The modern Labour Party, totally unable to relate to its alienated working class base, now seeks to pathologise overwhelming working class support for Brexit rather than question their own blind devotion to the European Union
To truly understand the gulf between the modern, metropolitan Labour Party and its increasingly alienated core working class vote, one need only read the latest column by Owen Jones, in which the “Chavs” author frets that “working class Britons feel Brexity and betrayed”.
Jones’ column in the Guardian doesn’t say that working class people have conducted a rational assessment of their social, material and economic interests and decided that Britain would be better off outside the European Union, in the way that a middle class professional might deliberate and weigh their options. No, when it comes to working class people, they just “feel Brexity”, like babies might feel gassy after feeding, or tetchy while teething – a simplistic emotion or reflex, not a considered thought.
In other words, when a “good” middle-class left-winger (the only kind of person that the Labour Party now much cares about) decides that the EU is simply wonderful, that Brussels is only about “trade and cooperation” and that we should stick around to reform the EU because “Another Europe is Possible!“, they are acting rationally and sensibly. But when working class Britons decide overwhelmingly that the European Union is a bad thing for their interests and kryptonite to our democracy, they must have been wildly misled by nefarious forces (read: Nigel Farage) into voting against their obvious true interests.
Let’s dive in to Owen’s piece:
If Britain crashes out of the European Union in two weeks, it will be off the back of votes cast by discontented working-class people. When Andy Burnham warns that the remain campaign has “been far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull”, he has a point. Even Labour MPs who nervously predict remain will scrape it nationally report their own constituencies will vote for exit. Polling consistently illustrates that the lower down the social ladder you are, the more likely you are to opt for leave. Of those voters YouGov deems middle-class, 52% are voting for remain, and just 32% for leave. Among those classified as working-class, the figures are almost the reverse: 36% for remain, 50% for leave. The people Labour were founded to represent are the most likely to want Britain to abandon the European Union.
A political movement with the smallest shred of humility might look at these numbers and wonder whether maybe the working class voters know, or are attuned, to something which the middle classes are not, rather than automatically assuming that the middle classes are right and the working classes wrong. And a political party capable of introspection might be alarmed to find itself diametrically opposed to “the people Labour were founded to represent” on so fundamental an issue as Britain’s independence and place in the world.
Needless to say, the Labour Party of Jeremy Corbyn and Owen Jones (and Gordon Brown and Peter Mandelson too) has no such humility and no such capacity for introspection. When confronted with evidence that the metropolitan intelligentsia have gone marching off in a completely different direction to the base, the only instinct is to furiously question how the plebs could possibly have gotten it wrong, and who led them astray.
Owen Jones continues, becoming even more offensive with every paragraph:
A Conservative prime minister lines up with pillars of Britain’s establishment with a message of doom – and it makes millions of people even more determined to stick their fingers up at it.
The leave campaign knows all this. It is Trumpism in full pomp: powerful vested interests whose policies would only concentrate wealth and power even further in the hands of the few, masquerading as the praetorian guard of an anti-establishment insurgency dripping in anti-immigration sentiment. It is political trickery long honed by Ukip, a party led by a privately educated ex-City broker that claims to be the voice of the little guy against a self-interested powerful clique. If Donald Trump succeeds across the Atlantic, the terrible cost of leaving millions of working-class people feeling both abandoned and slighted will be nightmarishly clear. The same goes for this referendum.
So believing that Britain should leave the dysfunctional and deliberately antidemocratic EU is now apparently a symptom of “Trumpism” – a zesty blend of brashness, proud ignorance and overt prejudice. This is Owen Jones trying to be understanding and win people over, remember. And he does so by comparing them and their sincerely held political beliefs to the egotistical ranting of Donald Trump. Not a great start to the outreach effort there, Owen.
