Understanding Leave Voters’ Motivations in Northeast England
23 November 2018
Working-class Leave voters are not dupes or racists. Careful research shows that they backed Brexit in a bitter rejection of the status quo, after years of political abandonment and economic decline.
Although two years have passed since Britain voted to leave the European Union, it is debatable whether we are any closer to actually understanding why most people voted to Leave. With few honourable exceptions, Remain supporters continue to blame Russian interference and unscrupulous spending by the Leave campaigns, implying that voters were duped. Working class Brexiteers in particular have often been cast in simplistic and emotional terms: intellectually deficient, racist and nostalgic for empire. Whilst prejudice probably plays a part in all political elections, it is not enough to account for the millions of working-class people that voted Leave.
So, I set out to find out more. Using in-depth and unstructured interviews, I spoke to 26 working-class Leave voters across deindustrialized Northeast England. All of them were aged over 45, and historically most had supported the Labour Party. What I found was not racism and xenophobia, but a sad story of decline and abandonment, particularly by the Labour Party. For these people, voting Leave was the only way they could register their anger and disrupt the status quo, in the desperate search for a better life.
Immigration and Economic Decline
Discontent about immigration levels is widely understood to have been a major driver of the Leave vote, and I found this reflected among some of my interviewees. However, in contrast to those who read this as a racist, xenophobic backlash, I found that only a small minority expressed themselves in racist terms. Much more importantly, they linked immigration to their economic marginalisation. As quality employment opportunities have dwindled, and the public services upon which working-class communities rely have been slashed under austerity, my informants saw immigration as intensifying their struggle. They generally welcomed immigrants who worked and paid taxes, but they often felt that existing working-class communities were being forgotten about and side-lined.
This viewpoint was exemplified by John, who had spent several decades in the army, serving across the globe. He told me:
… immigration has a bit to do with it. You see, it’s all about jobs. The Great has gone out of Great Britain, people aren’t proud anymore. I have no problem with migrants living here, who are working and giving money, but I do get annoyed at people who don’t pay into the system, don’t pay in but get the stuff – treatment, housing – for free. When you have ex-servicemen in the street, who can’t get housing, an ex-army man and a British citizen who has grown up here, he should get the rights over other people who don’t pay in. That’s why I voted Leave.
However, my informants also expressed much deeper concerns about working-class life and their place in the social world. This was often rooted in the political economy and expressed in historical terms. Many of these people were old enough to remember the comforts and entitlements of the post-war period. They highlighted how their areas were once defined by industrial might: steelmaking, shipbuilding, mining and an expansive chemicals industry. They argued that things seemed to work better back then. Jobs were plentiful; you could walk from one job to another. People knew and cared for each other and there was a sense of community in which social bonds were formed and fashioned. Several claimed that there was a better work life balance as they would leave school and obtain a lengthy industrial apprenticeship which induced a belief in a “job for life”. They obtained satisfaction and a sense of purpose from making products that were exported across the globe, and it was widely held that their children would follow in their footsteps and obtain a good standard of living. Many looked back on this time as the “good old days”, in which working-class life flourished.
But for my interviewees, this was a relic of the past; what came across repeatedly was a sense of loss, stemming from the neoliberal turn of the 1980s, which deindustrialised much of the Northeast. Stable, industrial work has largely been replaced by poorly-paid, insecure jobs. Most of my interviewees told stories of how they no longer received a respectable wage; many had acquired financial debt through credit cards or loans. They felt pressurised to meet targets and undertake overtime. Although this brought vital extra income, it also induced a nagging sense of fatigue and eroded time available to spend with friends and loved ones. Many felt that their employers’ loyalty and commitment to the workforce had ceased to exist. They felt as though they were simply a number and could be easily disposed of and replaced. To them, politicians celebrating the latest employment figures appeared to be living on a different planet.
Ray epitomised these sentiments. He was a steelworker for several decades but was made redundant when the plant closed several years ago. He found himself unemployed and this affected his mental health. Eventually, Ray found work, but he had to travel many miles for the minimum wage. After paying his bills, the financial gain was negligible. Shortly after, he found better-paid work, but this wasn’t without its problems:
There’s no such thing as a job for life anymore. Even with this decent job, it’s a lot of temporary contracts, 18 or 24 months. Their work is dependent on contracts from elsewhere and other orders. If the work doesn’t come in then the workers are fucked. These short-term contracts are rubbish. Employers have all the power. It says, “oh, we’re paying above minimum wage”. By what, 20p? Brilliant. I’ve said before, how do people survive on a minimum wage job? Credit cards, poverty wages.
