The referendum: What were people voting about?

Two articles give much food for thought about the referendum. The Independent’s “Austerity and class divide likely factors behind Brexit vote” finds that 60% of the country self identfy as working class and have strong views on immigration, benefits and the unemployed. The report also mentions anti-establishment feelings towards bureacracy and government. The social mobility of the second half of the twentieth century, which saw many working class people move into middle class jobs has all but ended so the possibility of social mobility as a route to security is no longer available. The article also notes short terms changes in that in the years immediately following the 2008 crash there was high approval for austerity, but that has now lessened, with views on related issues, such as the proper rate for benefits, being confused. There is also a mixed pattern with regard to stress and freedom at work and also towards the ideas of coalition and voting reform.

The Guardian’s “Meet 10 Britons who voted to leave the EU” outlines a series of views from leave voters about what they were voting for and against.

The views expressed resonate with the idea that people were voting against the EU as representing the interests of the elite and not the interests of ordinary people. This quote sums up that view:

Immigration would not be such a problem if the UK built homes and infrastructure and trained adequate doctors, nurses and essential workers, but politics is deliberately creating scarcity. Although I know the government and the Bank of England are the ones pushing people down, this vote was the only way to really hurt them.

It is useful to distinguish what people are angry about and what they are angry at. In the articles above, people are angry at political leaders, smug people, foreign workers, elite media types, Germany, government and banks, vested interests, Cameron, Brussels bureaucrats.

They are angry about schools, the NHS, job security, housing, borders, the fishing industry, TTIP, privatisation.

It is also interesting how people phrase what they want. People want equality and voice. to have their voice heard, a stable country where people from all counties across the UK are heard and not fed scraps from the south. What is noticeable here (though probably shaped by the writers of the articles) is that people are not thinking in terms of specific policy prescriptions. It is much more a general feeling about how politics should be conducted and to what ends.

I think that for most people who voted Leave, the last party they would think of as supporting them would be the Liberal Democrats. But much of what is said here feels like the beginnings of a Liberal Democrat manifesto. This will be the subject of another article to follow soon.

* Rob Parsons is a Lib Dem member in Lewes. He blogs at http://acomfortableplace.blogspot.co.uk

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30 Comments

  • At last the listening has commenced. Liberal democrats have an opportunity to grab voters and carry out a reform of the system thay was kiĺled by tories and labour at the AV vote

  • The real issue is whether or not the Lib Dems are willing and able to bravely change their orthodoxies.

    Are you willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting to make unlimited migration plausible to the mass of the British people. It’s not a centre-ground policy – what dynamic policy will you make so that it doesn’t impact those at the bottom end or not to unbalance communities.

    Are you willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting to work with Brexit and explain how the EU should be reformed if you want to go back to the EU? Going back to the EU is not a centre-ground policy anymore.

    Are you willing to do the intellectual heavy lifting to devolve power (Cultural, economic, governmental, administrative, financial) and essentially stating uncomfortable truths to your own core supporters.

    People perceive the Lib Dems as being `nice but dim` – always willing to say how lovely things will be without stating there is any pain.

    People are looking for a vision – they are also looking for efficacy ie talk is cheap – how will you implement this vision to effectively have the outcomes you want.

  • Barry Snelson 8th Jul '16 - 11:54am

    Rob,
    Your sources seem to be the “independent” and the “Guardian”.
    I’m afraid that says it all.
    I disagree with Jane that LibDems are seen as ‘nice but dim’. My cast would be ‘nice but too idealistic to be any practical use’.

  • David Evershed 8th Jul '16 - 12:00pm

    Jane

    The EU only allows free movement of people within the EU.

    Are you proposing that the EU allows free movement of people from outside the EU and ends the consequential UK discrimination against non EU immigrants?

  • Rightsaidfredfan 8th Jul '16 - 12:20pm

    “This vote was the only way to really hurt them”. This is true. When I complained that immigration stopped people getting social housing lib dems on this site told me that this was the fault of the national government, not the EU.

    OK. But the Tories won’t build social housing, labour in government built even less. The coalition didn’t help either and lib dem councillors actually get elected by promising to block housing development. So you cant vote for social housing, it’s just not an option our political classes will give us.

    So what do we do? Only option if you want access to housing made easier for British people is to vote leave. Not ideal but it was the only choice we were given.

    The problem is though that Article 50 will still have to be inacted, we can second guess people’s motives for voting the way they did, but they have to now get what they actually voted for and what they actually voted for was what was printed on the ballot paper.

