather than telling a positive story. Rather than defend freedom of movement, or suggest reforms, Corbyn said almost nothing other than the unhelpful truism that staying in the EU under current rules mean that freedom of movement cannot be curtailed. It never occurred to him that Labour should be talking to other centre-left parties across Europe about common proposals for reform that pander to neither racism nor nationalism.

And when positive stories were told they were so laden with abstraction and jargon that they lost all meaning. The monthly updates from Labour MEPs that arrive in my inbox have always left even technocratic party members like me completely bemused, as their talk of directives, symposia and committees in Brussels is so removed from the lives of their constituents. The absurdity of the south Welsh valleys – which have benefitted more than anywhere else in the UK from EU funding – voting overwhelmingly for Brexit only reinforces this disconnect.

Though these deep-rooted problem were not created by Jeremy Corbyn, he should have realised how high the stakes were, and how vital it was that he pulled the stops out, joined in the cross-party campaign and pushed for a Remain vote. Sometimes the enemy of my enemy does need to become my temporary friend.

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While an immediate second referendum is a complete no-no politically (can you imagine the culture war that UKIP and the right-wing press would try to unleash over that?) the polling data gives a lot of grounds for optimism that in the medium term – possibly before Brexit is finalised – a bespoke closer, relationship between the UK and the EU (possibly part of a Europe-wide recalibration of freedom of movement rules) could be salvaged. The FT has forecast that even if no-one changes their minds, a new referendum could secure a clear majority for rejoining the EU as soon as 2021 – five years from now – because a cohort of older, Brexit-leaning voters will have died off and been replaced by younger, mostly pro-EU voters. The trouble is that Labour needs to win a general election in the meantime. As Roy Hodgson said as he resigned as England Manager last week, “we are in the results business”. If Corbyn does not stand down now the omens for Labour are dire indeed. A leader who can’t win us elections, and who strikes so few voters as a credible prime minister, is no good at all.

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8 Responses to Brexit is not a working class revolt, or a resurgence of racists. It was an Oldie rebellion, pure and simple

  1. Good article but Corbyn has only had 9 months and your analysis of the local election results is a bit simplistic. 2012 was a high point. You say that in Southampton Labour lost seats but the net gain is 0 and compared to 2015 the Labour vote was up 7.5% See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Southampton_City_Council_election,_2016
    The PNS had Labour as the biggest party. Not great results but hardly catastrophic. And surely would have been better with a united party.

    The result of the EU ref is compex to analyse and you have done a good job here but Paul Mason is correct to observe this: “In the European Parliament elections of 2014 UKIP had won 26% of the vote across the UK, always concentrated in the same kind of town: small, drab, with a low-wage private sector and just enough inward migration to remind everyone of what economists confirmed: that migration from eastern Europe was suppressing the wages of the lowest paid.

    How this long-present xenophobic mood burst through into Labour’s depressed heartlands and combined with the traditional nationalism of the Conservatives and suburbs and rural areas is the story of Brexit. You can see it on any of the voting maps. Urban England and all of Scotland voted to Remain. The poor small towns and cities of England and Wales voted to leave. ”

    We were always on a hiding to nothing with the EU ref. Even France rejected a the EU’s proposed constitution in a referendum in 2005. There is just not that much enthusiasm for the EU – it has loads of flaws, too many to go into now

  2. Alex Grant says:

    Thanks for your comment, Matt: I was relying on the House of Commons results briefing at http://researchbriefings.parliament.uk/ResearchBriefing/Summary/CBP-7596 which says there was a net loss of one Labour seat in Southampton. if in fact it was “no chnage” I stand corrected. My essential point remains that for labour to win a general election in 2020 – or sooner – we need to be making big gains in cities like that, not standing still. The good 2012 local election results should be seen as a launchpad, not a high water mark.

  3. Louise says:

    Dear Alex
    Interesting post to which I have pointed several people – but I think there’s an error you might want to correct. You say ‘Of the ten most deprived areas only four voted Remain by a landslide’. Shouldn’t it be ‘Leave’ for those 4?

    • Alex Grant says:

      Thnaks Louise for spotting this error – you’re right, it should have read “Leave” not “remain” – now corrected! Alex

  4. George Carty says:

    How much support for Leave among the 45-75 generation do you think was driven by imperial nostalgia along with the prevalence of “we won the war” triumphalism in popular entertainment of the era (as Frances Coppola suggested)?

    And what about David Timoney’s suggestion that Leave voters of this generation came largely from insular small towns where lots of young people had moved out in search of work?

  5. George Carty says:

    I’d be interested to know if there are any maps anywhere that showed the geographical variation in the vote among specific age groups?

  6. Alex Grant says:

    Very good questions George – I haven’t seen any breakdown of voting both by age and region, and would be interested in seeing one. I am not a statistician, but suspect that because the exit poll sample was relatively small, it may be difficult to draw accurate conclusions at a regional level. More data next time please, pollsters!

    I think both factors behind the big majority for Brexit among the over-50s that you mention played their part. The key point is that the places that voted most heavily for Brexit (Boston, Great Yarmouth for example) were not the poorest in the UK by any means, but were places where there have been demographic changes in recent years, and where the indigineous white British population is particulary (small and big C) conservative, resistant to change, and older than average.

  7. Pingback: Does Brexit Mean Brexit? | Alex Grant

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