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Angry Old White Men: Brexit narratives and the racialisation of old labour

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Written by John Seed

In the aftermath of the Brexit vote in June 2016 a political narrative quickly emerged in which the supposed frustrations of older white provincial ‘left-behind’ working-class men became key to making sense of the result. What is the evidence, and what are the ideological and theoretical frameworks, for this narrative? Though ostensibly liberal, cosmopolitan, and fiercely anti-racist, it reproduces the polarities it claims to oppose.

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This piece was drafted in the autumn of 2016 and revised several times in the spring of 2017. It was commissioned by editors of a special issue of an academic journal. All proceeded smoothly until my draft was sent to three anonymous reviewers. Two were largely positive but one of them was having none of it. There was little in the way of specific criticisms, just a general antagonism and a list of the many things I hadn’t written about. In other words, why hadn’t I written something entirely different. Despite several revisions his (or her) veto was insuperable and the objections multiplied. I broke the uncomfortable stalemate and withdrew it. I subsequently sent it to several other academic journals that might have been sympathetic, or at least interested. For the first time in over forty years of dealing with academic journals, including being on the editorial boards of two, I found myself very unwelcome. I got chilly one-line rejections in several cases, sometimes almost by return of post. Two never replied, one even after I had prompted them for some kind of response.

This is how the draft stood in June 2017 when it was abandoned. It is too late to revise it now, at the end of 2021. To do so would require a massive programme of reading of the proliferating literature on Brexit. It would also require corrections and revision. And I am not sure how I would orient myself now. The world has moved on. The piece emerged from my surprise at the reaction of many “remainers” in the summer and autumn of 2016. It was an attempt to understand that reaction, to get some critical purchase on it. My sympathies, though, were drawn to the angry old working-class northern white men of the title, since I suppose I am one.


The Brexit vote was an event – a radical historical interruption. The immediate reaction on the remain side was shock and disbelief. There quickly emerged a more or less intelligible story with its heroes and its villains. The latter had already been signalled by Government minister Anna Soubry on the BBC as the referendum results came in. It was, she said, ‘the worst day of her life’ and a ‘dreadful day’ for the country. Responsibility for Brexit, she announced, lay squarely with ‘white working class’ voters, Labour supporters, who had ‘probably never seen a migrant’. (Nottingham Post 2016) In the next few days and weeks this claim was repeated in multiple forms across the political spectrum. ‘The most striking thing about Britain’s break with the EU is this: it’s the poor wot done it,’ according to Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator: ‘Council-estate dwellers, Sun readers, people who didn’t get good GCSE results… It’s this stark: if you do physical labour, live in a modest home and have never darkened the door of a university, you’re far more likely to have said ‘screw you’ to the EU than the bloke in the leafier neighbouring borough who has a nicer existence.’ (O’Neill 2016) Towards the other end of the spectrum the Daily Mirror commented in similar terms: ‘Class splits emerged, with the rich and well educated beaten out of the 28-nation bloc by poorer, working class voters. And pensioners overwhelmingly backed Brexit, while the younger generation tried in vain to save the country’s EU membership.’ (Glaze 2016) For the class warrior Lisa McKenzie writing in Red Pepper the Brexit vote was a working-class gesture of protest, ‘a two-fingered salute to the middle class and the establishment while looking back to a past they feel was better and out into a future that they know is bleak.’ (McKenzie 2016)

It is easy to find assertions of this kind across the British media in the aftermath of the referendum vote. Their political inflexion varies but from widely divergent perspectives there was a consensus: it was older white and male working class voters that swung the Brexit vote. It is worth asking whether this was in fact the case. So our starting place has to be some careful scrutiny of the limited data on the referendum vote and of inferences subsequently drawn from this data. Focus then turns to the kind of ideological and conceptual coordinates that shape this narrative and its chief protagonist: the old white provincial working-class man.

Who voted for what?

We do not, of course, know how anybody voted in the EU referendum. It was a secret and anonymous ballot. All we have are various polls whose predictive capacity was as limited in this referendum as in recent general elections; should they be more trusted as an accurate historical record of how people did vote? If we do use their evidence, we need to do so with caution. And a second key point that commentators frequently forget – polls and actual votes are two different things. Hence, if we begin with the question of generations, repeated headlines that 75 per cent of those aged between 18 and 24 voted to remain are simply wrong, since they assume a 100 per cent registration and a 100 per cent turnout among those who voiced an opinion to a pollster (Cosslett 2016, Elgot 2016). Only around 55% of the 18-24 age group were registered to vote in 2011, for instance. (Electoral Commission 2011) And even those young voters that are registered are less likely to vote than older people. Less than half of the former who were registered turned out to vote in the general elections of 2010 and 2015 – in other words, hardly more than one in four of the age group. (BBC 2016)

The overall turnout on 23rd June was just over 72 per cent. We will never know its precise breakdown in terms of age but different polls and commentators agreed that this youngest cohort of the electorate seemed to have had the smallest turnout. According to Sky Data – cited in the New Statesman, The Guardian and elsewhere – only 36 per cent of this age group voted. (Speed 2016) In the absence of reliable data one useful post-Brexit report suggested the 2015 general election turnout of 47 per cent of 18 to 24 year olds was a reasonable guess for the turnout in the EU referendum. (Macfarland and Owen 2016, 11) Another recent suggestion was that perhaps 64 per cent of those registered to vote between the ages of 18 and 24 may have voted — and 70 per cent of them voted to remain. (Helm 2016) But even this most optimistic conjecture still produces a modest figure of around 45 per cent of the age group who were registered did vote to remain; 55 per cent either voted Brexit or abstained. And this figure does not factor in those young people who hadn’t registered to vote – probably more than 40% of the age cohort, as we have seen. So less than a third of the youngest cohort of voters did vote to remain in the EU referendum, even using the most optimistic estimate of registration and turnout numbers.

Despite evidence that the youthful vote in favour of remain was probably less than half of the 75% that newspaper headlines claimed, there was a remarkable consensus across the media that the young were the victims of the Brexit vote. ‘Young “Screwed by Older Generations” as Polls Suggest 75 per cent Backed Remain’, a headline in The Huffington Post proclaimed and the subsequent article repeated the claim, citing uncritically many hostile remarks on social media aimed at older people. (2016) An article in The Independent talked about the ‘addled brains’ of those who voted to leave:

The crude majoritarian politics of this referendum has seen half of the population (a generally poorer, less well-educated and elderly half) effectively strip major freedoms and even a cherished identity from the other half (a more prosperous and predominantly younger half). (Chu 2016)

Note the central antinomy here: poorer, older, ‘less well-educated’ versus younger and more prosperous (and by implication, more educated). This kind of expression of emotional pain, grief and anger and the impatient tone and derogatory language towards those who voted differently is found across the print and social media in the days and weeks following the referendum. The most cursory trawl through the twitter feed #notinourname will find hundreds of tweets that repeat this kind of language. The complaint endlessly reiterated was that the young’s future had been derailed by a backward-looking older generation, frequently labelled as uneducated and white and working class (see Cosslett 2016).

It is clear that by any calculation the 18-24 age group made a modest contribution to the remain vote on June 23rd. But is it the case that Brexit was the responsibility of voters who were older – especially those who were supposed to be poorer and less educated and outside the major metropolitan centres? Again evidence is patchy but it does seem that the older the voter the more likely they were to vote leave. Nevertheless, 40 per cent of those over 65 did vote to remain. Perhaps as many as 90 per cent of those aged 65+ voted. So, taking into account this significantly higher turnout – and higher levels of registration – it may well be the case that more of the 65+ age group voted to remain than of the under-25s – both in absolute numbers and as a proportion of the whole age group.

Turning to social characteristics of Brexit voters: various polls and commentaries in the summer of 2016 suggested that Brexit supporters included many of the semi-skilled or unskilled, those in provincial towns and industrial waste lands, especially in the North of England, and those with limited formal education. Lord Ashcroft’s poll, probably the fullest, based on 12, 369 people’s reports immediately after the referendum, suggests a more complex set of figures. In terms of social class: 36 per cent of those in social class D and E — semi-skilled and unskilled labour — voted to remain; a minority but still a significant number of voters. And 50% of C1 – white collar workers of various kinds – voted to remain. Conversely, 43 per cent of social classes A and B — professional and managerial strata – as well as 43 per cent of those with a degree and 36 per cent of those with a higher degree supported Brexit. (Ashcroft 2016) Both sets of figures disappear without trace if we think only in terms of a dramatic polarisation in which working men voted for Brexit and the professional and managerial middle class voted for remain. As for use of the term ‘uneducated’: first, less than 10 per cent of the age group went to university in the 1960s compared to more than 40 per cent in Britain today, so we are hardly comparing like with like. More to the point is the unintelligent snobbery implicit in the claim that a man over 65, after a long working life, and having experienced a series of social and political transformations since the 1970s, is ‘uneducated’ compared to a student or recent undergraduate (whose political memory does not go back as far Tony Blair). I specifically say ‘man’ here because older white working-class women seem to have little or no part in the Brexit narrative, though overall there seems to have been no significant gender divide among the voters either for leave or remain.

In terms of region, it was not a North leave versus South remain vote – nor metropolis versus the provinces. Here we are on surer ground with hard data on voting numbers, district by district. (Electoral Commission 2016) First, it is meaningless to talk about London – or anywhere else – voting to remain because a majority of voters did so. In a general election this, of course, is crucial. It is the majority in each constituency that sends a particular representative to parliament; votes for the losing candidates count for nothing. But what mattered in a referendum was the total number of votes across the UK as a whole. Every vote counted. A majority voted to remain in London and across much of the Home Counties, but what mattered was the overall number on each side of the question and in these areas there were very many Brexit voters. The total London vote for Brexit was over 1.5 million, almost 10 per cent of the total leave vote across the UK. Other parts of the South were strongly Brexit, especially along the South coast and across the South-West of England.

Conversely, though the leave vote was higher in a number of northern cities – Sunderland, Darlington, Sheffield, and Rotherham, for instance – there were also significant numbers of remain voters too. Again, it is the national total of votes on each side that matters. Sunderland, which frequently seems to stand proxy for old, white, uneducated, working men, had a majority for Brexit – 61per cent of those who voted. But nearly 52,000 people in Sunderland voted to remain. Conversely, in Guildford, a University and cathedral-town in deepest Surrey, 56 per cent of the votes were for remain – just over 44,000. Whatever the percentages, Sunderland contributed a larger vote towards remain than Guildford. And a majority voted to remain in northern cities such as Newcastle-upon Tyne, Manchester, Stockport, Leeds, York and Liverpool.

The key point about the geography of the EU referendum result is this: both leave and remain voters were distributed across every part of the UK – within every community, in every street and often in the same house. But post-Brexit the media and the commentariat did not want complexity. They wanted a simple narrative. ‘The result revealed stark divisions between young and old, north and south, cities and rural areas, and university-educated people and those with fewer qualifications,’ according to The Times. (2016) Recall Brendan O’Neill in The Spectator: ‘it’s the poor wot done it.’ (O’Neill 2016) For Rob Ford in The Guardian the Brexit vote revealed, ‘deep-seated differences in outlook and values, hopes and prospects, between graduates and school leavers, globalised cosmopolitans and localised nationalists, the old and the young, London and the provinces.’ (Ford 2016)

But the referendum results and the polls reveal no such thing. As we have seen, there were large numbers of old northern working class men who voted to remain. And there were large numbers of younger, University-educated, professional and middle class people living in London and across the South of England who voted for Brexit. By projecting into sketchy and unreliable sets of data the figure of an old, unskilled, uneducated white man somewhere in the badlands of provincial England, the real complexity of what the EU referendum result signifies is obscured and analysis is short-circuited

In particular, the social base of traditional Eurosceptic Conservativism disappears without trace. The main issue becomes why the (white) working class voted for Brexit – which is then represented as a crisis for the labour movement and the political Left. But a much higher proportion of Tory voters seem to have supported Brexit than traditional Labour voters. So why are the middle-aged Tory lady of the shires and the retired City gent in his south coast enclave not protagonists of Brexit too? Why is the Brexit vote represented as a crisis for Labour and not for the Tory party – which was, and remains, split from top to bottom, from cabinet office through the parliamentary party down to the constituencies and the local Conservative Clubs? The referendum itself was launched by the government as a response to these tensions inside the ruling Conservative party. A recent study concludes: ‘we have repeatedly indicated that the Conservative Party and its obsession with the EU lies at the heart of the crisis in relations between the UK and the EU.’ (Baker and Schnapper 2015, 171) And recall that the aggressive nationalist and sometimes racist campaigns in support of the leave vote were not scripted by working people of any age, gender or ‘race’ but by established Tory politicians and by the owners and editors of newspapers – affluent, educated, metropolitan and cosmopolitan to a man. Instead we are presented with a scapegoat, the old white working class man – a lightning rod that can conduct away from the political establishment the negative energies of these youthful Europhiles and disappointed representatives of the future. A spectre is haunting Europe – the spectre of a disgruntled OAP in Sunderland.

A final point about the error of transmuting an extremely complex set of divisions into a dramatic social or regional or generational antagonism: we should remember that for many people on both sides of the vote it was never a case of a simple 100 per cent ‘yes’ or a confident 100 per cent ‘no’. The real ‘stark division’ is a function of a simple ‘yes’ or ‘no’ referendum. Most people were themselves divided and uncertain. It was surely often a ‘yes but’ or a ‘no but’ vote; an uneasy remain vote distrustful of Brussels bureaucrats and seeking much greater democratic accountability, for instance; or perhaps an uneasy leave vote that was a protest against David Cameron and the whole glossy metropolitan political establishment despite worries about the long-term economic impact of Brexit.

To summarise: frequent assertions across the media during June and July 2016 that Brexit was primarily a result of the older white male working-class vote is grounded on very limited data and on dubious inferences from it. The result was more complicated than any dramatic generational, social or regional difference.

Neoliberalism and ‘Old Labour’

Several questions follow from this. First, why was the narrow Brexit vote so traumatic for some people on the remain side? What was it they felt they had lost? After all, this was a vote about a set of trading and legal relations with an alliance of states and economies. Why the emotional pain, the depression and the melodrama? And second, why was the chief protagonist of the Brexit vote the older working-class man located ‘somewhere else’ and for some reason frequently described as ‘white’. By focusing on the second question some light might be thrown on the first too.

One place to start thinking about this is a recurring binary in political discourse: the liberal, dynamic, forward-looking and cosmopolitan versus the reactionary, provincial, and backward-looking. It was precisely the antinomy that shaped the strategy of New Labour in the 1990s in order to undermine the working-class base of the party, ‘Old Labour’. From his election to the leadership in 1994 Blair and his inner circle set about ditching many of the traditions and commitments of the Labour party in a root-and-branch remodelling of its organization, its policy commitments and its values. It was a repudiation of everything it represented for generations of its supporters – notably democratic socialism. And it deployed a vocabulary of ‘reform’ and ‘modernisation’ which made any criticism easy to label as backward-looking and reactionary. Who else but a ‘reactionary’ opposes ‘reform’ and ‘modernisation’? The New Labour project was about remaking the political culture of the Labour party so that its appeal was to potential voters far outside its traditional support among the unionised working class. As one of New Labour’s fixers put it, in one of the sacred texts of the so-called ‘modernisers’: ‘The party had become an anachronism, a relic of the past trying to appeal to an electorate whose sights were set on the future… The problem for Labour was that upwardly-mobile children were far less inclined to vote Labour; they felt they had moved on and Labour hadn’t.’ (Gould, 1998, 22) The empirical inadequacies of this remark can be itemised at another time. What is of relevance here is the language: the old and the past (‘relic’, ‘anachronism’) versus the future and ‘the upwardly mobile children’, those moving forward and those left behind – the language that continues to inform the post-Brexit debate.

Revolt on the Right, by Robert Ford and Matthew Goodwin (2014) is the first major study of Ukip and it has helped to shape responses to the EU referendum result. It argues that the unexpected electoral successes of Ukip owed much to the support of older, less-educated, disaffected, “left behind”, working-class men – angry old white men. Revolt on the Right raises many important issues. Here I merely want to signal how one of its central arguments converges to those of Gould and other ideologues of New Labour: that these ‘left behind’ working-class men are somehow historically obsolete, the fading representatives of a lost world of industrial workers, trade unionists and socialists – old labour and Old Labour. In Ford and Goodwin’s account their obsolescence is depoliticised. It appears as a kind of ‘natural’ and pre-ordained process – a form of life grown old. But industrial decline, falling trade union membership and New Labour’s abandonment of its core principles and its core support were neither natural nor inevitable processes. They were actively engineered by the neoliberal policies of successive Thatcher and Blair governments from 1979, with massive support from a network of agencies within civil society, designed to break organized working-class militancy, reduce labour costs and increase profits. Those portrayed as ‘left behind’ are written out of any collective future. Irrelevant and disenfranchised they possess only a past. (Cronin, 2002) This kind of account legitimises the invisible powers that destroyed their work, their communities and their political party.

Any understanding of why formerly strong Labour areas in the North of England have seen a drift towards Ukip has to begin with the ways in which New Labour abandoned its socialist traditions and its working-class constituency in the 1990s. At the same time as trades unions and Old Labour were stigmatized as obsolete and reactionary there was continuing disappearance of relatively well-paid jobs for men in traditional industries and their replacement by insecure and low-paid work, or part-time jobs and casual labour in service industries, often filled by women and sometimes by legal or undocumented immigrants. Significant numbers of older men have simply withdrawn from the labour market, subsisting on some combination of wife’s earnings, redundancy money, social benefits, debt and casual cash-in-hand labour. (Alcock et.al. 2003) Introducing an important set of studies on the emergence of new forms of popular radical politics across Europe, often right-wing and nationalist in form, Don Kalb suggests that they represent ‘the somewhat traumatic expression of material and cultural experiences of dispossession and disenfranchisement in the neoliberal epoch’. (2011, 1) No longer represented by a coherent and counter-hegemonic labour movement the injuries of class have become displaced instead onto all kinds of local, particularist and neo-nationalist ideologies. Kalb and his fellow-contributors open up a critical space between dismissal of these new ‘populisms’ as either noisy and transitory interruptions of the post-political processes of European governance or as the shock-troops of a new European fascism, suggesting instead how they can be approached as ‘vehicles by which wider disenfranchised populations are labouring to make sense of their experiences with and discontents about the post-political neoliberal globalized environment.’ (6-7)

This is suggestive of the kinds of ethnographic work required to understand why some sections of formerly labour-voting populations did shift in significant numbers to Ukip in the 2015 general election and voted for Brexit in 2016. Such studies would need to investigate further why immigration bulks so large, not just in the tendentious nationalist campaigns in favour of the leave vote but also in the unscripted responses of many voters. No doubt some explanation for this must point to deindustrialisation and competition between British workers and workers from elsewhere in the EU in a grim labour market. There are also important questions to be asked about how far the Brexit vote signals the continuing viability of the nation-state as an effective and democratic polity – as opposed to the EU, which at times resembles something more like the ramshackle absolutism of the Austro-Hungarian Empire. The EU, in the words of Perry Anderson, ‘is now widely seen for what it has become: an oligarchic structure, riddled with corruption, built on a denial of any sort of popular sovereignty, enforcing a bitter economic regime of privilege for the few and duress for the many.’ (2015) In this desperate political situation retreat to the nation-state is not necessarily a rightward political shift, as Syriza momentarily suggested.

So there are legitimate issues to debate about working-class support for Brexit. But the question remains: why should the role of the working class, especially older white men, monopolise understanding of what produced the EU referendum result in June 2016? It is an understanding which frequently implies a negative judgment.

Racialising class

In a series of powerful studies Loic Wacquant has brought together into a single perspective the ways in which neoliberal economic and social policies have reduced swathes of the population to a condition of material deprivation and chronic insecurity – while at the same time stigmatizing them for their situation (Wacquant, 2008, 2009). His focus is on American and French cities, and especially Chicago and Paris. But his arguments find a ready application in British towns and cities – as James Rhodes shows. (Rhodes 2012) Others have begun to explore the demonization of the British working class. Owen Jones has provided precise documentation of how the language of class has been eclipsed and in some ways racialized since the 1990s. In Blair’s (and Cameron’s) meritocracy, the problems faced by working-class people – falling real wages, shortage of housing, lack of jobs, poor rights at work, insecurity – are amalgamated into something called ‘social exclusion’. This is, at least in part, an effect of their own negative cultural traits so that the white working class becomes one more problem of ‘integration’ alongside other marginalized ethnic minorities. (2011, 103; see also Tyler, 2013)

Poverty, bad housing, low wages, zero-hours contract, in other words, are somehow the effects of an essentialised and embodied identity. Investigating why successive governments have been obsessed with the educational underperformance of ‘white working class’ boys, Suman Gupta notes how in official discourse ‘white working class’ increasingly means ‘white and claiming benefits’. Working class becomes a euphemism for benefit claimant and the object of the same kind of patronising liberal racism as other poor ethnic minorities. (Gupta 2016) What happens to the much larger working-class population? After all, as Owen Jones comments, a look at the statistics reveals eight million people still have manual jobs of one kind or another, and another eight million are clerks, secretaries, sales assistants. (Jones 2011, 144) What happens to the working-class majority in Britain? They disappear from public discourse, just as they have been actively disappeared from the dominant post-Brexit narrative.

Racialising the working class majority as ‘white’ not only obscures the extent to which these economic problems are shared by working-class people of all ethnic backgrounds, it also feeds straight into the hands of right-wing ideologues. It legitimises arguments that in order to appeal to (white) working-class voters some nationalist and anti-immigrant policies need to be signalled by mainstream political parties. But it has a more complex agenda too. As a black woman living in Greenwich Village, New York, bell hooks finds herself regarded by her mostly white neighbours as probably a nanny or a shop assistant. They are generally, she says, social liberals but fiscal conservatives:

They may believe in recognizing multiculturalism and celebrating diversity (our neighborhood is full of white gay men and straight white people who have at least one black, Asian, or Hispanic friend), but when it comes to money and class they want to protect what they have, to perpetuate and reproduce it – they want more. (hooks 2000, 3)

