How Did We Get Here? The EU Referendum and the Crises of Union

by Joseph Leigh

26 June 2016

As the UK votes to exit the European Union, Britain heads into a period of unprecedented turbulence. This was not supposed to happen. Exit voters have called Cameron’s bluff spectacularly. What does the result suggest about the state of UK democracy? And what strategic challenges does it present to the left?

Dimensions of a Crisis

In all likelihood, Britain will exit the European Union. By a margin of 4%, 52-48, the 1975 decision to enter the EU (then the Common Market) has been reversed. Although the reverberations and aftershocks of the vote will be widely felt, its origins are largely parochial: this is a crisis formed in England, where all the major regions bar London returned a Leave vote. Its origins lie in Westminster, from which Conservative and Labour grandees oversaw a singularly self-defeating campaign, wheeling out the very figures of popular antipathy (Tony Blair, John Major, Lord Rose etc.) most derided by Brexit sympathisers. Its impact was strongest in the north and the midlands, where the major cities, Newcastle, Manchester, Leeds and Liverpool were the only pro-Remain areas and Sheffield, Nottingham and Birmingham voted out. But the Leave vote was strongest in the post-industrial towns and urban peripheries, where the Leave vote increased in approximate proportion to a constituency’s distance from a major city: Gateshead, Middlesbrough, Knowsley, St Helens, Sandwell, Cherwell and Havering all voted Exit. Ultimately, the working class has voted, in its millions, against EU membership and its establishment advocates.

The immediate consequences of the vote is as follows. The resignation of Cameron as prime minister, triggering a Tory leadership election to be concluded by the Conservative party Conference in October. A pending economic downturn: the rating agency Moody’s has downgraded the UK’s credit rating after $2tn was wiped off the markets within 24 hours of the result. The prospect of an imminent general election to follow the election of a new Tory leader as PM. The beginning of the UK’s withdrawal from the European Union, prompting a rewriting of much current legislation, notably that relating to migration and employment protections. The probable break-up of the United Kingdom, as Scotland, which voted overwhelmingly for Remain, seeks to decouple itself from the English malaise. Irish unification has even been raised again by Sinn Féin. Even now, it is totally unclear what form the process of exit will take. Some EU leaders are calling for a swift and painful divorce, while Cameron speaks of delaying the triggering of Article 50 until a new PM is in place. One thing at least is clear: even on their own terms, the concerns of Leave voters are unlikely to be addressed any time soon, with the Conservatives already seeking to mediate the unwelcome impact of the referendum on the UK economy. We await the fall out from their further disaffection.

Predictably, the parliamentary Labour party hastily sought to blame the failures of the Remain campaign on Jeremy Corbyn, who faces the prospect of a vote of no confidence, tabled by Margaret Hodge and Ann Coffey, members of the Blairite Progress wing of the party. This facet of the current situation at least can be dismissed as a delusion. The notion that Corbyn’s own ambivalence toward the EU was behind the Exit vote is plainly nonsense. Around two thirds of Labour voters were mobilised for Remain, while 60% of the Conservative vote went to Exit: the fault is Cameron’s. His extraordinarily short-sighted decision to offer the right of his party a referendum — in the hope that the offer would mitigate the impact of Ukip on the Tory vote — has backfired extraordinarily. The defining pillars of his political career —the modernisation of the Conservative party, the consolidation of the UK’s traditional elite at the apex of government and economy, and the further entrenchment of neoliberalism — have been shaken by a single tactical misjudgement. His premiership ends in disgrace.

In this context, the majority verdict of disaster is as misleading as the minority opinion that Brexit constitutes an opening for the radical left. In a crisis such as this, uncertainty is all that can be expected with any confidence. Strategic proposals for the left of centre to recoup gains after Brexit (see, for example: Paul Mason) will be inevitably partial until the full dimensions of the crisis leading to and encompassing the UK’s exit from the European Union are understood. The challenges facing the left in the aftermath of the referendum are in the medium-to-long rather than the short-term. A more sanguine reading of the situation can be made in a broader historical perspective.