  • One person’s “brave change of orthodoxies” is another’s “supine acquiescence to the majority-of-the-week at the expense of principle”.

  • What the EU referendum really showed was the great divide in UK society. The Leave campaign deliberately set out to exploit the rage among marginalized UK citizens and identify a scapegoat: Immigrants and Brussels…
    But the real cause of their woes is elsewhere: the inability of successive British governments to bridge the social divide (north-south and working class-capitalist) with policies that defined common national aims and answering the problems faced by ordinary people (housing, zero-hour contracts, food banks, loan shark companies, etc.)
    As a result the divisions within both the Tory and Labour parties have left the UK without ANY real leadership….

    Sadly, the EU referendum was really a proxy for protesting Britain’s ills; not those of the EU. Not many people understand how the EU works anyway.

  • “But the real cause of their woes is elsewhere: the inability of successive British governments to bridge the social divide (north-south and working class-capitalist) with policies that defined common national aims and answering the problems faced by ordinary people”

    So if you feel you’ve identified the reason for the underlying social divide,.. what detailed solutions do you propose, to re-balance that divide. And I mean *detail*, because talk is cheap, but this problem requires a fundamental policy change which will have to shift cash from the wealthy areas of the UK to the less affluent areas who voted Leave.
    So crunch question time,…What policy plans do Lib Dems have, to re-balance the per head capita resources, to improve the lives of the ‘left behind’.?

  • Sue Sutherland 8th Jul '16 - 4:25pm

    Thank you for this Rob. I think it’s time to build a new consensus in politics and we are the only ones who can do it. We believe in freedom not socialism, not helping elites but the ordinary person and we believe a more equal society works best for all. We are also internationalists and that will be the key to achieving our other aims.
    We have had 30 years of the Thatcherite consensus which has resulted in the the country voting to leave the EU. We have just been criticised by the UN for our austerity policies which have alienated the have nots. Traditional Labour voters have been neglected by the Blairites adoption of Thatcherite policies and they have been exploited by UKIP.
    It’s up to us to find an alternative because our country desperately needs us, but that alternative has to be based on sound economic theories which don’t rely on the trickle down idea. We have to work out how we can enable the poorest in our society to become equal participants and how rich elites can be persuaded to share their wealth in some way. If we don’t succeed in this I am very concerned that we will be heading for social unrest in Britain.
    We have to have these policies in place at the same time as we campaign to return to the EU otherwise we will fail because we will just be seen as bad losers who ignore the wishes of the majority because we don’t agree with them. We must also examine how the EU can be improved. The papers that support Brexit are telling their readers that the economic disaster Leavers predicted aren’t happening so we will be up against them as well as a Tory party which will be claiming it believes in one nation again and is united under its new leader and a Labour Party who’s internal power struggles will prevent it from leading the country any time soon. For the sake of the powerless we have to win.

  • Thanks Rob. The best article on LDV for some time. Here’s another take on the reasons people voted as they did.

    http://www.spectator.co.uk/2016/07/brexit-voters-are-not-thick-not-racist-just-poor/

    Note that a majority of Leavers were voting for democracy. How on earth did Liberal Democrats miss that?

    Some random points arising from the article:
    1. “politics is deliberately creating scarcity”. Of course it is. Profits flow to the owners of scarce resources like housing (in high rents), or those who have jobs available (via low wages). The economic playing field has been tilted to favour Tory backers.
    2. Immigration. There’s an old liberal principle that, “my freedom to throw a punch stops just short of your nose”. Quite right; when freedom is unrestrained it’s not liberal. No-one has yet explained how mass immigration it doesn’t cause real lasting harm to many both now and in the future as more our little island gets as crowded as Hong Kong. What sort of intergenerational equity is it that says “You children will have to live in a tiny high rise but that’s OK because the economy is marginally bigger in the short run.”
    3. Of the items explicitly mentioned as causes of anger it’s astonishing how disconnected the Lib Dem establishment is from most of them. Examples include Brussels bureaucrats (no proposals for democratic reform), schools (actually apprenticeships may be where the greatest scope for improvement lies), job security (bound to be low with unlimited immigration), TTIP (crony capitalism on steroids), fishing (nothing beyond vague hand-waving).
    4. The Tory policy is to blame the victims of their self-serving policies which, if they are allowed to get away with it, keeps everyone off-balance and muddies the water very usefully from their POV.

