Winner of the New Statesman SPERI Prize in Political Economy 2016

Friday 20 July 2018

Did a partial framing of Brexit encourage Labour’s acceptance of its inevitability?

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.


  1. I'm not a placard waver but were I my placard to those Labour supporters of Brexit would be 'Cheek by jowl / with / John Enoch Powell'.

  2. Possible typos:
    "align regulations with the US rather than the UK" - "UK" should be "EU" ?
    "If Labour MPs had any doubt about how power concerted campaigning" -> "about the power of concerted" ?


  3. your last link is to Anna Soubry. Seriously? Her economic arguments are nuts. She says we will lose lots of jobs, but in a previous debate she said Eastern Europeans were coming here to do the jobs local people would not do. so we are losing jobs local people don't want to do. Incidentally, these immigrants were not pushing wages down according to Soubry, because clearly there is no link between supply and demand.

    I get that distraught Remainers are clutching at straws and someone going blah blah jobs blah blah no reduction in wages is going to sound attractive but seriously you cannot support her analysis?

  4. This Guardian article by Jane Martinson written shortly after the Referendum in 2016 is about the thirty-year campaign by the anti-EU press:

  5. 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.

    Addressing both in an evidenced but direct way is the answer. Certainly Trump portrays himself as the guardian of those left behind by the policies of the establishment elite but advances policies that benefit the plutocracy that he is such a signal member of, such as tax cuts rigged for for the rich.

  6. Paragraph seven has a typo: it should say EU instead of UK.

    The latter part on immigration might be too optimistic, when I see what happened in Austria over the last thirty years or so.

    We now have the hard right in power over here, who took over the conservative party in a coup and formed a coalition with a party literally ruled by Nazis. And no, I don't exaggerate nor am I paranoid. If you want to see a glimpse of what is going on, research for short what happened to our anti-terror police unit (BVT) after they took office on the 28.2.2018.

    And the left was in power for years before and the state controlled media did their job. All this might not suffice.

  7. My Leaver view is that the media and establishment were heavily pro-Remain. The Remain campaign massively outspent the Leave campaign, Many newspapers were solid Remain, and Many economists and government figures gave dire predictions about the immediate impact of the vote that turned out to be completely wrong. the BBC in particular still runs a heavy Remain campaign, Remainers significantly outnumbering Leavers, and concentrating heavily on small details of the day after leaving and refusing to discuss what would be in store if we remained.

    There is a solid economic case for leaving the EU as I mentioned in my previous comment; the main engine of "growth" is importing EU (and other immigrants) to do minimum wage jobs. The reason the finances of the government are tight is that these minimum wage jobs do not generate enough taxable revenue to pay for the public services and infrastructure. In addition, wages are suppressed meaning living standards are falling. Unless we leave the EU we cannot stop this, and only through leaving can we begin to start the process of driving up automation, skills, and improving living standards.

    In contrast, all Labour have is Jeremy's magic beans. He has identified Venezuela as the country we should follow, and this is now in absolutely dire circumstances. He is going to magic up money to invest in more public services - who is he going to employ? He either has to bring in more immigrants (see previous paragraph) or out-compete workers in commerce and industry.

    Finally on media coverage, the next time you see a journalist, ask them if their newspaper's line determines what their readers think, or whether what their readers think determines the paper's line.

    1. This is the Reuters report of Tom Scholar's appearance before the Treasury Select Committee, which was earlier this year I believe:

      The top official at Britain’s finance ministry [Tom Scholar] said his department’s forecasts of a big hit to the economy from Brexit, made shortly before the June 2016 EU membership referendum, were no longer applicable.
      Brexit supporters have long criticised the projections as part of a “Project Fear” they say was led by former prime minister David Cameron and his then-Chancellor George Osborne.
      The forecasts said that within 15 years Britain’s economy could be between 3.4 and 9.5 percent smaller if it left the EU than if it had stayed in.
      Tom Scholar told lawmakers on Wednesday the forecasts were based on an assumption that Britain would immediately start the process of leaving the European Union, and they did not include any stimulus measures for the economy.
      In fact, Britain took nine months to launch the Brexit process and the Bank of England pumped in stimulus shortly after the vote. Last November, the government announced measures which were also aimed at helping the economy.
      “The third (factor) I would say is that the global economy has recovered much more strongly ...than we expected at the time,” Scholar said.
      Britain’s economy has withstood the Brexit vote shock better than most private economists expected, but it has lagged behind growth rates achieved in other advanced economies.
      Speaking to the Treasury Committee in the [House of Commons], Scholar also said the forecasts were based on three potential scenarios for Britain’s future relationship outside the EU, but not the one that British Prime Minister Theresa May wants: a tailor-made trade deal with the bloc.
      “I don’t think the pre-referendum analysis is useful in the current debate about our attempts to secure a deep and special partnership because that’s a different thing to any of the three scenarios that were illustrated in that paper,” he said.

  8. This is excellent, i know it contains many of your of your regular themes but brings many of them together. I wish many labour MP's would listen to this rather than give in to 'what they think there electorate think'

  9. Unfortunately, it's mostly an idiot's echo chamber.
    Quite possibly a coup.

  10. Are there any other countries in the EU with a newspaper industry as heavily anti-EU as the British press?

  11. The good prof has been railing against Austerity for a bit. Seems the government of Portugal has been reading and even across the Pond it has been noticed:

  12. To focus on the media as a reason for Brexit is odd. Every household was sent a leaflet extolling the virtues of the EU before the vote; every household, not just Sun and DM readers.

    Furthermore, the whole assumption in most of the media was that Remain would win; the shock when they did not was palpable; staying in the EU was the assumed "base" case.

    When you speak of those left behind as being sold snake oil you may be too ready to dismiss this as a cause. The EU could be described as a protectionist bloc whose main purpose is to protect EU industry, efficient or not, and to entrench barriers to trade against the ROW. The record of growth within the EU is lacklustre and has been for some years now and it is a wholly speculative assertion that folk would have been, and will be, better off within the EU; it is not at all clear.

    Furthermore, any organisation that erects a structure such as the Euro and is prepared to inflict unemployment on literally millions of young people really has to be questioned, in fact the assertion that it is benign is laughable.


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