Wednesday, February 06, 2019

Conventional wisdom

I am not a statistician and so I am posting this with a caution about my ability to read the data properly. This is speculative and an over-generalisation. However, it chimes with experience.

I have always worried about the "left behind" narrative about the leave vote, which says that people voted for Brexit as an act of despair about damage they had sustained through austerity. There has always been a paradox lurking in there. Some of the most deprived areas voted Remain. When I saw this comment thread on Twitter it seemed to make sense. Marios Richards points out that the commonplace narrative depends on how you slice the data. The reality, he says, is that the poorest, the ones who are the most vulnerable, tended to vote Remain. Their preference was masked by being bundled in with a larger and comparatively wealthier lower middle class. It was they who voted Leave. The difference was that they were more likely to have been bypassed by the worst effects of the financial crisis and austerity, sheltered by things like home ownership and pensions, unlike the poorest who were reliant on income alone and thus highly vulnerable to change. These Leavers were not rebelling against austerity, but were mainly untouched by it. The class profile of the vote then looks more like a sandwich. Remain is the bread - poorer and wealthier people tended to favour Remain, with a solid lower middle class Leaver filling. The filling is a mainly Conservative cohort, the one captured by the Tories in their successful election years

This is an oversimplification, all psephology is. Age, region, education, identity, social values, xenophobia, even internal migration, etc., all played their part, sometimes eclipsing class. But it is one way of pointing out that the narrow vote to leave was complex and cannot be pinned down to a single factor, let alone simplistic cod-sociological theories - people from somewhere v people from everywhere, the revolt of the left behind,* imperial nostalgia, political realignment, or Fintan O'Toole's eccentric insistence of the importance of the legacy of punk rock. There are many more, none of which provide a complete answer, because there isn't one. The one thing they have in common, and I think this is true, is that they had little to do with the reality of EU membership. The EU only mattered to the committed few. I have my suspicions that this is still the case despite the endless queue of commentators lining up to tell us that they know precisely what people were voting for. The vote was shallow and the commitment weak. It wasn't really about Europe, something that few understood well. If we abandoned Brexit, I doubt whether it would continue to be a factor in British politics in a few years time. It would be an episode that we would look back on in embarrassment.

Does this matter? Yes, it does for two reasons. First, it affects reportage. I would happily abolish the vox pop. Sticking a microphone under the noses of unsuspecting and unrepresentative passers-by and expecting to learn something is silly. But the selection of where to go and who to speak to is conditioned by assumptions about who we are looking for and where. Even the better social reportage follows a pattern of class prejudice. Reporters seek out areas that voted leave (preferably in the north). They aren't interested in Remain areas. They talk to as many working class people that they can find until they finally hit pay dirt, the person they can build their feature around. Yes, they find the nutter they can present as representative - you know the type, a balding man with union jack dentures who declares that even if we have to kill and eat our children to survive, it will have been worth it to escape the clutches of BRUSSELS! It's a freak show mentality posing as anthropology, and it's posh Remainer porn - look at the lower orders, aren't they ghastly. It's why there is so little reportage of working class Remainers. Nobody is looking for them. Nobody is going to Remain areas and speaking to them. They are neglected, left out of the narrative, invisible.

Secondly, these perceptions shape policy. That the Labour leadership is pro-Brexit (though anti-no deal) is not in doubt. That Labour members and voters are overwhelmingly in favour of remaining in the EU is also certain. Where does that leave Labour MPs, the people who could make or break Brexit? If they think that their working class voters are pro-Brexit and anti-immigration (and misunderstand the role of a representative), then they are caught and will sway towards making Brexit happen. They do not want to alienate Labour Leavers. But what if the poorest are pro-remain? And what if, as polling suggests, they are not as bothered about freedom of movement as they are about economic prospects? Where then would MPs stand? But how could they possibly know if the mainstream narrative excludes this possibility? Middle class prejudice is hiding working class Remainers. They don't fit the stereotype. In their determination to reflect the views of their working class supporters, Labour MPs may have chosen to genuflect to Tories. They may be about to facilitate a mistake based on a misapprehension.

Instead of the left behind, maybe we should be talking about the left out - the working class Remain vote that nobody seems to want to hear about in case it disturbs their world view.

* I still can't type that with a straight face thanks to jazzlover's comment on this post.


Jim Denham said...

Superb comment and analysis, as ever. I especially like "I would happily abolish the vox pop. Sticking a microphone under the noses of unsuspecting and unrepresentative passers-by and expecting to learn something is silly. But the selection of where to go and who to speak to is conditioned by assumptions about who we are looking for and where": so very true.

Jim Denham said...

You may be interested in this, by Camila Bassi, that makes (I think) at least some of the same points:

The Plump said...

It's a decent piece Jim, but she's not quite saying the same thing. These are the two points I am trying to make.

1.There's an interesting conversation added later to that Twitter thread. A commenter did some analysis of the Leave vote as percentage of the electorate rather than of the vote cast and the list of the areas that most strongly supported Brexit changes dramatically (except for Boston). Rather than post-industrial towns, they are small town and suburban areas on the periphery of larger urban areas. Given that most left behind areas were left behind around thirty years ago, he draws the conclusion that internal migration has played a big role in deciding which areas strongly favoured Brexit. The two areas that were most likely to vote Leave were those that young people left, and those that older people retired to. Demography, again, becomes a key factor, not just class.

2. Not only should we not 'fetishize working class rage,'we should see that a large part of it is a myth. People on the lowest rungs of the income scale tended to vote Remain. This is especially true of younger working class voters. By lumping them in with older, lower middle-class voters, this is masked and we get the Brexit as a working class protest assumption. And nobody is interested in working class Remainers, so they disappear. Actually, there is little investigation of strongly Remain working class areas (like Liverpool or Glasgow) or the Remain vote in general as it doesn't fit the mainstream narrative.