Lesley Riddoch: Nothing to lose, Brexit voters believe

Jo Cox campaigned for a compassionate Britain; perhaps her death will make voters reconsider, says Lesley Riddoch
Murdered MP Jo Cox spent her life working for those who needed help, standing up for humane treatment for all. Picture: PAMurdered MP Jo Cox spent her life working for those who needed help, standing up for humane treatment for all. Picture: PA
Murdered MP Jo Cox spent her life working for those who needed help, standing up for humane treatment for all. Picture: PA

Can the great and good influence public opinion during the last days of the European referendum campaign?

There’s a graphic doing the rounds on social media which features competing lists of prominent people who support and oppose Britain’s continuing membership of the European Union. In every category, the Remain posse is bigger and more impressive than the one backing Leave.

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■“World leaders supporting Remain – Barack Obama, all EU leaders, Presidents of China, India, Canada, New Zealand, Japan, Secretary-General of Nato.

■World leaders supporting Leave – Donald Trump, Vladimir Putin, Leader of Isis.

■UK politicians supporting Remain – all former prime ministers, current leaders of the Conservatives, Labour, Lib Dems, Greens, SNP, Plaid Cymru, DUP, Sinn Fein, Mayor of London.

■UK politicians supporting Leave – current leaders of Ukip, BNP, Britain First, English Defence League, former mayor of London.

■Environmentalists supporting Remain – Greenpeace, WWF, Friends of the Earth, David Attenborough.

■Environmentalists supporting leave – none.”

You get the drift. Educated people, mainstream thought leaders and polite society across Britain and the world back Remain. Ironically though, this demonstration of Remain’s social credentials serves only to highlight its lack of influence over a sizeable chunk of British voters. Half the electorate is evidently immune from the “respectable” consensus, unimpressed by the reasoned arguments of academics and opinion formers and unrattled by expert predictions of post-Brexit doom and chaos.

Yet just a year back it was very different when many of those self-same voters cheerfully backed a majority Conservative government led by Europhiles like David Cameron and George Osborne. What happened? Was that victory really the work of Brexiteers determined to hold Cameron to his referendum promise? If leaving Europe was a strong undercurrent of last year’s general election, why didn’t the expected Ukip surge take place, and why the change now? Are Messrs Gove, Johnson and Farage suddenly so much more persuasive or attractive as personalities?

Admittedly the Remain case has been poor and aggressively delivered, so some doubtful voters are now ignoring all “official sources” and following gut instincts instead – encouraged by Brexit-supporting tabloids who’ve whipped up paranoia about refugees and migrant workers as they once whipped up moral panics over benefit claimants and single mothers.

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But that’s not the whole story. What seems clear is that Britain’s most demoralised and disempowered voters are simply cutting loose – ignoring the old pecking orders about who is allowed to make and shape opinions. Like working class Yes voters in Scotland who ignored the scaremongering of Project Fear in 2014, working class English voters are backing Brexit because they have nothing to lose.

And it is English voters outside London who most want Britain to leave Europe. The last YouGov poll with a full breakdown of “regional” voting in March showed the most pro-European parts of the UK were Northern Ireland (with a 30 per cent lead for Remain over Leave) Scotland (26 per cent) London (15) Wales (10) and North-East England (3). The most anti-European regions were East Midlands (-17 per cent), West Midlands (-12), East Anglia and Yorkshire and Humberside (all -10), and South-West, South-East and North-West England (all -3). Of course opinion has changed since then – especially since Thursday’s shocking killing of Jo Cox by a man who gave his name in court as “Death to Traitors – Freedom for Britain”. But the pattern remains.

If the archetypal remain voter is a young student living in Scotland, the average leave voter is a working class, middle-aged woman without college or university qualifications who lives in the Midlands. She has voted Labour and Tory to no avail. She sees a crumbling health service and believes that’s due to the pressure of immigrants, not persistent under-funding and privatisation. She sees rents rising and believes that’s because of scarcity caused by housing refugees not deregulation, low irregular wages, soaring land prices and restrictions on council housing. She has heard politicians promise change but seen her living standards slip further. And if all the academics, experts, commentators and city slickers can’t fix her problems – can’t restore the order and security she seems to remember in her parents’ days – then she is ready for the Gordian knot solution. She doesn’t want to hear any more complex arguments. She’s ready to back anyone who will cut through the broken promises and verbiage to deliver change.

And right now, that means Boris and Nigel – not Dave. In other words, the EU debate has become a proxy for a deep-seated despair about England’s broken, competitive society. which is not necessarily or even mostly about migrants and refugees.

Researcher Liza Mackenzie says immigration isn’t the main issue in the English communities she’s been studying: “It’s housing, schools and low wages. The women worry for their children and elderly parents – what happens to them if the rent goes up again? The lack of affordable housing is terrifying. The talk in mining communities is also about the lack of secure and paid employment, the loss of pubs and grinding poverty. Immigration is not as prevalent or as high on the list of fears as sections of the media would have us believe.”

The EU referendum has opened up Pandora’s Box in England because voters who switched from Labour to support the Conservatives have only experienced a further deterioration in their life chances. That despair and suspicion is pouring all over the European debate. Why not vote for Brexit? At least it’ll wind up the bankers. These voters have nothing to lose.

A London-based newspaper headline last week read: “Brexit is the only way the working class can change anything.” Actually the word English is missing from that sentence. Working class Scots rightly or wrongly believe independence will eventually change Scottish society and trust the Scottish Parliament to take a different path meantime to the top-down, devil-take-the-hindmost approach of Westminster. Folk south of the Border have no such buffer against seemingly endless cuts, austerity, stress and feelings of political impotence.

No academic, commentator or Remain politician can tackle this impasse before Thursday. But one woman already has – Jo Cox. The brutally murdered MP stood for a humane Britain – exactly the kind of society many Brexit voters desperately want. On Thursday the deeds of her lifetime may yet speak louder than the desperate words of Westminster party leaders.