How did we get here? Writing in 1972, as the British left grappled with the question of Common Market membership, Tom Nairn urged that entry into the incipient EU signified a historic stage in the struggle between socialism and capitalism. For Nairn, membership of the political system of European capital constituted a break with the fetters of nationalism that had stunted the international development of the Russian revolution, and an upscaling of the socialist project that would enable the left to meets its adversaries “upon the terrain of reality and the future.” If this is so, withdrawal from the EU constitutes a revanchist manoeuvre backwards into a world of national fantasy, a strategic victory for the most reactionary elements of the British right achieved on the terms of a retrograde ideology. Of course, we need not weep for the European Union, mired in its own interlocking crises; and of course, Europe is not the world, as Brussels’ shameful refugee policy has so clearly demonstrated. Yet the terms of Exit are undeniably sickening. How did we get here?

The answer to this question relies on several others: Why has public acceptance of the EU been eroded? How should this political process be understood in relation to the major political-economic dynamics affecting the UK? And how adequately have these tendencies been interpreted on the organised left?

Globalisation and Anti-Politics

The terms of the referendum campaign reveals a series of important symptoms of contemporary political malaise. Two commanding facts now confront the left in the aftermath of the EU referendum:

First, British democracy is in the throes of a profound yet enigmatic crisis. This political upheaval is inflected by the economic downturn that emerged within Anglo-American and European financial markets in 2008-9, but encompasses the whole period from the 1970s to the present. Its immediate manifestation is a complete breakdown of public trust in the political sphere: a string of political scandals have dragged attitudes toward politicians, political parties and the media to a historic nadir. According to the most exhaustive attempt to map the decline of civic faith in UK democracy since 1945, 48% of people consider politicians ‘out merely for themselves’, while just 10% view the political class as serving the ‘national interest’. This represents a major transformation of political attitudes: in 1944, 36% thought politicians put ‘their country first’, 35% considered them ‘self-seekers’. While disapproval of government was 20% lower than its contemporary peak (60%). Between 1970 and 2014, the perception of parties and governments as seeking to serve some kind of national interest declined by about 18%, whereas between 1945 and 1970, there was just an 8% drop off. By the late 1990s, the political sphere had become devalued in the eyes of the citizenry and the political class: “I was never really in politics . . . I don’t feel myself a politician even now,” commented Blair in the early days of his premiership. Overall, the picture emerging from a series of quantitative studies on political attitudes is of an increasing antipathy toward both the institutions and representatives of a democratic system widely viewed as broken and unfair, if not actively corrupt and parasitic. Thus, contempt for the European Union can be seen in many ways as the culmination of a generalised anti-political trend. The Leave campaign was able to give expression to the grievances of a disenchanted populace by positioning itself as a vote for democratic autonomy (‘take back control’) and against the establishment entrenched in Westminster and Brussels. As well as the various shades of sickening racism and xenophobia mobilised by Vote Leave and Grassroots Out, the referendum has highlighted a deep process of democratic decay, the origins and meaning of which have not been much discussed on the left.

Second, the growth of political disaffection with the status-quo has failed to reverse, or even significantly arrest, the declining influence of the left within the political and cultural arenas of national democracy: the sometimes bitter urgency of the ‘Lexit’ debate has been in inverse proportion to its effective significance. For while the debate over EU membership was played out through a depressingly narrow and familiar set of positions. When the electorate shows itself concerned, above all, with issues of fiscal management, national security and immigration control, ‘the left case’ has remained utterly marginal. Though the alienation of the working class, and large sections of the middle classes, from the current regime was consistently highlighted during the campaign, this was often expressed in the same xenophobic terms actively promoted by the Exit camp. Superficially, the absence of any left, or even ‘progressive’, agenda from the referendum campaign can be attributed to the preordained limits of any debate over EU membership in its present form. While the case for Lexit always relied upon a set of highly optimistic hypotheses (see: here) about the post-Brexit trajectory of Corbyn’s Labour party, the left-Remain argument projected a similarly distant, and perhaps improbable, vision of EU-wide social reform as its justification. More fundamentally, however, the relative marginality of the left in this latest episode conforms to the general failure of the UK left to make significant gains in the aftermath of the Great Crash of 2008-9. Since that date, the Conservative party has formed two governments, dismantling the remaining structures of the welfare state, whilst the far-right — manifested in Ukip — flourishes, attracting millions of working class and lower middle class voters by depicting immigration and EU bureaucracy as the sources of national decline.

Seen up close, from the vantage point provided by the referendum, it is clear that these two dynamics are closely entwined. For the crisis of liberal democracy is finding its most acute expression in support for the agenda of the xenophobic right and, therefore, in a rejection, more or less explicit, of the agenda of both the socialist and social democratic left. What are the common conditions of this double crisis?

