jump to navigation

Untied kingdom… December 5, 2019

Posted by WorldbyStorm in Uncategorized.

Thanks to BH for pointing to these two pieces, both contributed to by John Harris in the Guardian. The first offers a sense of the vox pops undertaken by Harris and John Domokos across the UK this last number of years. Perhaps the following is bombastic. Or perhaps not:

We didn’t predict the referendum result. But for us, the film that finished in Collyhurst helped to frame what had happened. Lots of analysis and data since that referendum has cast doubt on the idea that Brexit was some kind of working-class revolt. But all across Britain, in neglected places that rarely saw TV cameras, we had met people who were voting to leave the EU as a way of calling for change: to be heard. The idea of listening to the “left behind” briefly took hold, and found its way into Theresa May’s early speeches as prime minister. It felt to us like Brexit might be a turning point for Britain, and that the vox pop was somehow part of what was changing.

Certainly what they have uncovered is a state, or states, deeply uncomfortable with it/themselves. And with no clarity as to a way forward.

Moreover in the second piece Harris suggests that there is enormous evidence of cleavages within what was once the constituency addressed, engaged and represented by and of the left. And this is striking:

If what we are facing is a deepening estrangement between progressive politics and the people and places it once spoke to as a matter of instinct, even more difficult arguments rear their heads. If you see a certain kind of old, white, working-class man and think that progressive politics ought to have nothing to do with him, you should maybe understand that your opinion is an indication of huge political failure.

I think there’s a lot in that. And one can put it less baldly – the ought can be replaced by ‘has’ and it still is troubling.

And one possible out-working of this, albeit only one of many?

I share the ambivalence in the following:

The same, it pains me to say, applies to all the lingering noise about the Brexit referendum somehow being overturned and the need for a second vote. I am a passionate remainer. Instinctively, the prospect of binning the Brexit result lifts my spirits; since 2016, one of the most frustrating aspects of British politics has been Labour’s refusal to talk meaningfully about our exit from the EU and the Tory fantasies that have propelled it. But at the same time, much more difficult thoughts are inescapable.

Once a culture of industry, trade unionism and reflex Labour-voting had started to wane, people in post-industrial England felt increasingly cut off from politics. Whatever its inbuilt mendacities, the referendum was presented as a clear, era-defining choice; and whatever their motivations, people voted in good faith. Which brings me to my own tortured ambivalence, and a conclusion that has been rattling around my head since I got back from the red wall trip: unless millions of voters’ exasperation with what has happened since 2016 is convincingly answered, and some kind of Brexit takes place, the chances of any firm reconnection between progressive politics and its supposed ancient heartlands look slim.


1. Phil - December 5, 2019

Harris is an idiot; he went out looking for signs of the imminent decline of Labour ten years ago, and he’s been finding them ever since (while ignoring rises in the Labour vote by 1% under Miliband and 10% under Corbyn, the transformation of the Labour Party, repeated failures for UKIP, etc). One example: he said in 2016 that Labour needed to have a message for “the UKIP-voting Fens” (and that not having one was a herald of Labour’s imminent decline under Corbyn, etc, etc). But Fenland covers five constituencies, where the Tories consistently score in the 50%s or above (and UKIP got around 20% of the vote at their 2015 peak); in the six elections since 1997 Labour has won one of the five, once.


WorldbyStorm - December 5, 2019

I wonder was his point re the fens after looking at theNE and NW Cambridgeshire results where in 2015 the BLP was beaten into third place by UKIP (after slipping to 3rd after the LDs in 2010 where before they’d been second) In S Cambridgeshire in the next election it looks like a large portion of UKIps vote went to the BLP. Not saying Harris is correct or rather that most of the seats were competitive but keeping the BLP in play was a real and imminent concern that thankfully 2017 saw ameliorated.


2. lcox - December 5, 2019

What’s really striking with Harris and so many *English* left commentators is the way (post-Thatcher) they take it for granted that working class people have no organised agency of their own, as a feature of the universe. Hence e.g.

“a deepening estrangement between progressive politics and the people and places it once spoke to as a matter of instinct”

with the assumption that those people and places are quite naturally passive and progressive politics comes from somewhere else and speaks to them. But the actual English history is quite different (as Williams might have said): there has been a systematic and very conscious destruction of working-class self-organisation at every level – unions, local party membership, participation in social movements. Not only by Thatcher but also of course by a Blairism that actively hollowed out what Thatcher left.

And what is left behind (if that destruction is complete) is the symbolic politics of – once in a blue moon – casting your vote for a choice, set by someone else in referenda and elections, and hoping that this time it might change something. Without, of course, the sort of direct involvement in making those decisions or the kind of formal or informal political education that would help interpret them.

Harris and co. can’t see this because of course their starting assumption is that this is a feature of the universe. But the contrast to working-class people this side of the water (or in France) tells a rather different story.

As does of course the way the strongest “traditional Labour, pro-Leave constituency” is not one with a residual degree of political activism going on (big towns) but is a small-town working-class vote where union and party membership, political education and social movements were always less strong to begin with.

And, tellingly for the whiteness of this image of the “English working class”, people who don’t identify as white – who are much less likely either to vote Tory or to vote Leave.