The situation is little different in Britain. Andrew Sayer notes how these mostly liberal, cosmopolitan, affluent and educated white people regard treating other people unequally on the basis of their gender, ‘race’ or sexuality as deeply immoral. But they do not see class inequality in these ways. As Sayer comments, ‘inequalities of gender and ‘race’ (including economic inequalities of gender and ‘race’) are primarily products of identity-sensitive processes.’ Equal opportunities policies in the sphere of employment have gone some way towards preventing discrimination in relation to gender, ethnicity, sexuality, age, disability, religion, and so on. But there is no mention in such policies of the inequalities of social class. And of course no such policy could be implemented because inequality of incomes, power and status is fundamental to the labour market: ‘while capitalism could cope with equality in relation to gender, ‘race’, age, sexuality, etc., it could not withstand the removal of class.’ (Sayer 2005, 14)

Shannon Sullivan has gone further, suggesting how social and racial hierarchies are legitimised through ‘the production and display of white middle-class moral goodness’. Their liberal virtue is counter-posed to the moral badness of the retrograde and racist white lower orders – ‘so-called white trash, rednecks, and hillbillies’. At the heart of liberal anti-racism, Sullivan suggests, is not a set of practical strategies to eliminate injustice but rather the public exhibition of anti-racism. ‘With their disdain, scorn, and even hatred of lower-class white people, good white liberals often use their guilt and shame to exploit class differences among whites, which allows them to efface their own complicity in white racism and white domination.’ (2014, 6; see also Ahmed 2012) Sullivan’s focus is on the United States but her argument is useful for thinking further about the ways in which the British working-class is increasingly racialized as a ‘white’ underclass and then made to carry the whole weight of British racism on its shoulders. Steph Lawler has commented on how the BBC series ‘White Season’, screened in 2008, focused entirely on the English working class, represented as a group experiencing the loss of traditional privileges presumed to accrue to all white people. There was no mention of the white middle class who had accrued rather more privileges: ‘one effect of this lacuna is to strip a (problematic) whiteness from the white middle classes, so that the problems associated with ‘white’ come to be working-class problems.’ And so the more discreet and polite racisms of the golf club or the local Conservative Club magically disappear. As she remarks, the idea that the white working class are more racist and more hostile to immigration than other sections of British society has become an orthodoxy, even when poll data does not support the assertion. (Lawler 2012, 412; see also Tyler 2012)

Gender, sexualities and racialisation cannot be easily understood in simple class terms. But nor, on the other hand, can social class be easily understood in terms of gender or sexuality or race – and the emphases of much academic work in recent decades has led to the survival of social class as just another cultural identity (difference) or, more often, to its disappearance altogether. As Walter Benn Michaels comments, once opposition between classes has been turned into ‘difference’ then conflict can be ascribed to an ‘illegitimate universalization of a merely contingent norm, as classism rather than exploitation’. (2011, 314) Since anti-discrimination is the predominant policy of neoliberal social justice then the argument becomes one of how to overcome ‘classism’ — prejudice against the working class. But the problem of the poor is not about attitudes to them – about stigma. Zero-hours contracts are not the expression of a prejudice. Change attitudes and remove stigma and they are still overworked and underpaid – or unemployed.

Michaels has gone further, excoriating what he terms ‘a left neoliberalism’ which uses feminism and anti-racism precisely to legitimise inequality. Increased commitment to antidiscrimination on grounds of race, gender, sexuality, disability or any other identity over the last half century has been entirely compatible with the widening gap between rich and poor across the Western world and with the long-term decline of living standards and job security for significant sections of the population. Gary Becker (1957) pointed out in a classic neoliberal text how anti-discrimination makes labour markets more efficient. Equality of opportunity is good business. But it also legitimises increasing economic inequality since as long as there are some black and female and gay and disabled CEO’s and hedge-fund managers and government ministers then the wealth and power of CEO’s, hedge-fund managers and government ministers in general cannot be ascribed to any form of preferential discrimination:

In this respect, antidiscrimination functions not as the critique of contemporary capitalism but as its conscience, and both the New Social Movements and the flowering of civil rights law thus make a substantial contribution to a society that seeks not to hide its inequality but instead to wear it with pride. (Michaels 2015, 62)

Nobody is denying the intrinsic value of removing discrimination and providing proper legal protections for anyone on grounds of race or gender or sexual orientation. And we might raise questions about too sharp a distinction between racialisation and economic inequality. But the fact that there are a few black and female and gay and disabled people who are wealthy and in positions of power changes the unequal world we live in very little.

