Photo: Garon S

Post-Brexit Britain: navigating the culture war

  • July 13, 2016

Movement & Mobilization

To build power in post-Brexit Britain, the left needs to bring the young, urban middle class and the rural working class together in an explosive alliance.

“A Nation Divided” thundered the headlines in the post-Brexit maelstrom of comments. Britain is engulfed by class war. The urban, ethnically diverse, educated, middle class have been whipped by the marginalized, white working classes of Stockport, Barnsley, Thanet and Hull.

This was a revolt against an unaccountable elite; against immigrants black, white and brown; against condescending, urban, middle class dominance.

And those middle classes are hurting.

Their sense of internationalism and place in the world is ruined. Their cultural hegemony momentarily shot. They launch a protest, tens of thousands in the heart of London. They daub their faces blue and yellow. They call for a second referendum. “Fromage not Farage,” they chant. And the liberal media cheer them on, bathing in a protest movement they can finally approve of.

A battle of class, race and geography

This is the narrative sweeping the media; one of an irrevocable, all out culture war. A nation split down the lines of leave and remain. A battle of class, race and geography. And it is one that will only end badly for the left. If this narrative takes hold, we’ll hemorrhage support to the center and the right. If we are to build a progressive majority, we must begin to articulate a very different story.

The left need to reach two constituencies if it is to build power. First are the young, urban, educated and often culturally middle class; those who were promised stable, fulfilling and well paid employment and instead suffer a largely precarious, freelance and uncertain existence. They get by, but only through a mixture of agency, bar and office work. They find somewhere to live, but only by paying 60 percent of their income in rent.

The second are the the rural and semi-rural working classes of former mining and industrial towns. Those who the press term “core Labour voters”. They live in areas torn apart by Thatcher. Where the little employment that exists is provided by the state. Where migration of the young is endemic. Where investment is nowhere to be seen.

Both these groups have a potential left inflection. The former are young, socially liberal and economically precarious. They’ve been raised on networks rather than hierarchies, gifting them an anti-authoritarian, open source impulse. They are unlikely – as their parents were – to be bought off with cheap housing and decent salaries as neither are readily available.

The latter are those worst hit by austerity. Most dependent on government run services. More likely to have had child tax credits or disability living allowance perniciously snatched away. They find themselves enmeshed in the disciplinary mechanisms of the job center, police station and courtroom. They are the ignored and unrepresented. Absent for decades from mainstream political discourse.

A progressive alliance between the two would be explosive. It could deliver Corbyn enough seats to govern. Yet such a possibility is threatened by this manufactured culture war, by the establishment’s framing as impossibly oppositional; defined by Leave or Remain, as if it were the only determinant of ideology and identity.

Intervene and amplify

The liberal democrats moved first. As soon as the results were declared they announced they’d fight the next election on a pro-EU, anti-Brexit platform. This is their offer to the lowest instincts of the young, urban, economically precarious. Be anti-democratic and paternalistic. Embrace your potential snobbishness. Assert that you do, indeed, know better than the working class rabble. They are misinformed, uneducated and racist. Your opinion is more important than theirs.

Ukip are similarly positioned. They will frame Corbyn as privately educated, Islington dwelling and a paid up member of the metropolitan elite. He will become part the media and political establishment. Indistinguishable from the tens of thousands who marched waving blue and yellow flags. Every resident of London, Bristol and Manchester will merge into a big, contemptible other. Out of touch, in the words of Farage, with genuine, ordinary, decent working people.

This culture war becomes more dangerous and depressing when parts of the ‘lexit’ left – a small but vocal group of Trotskyist sects – lend a hand in its manufacture. Over recent days they have been ardently positioning themselves on the side of working class leave voters by deprecating and belittling remainers who are taking to the streets.

This strategy is obviously thick-headed. Not only does it alienate a section of the potential progressive majority, it also preaches a worrying disengagement from street politics. It advocates sniping from the sidelines instead of framing the narrative. Passivity rather than activity.

Surely, if the left is good for anything, it is the practice of street politics. If the mobilization is fascist we confront it. If it is leftist we join it. And if it is liberal, multiple or indeterminate, we should engage it. Otherwise we leave the narrative to chance. We leave a space which those to the right are only too happy to colonize.

Instead we must intervene, and amplify the narrative elements that could form a progressive basis on which these two constituencies could unite. The EU march, for example, was framed as ‘anti-Brexit’. But it was also anti-racist, pro-migrant and internationalist. It housed multiple narratives and sentiments, any one of which could have gained ascendancy. Owen Jones, to his credit, realized this. He accepted an invitation to speak alongside Tim Farron and Bob Geldof. He knew that this was a constituency that we needed to win over. He knew this was an expression that could dispense with middle class paternalism, and instead stand firm on anti-racism while advocating for a progressive brexit.

Economics and immigration

The second half of our progressive majority will emerge if we properly articulate the nuanced, anti-establishment, anti-austerity nature of the leave vote. Immigration, racism, xenophobia and stupidity runs the media portrayal of those who voted Brexit. A socially conservative, backward working class, holding the country to ransom. And for a minority this narrative is correct. In every section of society — including the working class — we find a small amount of irredeemable racists. Those who can’t be won over. Those who have contributed to the foul rise in attacks since the referendum. Those who a militant, anti-racist movement must oppose.

But they are a small minority. Unrepresentative of the wider working class. On the doorstep in places like Barnsley and Sheffield there was a concern about immigration, but it was driven by economics instead of racism.

Worries about housing, hospital beds and space in school classrooms. That there isn’t any money, and the country is filling up. These people aren’t the Nazi thugs we confront on the streets of Dover. They aren’t the racist vox pops the media use to tar whole regions with the same brush. They are families concerned about their children’s future. The economically marginalized who feel austerity bite.

A radical economic offer from a left Labour government would see these concern about immigration begin to unravel. If school places, hospital beds and homes were guaranteed, the country wouldn’t feel so full anymore. But more than this, a radical economic offer would be terrain on which these two constituencies could unite.

In Bristol, Manchester and London rent is akin to extortion. Owning your own home, for even those on a decent graduate salary, is pure fantasy. But in regional working class areas, gaining a council house is equally impossible.

A mixture of rent caps, a land value tax (which would punish property speculation) and a mass building of council houses would unite these two constituencies. As would a radical increase in the minimum wage – of benefit to both construction and industrial workers in the north, and service sector workers in the south. Or how about closed shop unions? Safeguarding wages of both the migrant communities, the working class and middle classes.

The reality we must articulate is one of shared economic exploitation. Our strategy must be to amplify these progressive potentials. Only then will we pierce the media’s narrative. Only then, will we mute this burgeoning culture war.

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Joseph Todd

Joseph Todd is an activist, writer and post-graduate student living in London. More of his writing can be found at

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