Viewed in a longer historical perspective, the two processes of decline — of general civic faith in the political sphere, and the particular fortunes of the organised left within it — clearly occupy a common trajectory. On the one hand, the rise of popular anti-politics directly coincides with the collapse of Keynesian social democracy in the 1970s and 1980s, its replacement by neoliberalism, and the corresponding defeats of the organised working class and the Labourite project of democratic reformism. In this way, it is free-market globalisation which provides the common frame in which the crises of civic trust and left politics become mutually intelligible. Much as the upwards transferral of national political power to supranational institutions strips national democracy of its popular content, globalisation — typified by the relocation of manufacturing to Asia and the rebalancing of the UK economy from industrial to financial capital — also limits the objective scope of a politics oriented to the limits of capitalism. For as the fortunes of British capital, above all the financial sector, become increasingly divorced from the productive capacities of the domestic population, workers power correspondingly declines. As such, the socialist or social democratic agenda has receded. On the economic side, this process is creating a progressively widening gap between those areas which are benefiting from the new global economy — in particular, Manchester, London and Cambridge — and those which are in decline in terms of employment and wages — the vestiges of the Victorian seaside towns in East Yorkshire, East Anglia, Essex, Devon and Cornwall, and the post-industrial North and East Midlands (Sheffield, Nottingham). In these areas, the Conservatives out-perform Labour by about three votes to one, while support for Ukip is high and continues to grow. The Remain/Leave vote essentially broke down along these lines, as many predicted it would. On the other hand, the economic form of globalisation has corresponded to a less discussed political process encompassing the major institution of liberal democracy: the political party.

Since the 1970s, both the social function and political identity of the party has been transformed in a series of stages roughly mirroring the economic dynamics of globalisation. Broadly, social democratic parties across the OECD economies have been reconstituted as elite rather than mass parties. Just as the shift of proletarian labour-power from West to East has enfeebled European and American trade unions, the disintegration of the national networks connecting labour, government and corporations has eroded the institutional basis of the classic social democratic party infrastructure. At the same time, the convergence of western elites on a common neoliberal orthodoxy has made the identities of parties less and less distinguishable in ideological terms. The result is a generalised cynicism rooted in the accurate summation that no meaningful difference exists to differentiate one group of technocratic market-managers from another. The shift, in Peter Mair’s apt words, to a “democracy without demos” has mirrored the neoliberal dismantling of the limited form of economic democracy — mass trade unions and collective bargaining agreements — that underpinned the Keynesian era.

By viewing the particular features of the referendum campaign and its result through this general lens, three conclusions suggest themselves. Firstly, the foreclosure of any meaningful political sphere is to the significant disadvantage of the left. It would be naïve in the extreme to assume general disaffection is likely to breed a renewed yearning for social and economic justice. It may well be that a generally left, specifically socialist, politics relies more than any other form of organised ideology upon the existence of some sense of the possibility of effective, collective political agency. In the absence of that, the further development of a xenophobic, racist, perhaps even fascist agenda seems the more likely course. Secondly, dissatisfaction with the European Union and immigration are not expressions of an anti-austerity, anti-neoliberal agenda waiting to emerge into the full light of political consciousness. Rather, these sentiments in many ways reflect the capacity of the neoliberal hegemony to disorganise the forces of its own potential opposition. Thirdly, any attempt to overcome this scenario will rely upon the ability to link the economic reform agenda traditionally associated with the left to a programme of democratic renewal. Ultimately, the former is unattainable unless people are convinced of the effectiveness of the latter.


Finally, how adequate are the various left programmes and strategies on offer to combat the scenario roughly outlined above? Two can be dismissed out of hand. From the right of the Labour party, headed up by Peter Mandelson, demands for a return to a Third Way style leadership are heard daily. But even if a return to Blairism could return another election victory for Labour, it is clear from the above that the medium, and perhaps even short-term, consequences would be the further fragmentation of the Labour vote and the continued rise of the conditions of anti-politics. Blair lost the party three million votes between 1995 and 2005, Brown a further one million. One can easily speculate that such a move would be to the ultimate advantage of Ukip, perhaps in coalition with the Conservatives. From the minor parties of the radical left, many fantasies are still indulged. Attempts to style the referendum result as a victory for the working class against austerity is one example of this, whilst the idea that Cameron’s resignation will lead inevitably to the downfall of the the ruling order is another.

