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Opinion The Brexit swing wasn’t about the EU – it was about dignity and betrayal

What working people have become acutely aware of is a political system which increasingly does not work for them, says LAURA BRIGGS

THURSDAY’S general election proved to be the second referendum that middle-class progressives have been demanding for the past three years. 

And the result could not have been clearer. For all we have been told that “they didn’t know what they were voting for,” it transpires that working Britain did, in fact, know what they were voting for — and they have just voted for it again.

Rather than show regret or humility, Labour’s largely middle-class membership is continuing in the same vein — berating the working class who have swung to the Tories as stupid, ignorant, racist or otherwise being gullible enough to fall for Tory propaganda. 

Of course, these are all the same lines of attack that the working class have been subjected to since the EU referendum and are the reason that Labour has gained no ground in the working-class heartlands.

Strictly speaking, this is not about the European Union. Have the finer details of EU policy plagued the minds of the British working class every day since its inception? 

No, probably not. Have inhabitants of working-class towns perceived the shift towards neoliberalism in domestic policy, as promoted by the EU? 

Again, not likely. However, what working people have become acutely aware of is a political system which increasingly does not work for them and has not done so for the past 50 or so years.

Brexit has become symbolic of the working-class struggle against the political elite (which includes large swathes of the Labour Party). 

So many industrial towns have been in decline for decades and their inhabitants have suffered under both the Tories and New Labour. 

Over the last few years, Labour has gravely underestimated the general public’s deep-rooted contempt towards party politics. 

What the middle-class membership still cannot grasp is that the 2016 EU referendum gave the forgotten working class a chance to reclaim their political dignity. 

Labour’s second referendum policy took that away from them. That dignity — which Thatcher decimated; which has been eroded by the false promises of politicians; which the working class saw a glimmer of in the referendum — was worth enduring more Tory rule for. 

There is no doubt that Tory propaganda has played some part in the detachment of the working-class heartlands from the Labour Party. 

It would be remiss to state otherwise. Thatcher mastered a style of politics which convinced the public that this is just “the way things are.” 

There’s no such thing as society, life is hard, and that’s that. Nobody is to blame (least of all the Tories, who are just realists) and anybody who promises change is a dreamer. 

These are the sort of sentiments which, when reinforced by the media over several decades, have been very effective in dissuading the working class from organising. 

Even so, Labour’s radical manifesto and anti-austerity policies would have undoubtedly improved the lives of millions of ordinary British people. 

So why have Labour’s pledges not resonated with them? Simply put, people do not like to feel patronised.

For so many, Labour’s politics of hope simply seems too far removed from their lived reality. 

Hope and optimism are luxuries that only the privileged can afford. Those who have become accustomed to the grim reality of Tory austerity do not want the pity of middle-class activists. 

Proud people working hard in low-paid jobs to give their children a decent standard of living resent politicians who describe them as impoverished and destitute. 

As long as the Parliamentary Labour Party is dominated by privately educated, wealthy, privileged MPs and the membership is predominantly middle class, any message (no matter how well-meaning and no matter how accurate) will feel condescending to working-class voters. 

The Labour Party must mend this chasm by ensuring that their MPs and candidates for future elections are able to relate to working-class voters — either by virtue of sharing similar backgrounds and experiences, or through a real, demonstrable commitment to class politics.

In many ways, this was Corbyn’s domain. Although Corbyn is from a relatively privileged background, he was able to speak to the people without pomp or pretence and genuinely cared about the issues that mattered to them. 

Old videos of his impassioned speeches show a relatable irreverence for the customs of the political elite and a contempt for the Establishment which many would find sympathetic. 

Latterly, surrounded by PR bods intent on polishing him up for TV appearances and a devout fan club who elevated him to cult-like status, he lost a lot of his raw integrity and likability. 

Instead, he was forced to assimilate into a world of sleazy politics in which he didn’t belong — and it showed.

It will take a significant amount of time and effort for the Labour Party to rebuild the trust that it has lost among the working class, if it is able to rebuild that trust at all. 

While the party regroups and strategises, it is vital that the momentum of the labour movement as a whole is not lost.

Now, more than ever, we must look to the unions to raise class consciousness. Trade unionism has the potential to give workers the voice and dignity they have been so sorely lacking. 

Sadly, in recent years, many unions have lost their militancy and have become resigned to their impotence under the government’s stranglehold on them. 

Labour’s manifesto has paved the way for radical pro-worker policy to be part of the mainstream political conversation again and this must be capitalised upon by the trade union movement.

Since the 1980 Employment Act, anti-trade union laws have sought to impede workplace organising. 

Now, this Tory government will attempt to outlaw industrial action altogether (note the recent court injunction issued by Royal Mail to prevent postal workers from striking despite the CWU achieving a monumental 97 per cent Yes vote). 

We must fully support our unions in their opposition to any proposed anti-trade union laws and push back against existing legislation. 

If government legislation removes workers’ right to strike, workers must be aggressive and combative in their efforts to reclaim this right. 

Record numbers of people across the country turned up to canvass for Labour during this general election. That manpower must be harnessed and turned into union activism. 

Those who are not members of a union must join one and those who are members must become active within it. 

Union membership is declining and there is much work to be done in recruiting and retaining members (particularly as workers will soon lose the right to have union subs automatically deducted from their wages). 

We must also look to grassroots, community-level activism to rebuild trust and foster unity among the working class. 

Community figures have the great advantage of being among the people, rather than being perceived as meddling outsiders. 

As such, those already working within the community have greater insight into which issues matter most to ordinary people. 

Those dismayed by the general election result must now throw themselves behind existing community projects (or pioneer new ones) and forge links with established community figures to create a network of people who have pride in their working-class communities.

If the labour movement is to recover from what is clearly a cataclysmic loss, we must acknowledge how and why Labour has lost the working class. 

No amount of smug analysis from radical middle-class London activists can make sense of the feelings of the working-class heartlands. 

This commentariat culture, so prominent in the Labour Party, must be eradicated and replaced with class politics — by working people, for working people.


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