After the Brexit vote, the left (unusually) managed to define the way many people saw that vote by talking about those ‘left behind’. It was a ‘cry of pain’ from communities who lost out because of globalisation. Theresa May was happy to pick up this theme in her desire to proclaim the Conservatives as the party of the working class and of those ‘just managing’, without actually doing anything for these groups (in fact making their lives worse).
There are two positive things to say about this framing. First, it was partly true. Second, it brought the eye of the normally London focused media to communities it had largely ignored. But as an explanation of the Brexit vote it was seriously incomplete. Although around two thirds of those living in council houses or social housing voted Leave, so did a majority of those who owned their house outright. In geographic terms the areas with a majority of Leave voters were the towns and rural areas of England and Wales. While 70% of Sun readers voted Leave, so did 66% of Mail readers and 55% of Telegraph readers. Scotland contains many areas left behind by globalisation, yet in all of Scotland a majority voted Remain.
In addition, describing the Leave vote as a vote of those left behind by globalisation omits the rather crucial point that leaving the EU will do nothing to help those communities, and almost certainly it will make their lives considerably worse. They were sold snake oil. We have polling evidence that most Leave voters still think they will be better off after Brexit, despite all the advice and evidence otherwise. Many Leavers would support us leaving without any deal, which would be disastrous for the UK.
In contrast in 2015, Labour ran a campaign that was all about the need to raise real wages (‘the cost of living crisis’) and spend more on public services. That was not snake oil, but voters responded by giving the Conservatives more power. So why no cry of pain then? If your answer is that these voters did not see Labour as on their side in 2015 whereas they saw Brexit as something for them in 2016, then there is a very simple reason why.
The simple explanation for Brexit is to focus on the media. To say that 80% of weekday papers read were pro-Brexit is an understatement: readers faced relentless propaganda against the EU and Freedom of Movement. People, however alienated or desperate, do not choose snake oil by themselves. It requires a salesman with a large attentive audience. As Chris Dillow reports, snake oil sellers put great efforts into marketing.
Does it matter that many on the left focused on the left behind story rather than looking at the role of the Brexit press? Perhaps it can help explain Labour’s stance on Brexit. If you have convinced yourself that the leadership always wanted Brexit, think about the large number of Labour MPs who also think some form of Brexit should go ahead (and I am not talking about Kate Hoey or Frank Field).
If you see the Brexit voters in traditional Labour constituencies as being motivated by decades of deprivation, you know that cannot be changed overnight and therefore you may choose to shape your policy to the wishes of these groups, and instead try to limit the damage of Brexit itself. If you had instead seen Brexit as snake-oil promoted by the hard right who wanted to align regulations with the US rather than the UK in order to weaken environmental and worker protections, you might instead focus on highlighting the lies of the snake-oil sellers.
It could be argued that something very similar happened to Labour over immigration. If you convince yourself that anti-immigration views among Labour voters reflect xenophobia or even racism, then there is little to do but placate them. This will undoubtedly be true for some, but we have increasing evidence that attitudes have been shifting and can be shifted when people make the argument that immigration is beneficial. What is clear is that the right used immigration as a political weapon, and the right wing press obliged with a steady stream of negative coverage.
If Labour MPs had any doubt about how power concerted campaigning, the 2017 general election should have put those doubts to rest. If such a large change in public opinion about a set of policies and politicians can be achieved in three weeks, imagine what a party with considerable media access campaigning against Brexit and for the virtues of immigration could achieve over a year, particularly when events and preferences are going their way. The suggestion of this post is that the framing of Brexit as a protest by the left behind was partly why we can only imagine what impact that might have had.