More serious are the various proposals for some kind of left-leaning nationalism, civic in character, to be fostered as bulwark against the rising tide of xenophobia. The ‘Blue Labour’ strand of this thinking, lately proposed by Tristram Hunt among others, links concerns about economic decline and immigration to a rising identification with Englishness, promising to endorse the latter in order to better convince voters Labour are capable of dealing with the former issue areas. To the extent that such thinking is integrated within Blairism, as in Hunt’s case, it is clearly cynical. The Third Way project was consistently bourgeois and cosmopolitan in outlook. It therefore became the object of cynicism for many of the people Hunt now looks to group together under the umbrella term of ‘Englishness’. In effect, Hunt’s proposals amount to a call for Corbyn to mediate his positions in order to win over so-called cultural conservatives:

“A failure to appreciate the value of Englishness played an important role in our 2015 defeat and nothing Corbyn has done as leader has changed this. Indeed, his cosmopolitan views on immigration, benefits, the monarchy and armed forces are likely to have exacerbated the disconnect.”

The fact that Corbyn’s support for the welfare state (‘benefits’) is, for Hunt, a sign of ‘cosmopolitan excess’ is indicative of the broader thinking behind ‘Blue Labour’. That is to say, the will to dismantle what remains of Labour’s commitments to the poor and the working class and substitute them for a cultural nationalism. Much like the more brazen calls for a return to the Third Way, this route promises certain destruction for Labour, as, in plain fact, the ground Hunt wants to occupy is already ruled by Ukip and the Conservatives.

However, to the extent that a left discourse on civic and cultural values can be decoupled from these illusions, it may represent a viable strategy. Podemos point the way here: by invoking the language of the people against ‘La Casta’ (the Elite), the new Spanish left have successfully forged a discourse that allows them to own the broader language of nationhood without engaging the specific grammar of ethno-nationalism. Whether it would be possible to divorce any idealisation of the British people, (or indeed the English if Scotland are to exit the UK), from the trappings of imperial history is another, pressing question. It is notable that Corbyn and his team have almost entirely failed to engage with these questions of culture and discursive strategy. Surely, they must now do so. Connected to the question of nationhood is that of democracy. We await a clear sign of Corbyn’s positions on potential devolutions, but the kind of proposals outlined by Jeremy Gilbert on devolution and participatory local democracy must be integrated with McDonnell’s emerging economic program if the left are to have any hope of winning in an anti-political climate.

What of the primary material issue at the heart of the Brexit vote? Left discourse on immigration is a fairly underdeveloped field. The two historic positions — a cosmopolitan vision of open borders, and a more isolationist system of privileges for the domestic working class — have usually been placed in an unproductive opposition. There are signs of some movement, here. During the referendum campaign both Paul Mason and Len McCluskey gave partial endorsement to ‘concerns about immigration’ by pointing to the depressive effect of inward migration on wages, and its putative contribution to the fragmentation of the trade unions.

However, the difficulty here is that in the rush to ‘take seriously people’s concerns about immigration’, Mason and McCluskey endorse the hyper-inflated, xenophobic propaganda of Ukip and the right-wing press. On balance, the evidence does not suggest inward economic migration adversely affects wages to any significant degree. In the most comprehensive study of the impact of migration upon wages in low-paid and semi-skilled work, the Bank of England found the negative impact was just 2%. This is negligible. Certainly, this figure would be dwarfed in comparison to the impact of austerity and weak trade unions on the overall wage rate. In this light, Mason’s call for a points-based system, where migration would be controlled against the domestic supply of labour to privilege UK-born workers, is a concession too far. Furthermore, such proposals risk dividing workers globally. If western states begin to adopt such systems, the upshot may be the formation of a new aristocracy of labour with privileged access to high wages in the west, and the further marginalisation of those denied access to the rich economies of Europe. The contradictions of a nationally-located politics operating in an increasingly globalised world economy continue to confound.

Some of the responses to the current scenario, produced by the referendum campaign and the Exit vote, highlight the limits of the left reply to the questions raised by the rising wave of xenophobic nationalism. Formulating a progressive programme for a post-Brexit UK will be the latest step in a process of overcoming the past, and entering the terrain of the future.

Photo: Mick Baker/Flickr

If you want to support media for a different politics, you can donate or subscribe to Novara Media at

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.

We’re up against huge power and influence. Our supporters keep us entirely free to access. We don’t have any ad partnerships or sponsored content.

Donate one hour’s wage per month—or whatever you can afford—today.