Why Blaming The U.K.’s Working Classes For Brexit Will Get Us Nowhere

Activists, writers, and thinkers discuss how we stop the U.K.’s decision to leave the E.U. from turning into a class war.

July 01, 2016
Why Blaming The U.K.’s Working Classes For Brexit Will Get Us Nowhere Jeff J Mitchell/Getty Images

On June 23, the British public voted to leave the E.U. Already, there’s been a torrent of changes: the pound has fallen, the U.K.’s credit rating has dropped, and hate crime against ethnic minorities has surged. The British prime minister David Cameron has resigned, and leader of the opposition Jeremy Corbyn has lost a vote of no confidence from his party. Scotland (who voted Remain) look likely to make a bid for independence, and Irish party Sinn Féin has called for a vote on Irish unity (Northern Ireland also voted Remain). It’s a time of turmoil for the country, and turmoil leads to finger-pointing. In the past week, we’ve seen statistics that show Leave voters are less likely to have undergone higher education than Remain voters, and are more likely to live in poorer areas of England and Wales (according to The Guardian’s analysis, all areas with a median income of above £30,000 voted to Remain). Much of the analysis, from the broadsheets to the memes, has therefore rested on a broad generalization: those with money voted Remain, and those without voted Leave.


To put it simply, it’s a time of strained relationships between the country’s social classes. But, in spite of the omnipresent narrative that pits one side of the country against the other, there’s no real simple way to put it: not every Leave voter is a working class right-winger, and not every Remain voter is a rich liberal. Many people of color and young people have found themselves erased from the debate altogether. Before we descend into an “us and them” narrative, Britain needs to have a conversation about classism now, and it needs to be had in shades of grey. Otherwise, the future only looks even more divided.

Here, The FADER talks with Georgia Rigg of RECLAIM Manchester, a project for training working class young people; Stephen Bush, a special correspondent for U.K. political publication New Statesman; Em Ledger, co-editor of Poor Lass, a zine by and for women of working class backgrounds; and Ronda Daniel, a blogger and undergraduate, and Lisa McKenzie, an academic researcher, both at the London School of Economics.


Aimee Cliff, Associate Editor, The FADER, London:

“All the people voting Leave appear on Jeremy Kyle at 9.25 a.m. every day.” That’s a Facebook status an acquaintance of mine wrote in the early hours of June 24, when it was becoming apparent that the majority of British voters had voted to leave the E.U. (For those unfamiliar, The Jeremy Kyle Show is in the same vein as The Jerry Springer Show: a talk show that ostensibly counsels people through family dramas, but really exists to humiliate the people of the lowest socioeconomic status in the country.)

In the days that followed the victory for the Leave campaign, my feeds have only became more full of this kind of sentiment. Words like “morons” and “idiots” have been hurled towards Leave voters, while videos that show people from northern towns expressing their glee at the victory have been shared to vitriolic abuse. As a young person who voted Remain, I understand the frustration. But I can’t help but feel it’s misplaced. Surely, this anger should be directed at the elite politicians running the Leave campaign. Their campaign has already been exposed as one based on lies: mere hours after their win, they backtracked on messaging that suggested that they would reinvest money saved from E.U. membership into public spending. (An investment that would have been major for the working classes.)


Plus, if anything, the fact the working classes voted en masse to disrupt our establishment only shows how completely out of touch our media institutions and major political parties — particularly the left — are with them. If the liberal middle classes now start yelling about how “thick” they are, isn’t that only going to drive a wider rift between us?

As a left-wing Remain voter from a family of working class people (some of whom voted Leave), this referendum has left me torn between worlds in a very real, emotional way. What I want to ask you all is this: As writers, artists, activists, and citizens, how do we fight the classism we’re seeing in the wake of this result? How do we move forward together?

Why Blaming The U.K.’s Working Classes For Brexit Will Get Us Nowhere RECLAIM  
Georgia Rigg, team leader, RECLAIM, Manchester:

Aimee – on a personal level, I can relate to your feelings of frustration. I was so disappointed to see my Facebook feed filled with shocked Remain voters, declaring that our population is officially full of idiots, or that London would be better off without the north, or that dumb, racist “council estate voters” shouldn’t be allowed to vote. These stood in stark contrast alongside some statuses from my working class friends from [north west town] Burnley who were celebrating — posting British flags and speaking of a feeling of euphoria — for many, this was the first time they’d voted, and they’d won!

Firstly, I think it’s important to point out that, whether you’re pro-Leave or Remain, it wasn’t only white working class people who swung the referendum result. There were enough rich, middle class Leave voters, and a lot of uninspired potential Remain voters who didn’t turn up at the ballot box. [Online publication] Writers of Colour highlighted that many working class people of color voted Leave, so to keep speaking about “white working class” in isolation is poor analysis.

The fall-out from Brexit has been terrifying and sad, especially for migrants and people of color who are experiencing a spike in hate crime (although it’s important we recognize this was happening before Brexit too). We had young people coming into the office on the day of the results, feeling very scared and worried.

But now is the time to stop pointing fingers at one another, and start mobilizing. Young working class people (especially from the north) have been screaming out to be engaged with and taken seriously by Westminster for a long time. We were working with a group of young people in the run-up to E.U. referendum; they made a mini-video series [below] to try and get more informed about the debate, despite being too young to vote (aged 12-14). Nobody in the press thought it was a relevant story. We went down to London with a dozen teenagers, and protested outside Parliament and media outlets. Again, we were largely ignored. Young, northern working class people need to be taken seriously, and to be engaged with genuinely. As one of our young people Lisa (16) always says, “I don’t want to be an election prop anymore.”