In Owen Jones, here we have a walking, talking mascot for the Labour Party’s refusal to understand why they are not more popular and why the working classes continue to vote for conservative parties and conservative policies. A generation ago, faced with Margaret Thatcher’s three general election victories, the British Left was unable to admit to itself that the Tories won fair and square because people preferred their sales pitch of individualism and opportunity. And this denial continued until late-stage Neil Kinnock and a still youthful Tony Blair finally delivered the harsh dose of reality required to make Labour electorally viable again.
Fast forward to 2016, and a Labour Party beaten back to its fortresses in the city and university campus simply cannot fathom why working class Britons might not like the idea of an increasingly powerful supranational government of Europe seeking to take over more and more competencies from its member states, and ultimately supplant them on the world stage, or why the working classes are stubbornly unwilling to participate in their carefully laid-out left-wing delusion that it is really just about trade and cooperation, honest.
It is certainly true that Labour’s coalition is fracturing. The Labour left – which has now assumed the party’s leadership – is in large part a product of London and its political battles from the 1970s onwards. London, of course, has increasingly decoupled from the rest of the country, economically and culturally. As the commentator Stephen Bush puts it, Labour does well “in areas that look like [the] UK of 30 years hence”: in particular, communities that are more diverse and more educated. In many major urban centres Labour thrives: witness the victory of Labour’s Marvin Rees in Bristol’s recent mayoral election. It is in working-class small-town Britain that Labour faces its greatest challenge. And it is these communities that may decide the referendum – as well as Labour’s future.
That’s why Labour’s remain effort needs to bring voices that resonate in northern working-class communities to the fore, such as Jon Trickett, who represents Hemsworth in West Yorkshire. These voices need to spell out the danger of workers’ rights being tossed on to a bonfire; to emphasise the real agenda of the leave leadership; and to argue that we can build a different sort of Europe. It would be foolish for either side to call this referendum. But unless a working-class Britain that feels betrayed by the political elite can be persuaded, then Britain will vote to leave the European Union in less than two weeks.
Well, at least Jones is able to concede that the London-centric leadership of the Labour Party might not be conducive to winning support from outside the middle-class clerisy. This is a start, but the problem will not be truly addressed until the likes of Owen Jones dare to concede that the working classes might have something to teach people like him about values and policy.
At present, even Owen Jones – the media’s standard bearer for defending the working classes – is still at pains to set himself apart from them on the issues. Sure, he will happily empathise with their frustrations, but he will never concede that they might be right on points of policy. He has an elite education, after all, while they work at places like Sports Direct (ew).
Take immigration. In a million years, you will never get Owen Jones to admit that the scale of immigration into Britain over the past decade has been problematic. He will do a better job than almost anyone of saying in that ever so ‘umble tone of his that he sympathises with those who do have concerns about immigration. But then watch him pivot to explain that the real problem is the Evil Tories and their failure to enforce a £10 minimum wage, or build sufficient new schools and hospitals and doctors surgeries to cope with 300,000 net arrivals a year, or to create magically appearing jobs.
In other words, while middle class leftists are allowed to speak for themselves, working class Britons must be “interpreted” by trained interlocutors like Owen Jones. And even when they directly say “I think that there is too much immigration, and it is causing problems”, we should not take it at face value, because really they mean all of these other things, but are not articulate enough to properly express themselves.
And so it is with the EU referendum. Working class people are saying in record numbers that they dislike the EU and want to leave. But the Labour Party, whose true masters and beneficiaries love the EU and are determined for entirely selfish reasons that Britain should remain, is unable to accept that the working classes might be right. And so they wheel out people like Owen Jones, who then tell them exactly what they want to hear – that the party’s working class voters don’t really mean it when they say they want Brexit, that what they really mean is that Britain should stay in the EU to reform it with the help of the Magical Brussels Reform Unicorn.
Don’t mind Kayleigh from Stoke-on-Trent, she’s just feeling a bit Brexity today.
Oh, how a noble political party has fallen. A party that once boasted deep roots in the industrial towns of Britain, and in the trades union movement, has now become a shallow and debased party designed to make London-based creative professionals feel good about themselves while their privileged lifestyles diverge ever more widely from those at the bottom. A party led by the affable-looking Jeremy Corbyn is still very much the party of professional politicos like Chuka Umunna and Luciana Berger.
And so it will remain, until Labour – and the British Left in general – learn to stop pathologising those with different political views, particularly those who are supposedly on their own side. Because quite frankly, it is becoming rather grating to hear the self-proclaimed party of equality and opportunity bleat on about how progressive and democratic they are, while percolating in a closed information loop of self-reinforcing metro-left platitudes and furiously ignoring the fact that they increasingly have absolutely nothing in common with those whom their party was founded to represent.
Owen Jones was supposed to be better than this. But none of them are. Labour deputy leader Tom Watson has started making noises about pushing back on the free movement of people issue a bit more, but you can bet that he wouldn’t be doing so if he (and the people he is really fighting for) didn’t have a referendum to win. The fears and concerns, hopes and dreams of working class people are only ever something to be mollified, contained or exploited for electoral gain, certainly not to be used as direct input to the policymaking process.
Right now, with the Parliamentary Labour Party slavishly cheerleading for a European Union loathed by many of its own supporters, the only thing standing in the way of Labour’s complete destruction south of the Scottish border is UKIP’s capacity for self-immolation. If the Remain campaign prevail and win the EU referendum, working class fury at the result (and the way in which the campaign was waged, in which Labour are fully complicit) could see many more defections to UKIP. The only thing likely to prevent this is the chaos which may engulf UKIP when Nigel Farage steps down or is deposed.
With the Labour Party living on borrowed time, one might expect a little humility from its leaders and chief supporters in the media. But these people don’t do humility. They have expensive educations and patiently-acquired groundings in all the right-on progressive values. They earned their right to sit at the top table of the Labour Party and call the shots. And the working classes? They exist to be referred to in speeches and soundbites, or sometimes to be used as a backdrop for media events so long as the event is tightly controlled and they don’t try to speak.
Funny. While the Conservative Party is consumed by a profound crisis of confidence and character within its own leadership, right now it is the Labour Party and British Left – even including poster boy Owen Jones – who most exude the stench of born-to-rule arrogance.
Never let it be said that this EU referendum campaign has not been instructional.
Postscript: It’s fair to say that Owen Jones isn’t best pleased with being called out for his condescending attitude towards working class Brexit supporters. He engaged with me on Twitter, taking great umbrage that I had briefly quoted from the headline – though he did not disavow the term “Brexity”
Jones is throwing his toys out of his pram, and has baselessly slandered me in the process – though frankly, being insulted by Owen Jones is a badge of honour which I shall wear with pride. There was no attempt to misrepresent or sensationalise what he wrote. The sub who produced the headline (if indeed it wasn’t Jones) did an excellent job of channelling the overall tone and content of his message – that working class people only support Brexit because they are the dumb victims of “political trickery” – and all of the quotes in this blog post reveal the same rotten attitude towards working class Brexiteers.
It is quite telling that Owen Jones popped up to smear me on Twitter before disappearing without actually defending his tawdry, condescending little piece in the Guardian. He knows that comparing Brexiteers to Donald Trump (as he did) is an unconscionable insult to working class voters, and more evidence of the Labour Party’s growing disconnect from its roots. But more than that, he knows deep down that he is wrong to support the Remain side in the EU referendum. Last year he showed promising signs that he might lead a left-wing awakening and uprising against the undemocratic European Union, but since then Jones – like Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn – has fallen dutifully into line praising the EU and furiously pretending to himself that “another Europe is possible”.
This is why Owen Jones is so sensitive and reacted so furiously to being called out on Semi-Partisan Politics. Whether Jones coined the term “Brexity” or not is immaterial – his attitude toward left-wing Brexit supporters, as evidenced by every single word in his Guardian column, is conclusive evidence that he views working class euroscepticism as a pathology, something to be treated, rather than a legitimate political viewpoint to be engaged with (and perhaps adopted as policy).
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