3. Brian Hanley - December 5, 2019

‘but is a small-town working-class vote where union and party membership, political education and social movements were always less strong to begin with.’
Just not true. The communist mileau among the Welsh miners was based around small towns, villages and essentially rural areas.
Most members of the NUM overall came from small towns and villages- relatively few miners were from the cities. That union had quite a left culture.
It strikes me we all see things that we want to see and then look for evidence to back our own perspective up. Some of what Harris says chimes with my own (limited) experience and also that of people I know.

Liked by 1 person

lcox - December 5, 2019

True – that was an over-generalisation. But it is also true as I understand it that a swathe of the areas that Harris and others want to present as representing The British Working Class are in areas which have never been Left bastions. There are of course former mining areas where the devastation is pretty universal, but the distinction between cities and small towns in terms of left votes etc. is quite common *outside* of single-industry small towns etc.

Mostly what I want to see is some degree of active agency that goes beyond metropolitan journalists (whatever their background) praising the symbolic votes of people who’ve lost any organic connection to collective agency as though this is the norm – “they” are left behind and “we” have to make them an offer.


4. terrymdunne - December 8, 2019

There were clear concentrations of pro-Leave votes in the 2016 referendum in the area around Manchester and between Manchester and Liverpool; south Wales; Birmingham and the west Midlands; the area around Newcastle and the north-east (there were also of course remain votes in those places – and leave votes elsewhere – concentration for instance in a band around London). That looks like a co-relation between Leave votes and industrial decline in England and Wales. That shouldn’t be read as The Working Class voted leave, since, aside from Birmingham which was a shade over to leave, the major cities all voted remain. Also we should be skeptical of the red-turns-to-brown trope beloved of journalists; and there is a tendency to fashion a left golden age out of the British past – in fact Farage has his lineage just like Corbyn; and indeed we have yet to see if the Conservative party can actually make gains based on the leave vote. Nonetheless, there is an important concern with what does politics look like in a post-industrial setting (and by no means just parliamentary politics) – so what are the good analyses of this issue?


lcox - December 8, 2019

The data seem to be more complicated than that. For reasons I don’t fully understand the vote wasn’t taken by constituency outside NI, though apparently some constituency-level results were released (but not all). They don’t do referenda particularly well Across The Water…

Chris Green http://www.ox.ac.uk/news-and-events/oxford-and-brexit/brexit-analysis/mapping-brexit-vote draws this conclusion:

“The areas where the “Leave” vote was strongest are of relatively low population (for Britain). Areas of higher population voted in both directions, but not particularly strongly (with the exception of central London).”

Danny Dorling has this::


“Dorling’s research, which was presented at the British Science Association’s annual meeting at Warwick University, also suggested that most of the UK’s leave votes did come not from the north of England but the south, with the highest numbers in areas populated with affluent older people, such as Hampshire, Cornwall and Devon.

“The Welsh did not want to quit the EU, but that is one of many false beliefs about Brexit. The biggest is that the pro-leave vote was due to northerners,” he said. “It’s true some northern areas were strongly pro-Brexit, but the population there is too small to swing the vote.

“The real support for Brexit, in terms of numbers of votes, was in places like Cornwall, which was 57% for leave, Hampshire with 54%, Essex with 62% and Norfolk with 57%. It is those southern English voters that are dragging Scotland, Wales and Northern Ireland unwillingly out of Europe.

“Everyone blames Wigan and Stoke for Brexit but we should really be blaming Cornwall and Devon.”

Clearly there are cases where there was once A Strong And Organised Working Class and now there is a majority leave vote. But equally clearly (as with Trump voters in the US) there is a tendency to conflate such areas with (a) the decline of the BLP in general and (b) the Brexit vote, as a misleading synecdoche. And in particular there is a constant tendency to imagine that all working-class English people in particular were always on the left. This has never been the case.

The point I was trying to make though was precisely about politics in a post-industrial setting: the assumption that working-class people are necessarily passive, reduced to the option of shouting for one team or another in referenda and elections and without any potential for self-organisation let alone co-creating what appears at elections and referenda, is part of the problem. A brief look at either water charges protests in Ireland or gilets jaunes in France makes it clear that such situations are not eternal or natural. Thinkpieces which assume that they are are part of the problem.


WorldbyStorm - December 8, 2019

There’s an argument that, absent some of the mining areas, etc, the LP vote in recent times is close to that seen during the 1980s during Thatcher. I’d certainly agree with both your contentions that it’s not a simple area, and very strongly with the point that not all working class people voted Labour.


terrymdunne - December 8, 2019

Actually my characterisation was based on Chris Green’s mapping – which clearly shows a co-relation between the leave vote and the post-industrial areas – for instance there is a big smear of blue on his map in south Wales (just north of a remain area) – signifying the number of pro-Brexit votes in what AFAIK is the former coal/iron area – neither AFAIK an area of Welsh-speaking nor a Borders area with a (recent) English influx. Like Merthyr Tydfil and Aberfan are in a high Brexit vote area according to Chris Green’s map. Likewise lots of the other places he shows as having a leave vote concentration are around Newcastle, around Birmingham, the mill towns around Manchester and so on i.e. areas which experienced a decline of manufacturing industry. I am not too exercised about the Brexit vote in and of itself – it may not be part of a replication of the rise of the far-right in France and Italy (i.e. what is *apparently* the case in the post-industrial spaces in those countries) – if it is that is obviously another matter. So what are the useful analyses of political situations in post-industrial settings?


WorldbyStorm - December 8, 2019

I’d be interested in reading some serious analysis on that issue myself.


Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: