Over the last few years, Brexit has amplified and brought to the forefront some of the most pressing issues we are faced with: a lack of trust in the institutions of liberal democracy, a feeling of disenfranchisement from the political realm, rising inequality and a deep social divide between different groups in the country. For example, young people are generally socially liberal, support progressive causes and the Labour Party, whilst elderly, property-owning voters rejected Labour overwhelmingly at the ballot box and voted for Brexit.
But Brexit is not the cause of these fractures, it is merely a symptom. Brexit should be understood as the British expression of a populist revolt against failed “third way” centre-ground politics. And as it is the common pattern across the US and other European countries, this feeling of unease with the political settlement in Britain has been exploited by nationalists and authoritarians.
By delivering the Brexit vote, the Leave campaign in 2016 managed for the first time to tap into this coalition of voters that also gave Boris Johnson his 80-strong parliamentary majority in December last year. Conservatives won in former Labour constituencies where it was long considered unthinkable that voters would return a Tory MP. At the same time, this did not come at the expense of the Tory “heartland” equivalents. What is it that binds this coalition together?
The answer to this question is two-fold. Rather than addressing economic conditions or the power dynamic within the British nation state that have led many communities to breaking point, the referendum opened the space to construct a placeholder adversary to fight against. This adversary was not defined as the ruling class – instead it was a shallow definition of the “liberal elite”, personified by the European Union, that was used as a shield to protect the British ruling class.
This coalition of natural Conservatives and Northern leavers can only work because it does not threaten the British ruling classes’ position of power. It is also a coalition that dilutes questions of economic and political power with social conservatism. Social conservatism sits easy with traditional Tory voters. Others were brought into the tent in 2016 when Vote Leave campaigners linked issues the British public cared about – such as the NHS and jobs – with European immigration. A simple solution to underfunding of public services and stagnating wages was presented: to end free movement by leaving the EU.
Vote Leave alumni and the Conservatives have since continued to embed this nationalism in the post-referendum debate. They created an image of “the people” which is based on a national myth of British exceptionalism, the image of a Global Britain, the country that “stood alone”, now once again punching above its weight. Anyone that does not get on board is a traitor. It’s a vision of community and nationhood that is othering, reeks of Empire nostalgia and feels hostile to many ethnic minority and immigrant communities.
This legacy of Vote Leave is what Johnson will now capitalise on. To consolidate his new coalition, we can expect some modest state intervention targeted at newly-won Labour areas. But to maintain his voting coalition, these socially conservative policies grounded in nationalism and authoritarianism will also be necessary.
How can Labour counter this? The crisis that lies beneath the surface of Brexit is still a crisis of capitalism. This crisis will only intensify in the face of climate change. The current malaise of capitalism manifests itself in such a way that large swathes of the population are impacted by it, they suffer from low wages and declining living standards. This makes the current situation fertile ground to recruit new groups of workers to an anti-capitalist struggle that might not have been natural allies.
To construct this coalition, we must communicate to the people that the struggles they experience in their daily lives are rooted in the oppressive nature of the capitalist system. All workers’ struggles are grounded in this common struggle. Whether we fight for higher wages or flexible working, the reason our bosses will not grant us these rights that it is incompatible with their main goal of profit maximisation.
Our coalition is the working class in all its diversity. This must include workers in places with few opportunities and those in our biggest cities. It must include those on precarious zero-hour contracts and those in white collar office jobs. The urgency of the crisis makes it a fertile ground to recruit those to an anti-capitalist struggle that might not have turned to us otherwise.
Here is where we also need to build an intersectional understanding of our politics – not only is this key to building a coalition big enough to overthrow the government. It is also because the oppression of women, the LGBT community, people of colour and disabled people are part of what upholds the structures of capitalism.
Most of all, we will not win if we dance to the Conservatives’ tune. The more we capitulate, ignore or triangulate, the easier it will be or them to consolidate their coalition. To win, we must break their common-sense narrative that gives Leave-voting former Labour supporters the impression that they have somehow more in common with the Conservatives in a crusade against the “liberal elite” than with their fellow workers.
Labour’s leadership contenders must understand that identifying and consolidating this coalition of voters is key for the party to win again in the future. As some in the party seek comfort in reverting back to old images of heartlands and the working class, Labour must urgently realise that our coalition is an evolving group, not a static concept. Over the next five years, it will be our job to construct and sell this vision of “the people” as partners in a common struggle against the capitalist class as our shared oppressor.