Brexit and the left (behind)

Two years ago Robert Ford and Mathew Goodwin wrote what turned out to be an eerily prescient book about the radical right in Britain, and focusing particularly on the rise of UKIP1  Although the idea of a referendum on the UK’s relationship with the EU was already firmly on the cards when this book was published I get the impression that not even Ford or Goodwin actually thought that things would turn out the way they did, i.e. a vote for the UK to leave the European Union. This is in spite of the fact that they had already articulated in some detail the rationale for why this was likely to happen.

Although the book focused on the rise of UKIP, what’s especially interesting about it is the exploration of why UKIP has become so popular in recent years and who their core supporters are.  In particular, the authors seek to dispel the commonly held view that UKIP is only really attracting disaffected Conservatives, who hark back to the golden era of Thatcherism and, beyond this, a vision of a lost Britain (and perhaps more especially, a lost England).  Although there is undoubtedly some truth in this, particularly when it comes to hostility to the EU, what becomes clear from Ford and Goodwin’s book is that a great deal of support for what might best be described as right-wing populism actually comes from disaffected Labour supporters; and this certainly seems to have been borne out by the results of the Brexit vote.

Interestingly, for this particular group of Brexiteers, the EU itself seems only to have been the catalyst for a broader set of concerns that they feel are not being addressed by the mainstream parties.  The number one concern revolves around immigration, but which in turns links directly to the whole question of (British) identity.   More specifically, Ford and Goodwin note:

The picture that has emerged, therefore, is clear: Britain’s left behind social groups share a distinct set of social attitudes. They place greater emphasis on an ‘ethnic’ sense of national identity, passed down through culture and ancestry. Partly as a result of this worldview, they are more strongly opposed to political and social developments that they see as threatening the sovereignty, continuity and identity of the British nation. They are more strongly Eurosceptic, opposing a set of political institutions they regard as alien and foreign, and demand a return to the status quo ante that many of them remember, when Britain stood proudly apart from the continent. They are intensely negative about the impact of immigration, which threatens their economic security and more ethnic sense of British national identity. 2

The authors go on to argue that:

In all of these respects, the left behind are different to the younger, university educated and more secure middle-class professionals who set much of the political and social agenda in modern Britain. Unlike these groups who have generally embraced these wider changes, it is the left behind who see a cosmopolitan, multicultural and globalised Britain as an alien and threatening place. 3

This idea of a ‘left behind’ social group is precisely, or so it would seem, something the (political) left simply cannot grasp; but is a phenomena that UKIP and other right-wing populist organisations across Europe understand all too well.  These are the people who left school with few if any qualifications, who have insecure or no employment, for whom the European Union, globalisation and liberal metropolitanism have little or no meaning, except as a threat.

Of course we need to be careful not to jump too readily to conclusions regarding the Brexit vote and the motivations behind those who voted Leave.  As Ben Chu points out in his article in The Independent there is no one, simple explanation.4  However, I think one of the important questions that is raised by Ford and Goodwin relates to the question of ideology  and the different ideologies that underpinned the whole Brexit campaign.

This is not just a question of ‘right versus left’ political ideologies, but in a more fundamental sense of how individuals and social groups construct a view of their world.  Although I have already referred to ‘right-wing populism’, this is simply because much of the discourse relating to anti-EU and anti-immigration sentiment is couched in these terms.  What this doesn’t tell us is how such views originated and evolved for each individual and social group.  This, of course, applies equally to those who voted to remain in the EU; those who, according to Ford and Goodwin,  are more likely to embrace a more liberal, cosmopolitan, globalised view of the world.

Another interesting question, even if we broadly accept the ‘left behind’ thesis, is whether this simply applies to disaffected Labour supporters, who, according to the popular narrative all reside in the towns and cities in the North East of England and which never really recovered from the de-industrialisation of the 1980s.  However, perhaps there is another way to look at the concept of ‘left behind’, and which relates more to the question of the past.  In other words, what has been left behind in the minds of those who might fit into this category?  This links directly to the notion of a ‘lost world’, a ‘lost England’.

And looking at things this way might help reveal common ground between disaffected Conservatives (and I’m not thinking especially at this point about ‘blue collar Tories’, although they are also relevant to this argument) and disaffected Labour supporters.  Do they, in their own ways, both hark back to, long for, a lost world, a mythical England?  And if so, where is this coming from?  In other words, how are we to explain, to map out, the formation of this ideology (or perhaps it might be more accurate to say these ideologies)) of a lost world?  Are they, in fact, two sides of the same ideology?  Furthermore, is this ideology any ‘worse’  (or indeed any less ‘modern’) then the ideology of liberal cosmopolitanism, of globalism, of ‘Europe’.  After all, it could be argued that the EU is just a modern day version of Christendom…..

  1. Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin 2014. Revolt on the Right:  Explaining support for the radical right in Britain (Kindle edition). Abingdon: Routledge. []
  2. ibid chp 3 []
  3. ibid chp 3 []
  4. []