Likewise, politicians’ talk of economic “recovery” rung hollow after a decade of austerity. I was told that important public services, including transportation and healthcare, had declined. Many insisted that, despite talk of a national recovery, their area had never escaped the post-2008 recession; things were actually going “backwards”. The cost of living continued to increase, but wages failed to keep up. Local stores were closing, and all the town centre seemed to offer was charity and pizza shops. Even pound shops were closing, leaving once prosperous areas as “ghost towns”. Significantly, none of my informants were surprised at this enduring decline. They didn’t expect anything positive to happen: the future trajectory was one of negativity and further loss.
Indeed, these social, economic and cultural changes have resulted in a widespread feeling that the future has been eviscerated. All that mattered for my informants was the present moment; the future was something that they could not plan for or even imagine. This was most clear in relation to their children and grandchildren. They felt that a clear route forward no longer existed for them, as there was a dearth of stable, well-paid employment opportunities. For many, the only way out seemed to be to move away from the area and seek work elsewhere. Seemingly, all they could do was adapt to a rapidly changing social and economic landscape.
Abandonment by the Political Class
My informants overwhelmingly despised national politicians and media elites, reserving special contempt for the Labour Party. Politicians, they said, were all the same: a bunch of self-serving, lying careerists who engage in deception to further their interests at the expense of the working class. But because the Labour Party had once been something else, it was viewed through the lens of disappointment and betrayal. Many said that the party had once represented their economic interests and fought for a decent standard of living. Many of the older Leave voters, in particular, still emphasised their working-class identity, and explained their historical support for Labour in these terms. After many decades though, several had begun to move away from the party. Some stopped voting, and many more expressed transient support for UKIP. Interestingly, some had even moved over to the Conservative Party because they felt that the local Labour MP had abandoned them. Most importantly, this did not reflect a newfound commitment to Conservative ideals. Rather, it represented a cynical non-belief: “all politicians are the same anyway”.
This dissatisfaction with Labour was intimately bound to New Labour and, in particular, Tony Blair. The majority of my informants recalled being excited at the beginning of Blair’s reign. It was viewed as a historic turning point, away from the social tumult of Thatcherism. But this was short-lived. The Iraq War was a key turning point for many, as it seemed to embody New Labour’s two key aspects: lies and spin, on the one hand; and servicing the need of big business (in this case, oil companies) on the other. Blair cared little for the working classes and had become a hate-figure for many of my informants. They felt that New Labour’s time in office was the period in which all politicians’ aims, and goals became the same.
This sense of political abandonment was encapsulated by Lewis:
My dad was a coalminer, you see. He got the brunt of Margaret Thatcher’s regime. He was big on Labour, [but now] he said he will never vote for Labour again. Back in the late ‘70s and ‘80s, Labour was for the working people, it was a Labour party. Look at Tony Blair – he called it New Labour, he never was Labour. They all just put a different colour tie on. It’s absolute bullshit, all of it.
Even where my informants were not quite old enough to recall “old” Labour, folk memory had transmitted a sense of what the party had previously stood for and achieved: the welfare state, nationalised industries, strong unions, full employment and rising wages. They associated this with the “golden age” during which their communities had thrived. By contrast, in the 1990s the Labour Party totally reversed its core ideals, jettisoning talk of “class” and pivoting to Middle England and business elites. Blair and Brown followed Thatcher by pursuing deregulation, privatization and the marketization of public services, while suppressing trade-unions and promoting individualism. This marked a continuation in the decline in my informants’ lives and communities, generating a profound sense of abandonment and betrayal.
Remarkably, though, it is not just the Labour Party that has imbibed the Thatcherite dictum that “There is No Alternative”. Thatcher once remarked that “economics is the method: the object is to change the soul”; and judging by my informants, she and her successors have succeeded. Remarking on the social and economic decline of their communities, they frequently said that: “it’s just the norm now”, “that’s how it is these days”, and, “we can’t do anything about it”. All they could do was adjust to neoliberalism’s inequalities and compete against each other for the small bits of comfort that remained. Joining together with people in a similar social and economic condition and fighting for structural change was never mentioned. The belief in positive change or any sense of forward development had collapsed. All that existed was a palpable, dispiriting resignation that their position in the social world would continue to decline.