The largest concentrations of women and men from ethnic minorities are in low-paid wage labour. And here they work alongside millions of ‘white’ workers, male and female, on the same insecure contracts for the same low wages. As Owen Jones comments, the working class is ‘far more ethnically mixed than the rest of the population.’ (2011, 243) And it is no longer the case that organized labour equals white males – it is now much more female and much more ethnically mixed. 55 per cent of union members were female in 2014. The proportion of employees who were members of trades unions in 2014 was around 29 per cent for women and 22 per cent for men; it was highest among Black or Black British women at around 34 per cent. (Department for Business Innovation and Skills 2015) Racialising the working class as white conceals the ethnic diversity not just of the workforce but also of the labour movement.

Old labour

There is much more to be said about this, about the ideological work that concepts like ‘underclass’ and ‘social exclusion’ do and about how working people have been racialized as a white ‘underclass’ by a political language with elective affinities to eugenics. ‘The hooligan, defective, feeble-minded and delinquent loafers of 1910 have become the yobs, chavs, NEETS and scroungers of 2010,’ as Sally Tomlinson has recently commented. (Tomlinson, 2013 p.1; and see Tyler 2013) But I want briefly to draw attention to another overlapping social category that figures in post-Brexit narratives. If race and gender are taxonomies of difference that sort populations into hierarchies of power and status grounded in ‘natural’ or essential features, then so too is age.

‘Old age … brings obsolescence,’ as John Macnicol succinctly puts it. In recent decades the 50–65 age group in Britain has suffered a huge drop in male employment, most of it a result of involuntary redundancy. Older workers, sometimes belittled as ‘deadwood’ by managers and younger colleagues, are often forced out of the labour market and marginalised into economic uselessness and poverty. (Macnicol 1998, 11-12) Under Conservative governments between 1979 and 1997 there was a huge increase in poverty among old-age pensioners: from 13 to 41 per cent living below the poverty line. It is worth pausing to read that again: in the mid-1990s more than 40% of old people in Britain were living in poverty. A new Labour government inherited 2.9 million pensioners living below the poverty line in 1997. This number was gradually reduced to 2.5 million (before housing costs) and 2 million (after housing costs) – still a large number for one of the most affluent nations in the world. An OECD report in 2009 placed Britain 30th in its pension league of 30 member states. In that year only 40 per cent of British pensioners had sufficient income to qualify for income tax. (Dean 2009)

These disturbing facts have not prevented politicians and journalists in recent years from circulating a new political narrative in which the old are monopolizing the nation’s wealth at the expense of the young. Sensationalist accounts, widely reviewed and publicised, based on the experience of a privileged minority of university-educated ‘baby boomers’, ignore the vast majority of the old. (See Howker and Malik 2010, Beckett 2010, Willets 2010 – and for a rigorous critique Segal 2013) Across the media there have been questions about the affordability of winter fuel allowance, free prescriptions and eye tests and other modest social benefits in which ageism and neoliberalism blend to foment generational divisions. Research suggests that generation by generation across the twentieth century there has been more or less an even balance between taxation paid into the system and lifetime benefits taken out. So there has probably been no significant generational inequity. (See Arber 2000, Walker 2002) But, as Alan Walker argues, generational conflict has been encouraged in recent years in order to break the welfare system and to divert attention from the real sources of inequality and the real purposes of so-called austerity.

The present debate about the costs of an ageing society is not only incredibly narrow in its focus, but is also an evidence-free zone. Furthermore, it is confined rigidly in a zero-sum austerity formula that has exact parallels with the crude ‘public burden’ politics of the 1980s. It is assumed widely that older people form a homogenous mass of financially secure but unhealthy citizens, who are the only generations to use the health and social care services, and who are preventing younger generations from gaining access to scarce national resources. Because of this dominant political discourse, which combines ageism and neoliberalism, there is no alternative strategy under consideration, other than cutting benefits and pensions and forcing people to work longer by raising pension ages. (Walker 2012, p.816)

One dimension of this neoliberal ageism, worth noting because of its relevance to post-Brexit hysteria, is the pervasive notion of ‘grey power’ through their greater propensity to vote in elections. This is largely a myth. Though the 65+ age group are more likely to vote, they do not vote as a block. In the 2010 election, for instance, they voted 44 per cent for the Tories, 31 per cent for Labour and 16 per cent for the Liberal Democrats. Nor is there much evidence that older sections of the population have been spared the rigours of austerity compared to other groups. On the contrary, severe cutbacks in NHS provision, in public transport and in Local Government services of all kinds hit the 65+ age group particularly hard since 2010. State pensions in the UK are a smaller proportion of GDP than in a number of other EU states. Poverty rates among older people in the UK are higher than the EU average and the proportion of GDP spent on health and social care for the old is well below the EU average and a fraction of what is spent in Sweden, Denmark and the Netherlands. Recent years have seen rising mortality rates for older men and women, especially in poorer parts of the country. (Dorling 2014)

