Terraced-lined dry streets crumble between intervals of wrappers and faded bottles. Constructed yards forge an arena of apathy, bored theft and dulled passions – entertaining the redundant worker who looks on from behind his plastic glazed prison. To the rear, a small cobbled space conceals, beyond derelict walls, a lone traffic cone bathing in a tub of stagnant rain water. In others sit shopping trolleys; most have been reclaimed by the weeds that pock through stones smoothed by tramping feet long since lost. This image is repeated across the North East, in the pit villages of Sunderland and Durham, in communities decimated by the closure of the mines. The vitriolic dismantling of the region’s economic base rendered the people powerless, enslaved to abstract ‘market forces.’
For decades Labour represented these people, stood with them on the picket lines, guaranteed them free healthcare, sought to challenge the damage of Thatcherism. But, as we saw on the 23rd June, it is these same people that voted against the Labour position and bloodied the nose of the establishment. And it is satisfying. Banks are crumbling like the finances of mining families – panicked stockbrokers shouting down phones as three decades earlier panicked mothers sought their sons amongst police-battered crowds. Politicians rage war amongst themselves, seeking the ‘scabs’ that betrayed their cause. The middle-classes ripple with the same outrage and frustration that mining communities felt as their economic world collapsed : ‘how dare the ‘traitorous’ working class subject us to such economic distress!’ The same was felt in 1984, amongst a group of ostracised workers, who now believe they are exacting revenge against the establishment that ended their industry and crippled their community; against the rest of the UK that ignored their plight and instead re-elected Thatcher for their own self-interest.
But we have been led by arch-capitalists and soft-racists into a revolution against the wrong establishment. Rather than challenge the contradictions of capitalism that caused our circumstances, we have mutinied against a mere by-product of that system. Far from the triumphant realisation of our class consciousness, this revolution has left a sour taste in the mouth – the market has not ended and capitalism is regrouping, ready to drive the sharpened point of greater inequality and austerity into the exposed flank of the underclass. Unlike those communities mauled by Thatcherism, the beautiful panic of the wealthy in ‘Brexit Britain’ will end, the markets will recover, and capitalism will resume as usual – if in a more complex economic environment. The pure anti-establishment zeal that produced Brexit will be stifled, as it was in 1985, by further economic punishment and the withdrawal of workers protections.
It will soon be realised that ‘our country’ has not been ‘taken back’; that ‘democracy’ has not improved the lives of the working class; that ‘sovereignty’ has not solved our housing problems; and that ‘immigrants’ were not the cause of reduced standards of living. This was pure rhetoric. It is astonishing how much influence these empty concepts can be given if said with enough strain and vigour. ‘Immigrants’ were presented as the source of all our ills, a cancerous growth on ‘our’ public services that inhale money and excrete ‘foreign’ spores to infect ‘our’ children with ‘foreign’ languages, ‘foreign’ tastes and ‘foreign’ religions. If we could only cut immigration, it was claimed, the crisis in our public services would end – the effects of austerity would be reversed. Yet, this anti-immigration argument is a rather vulgar attempt to distinguish ‘us’ from ‘them’ – immigrants are dangerous as they threaten the status quo – your healthcare, your child’s education, your future; a basic distraction from the real danger, neo-liberal capitalism and conservative governments.
The working class of Britain has more in common with the equivalent class in Poland and Bulgaria than it does with the upper classes of Britain, yet it is those upper classes that have constructed the faux-British nationalism that binds the poorest to the richest, and prevents the working classes of Europe from uniting together to challenge the ruling elites. We were encouraged to fear our economic equals from eastern-Europe, and love that despicable elite class – epitomised in Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage – privately educated to the extreme and accumulators of excessive personal wealth. While these ‘men of the people’ capitalised on a system that impoverishes us, we blamed foreigners for our conditions. The whole immigration debate has been an exercise in deception, shielding economic interests and the political power of a small elite.
The two progressive ‘Remain’ campaigns (‘Labour In For Britain‘ and ‘Another Europe is Possible’), and the pan-European campaign for a reformed but united EU (DiEM25) exposed this deception. All three campaigns challenged the tone and premise of the immigration debate and understood that the socialist value of ‘solidarity’ between peoples is the only means of removing those entrenched structural problems that generate such despair in the working classes of Europe. The ‘Britain Stronger In Europe’ campaign (the official ‘remain’ campaign) did not recognise this fact. This is the reason why Jeremy Corbyn, and members of the Labour frontbench, supported alternative campaigns. Corbyn and John McDonnell campaigned alongside Caroline Lucas (the Green Party MP), Yanis Varoufakis (Former ‘Syriza’ Greek Finance Minister) and Noam Chomsky, rather than David Cameron and George Osborne, to emphasise this difference. Yet most people have never heard of these movements. Their nuanced argument that the EU was anti-democratic and neo-liberal, but could only be reformed from the inside, was largely ignored by the media, and the fervent campaigning of Corbyn, McDonnell, Lucas and Varoufakis fell on deaf ears. To blame Corbyn, Momentum or Socialism for Brexit (as many have done) is to ignore the fact that only these groups fully recognised the lengths to which the EU needs to reform.
This is why it is so distressing to see the Labour Party imploding. It has long been known that a coup against Corbyn was inevitable, and it has become apparent that ‘Brexit’ has been used to justify this. And there is not smoke without fire. Corbyn is not the firebrand Benn or Bevan-esque orator many of us wish for, and his leadership has often been weak and ineffective. But his policies and approach are the only ideas capable of challenging the structural inequality oppressing the working class. While the coup-makers blame Corbyn for the loss of the EU Referendum, the true blame lies with them: the Blairites and moderates who promised working class voters a revolution in their living standards, but then sacrificed them on the altar to big business, private investment partnerships, and unregulated laissez-faire capitalism. The lust for change that developed in the working class under Thatcher, expressed in the Miner’s Strike and which sparked again in the Poll Tax Riots of 1990 and Fuel Crisis of 2000, was ignored by Blair, Brown and Miliband. Labour, deserting the working class and ignoring this pressure for change, served those masters of the status quo that Conservatives had served for decades prior.
‘Brexit’ was a revolutionary expression of frustration by a disenfranchised and ignored sector of our society. But it was a revolution that fired at the wrong enemy. Only a Labour Party fighting on the platform of Corbyn’s socialism – dismantling the mythic ‘anti-immigration’ smokescreen and proposing real structural economic reforms – can compete with the narratives that generated the ‘Brexit’ vote. To replace Corbyn with the politics of Blair may return a Labour government to power, but will not liberate those working class ‘leave’ voters from the chains of neo-liberal capital. In the end, to revert to neo-liberal policies in the wake of Brexit is to condemn ‘leave’ voters to lose once again.