  • The problem with all these articles is they are written as if the Leave vote was a minority decision or some sort of political aberration. But it won. Not only that, survey after survey shows that the majority want lower immigration and have edged towards euro-scepticism since the EU was formed in 1993. Euro-sceptic Political parties have also done well in British European elections and the Lib Dems, the most pro EU party, has one MEP. In truth without the spectre of economic problems Leave would probably have walked it.
    To me it looks like EU is just not popular in Britain and most of the time garners a frenzy of indifference as evidenced by usually low turnouts. Even the much hyped pro EU youth ignores the reality that most young people didn’t even vote! The surprise isn’t that Leave won, its that it was close.

  • Richard Sangster 9th Jul '16 - 8:31am

    Why do we attach so much importance to appeasing NIMBYs, by its very nature NIMBYism is a conservative trait, and few NIMBYs are likely to vote for a progressive party. At the same time, appeasing NIMBYs tells the disadvantaged that we don’t care about them

  • derek jacobs 9th Jul '16 - 8:49am

    Glen & Gordon have hit the nail on the head-as far as I,m concerned..I’m talking here of population densities..England has a population of 55million in an area of 50,000 square miles (density 1100 per sq mile) and rising- UK-population rise last year over 500,000-mostly in England..(made up of 60% net immigration- 40% births over deaths)This is the largest density in Europe if you discount Monaco..Other comparable densities–France 330 per sq mile-Germany 570–Spain 220–Italy 400—Scotland 170-Irish republic 170.Only the low countries come anywhere near the English comparison.I put it to you that this is not sustainable–Derek Jacobs

  • @Derek Jacobs

    The population density of the UK according to wikipedia in 2015 was 679 per sq mile:

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_countries_and_territories_by_population_density

    However that is an average and not actually very helpful. The population density in most London boroughs is over 10,000 per sq. mile, yet many people still want to live there and it’s mostly the wealthiest boroughs that have the highest population density.

    https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/List_of_English_districts_by_population_density

    Should London cap immigration from other parts of the UK because of this?

    I think it’s far more helpful to focus on infrastructure and housing investment rather than population density. London sustains a higher population density because it gets more investment.

  • Oops, mixed up my units in the post above. Most London Boroughs have a density of around 4000 per sq mile (or 10,000 per sq. km), compared to UK average of 679.

  • Simon Shaw,
    I think its much more about the general principle than specifics. The EU is a supranational state which was foisted on the people the People of Britain in 1/11/1993 without a vote and quite frankly should not have any legal powers at all.

  • Rob Parsons 9th Jul '16 - 12:25pm

    Barry, yes, I am using the articles from the Independent and the Guardian, but they are a snapshot rather than a sample. they do, however, reflect what I have read in a variety of other sources.

    I agree with you that we are not nice but dim. But I disagree that we have no practical use. We have shown in coalition – and the Tories have shown since the coalition – that we have some very practical uses. My concern now is to identify the ways in which can be of most practical use in most people’s lives. Given that many are expressing anger about schools, the NHS, job secuirty, housing, this ought to be fertile LibDem territory.

  • Rob Parsons 9th Jul '16 - 12:28pm

    Simon, Gordon, Glenn, I think it was a vote about ot having a voice, so in a way a vote for democracy. But the problem with that is taht voting to leave the EU will not their lives any more democratic. We are about to have a new Prime Minister decided on by 125,000 mostly old white people. That’s not democracy. My concern is to figure out how we can best translate a howl of anger into a practical policy that will address teh concerns that people have expressed.

  • Rob Parsons 9th Jul '16 - 12:40pm

    Gordon “Of the items explicitly mentioned as causes of anger it’s astonishing how disconnected the Lib Dem establishment is from most of them. Examples include Brussels bureaucrats (no proposals for democratic reform), schools (actually apprenticeships may be where the greatest scope for improvement lies), job security (bound to be low with unlimited immigration), TTIP (crony capitalism on steroids), fishing (nothing beyond vague hand-waving).”

    There’s a lot to bite on here. One of the things I’m trying to do is to sort out what effect the Eu is actually having on people’s lives from the perception of what influence it has. Schools, for instance, a focus of concern, but the EU has no influence, certainly nothing beside the deliberate policy of both Labour and Tory education ministers to reduce schooling to a cram, test and harass regime (presumably to fit them for future life in the workplace) and the fatten up the entire education system for privatisation. A liberal pitch for a liberal education system would meet with approval from many people.

