Brexit is the only way the working class can change anything

Lisa Mckenzie — Guardian.co.uk June 15, 2016

I have lived in working-class communities all my life, and now that I research and write about those communities as a working-class academic, my motivation has always been to make sure that an authentic working-class woman’s voice tells our stories.

Working-class people’s voices are rarely heard outside their communities, and almost never within the political or media sphere. However the EU referendum debate has opened up a Pandora’s box of working-class anger and frustration. It is clear that the Westminster politicos are quite unnerved by this. Even I am surprised by how the referendum has captured the attention and the imagination of the same people that only last year told me they had no interest in the general election “because ‘they’ are all the same”.

Some 13 months later they are asking me what I think and arguing with me about the finer points of Brexit. In working-class communities, the EU referendum has become a referendum on almost everything. In the cafes, pubs, and nail bars in east London where I live and where I have been researching London working-class life for three years the talk is seldom about anything else (although football has made a recent appearance). In east London it is about housing, schools and low wages. The women worry for their children and their elderly parents – what happens to them if the rent goes up again? The lack of affordable housing is terrifying.

In the mining towns of Nottinghamshire where I am from, the debate again is about Brexit, and even former striking miners are voting leave. The mining communities are also worried about the lack of secure and paid employment, the loss of the pubs and the grinding poverty that has returned to the north. The talk about immigration is not as prevalent or as high on the list of fears as sections of the media would have us believe. The issues around immigration are always part of the debate, but rarely exclusively.

From my research I would argue that the referendum debate within working-class communities is not about immigration, despite the rhetoric. It is about precarity and fear. As a group of east London women told me: “I’m sick of being called a racist because I worry about my own mum and my own child,” and “I don’t begrudge anyone a roof who needs it but we can’t manage either.”

Over the past 30 years there has been a sustained attack on working-class people, their identities, their work and their culture by Westminster politics and the media bubble around it. Consequently they have stopped listening to politicians and to Westminster and they are doing what every politician fears: they are using their own experiences in judging what is working for and against them.

In the last few weeks of the campaign the rhetoric has ramped up and the blame game started. If we leave the EU it will be the fault of the “stupid”, “ignorant”, and “racist” working class. Whenever working-class people have tried to talk about the effects of immigration on their lives, shouting “backward” and “racist” has become a middle-class pastime.

Working-class people in the UK can see a possibility that something might change for them if they vote to leave the EU. The women in east London and the men in the mining towns all tell me the worst thing is that things stay the same. The referendum has become a way in which they can have their say, and they are saying collectively that their lives have been better than they are today. And they are right. Shouting “racist” and “ignorant” at them louder and louder will not work – they have stopped listening.

For them, talking about immigration and being afraid of immigration is about the precarity of being working class, when people’s basic needs are no longer secure and they want change. The referendum has opened up a chasm of inequality in the UK and the monsters of a deeply divided and unfair society are crawling out. They will not easily go away no matter what the referendum result.

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