By Susannah O’Sullivan
On Friday 24th June Britain saw a close to months of toxic campaigning on both sides of the referendum campaign as a majority of voters sanctioned an exit from the European Union. In many ways this vote is seen as historical and as changing the landscape of politics in Britain, and in Europe, beyond recognition. We saw the Prime Minister resign at breakfast time, and before lunch were taking in the prospect of a dismembered United Kingdom without Scotland and perhaps even Northern Ireland, and there are very real concerns about the prospects of the Northern Ireland peace process after Brexit. Images filed under ‘doom’ not seen since the economic crash in 2007-8 were trotted out across the media: traders looking despondent, and graphs showing prices, shares, the value of the pound rocketing downwards. The knives were out in the Labour Party as some saw the prospect of both the Tory Party and the British state falling apart as a good opportunity to claim a scalp of their own kin by calling for a vote of no confidence in Corbyn.
On the face of it, then, there are many reasons to be anxious about the future outside of the EU. The main legacy of the referendum campaign seems to be the atmosphere of malignant toxicity that has descended like a cloud over the country. The campaign has seen fear pitted against hate, as the two sides squabbled over how best to limit immigration and how much the pound or house prices would lose value in the event of a British exit. In many ways politics as usual, then, but with the volume turned up. The saddest thing for me is how much this politics of hate and fear clearly resonates with much of the British population. The campaign to leave the EU has tapped into levels of anger and frustration felt across the land that have clearly exceeded expectations of a complacent, liberal, metropolitan establishment. The country is divided beyond belief between an educated, liberal middle class in the diverse cities of Bristol, Manchester and London, and an unskilled, under-educated and under-paid majority in a country where social mobility has stalled, the post-industrial economy has failed many, and neoliberal flexibility has, predictably, favoured business over labour.
Faced with these socio-economic divisions, how is it possible to rally around a huge intergovernmental institution that pedals the same neoliberal solutions that have left so many people in Britain behind? Any campaign in this climate that even hints of the negative impact of immigration is bound to gain popular support. The Leave campaign’s empty slogans of ‘taking back control’, echoing Trump’s ‘make America great again’ succeed in filling a void left by the evacuation of meaningful, visionary politics, and so are easily latched onto by many. If we’re surprised by the vote to leave the EU, it shows how out of touch we are with the grim popular mood in our country.
It matters that the hateful and xenophobic tone of the campaign resonated with so many British people. It doesn’t matter so much, however, that Britain will leave the EU, and here’s why. There is a lot to be learned from the realisation that so many people in Britain are seething in anger at the neoliberal establishment. That widespread feeling of rejection from a globalised neoliberalism symbolises a yearning for something different, something more equal, and something more positive. Why are people so pissed off? Because there aren’t enough good quality jobs in deprived areas, because inequality is rising, because businesses keep wages low and regulations light, because the supply of public services is under threat, because the welfare state is under threat, because the competitiveness of the economy means nothing to ordinary people who just want to work. These are all good reasons to be angry. That anger can be channelled into demands for a different society, one with better public services and better conditions for workers.
These things aren’t just given out by the establishment, however, they have to be fought for and won. They aren’t necessarily guaranteed by the EU, and they aren’t always protected by it. And they don’t necessarily have a link with immigration. Here’s the hard part of the struggle, though, in rhetorical terms. Is there a link between levels of immigration, funding to public services, and wages? To be honest, I don’t know. No-one really knows, because the economy is so complicated that no-one really understands it even if they pretend to. This University of Oxford Migration Observatory report on the fiscal impact of migration stated that “the existing estimates of the fiscal impact of immigration in the UK are limited because of a lack of data and accurate information about a wide range of important factors.” These factors include migrants’ characteristics, impact on the labour market, and length of stay. There is too much uncertainty in these factors to measure impact with any certainty. The report also points out that different research institutions come up with different estimates of the impact of migration – the Institute for Public Policy Research varies between a slight negative and slight positive impact. Migration Watch, which campaigns against immigration, shows a negative impact. The LSE’s Centre for Economic Performance states that “there is still no evidence of an overall negative impact of immigration on jobs, wages, housing or the crowding out of public services. Any negative impacts on wages of less skilled groups are small.”
The only thing that matters is that there is a link in people’s minds, if not in reality. The message that public services and jobs are under threat because of immigration is easy to convey and understand. The message that maybe immigration has a negative impact, maybe it has a positive impact, but it depends on many factors and varies year to year, isn’t. Uncertainty doesn’t go down too well in politics even if it is the most accurate reflection of a complicated truth.
So what else is there to be positive about? Well, since we can’t be clear about unknown unknowns, then let’s focus on what we do know. There is a clear atmosphere of anger in the UK that has centred in a material sense on competition in public services and the job market that can be harnessed and channelled into a campaign against neoliberalism and against austerity. That anger can be transformed into a vision of a kinder, gentler economy that protects workers’ rights, and guarantees proper funding for public services, including affordable housing, and including a fully free and public NHS. As pointed out in this blog last year, and by myself elsewhere, what people in Britain need is a politics of hope, to show what can be achieved if we come together and strive for it.
The silver lining in the sea of gloom that seems to have engulfed us in the past days and weeks is that this alternative vision is possible, and people are already fighting for it. Unions are fighting austerity in secondary, further and higher education and there is a huge campaign to save the NHS from the government onslaught. The message that money ‘sent to Brussels’ could now be used to fund the NHS has been revealed as a vicious lie, and the prospect of further privatisation is celebrated by some in the Out camp. Which leads me to why leaving the EU doesn’t matter. What matters are austerity, and jobs, and worker protections, and public services. What matter is affordable housing and fighting property developers cashing in on gentrification. What matters is solidarity with refugees and the continuing challenge to racism or xenophobia in public debate and in our streets. To protect the things we care about from continuing neoliberalism we have to stand up and struggle for them, EU or no EU. If the referendum showed anything it was that we need to come together and try and understand each other across social, national and class divides, now more than ever.
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