The Brexit votes was not just about the impact and scale of mass immigration into different parts of the country, though this was a significant factor for many, but it was a scream of protest against the way that democracy had been hijacked by the richest 1%. So many people felt taken for granted and ignored as their communities were being expected to deal with the consequences of a mass migration with limited support by central government. But it was not just about resources, as Labour held, it was also about communities. At last in a referendum they felt their vote would count so they used it to as a desperate and determined call that Brexit should mean a fundamental reframing of the ways that the British economy and society had long been organised in the interests of corporate wealth and the financial sector.
Leave voters were determined that, at last, their voices would be heard and that the interests of their children, in terms of jobs and housing would be protected. It was a call for a fundamentally more equal society where freedom, equality and justice were more equally distributed. It was felt that this could be secured with leaving the EU and it was part of the appeal of the idea of regaining control over borders as a way of affirming control over their lives. There had been deep resentment at Cameron’s Tory Coalition government that had not brought the bankers who had been responsible for the global financial crisis of 2008 to account in the criminal justice system.
Rather they had bailed them out and made working people pay through their austerity programs. They had not forgotten George Osborne’s claim that with austerity ‘we are all in this together’ when the truth was that those living in the S.E. were able to take advantage of the fruits of globalisation. The Brexit vote was a sweet moment of revenge which was why so many people are still insistent that May’s government should just get on with leaving.
Large numbers of traditional Labour supporters had turned towards Ukip which they felt was listening to their concerns and talking in a language they could understand. These voters felt estranged from the cosmopolitan visions of what they saw as the young urban elites in the South East who did not seem to understand the values of community. Leave voters felt that their feelings of patriotism were rebuked by the universalism of an urban elite and they were determined to put the boot in, despite the warnings of gloom and doom from global economic and political elites. They felt that things could hardly be worse than they were and that this would be a price worth paying if it meant that they had ‘got their country back’. They were angry at the ways they had been treated by various governments and had long felt that it didn’t really matter who you voted for because they same detached political elites got in.
Leave voters were determined that, at last, their voices would be heard
There was a moment when Theresa May was standing on the streets of Downing Street, for the first time as Prime Minister, that people felt that she understood the anger at growing social and economic inequalities and the racial injustices experienced by a young people from ethnic minorities. She seemed to have heard the calls for radical structural changes in the economy and how the law seemed to be working in the interests of the rich who could protect themselves while the poor and the dispossessed had been left to deal with cuts on social welfare and benefit payments. But even though the country was fundamentally divided in way she refused to engage, she lost focus and her words were not followed by the structural reforms she had promised.
Many leave supporters heard a different voice with Jeremy Corbyn and were prepared to turn their allegiance back to a Labour party that was willing to present a manifesto of structural reform in the June election. There was a way that people felt listened too and respected in a way that meant their votes in the Referendum had been heeded. It has been the Tory hard Brexiters that have often arrogantly set the terms for leaving, telling people that they voted to leave the single market and the customs union, when this was never really a concern if people could control levels of immigration. They have not listened to the protests at growing social inequalities or talked honestly about how communities might suffer even more if the promised trade deals do not materialise. Often people have felt silenced with the focus on the internal party disagreements about the terms of leaving and why, when interviewed, leave voters often say: ‘why don’t they just get on with it’.
Communities are not fixed but they are constantly changing as people come and people go and they take on a new form. So many people felt that their concerns about immigration were discounted as evidence of racism, that they turned in on themselves and towards authoritarian populist parties. This is a dangerous trend we see across Europe and with Trump in the United States. As we open a wider citizen’s discussion about the relationship we want to have with the rest of Europe, we need to shape a new democratic politics that refuses the twin dangers of nationalism and isolation and is informed by a renewed democratic sense of justice.
For too long too many people have paid a terrible price for inequality while the 1% have benefited – we need a politics that is prepared to repair the damage as we learn to rebuild vibrant multicultural societies that values the stranger, the refugee and asylum seeker equally.
Victor Seidler is Professor Emeritus in Social Theory in the Department of Sociology, Goldsmiths, University of London and author of Making Sense of Brexit: Democracy, Europe and Uncertain Futures