The Brexit referendum revealed a united ruling class and a divided working class. A few eccentrics aside, big business backed Britain’s membership of the European Union (EU). They are now united in mourning the result of the vote.
They will also largely back Theresa May, who is now Tory leader and set to be prime minister. The referendum and the turmoil that followed it represented a temporary breakdown in the political mechanisms through which capital dominates society.
The bosses will see May as their best bet for restabilising these mechanisms and negotiating an acceptable deal with Brussels.
But the referendum saw the working class badly split. The predominantly manual layers voted to Leave, while the white-collar sections tended to vote to Remain, as did a large majority of Black and Minority Ethnic people.
This represents a real crisis for the labour movement. The weakening of the organised working class has left trade union organisation concentrated mainly among public sector white-collar workers like the teachers who struck so impressively last week.
The Labour Party’s hold on manual workers has been visibly slipping, as is shown by Ukip’s inroads into its safe northern seats in the general election last year.
Given this, as John Curtice pointed out in the Guardian last week, Jeremy Corbyn did a better job of getting Labour voters to back Remain than David Cameron managed with his own supporters.
Ross McKibbin writes in the London Review of Books: “Corbyn’s unenthusiastic support for Remain, the sense that he was simply going through the motions, which clearly enraged many Labour MPs, means that he is probably closer to the feelings of much of the Labour electorate than the PLP.”
But the result has opened up a further division in the working class. Brexit could threaten the right of citizens from the rest of the EU to live and work here.
Also writing in the London Review of Books, Jeremy Harding points out that they constitute a substantial section of workers: “There are now some 3.3 million EU citizens born outside the UK residing in Britain, of whom around two million are in work.
“I make that around 5 percent of the total population, and 6 or 7 percent of the workforce.”
These workers play a crucial role across the economy—agriculture, construction, manufacturing, hospitals, universities, leisure. They are too important for British capitalism to dispense with. But if EU citizens lose their right to enter and remain in the EU, then a substantial group of workers will become much more vulnerable and insecure, weakening the working class as a whole.
Unfortunately, so far it has been Labour and even Tory politicians who have moved faster on the issue than the trade union leaders.
Before the result Unite union general secretary Len McCluskey was advocating a retreat from the principle of free movement of labour within the EU even if Britain voted to remain.
Since the vote Sally Hunt, the general secretary of my own union, the UCU, has written to business secretary Sajid Javid demanding that he “ensure that the best and brightest staff and students from across the EU will continue to be supported to work and study in the UK”.
But who decides which people are “the best and brightest”? This terrible phrase is a very dangerous concession to the idea pushed by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove during the referendum campaign that Britain adopt a points-based system of immigration control. Trade unionists need to press their leaders to defend the unconditional right of EU citizens to enter and remain in Britain.
The issue of EU citizens is an example of how the Brexit vote has reshuffled the political pack in Britain.
It’s now very urgent for begin to overcome the divisions within both the left and the working class more broadly over the referendum. We may have a change of Tory leader, but we still have a nasty government to fight.