Explanations for last week’s general election result—and the vote to Leave the European Union (EU)—tend to cast working class people outside of London as mostly right wing.
This explanation fails to understand the real causes of either vote.
The Brexit vote of 2016 came overwhelmingly from a desire by working class people to kick out at the establishment.
It’s true that the majority of Leave voters came from lower income and working class backgrounds.
On the day of the EU referendum, pollster Lord Ashcroft carried out a detailed survey into who voted for what and why.
Using a system that grades social groups by job and income, he found that the only section with a majority that voted Remain was AB—professionals, managers, lecturers and teachers. C1s—most white collar workers—divided fairly evenly.
But nearly two thirds of C2s, Ds and Es voted Leave. These are pensioners, manual workers, unemployed people and people on benefits.
Their reasons for voting for Brexit were not as straightforwardly racist or right wing as is often made out. The same Ashcroft poll and others like it found that Leave voters’ views on immigration were a mixed bag—often contradictory, but not decisively negative.
The more common factor among Leave voters was class. Analysis of which areas of Britain returned the strongest Leave vote is also revealing.
There is a close link between areas that suffered the brunt of Margaret Thatcher’s assault on working class people in the 1980s—and which never recovered—and the Leave vote.
Almost 70 percent of people in Doncaster voted Leave, as did 57 percent in the steel and former mining area of Neath Port Talbot.
In Hartlepool 70 percent voted Leave along with 61 percent in Sunderland.
For more than 30 years those places have been blighted by poverty and desolation—many of them under the Labour governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.
Blair wanted to sever Labour’s ties with the organised working class and make it into a socially liberal, big business party like the Democrats in the US.
He gambled that he could continue the neoliberal policies begun under Thatcher without losing working class voters—simply because there was no one else to vote for.
These constituencies were treated as safe seats for Blairite MPs who did little for ordinary people.
Jobs that had been destroyed under Thatcher were replaced—if at all—with low wage jobs in business parks, warehouses and service industries.
Labour councils that had run areas for decades still pushed through cuts and attacked workers’ living standards.
All this—combined with the widespread anger over the war on Iraq—led to the long-term erosion of Labour’s support. Under Blair and Brown, Labour haemorrhaged votes—particularly among C2s, Ds and Es.
Between 1997 when Blair became prime minister, and 2010 when Brown was booted out, Labour’s vote among the DE category fell from 59 percent to 40 percent.
There were similar crashes among C1s and C2s. The trend was maintained in 2015.
And last week 43 percent of DEs voted Tory, 37 percent for Labour. In fact, the only time Labour’s vote improved among those classes was under Jeremy Corbyn in 2017.
With Corbyn as leader and a radical manifesto, Labour won 40 percent of the vote in the 2017 general election.
It saw some 46 percent of the DEs vote Labour and 34 percent for the Tories.
It’s striking how closely the vote for Leave mirrors the collapse in Labour’s support under years of right wing Labour governments.
The same people responsible for the long-term erosion of Labour’s support over decades pushed for the party to back Remain. It added to the sense that Labour had abandoned working class people, and joined with the people who have ignored and disparaged them for decades.
Those same politicians then blamed Corbyn’s Labour for being too left wing.
It wasn’t automatic that this erosion of Labour’s support would go to the right. In Scotland it found a different expression.
Working class people in similar areas saw the Scottish independence referendum in 2014 as a chance to kick the Westminster elite. When Ed Miliband campaigned with David Cameron, voters abandoned Labour in droves for the Scottish National Party.
Many still can’t vote for Labour’s unionism-lite.
In England, it was more openly expressed through the Leave vote—and taken advantage of by the right.
Old Etonian Boris Johnson presented himself as being on the side of ordinary Leave voters and campaigned on the slogan, “Get Brexit done.”
Dehenna Davison won Bishop Aukland in the north east of England for the Tories for the first time ever last week. Her campaign combined, “Get Brexit done” with promises such as, “Bring Back Our A&E,” “Revitalise Our High Streets,” and, “Get our young people back to work.”
The Tories have hammered the NHS, brought in benefit sanctions for unemployed people and made work harder for people. But the “people versus the politicians” message helped Davison get past that.
Helpfully for Davison, the A&E had been closed by the last Labour government in 2009.
Many who have gone over to the Tories will have been pulled by reactionary ideas.
While there is a left wing case for voting Leave, there is nothing progressive or anti-establishment about voting for Johnson.
Around one third of working class people have voted Tory for decades because they buy in to nationalist and racist ideas.
The fact that some Labour figures gave ground to the right wing myth that migrants undermine wages and terms and conditions helped these arguments to gain traction.
Others on the left linked defending migrants to supporting Remain, not to the need for working class unity against the Tories and bosses.
This doesn’t mean that working class people in Labour seats have been won over on mass by Johnson.
A combination of low turnout and Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party helped the Tories. The bosses’ Financial Times (FT) newspaper wrote, “The ruling party fared best relative to Labour and the Liberal Democrats where turnout fell compared with 2017 and worse where turnout rose.
“This suggests that in many battleground constituencies, most of the voters who stayed at home this time were Labour supporters.”
This was backed up by Eyal, a Labour member who canvassed in seats the party lost in the north west of England.
They wrote, “Many voters were very open about not giving us their vote this time, while emphasising that they have never voted Tory before.
“Many still preferred not to vote altogether over having to vote Tory now because they knew what that would mean to their rights and condition.
“For Leave voters Brexit now symbolises the way in which their voices were being ignored, repeatedly and undemocratically.”
Crucially, those right wing ideas are not universal—nor are they as deep-seated as politicians and pundits would secretly like to believe.
The fact that Labour’s vote lifted in 2017 is a good sign of that. More pressingly, it shows that right wing ideas can be challenged and changed—they don’t have to be pandered to.
One of the most important things that could undercut the basis for right wing ideas is struggle.
Labour and union leaders have to take responsibility for the lack of a real fight over jobs and wages. For instance, the unions mounted no serious fight during the steel industry crisis of decades. In Scunthorpe, Lincolnshire, the plant was owned by a string of private firms, and is now owned by multinational Jingye. There have been job losses and attacks on pensions, but no fight—not even a consultative strike ballot.
More generally when there are strikes and a fight over job cuts, wage cuts, attacks on pensions and living standards, that struggle becomes a decisive factor in politics.
Right wing arguments have less purchase. They become irrelevant to ordinary people united in fighting for a better society. The left’s task now is to build such a fight.
There should be no attempt to give ground to Tory racism in an attempt to regain seats. Instead we need the class politics of solidarity and struggle outside of elections and parliament to win.