This makes my working-class informants both desperately hungry for change, yet simultaneously cynical about its prospects. This accounts for their largely sceptical reaction to Jeremy Corbyn, who would seem to offer them what they want: a return to the “golden era” of social democracy. Most of my informants see Corbyn as a London-centric cosmopolitan who is totally disconnected from the lifeworld of the working class. Many also claimed that he is weak and, whilst good intentioned, he is not a suitable leader. The core reason why he struggled amongst my contacts, however, arises out of a sense that the Labour Party is bankrupt. For them, the party had let them down so many times that they refused to support it again. They believed that Corbyn could promise the world, like most politicians do, but, if he got elected, he would only fail to deliver. Fundamentally, their views of Corbyn were clouded by a nagging cynicism and an inability to believe.
So, what was different about Brexit? Why did so many alienated working-class voters – including my informants – turn out in record numbers to back Leave?
Voting Leave was seen an anti-establishment move. Most mainstream politicians and commentators were in favour of Remain, so my informants saw an opportunity to defy the establishment and express their discontent with the failure of political parties, particularly the Labour Party, to represent their interests. Fundamentally, the Brexit vote gave them an opportunity to use a voice that they felt had been silenced. Crucially, this wasn’t a general election: it was posited as a once-in-a-lifetime referendum, and by voting “Leave”, there was at least a chance to rupture the established orthodoxy and bring about structural change.
Sarah, for example, told me:
People were fed up with the same old rhetoric, talking the talk and not walking the walk, people wanted change, and are fed up. They’re so fed up of the status quo. People wanted change. It was also about sticking two-fingers up to the government.
This did not mean that their cynicism had evaporated. Many of my informants were fully aware that voting Leave might not induce progressive developments, and several expressed deep cynicism, arguing that it was quite possible that nothing will fundamentally change.
Clearly, their claims that nothing may change are not groundless, given die-hard Remainers’ persistent efforts to overturn the referendum result. This only compounds the cynicism of my informants, further alienating them from a political class that seemingly has no idea of the slow-motion decline endured by ordinary people under neoliberalism. All of my informants fiercely rejected suggestions of a second referendum. Big Rodger was typical:
To think that they can turn around and go against the will of the people! You know, people have voted to leave the European Union, and they just turn around and say, “oh, we can do it again” – what on earth do they think they are talking about?
The slogan “take back control” resonated with these working-class people because under neoliberalism they have possessed little control over their lives and future. Their livelihoods have declined, jobs are more precarious, and their area is a mere shadow of what it once was. As a result, they expressed a need to “put the Great back into Great Britain”. Importantly, this does not embody a nostalgic return to Empire, as some commentators have claimed. Rather, it is a nuanced desire for a better life that is rooted in myriad political and economic changes.
It is possible that Brexit will not end neoliberalism and result in further deregulation of the economy and increased economic inequality. However, integration into the European Union tethers the nation state to the European Council which makes the core decisions and dictates the continent’s political direction under the rules laid down in the EU Treaty. Enshrined into this structure is a commitment to entrenching neoliberal ideals: the free movement of capital, deregulation of financial markets and utilising the nation state to facilitate the interests of finance capital. As a result, the EU erodes democratic accountability and restrains the nation-state. Accordingly, as many contributors to The Full Brexit have suggested, Brexit represents a chance to restore sovereignty and begin to undo the damage caused by neoliberalism and its destructive effects upon working-class life. My informants certainly hope so.
Readers who enjoyed this article may also be interested in Analysis #6 - Why Did Britain Vote to Leave the EU? and Analysis #12 - When the Left Abandons Workers, They Are Easy Prey for the Right. Luke's research has also been published as "Brexit and the Working Class on Teeside: Moving Beyond Reductionism", Capital and Class , 16 September 2019.
About the author
Luke Telford is a doctoral researcher at Teeside University, working on a thesis entitled "The New English Nationalism: Class, culture and the politics of the future: An ethnographic case study of a post-industrial northern town".
This work represents the views of the authors only. It is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-NonCommercial-NoDerivatives 4.0 International License.