Many on the radical left in Britain have characterised the Brexit referendum result as a ‘working class revolt’ which has thrown the political elite into deep crisis, opening possibilities for socialists and an intensification of class struggle. It is worth looking critically to see if the emerging evidence justifies such optimism.
Firstly, has there been a working class revolt or is it more complex than that? Polling by Tory peer, Lord Aschroft, is much cited as proof of a ‘revolt from below’. It shows two thirds of C2DE social strata of voters supported ‘leave’; a vote that was concentrated in the most deprived communities in England and Wales. In contrast 57% of ABC1 strata voted ‘remain’. However, struggle is always contradictory and dynamic. Using static social categories to determine the class nature of the Brexit vote simply emphasises inherent divisions within the working class produced by capitalism. It does not tell us much about the political trajectory of those voting. Were those from the lower social groups more militantly anti-establishment than ‘remain’ voting ABC1s? This latter group after all includes teachers, nurses, doctors and public sector workers who have recently taken industrial action and are arguably in the forefront of resistance to austerity and privatisation.
Undeniably, the ‘leave’ vote was a revolt against years of neglect. Nevertheless, it was clearly a revolt led by reactionary populists under the banner of xenophobia and narrow right-wing nationalism. This was not a revolt of a conscious self-acting working class. Increasingly forecasts predict a sharp post-Brexit economic downturn. A study by the Resolution Foundation suggests only tiny gains for the lowest paid, if government immigration targets are met. And these will be dwarfed in the short to medium term by an average fall of at least 2% in real wages as inflation and lower growth bites. When this happens and opportunistically hyped expectations are dashed, the result is likely to be apathy and impotence – not intensified struggle.
Secondly, has the ruling class really been thrown into crisis? The immediate post-referendum period certainly felt like it. Within 48 hours the pound and stock market crashed, Cameron resigned, the Brexit leaders stabbed each other in the back and the Blairites launched their coup attempt against Corbyn. Britain’s political elite seemed to flounder as it became clear there was no EU exit strategy. The only person with a plan seemed to be Nicola Sturgeon, and her plan did not involve rescuing Westminster.
Six weeks later things look less febrile. The ruthless speed with which the Tory party ousted the Cameron/Osborne clique and regrouped around Theresa May was an object lesson in the class consciousness of the political establishment. A number of recent events suggest that, to the extent there is a political crisis, it is one that the ruling elite are swiftly moving to control and use to their advantage.
Theresa May’s government represents a triumph for the Tory Party’s hard nationalist right. May herself is from the authoritarian wing despite her lukewarm ‘remain’ support. Proponents of a ‘hard Brexit’ (sacrificing single market access in order to ‘regain control’ over immigration) will dominate EU negotiations along with future foreign and trade relations. Despite crocodile tears for those ‘left behind’, the early signals suggest a government intent on deepening its neoliberal offensive against working people. Cuts in Corporation tax, relaxing bank regulations and restarting quantitative easing all benefit the wealthy at the expense of working class living standards – as does pushing ahead with the Trade Union Act. Keeping Jeremy Hunt in charge of the NHS is the best indication that the assault on public services will continue with renewed vigour.
It’s early days yet, but on balance the radical left should not anticipate a ruling class crisis or an upsurge in class struggle. Basing a strategy on misplaced optimism is a recipe for irrelevance and risks demoralising activists. There are, however, a number of issues around which the radical left can unite immediately. Defending Corbyn is vital to prevent a generational defeat for socialists and a major setback to the prospect for a genuinely transformational alternative. Resisting the upsurge in racism and racial violence of recent weeks is vital in countering the growing influence of right-wing populism in our most deprived communities. In Scotland, the clamour for indyref2 is growing. The pro-independence left will be divided this time over Scotland’s EU membership. Consequently, it will be a challenge to articulate a coherent radical vision for an independent Scotland.
Craig Lewis is the former Co-ordinator of Trade Union Education at Coleg Harlech, Wales, an ex-member of UCU’s NEC, ex Chair of UCU Wales FE Committee, and currently a Member of Unite Community, now living in Glasgow.