Stephen Bush, special correspondent, New Statesman, London:

Georgia, I completely agree that we need to remember that it wasn’t simply about the “white working class.” I also think we need to diversify the voices that are heard at a national level. My instinct is that one reason why I thought we’d leave [the E.U.], and most people in my field didn’t, is that — as a black man — I was more conscious of the potency of a campaign focussed on immigration than a lot of my white colleagues were.

But there are also areas where I disagree. You say we need to “stop pointing fingers at each other” in one sentence and a sentence later it’s being pointed at the press. I agree that we need to stop pointing fingers at each other, partly because we need to start pointing them at ourselves. My concern is that our reaction has been to blame other people — largely the “stupid”, the “old” or the “racist,” but also the Remain campaign, Corbyn, David Cameron — rather than to examine ourselves. What did I do wrong? Why did our side fail to persuade enough people to back us? Perhaps I didn’t write enough about the problems with the £350 million fiction, or the benefits of immigration, or the existential threats to the world that Britain can’t deal with alone, like climate change. I don’t know.

My hope is if we ask ourselves what we could have done differently, it won’t be that we should have spent more time calling Brexit supporters “thick.”

“I think that a lot of my peers were unsure of what they were voting for, but wanted out of the system that excluded, demonized, and disenfranchized them.” —Ronda Daniel, London School of Economics
Lisa McKenzie, research fellow, London School of Economics, London:

I work with working class communities and am focused on how we challenge class inequality, and class prejudice. Since the Brexit vote there has been a lot of hand-wringing by politicians, and within sections of the media, asking, ‘What has happened? How did we get here?’ Some [working class] people have, perhaps, have been duped — and some thought it was a two-fingered salute to the middle class, and the establishment.

As part of the research I do, I have been meeting up with a group of local women in east London for over two years. I have never had a conversation with them about mainstream politics until 3 weeks ago. We usually talk about how difficult life can be living in London; one of the women has learned how to manage her money by eating only every other day. She does this to ensure her two children can eat every day. She voted for the first time in the referendum, and she voted Leave. Not because she thought her life would get better if we left the E.U.; she voted Leave because she couldn’t stand it being the same.

Why Blaming The U.K.’s Working Classes For Brexit Will Get Us Nowhere Poor Lass  
Why Blaming The U.K.’s Working Classes For Brexit Will Get Us Nowhere
“The working classes have been sold a huge lie, based on a scapegoat for our Tory government yet again.” —Em Ledger, Poor Lass zine
Em Ledger, co-founder and editor, Poor Lass zine, Doncaster:

The most frustrating thing about the Brexit result for me is the level of manipulation used to shift a very real anger and frustration by the working class towards the Conservative government into something far more dangerous. Political discussions and policies are built of elitist language, and occur at debates, conferences, and places most working class people don’t attend, identify with, or actually understand.

Our [northern working class] culture is one of pride, constantly fighting against a government who repeatedly does us wrong. I personally feel entirely let down by campaigns and political focuses who weren’t there in the areas they needed to be, and instead let the dangerous [far-right] groups happily represent with almost no resistance to an already hurt and desperate audience. The opportunity to shift blame from a very culpable Conservative government was served up in easy-to-understand, bite-size right wing unveilings of an evil villain: immigration. Discussion up here [in Doncaster, north England] as to why people voted Leave was entirely focused on immigration, as if that solved all of people’s problems, and no other implications were even considered. The working classes have been sold a huge lie [by the media], based on a scapegoat for our Tory government yet again.

Ronda Daniel, writer and student, London School of Economics, London:

I share the view that the white working class have since been targeted as knuckle-dragging racists. I live in [the London borough of] Barking and Dagenham — 62% of my area voted to Leave. Like Lisa, I think that a lot of my peers were unsure of what they were voting for, but wanted out of the system that excluded, demonized, and disenfranchized them. I'm unsure of whether this was the E.U. — make no mistake, the E.U. is an undemocratic, elite-led neoliberal institution, but so is the current situation here [in the U.K.]. The E.U. referendum was a choice between two evils.

Back to the white working class — my Facebook newsfeed has been rife with pretentious people posting memes, such as an image of a man in a tracksuit saying “Immigrants are taking our jobs,” next to another image of this man at a job centre, the advisor saying “Have you actually tried to look for a job?” Because only poor people are capable of racism, right? Never mind the fact that Boris Johnson [upper-middle class MP, leader of the Leave campaign] became Mayor of London [2008 - 2016] despite publicly declaring that black people had lower IQs.

Racist attacks have been reported in the media since the referendum results were declared, but classism is always ignored. Whilst I'll admit I have a little prejudice against people in suits, it frustrates me how quickly we ignore the racism of the rich. Just look at Emma West. Remember “My Tram Experience,” the viral video [in which working class citizen West was secretly filmed delivering a racist verbal attack on a tram]? She lost her job, children, and home, and was sentenced to jail after her openly racist rant. [Upper-middle class Daily Mail columnist] Katie Hopkins has broken numerous race relations acts, as well as the Genocide Convention, after calling refugees “cockroaches” — where's her punishment? Let's stop pretending that the working class have any power at the moment to create ideas; the rich piss on us, the media tell us it's raining, and we argue amongst ourselves. Racism cannot be combated with classism.

Why Blaming The U.K.’s Working Classes For Brexit Will Get Us Nowhere