Brexit: The new class war?
It is almost impossible to exaggerate the economic, social and political fallout that has occurred since the Brexit vote less than a week ago. Yesterday, an American cousin got in touch to ask what was happening. The long list of dramatic events that I communicated were met with a frantic torrent of “really?!”, “what?!” and a few swear words. As I didn’t want to worry her about the state of my mental health, I also highlighted the possible silver-linings – namely that class politics is finally back on the agenda, the dire consequences of gross inequalities are now undeniable and, given the large working class mandate, Brexit negotiators should be forced to pay much more attention to inequality issues. It is these possibilities, rather than the current madness of political and societal catastrophe, that I focus on here.
Less than a month ago Class published an essay series on the impacts of the EU and the working class. Polling data in the lead up to the EU referendum highlighted that those in elementary and manual jobs were almost twice more likely to say they wanted to leave the EU than those in professional and managerial positions. While many were interpreting this to be driven primarily by anti-immigration sentiment, we were keen to underline the hardship this segment of society has endured. This is a group that has seen their wages decline in real terms, who have been increasingly subjected to precarious working conditions through the expansion of zero-hour contracts and casualisation, disproportionately affected by spending cuts, and for those on welfare benefits been the focus of growing scrutiny, sanctioning and public demonisation. They have, in short, been on the receiving end of the dramatic rise of wealth and income inequality in the UK. However, in light of the human need to blame something or someone, it was immigrants and the EU, rather than the Mike Ashleys of this world and elite British politicians that bore the brunt. It was a working class revolt, but it seems that it was against the EU establishment rather than our own home grown political elite.
Many have commented that the anti-establishment backlash that drove the leave vote could actually lead to more, not less, poverty and inequality. Looking back at some of the numbers I crunched in the aftermath of the last recession I’m reminded of how these communities will be affected by the coming recession. For example, the youth claimant count rose dramatically in many Northern cities, including in Brexit cities such as Sunderland, and much less so in cities such as Oxford and London. As such, not only do those living in deprived communities, and those living outside of London and the South East, have greater pre-existing needs - such as more public housing and access to good jobs - they will soon have new needs brought on by a recession. To make matters worse they will receive less investment and regeneration funding from Europe. With the UK struggling with public finances in the short to medium term, current calls to receive similar regeneration funding from the UK exchequer are very likely to be disregarded. The working class and deprived areas of the UK will be disproportionately affected by Brexit but as blaming the EU and immigrants wears thin they may finally turn their attention to the truevillains – elite politicians pushing inequality-inducing agendas.
The needs of the working class and those left behind by the last 30 years of a service sector centric and profit-focused economic system are unlikely to be at the forefront of the minds of Eton and Oxbridge - educated politicians like Boris Johnson and Oliver Letwin. In fact many of the factors that would have appealed to the working class, such as more investment in the NHS and immigration controls, are already being rolled back by the Brexiters. As we concluded in our essay series, there is nothing to say that leaving the EU will help the situation of the working class. In fact, one of the biggest dangers we face if we do come out of the single market is an even more exploitative set of rules for workers as the UK seek to compete with other countries through a race-to-the-bottom of wages and rights. If the UK negotiators use Brexit to do this they will have betrayed those that voted to leave and the working class will truly have shot themselves in the foot. Instead, we must finally end regressive public spending cuts and counter the economic downturn with public spending on job-creating infrastructure projects in the North and increased taxes on the wealthiest while ensuring that workers’ rights are upheld post-Brexit.
But what happens politically if the political elite continue to ignore the demands of the working class? Has the recent vote buoyed the confidence of a group of previously voiceless and marginalised people? Will politicians be punished more directly if they fail to address poverty and inequality? Class war has taken on a new meaning after the Brexit vote, it may be that a can of worms has been opened and our political elite may have also undermined their own interests by erasing the scapegoat they have so successfully hid behind. Only time will tell but a new class political consciousness, if not laden with far right nationalist sentiments, could be the silver-lining of the current calamity.
In the coming weeks and months Class will be highlighting what a plan for a progressive and working-class focused Brexit will look like. We’ll keep you posted.