A Student Perspective on Brexit and the Class Divide
4 September 2019
The class divide on Brexit is stark. In my working-class home town, young people support Labour and back Brexit, and people discuss politics civilly, regardless of how they voted. At my elite university, I’m called a racist for wanting to leave the EU.
As a university student coming from poverty and a strongly working-class area, I’ve found the narrative of young people being overwhelmingly supportive of remaining in the EU disconcerting. While my university experience certainly reflects the narrative, the young people in the towns I grew up in don’t fit into such a tidy picture of aged Leavers robbing the young of our futures. Having a foot in two very different worlds has reinforced the views of my early youth, while I stick out like a sore thumb in the world of university students.
I was only 16 years old when I sat through the BBC News coverage of the EU referendum, quietly amused that the UK had done the unthinkable, but also delighted that the seemingly impossible had been achieved. I’d been politically engaged since I was very young, pushed into left-wing politics by my family’s poverty and struggle to survive throughout my entire life. Reading Marxist analyses of society and capitalism at such a young age had led me to conclude that only through building a socialist society could the struggle of my family, and my class, at last come to an end.
So, when the Conservatives won a majority in 2015, and Jeremy Corbyn was elected as the Labour leader, I was furious at the country’s failure to cast out a government inflicting so much damage, yet felt vindicated that my views on the need for a leftward shift were surprisingly popular. The EU referendum presented an opportunity to at last break with the old way of doing politics, and the small but important “Lexit” campaign resonated with my views on ending undemocratic and inherently capitalist policies imposed through undemocratic procedures in Brussels.
During the campaign itself, many of my classmates were largely disinterested. The “common-sense” position was to remain, and I was seemingly alone in advocating the left’s position for leaving. In hindsight, I think most of my peers’ apathy was down to being too young to vote, as well as the prevailing belief that the UK wouldn’t actually vote to leave. Moreover, my school was in a predominantly middle-class bubble adjacent to some much poorer areas, and it is un surprising that, while my school’s ward – like the rest of the unitary authority of Medway – voted to leave, it did so at the lowest level, of 54.3 percent. The neighbouring ward of Rochester East had the second lowest percentage of Leavers in Medway, at 57.4 percent.
Contrast that to my own, far poorer ward, with a leave vote of 62.7 percent. Again, given that the referendum result was the most class-correlated in recent history, this is unsurprising. My ward is one of the 30 percent most deprived in the entire country; My postcode is within the 20 percent most deprived, “Lower Layer Super Output Area”. My ward also votes heavily Labour, returning three Labour councillors in the 2015 and 2019 elections, the latter with a vote share of 59.6 percent. In short, my ward is both a strongly Labour-voting and a strongly Leave-voting area.
The narrative that Labour voters are purely Remain voters reflects a biased focus on middle class areas. It is just as misleading as the narrative that an overwhelming majority of young people vote remain and Labour, while “Leavers” vote for other parties. The reality in Gillingham South shows that people, including the young, are not averse to backing withdrawal from the EU while still voting Labour.
This stark contrast between narrative and reality is particularly sharp in my experiences at university. I’m now a student at the elite University of Cambridge, where it is clear that the overwhelming majority of students do indeed favour remaining within the EU. The reaction to my Eurosceptic views has largely been negative, tempered only by my status as an immigrant, which has helped to defend me against accusations of anti-migrant sentiment. It disgusts me how often in a debate about the European Union at university I am forced to emphasise my migrant status in order to fend off accusations that I’m merely campaigning in favour of a “far-right, racist Brexit” or, at best, facilitating it. Unsurprisingly, it is overwhelmingly, though not exclusively, middle- and upper-class students making such accusations.
I’ve lost count of the times that I’ve been told that I am enabling racists in my opposition to the European Union, while most are usually silent when I remind them that I’m an EU immigrant myself and I would never support anyone seeking to harm my family, friends or myself. One example occurred in an event on a “Left Brexit” that I co-chaired in Cambridge, when a couple of audience members claimed that the panellists’ support for leaving the EU enabled racism. I had to highlight my own migrant status, while the other panellists had to reiterate yet again their obvious opposition to racism and what they do in material terms to combat it.
Of course, we can all do more to combat racism wherever it appears. Yet the deliberate attempts in student circles to derail any conversation about the EU with accusations of racism is deeply troubling to me, particularly as an immigrant. I’ve often wondered whether Remain supporters actually care about our rights, or whether they are simply using us as a convenient political football to attack their opponents, dismissing those of us that oppose the EU because it doesn’t suit their own specific narrative (see also Analysis #14 - Rhetorical Anti-Racism and the EU Referendum).
I also find it fascinating that in student circles, the discussion of the benefits of remaining in the EU centres around fundamentally middle-class concerns. For example, the kinds of worries that predominate are about losing the ability to go on holiday without a visa, or about funding for years abroad. I understand why these concerns arise, but how many working-class people can regularly afford to go abroad on holiday? How many receive high quality education allowing them to eventually benefit from years abroad? Not once have I heard a student raise the issue of democracy in the EU, or of the border in Ireland, a concern that I share quite strongly. Indeed, my fellow students have sometimes openly declared that they do not care that the EU is undemocratic.
The contrast with my working class friends back in Medway is remarkable. While they are apprehensive about the effects of leaving the EU under a Conservative government, their overwhelming desire is simply to be done with the issue and leave, followed by a general election. This attitudes provides an interesting counterpoint to the dominant narrative that young people desperately want a second referendum and to remain. Indeed, when discussing this very question with some friends a couple of weeks ago, concern for democratic sovereignty predominated, with little to no discussion of immigration. This reflects the Lord Ashcroft poll that found the most important reason leave voters gave for supporting Brexit was not immigration control, but instead “the principle that decisions about the UK should be made in the UK”.
The student political sphere is vastly different from my experience among young working-class people in the area where I grew up. Ironically the few other left-wing Eurosceptics that I have met at university also tend to be working-class (though obviously not all left-wing, working-class Cambridge students necessarily favour leaving). Whereas among students I am forced to defend my position constantly and need to preface my arguments about sovereignty and democracy with the fact I am an immigrant, among young people in Medway, and working-class friends elsewhere, I can discuss these issues in civil terms without having to invoke my personal status – and this includes among those who would support remain.
It’s often claimed that students, particularly at elite universities, are entirely out of touch with the experiences of “ordinary” young people. I have certainly seen this at first hand – and the problem is fundamentally a class divide. The Remainer organisation “Our Future Our Choice” typifies this: clicking “get involved” on OFOC’s website leads one to university groups, and even the contact form implies that the applicant is a student of some sort. Groups like these have no presence in working-class young communities because they don’t actually care about us; they are acutely aware that their real base of support is in elite and middle-class campus politics.
 Martin Rosenbaum, “Local voting figures shed new light on EU referendum”, BBC News, 6 February 2017.
 Jim Butcher, “Brexit: Working Class Revolt or Middle Class Outlook?”, Discover Society, 3 July 2019.
About the author
Sean Shirley-Smith is an undergraduate at the University of Cambridge and a member of the Labour Party.
This work represents the views of the author only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.