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Immigration and Brexit (and Trump): It’s More About Social Attitudes than Social Class

Following on from discussions at our 2016 conference, we asked key thinkers to summarise their thoughts on some of the most important issues facing Britain today. Immigration has dominated headlines in the UK for years, and the discussion has become more hostile since the Brexit vote in June, and now the election of Donald Trump in the US. David Wearing spoke on our immigration session at the Class Conference, and we asked him to expand on his contribution here.


As an explanation for hostility to immigration and for the Brexit vote, the narrative that presents ‘working class people with legitimate concerns’ about immigration on the one hand, and on the other, an out-of-touch ‘metropolitan elite’, has become a virtual common sense on parts of the left. But while it contains some elements of truth, overall this framing is not just an oversimplification but a distortion, which will lead to bad politics and bad policy.

To begin with, ‘legitimate concerns’ about immigration are not, in fact, legitimate. A study conducted at UCL in 2014 found that European migrants pay out far more in taxes than they receive in state benefits. They are more likely than others to be in employment, and less likely to live in social housing.

Another study, conducted at LSE, found that areas that have seen the biggest rise in EU immigration have not suffered sharper falls in pay or seen bigger reductions in job opportunities than other parts of the country. Nor do immigrants have a negative effect on local services such as education, health or social housing.

A former aide to David Cameron recently revealed that when trying to renegotiate freedom of movement in Brussels, “we failed to find any evidence of communities under pressure that would satisfy the European Commission. There was no hard evidence”. However, Cameron remained “convinced [immigration] was a real challenge — if perhaps more of a cultural one than an economic one”. This euphemism may bring us closer to the truth.

Turning to the EU referendum result, driven in large part by hostility to immigration, socio-cultural attitudes appear to be a more important factor than social class. It is true that class correlates with voter preference – 64% of working class voters voted Leave. But we must still account for the 59% of Leave voters who, as Danny Dorling notes, were middle class (and remember that the middle class is numerically much larger than the working class). The claim made by Guardian journalist John Harris in one widely-circulated piece that “the foundation of the Brexit coalition is what used to be called the proletariat” is fundamentally incorrect.

The Leave vote correlates much more strongly with social attitudes than with social class. 81% of those who think multiculturalism is a force for ill voted Leave, along with 80% of those who see social liberalism as a force for ill, and 74% of those seeing feminism as a force for ill. There are, of course, plenty of middle and upper class people who hold these views – and plenty of working class people who don’t. But we should certainly consider what “take back control”, the slogan of the Brexit campaign, means in this context.

Ethnicity correlates with referendum voter preference as or more strongly than class: 67% of Asians voted Remain, along with 73% of black people. In addition, 70% of Muslims also voted Remain. It is worth noting that these groups are disproportionately likely to be working class. They are also more likely to have recognised the racism and xenophobia of the Leave campaign for what it was.

We miss these important aspects if we analyse and talk about class in a simplistic and undifferentiated way, and if we ignore the decisive role played by the southern middle class – by Mail and Telegraph readers - in the Brexit vote. If the white van man has become the iconic Brexiteer, it appears that what's more pertinent is the whiteness of the man rather than the van (and the fact that the van is more likely to be an Audi).

The argument here is not that Leave voters are prejudiced by definition, but rather that there appears to be a significant degree of overlap between the large minority of the population who voted Leave and the large minority who hold prejudiced views.

37% of registered voters voted to Leave the EU, which doesn’t count the many eligible adults who remain unregistered. A similar sized (which is not to say literally identical) group, 29% of the public, admit to some level of racial prejudice, down from a high of 38% in 2011. This is admitted prejudice, so inevitably an underestimate.

26% recently agreed with statement that “the government should encourage immigrants and their families to leave Britain (including family members who were born in Britain)” – the classic Powellite position. Only 43% disagreed. The people shouting “go home!” and “pack your bags!” to migrants and people of colour in recent months are not an isolated fringe. They speak for a sizeable constituency.

70% of Brexit voters say they would accept some drop in personal income as a trade-off for a reduction in immigration, suggesting that their ‘concerns’ are not economic.

One recent poll indicates the extent and depth of this prejudice, and its close association with Brexit. When asked if it was right to let 14 refugee children from Calais join their families in the UK, 32% said no (that large minority again), and only 50% said yes. The responses differed according to social class, but not hugely. The correlation with the Brexit vote, however, is much more striking. Only 34% of Leave voters thought those 14 refugee kids should be allowed to join their families. 52% said they shouldn’t, and 14% couldn’t decide.

The reality is that racism and xenophobia played a major, formative role in the historical processes (not least through empire) that produced modern British society. They need to be taken seriously as a causal factor of social outcomes in their own right. We should avoid slipping into an economic reductionism that treats social attitudes as a kind of surface froth – a secondary symptom of ‘real’ issues.

This same error is also being made with respect to Donald Trump’s support in the United States. You would not know from much of the commentary that Hilary Clinton beat Trump comfortably amongst voters earning less than $30,000 per year. She also beat him overwhelmingly amongst black and hispanic Americans, again disproportionately from the working class.

Some are pointing to the fact that Trump lost less heavily among working class voters than previous Republican candidates, but it is unclear to what extent this is due to low turnout and voter suppression on the Democratic side, compared to Trump winning over many new voters. Nor is it clear to what extent any new working class Republican voters were attracted by Trump’s bigotry, as opposed to his economic policies. This is not a strong basis upon which to present the working class as the very embodiment, or even the most important part, of Trump’s support. A more relevant issue than the swing in the working class vote is the fact that the predominantly white and comfortably-off Republican vote from 2012 held up, even when the party put up a candidate supported by the Ku Klux Klan.

Again, on either side of the Atlantic, it is facile to treat racism and xenophobia, and support for racist and xenophobic politicians, merely as side-effects of economics.

Returning to the UK, it is true, of course, that when many people blame immigration for a number of real economic problems, they do so as an honest mistake, with no malice or prejudice attached. But the fact remains that cutting immigration is an irrelevant non-response to these issues. Migrants are not stopping us strengthening trade unions, outlawing exploitative employment practices or raising and enforcing the minimum wage. And an ‘immigration dividend’ could actually boost housebuilding and public services by directing migrants’ additional, higher tax contributions to where they are most needed.

A final problem with the narrative around immigration of ‘working class Brits versus out-of-touch metropolitan elite’ (“bien pensant types” with “right on views”, as John Harris describes the latter), is that there is no room in this framing for migrants, minorities and people of colour. As noted, these groups are disproportionately likely to be working class, and it is they who bear the brunt of prejudice, including the current wave of hate crimes. Far from being out-of-touch, many of them are all too aware of what is really happening in British society in 2016. A genuinely progressive response to Brexit, and the rise of the far right across the West, will not be one that comes at their expense.