Workers rights in the EU and out: social class and the trade unions’ contribution to the debate – EU Referendum Analysis 2016

Workers rights in the EU and out: social class and the trade unions’ contribution to the debate

Since its announcement, the referendum result has been widely explained in terms of social class, but during the campaign class was rarely explicitly discussed. Even the Labour party seemed to not to notice the likelihood of a working class protest vote until late in the day, although polls showed this (and covariants such as education, newspaper readership and region) to be the only significant demographic difference between in and out voters other than age.

It is not clear whether workers were unaware of the unions’ argument or unpersuaded by them, or simply felt it was a price worth paying for the chance to stem immigration, but the misdirected blame for austerity is the result of public discourse over the long-term rather than the campaign itself, and symptomatic of wider problems in our media and politics.

Although polling indicates that 63% of Labour supporters voted to remain in comparison with just 42% of Tories (whose voters tend to be older, if less working class), Labour have clearly failed to persuade many of their traditional working class supporters of the case for remain. Commentators such as Paul Mason and Owen Jones explain this as a rebellion by provincial working classes against a metropolitan elite who they believe despise their values and culture, and the reluctance of the Labour shadow cabinet to address the issue of immigration.

The other traditional voice of the working class, however, is the trade unions, who could be seen as closer to the shop floor, but also failed to connect culturally. Like the wider Remain campaign, the unions focused on the economy, and whilst the parties were recruiting the support of big business, the unions’ were initially seen backing employers’ warnings about job losses, likely fuelling the notion that EU membership principally benefits the elite. Interestingly, this suggests that many ‘working people’ didn’t accept the dominant media assumption that the interests of big business are synonymous with the public interest because of their role as ‘wealth and jobs creators’, but neither did they accept the argument later put forward by union leaders in letters and comment pieces in the Mirror and Guardian – and picked up by Jeremy Corbyn and Sadiq Khan – that the EU protected workers rights and enabled unions to cooperate across border against employers that are increasingly multinational.

The Trade Union Congress (TUC) was the most prominent union voice, and its leader Frances O’Grady was sufficiently prominent to be given a place in the BBC televised debate, with the second audience question addressing employment and social rights. However, Loughborough University’s research indicates that in general employment issues constituted just 4% of coverage, and unions made up just 0.4% of sources on TV and 1% in the press. Unsurprisingly, the voice of the unions has been largely absent in the conservative press and more prominent in the Guardian, 91% of whose readers supported Remain, but even more so in the Mirror. However, it is not clear from polling how the latter’s readers stand on the issue, and it seems likely that many of them voted – along class and age lines (41% of readers being over 65) – to leave. Mirror columnist Kevin Maguire reflected that people voted “in good faith” on the basis of a campaign of misinformation and are likely to feel in time that they have been “conned” – a prediction given some anecdotal support hot on the heels of the result.

Nonetheless, claims that propaganda from the Leave camp and their press cheerleaders created false consciousness are something of an oversimplification, with newspapers typically reinforcing their readers’ existing views more than leading them – hence Murdoch papers were split along class lines between the Brexit-supporting Sun and Remain-backing Times. More significant is that many people apparently blamed the EU and immigration for the country’s ills rather than the government, and Cameron must bear some responsibility for that.

Simon Kellner’s analysis of YouGov polling found that the most striking difference between the two camps in terms of underlying beliefs was that Remain supporters blamed the banks, Conservative-led governments, and growing inequality whilst Leave voters blamed EU regulation, the previous Labour government, and immigrants willing to work for lower wages. This suggests that they accepted the Conservative rhetoric of a fiscal rather than financial crisis that left them with no choice but to impose austerity measures, and that they attribute globalisation to governmental bodies rather than multinational corporations. What the left failed to do is to give a convincing alternative account for why poor communities were suffering and what they could do about it – such as investment in social housing and public services – because they made the mistake of thinking the EU referendum vote would be about the EU.

It is not clear whether workers were unaware of the unions’ argument or unpersuaded by them, or simply felt it was a price worth paying for the chance to stem immigration, but the misdirected blame for austerity is the result of public discourse over the long-term rather than the campaign itself, and symptomatic of wider problems in our media and politics.