The so-called ‘baby boomers’ have been represented as the ‘welfare generation’ in order to justify neoliberal antagonism towards the welfare state and to recruit justifiably angry young people to ‘reform’ this apparent injustice. So lurking behind the sad faces and youthful anguish about Brexit – and how their future has been stolen from them – are some profoundly reactionary social attitudes towards the working class, the old and the welfare state. And these attitudes, helpfully reproduced in the conservative press, add to their status as the good children of New Labour – neoliberal cosmopolitan subject-citizens, flexible and self-managing. Old white working men, in the same way as so-called welfare mothers and unemployed youths, are their benighted other – powerless, dependent, marginal and vulnerable. The Brexit vote can be blamed on them – people no longer entitled to have any say in reshaping our future.


In the aftermath of the EU referendum a new political constituency of angry and disappointed remainers seemed to be emerging. There were demonstrations and rallies, petitions, even proposals for a new ‘Newspaper for the 48%’. Social media was hot with the energy of this new, youthful and vibrant movement of protest. However, since the summer of 2016 responses to the Brexit referendum have expanded and become more complex. There have been extensive parliamentary debates and the triggering of article 50. There has also been a tide of newspaper and magazine articles as well as growing numbers of more substantial discussions (see, for instance Glencross 2016). In all of this public noise the Brexit narrative has expanded and diversified and, though it can be deployed to very different political ends, its narrative core has perhaps now settled into an unquestionable common sense. Or we might put it this way – if the incipient political constituency of ‘remainers’ has faded from public view the discursive locations that it occupied persist. Because we all know, don’t we, whatever our take on these matters, that Brexit was an expression of popular discontent, the voice of an alienated older ‘left-behind’ white and male working class? And we probably know, too, that Brexit is a symptom of a wider phenomenon – populism – that apparently threatens liberal values across Europe.

I have argued that this kind of account of the EU referendum is based on a highly selective and tendentious reading of sketchy poll data in which large sections of the British population disappear without trace. And it often incorporates some or all of a range of negative predispositions towards the working class, the welfare state and the old. Suffused with the language of Blairism and New Labour, still hegemonic among the liberal Tories around Cameron – at least until the morning of June 24th, 2016 – it consigns those who voted in favour of Brexit to political darkness. ‘The sneering from Remain supporters that Leave voters had voted against their economic-interest out of ‘ignorance’ or ‘stupidity’ has been depressing,’ Tom Kibasi, Director of the Institute for Public Policy Research, observed a week after the EU referendum vote:

The irony has been that many of those who have claimed the progressive mantle have expressed a strong sense of their own superiority. In the aftermath, those with more cultural power have used it in an attempt to define their opponents as backward and ignorant, and chastised them for their choice. The sense of entitlement bestowed by privilege has been challenged for the first time in generations and the privileged have launched a ferocious political fightback to define their opponents. (Kibasi 2016)

In other words, this kind of Brexit narrative, with its barely concealed contempt for the old and for working men, reproduces the essentialist and exclusive polarities that it accuses the other side of mobilizing behind Brexit, fomenting divisions it ostensibly opposes. Here narrative transforms contrary but complex political positions into differences of identity instead of differences of political principles and values that can be argued about rationally. In other words, the Brexit debate becomes, via narrative, a form of identity politics.

Its political success in mobilizing its imagined political constituency has, so far, been limited. There was, after all, no coherent political project uniting those who voted remain – just as there wasn’t for those who voted to leave. Remain was the official position of the Conservative government and many Conservatives stayed loyal to David Cameron and voted for remain. They were hardly likely to give much support to new political campaigns which declared their radical credentials and their hostility to the new Conservative government of Theresa May. Conversely, perhaps as many as a third of those who voted Labour, Liberal Democrat or Green in the general election of May 2015 also voted leave in the EU referendum. Again, they were hardly likely to be drawn towards a campaign that castigated their vote as an expression of irrational rage and/or of an ignorance and gullibility manipulated by right-wing ideologues. As Sunder Katwala cogently observes, there can be no political future for any movement or campaign that remains locked within a polarizing frame ‘which pits the confident, liberal minority against the nativist, left-behind minority – but which also leaves most of the public unpersuaded by either camp.’ (Katwala 2016).


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About the author

John Seed