    Job security – felt insecurity is real, but is at odds with survey evidence. We won’t make the felt insecurity go away – it seems to me that once people have started blaming immigrants, is it difficult to get them to stop. But we could deal with the issues which actually impinge more directly on people’s living and working conditions – reducing zero hours contracts to a minimum, ensuring that people have decent rates of pay, ensuring that when people are out of work they have a decent minimum to live on without constant harassment. Good LibDem policy.

    But I’m straying now into the subject matter of the next article, which will be along in a day or two.

  • Rob Parsons 9th Jul '16 - 12:44pm

    Glenn: “Even the much hyped pro EU youth ignores the reality that most young people didn’t even vote!”

    The evidence on that seems to be mixed. Early reporting did suggest that a smaller proportion of younger people did not vote, but later evidence is beginning to suggest that they did. E.g. http://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-36737374. If younger people did not vote, it seems that the reason is the same it has been for a long time – they do not feel their vote counts. Whatever we do about the EU, it is far more important to set up systems, strategies and practices that engage younger people in politics so that their vote does begin to count.

  • @Glenn – I have sympathy for the viewpoint that the Maastricht Treaty (followed by Amsterdam, Nice and Lisbon) have dramatically shifted the EU away from a ‘community’ to a ‘union’ and that there are some in the EU who are in a hurry for the union to become a United States of Europe and hence would welcome a Brexit as it would increase their influence over both the nature of and pace of “ever closer union”. Because to me the key problem with the EU has been the politicians, who have been in too much hurry to reach some undefined destination, rather than hold back and let the people get used to things and catch up. In some respects, it is the classic organisational change management problem, holding back the early adopters whilst the rest of the organisation adjusts and catches up and ensuring the interventions being made by the early adopters are helpful to those working their way through the change curve.

  • Simon Shaw – I think it wasn’t about details so much as a widespread experience that the country has been run in ways which take no account of their views or interests at all and I think the Leavers are right about that. The referendum was the one recent chance to express a view and more than that, to throw a b****y big spanner in the works, saying in effect, “we WILL be heard” and may took that opportunity although many, probably most, will also have understood that it will cause great economic losses.

    I voted Remain so when it comes to legislative controversies that might have motivated some to vote Leave I can only suggest tentative answers, for example:
    1. The general feeling (applies to EU and UK) is that responsibility is so diffused through the bureaucracy that nothing can be changed and when things screw up no-one is to blame – it’s always the ‘system’ that failed. How very convenient! See Stafford General Hospital, Chilcot, Cameron’s abortive negotiation in the spring, austerity etc.
    2. I think people do get much of what’s been happening in Europe – see, Greece, Italy etc. even if they don’t bother to follow every twist and turn (why should they?). Similarly, they see our fishing industry as being sold out… Lib Dems used to have 2 MEPs in the SW. When the first was lost the fishing fleet was all flying UKIP flags in celebration and many sided with them.
    3. Much EU stuff will create a legislative framework that will further tilt the field against ordinary people and towards large corporations, TTIP being the perfect example. It would actually impose a constitutional reform that would never be supported if it had to go through Parliament and be debated there. Again, how convenient! for some!

  • Barry Snelson 9th Jul '16 - 3:09pm

    Rob,
    Thank you for your courteous reply. My observations were that analyses of UK opinion through the prism of those two opinionated, but minor, journals may be misleading.
    I didn’t assert that the LibDems are ‘nice but too idealistic to be of practical use’ but that seems to be the public’s perception of us.
    There is a vocal subset of the party whose heart is in ‘bold, radical and progressive’ and I respect and admire the viewpoint, but I see no political future without an offering that is also professional, economically competent and plausible. I’ve said this in other posts that a party which presents itself as “Santa Claus”, without clear and balanced accounting, may give its members solace but the public will just not believe.

  • Now back from the weekly grocery shop…

    Simon – further to my earlier response one of the things that the political establishment has a blind spot for is that network effects are of huge importance in the real world. That means that things happen that aren’t purely attributable to one element or another of the system (the UK OR EU in this case) but to how they interact.

    This leads to tax and regulatory arbitrage. For example large companies can internationalise their supply chains in multiple ways which is great for them but has bad consequences elsewhere. Amazon builds warehouses in the UK that pay minimum wage jobs (whose workers are therefore likely to require state aid) but pays almost no UK tax. Other companies supply from outside the UK and again pay no tax but use public infrastructure etc. Still others pretend they are operating from abroad to avoid regulations they don’t want to observe (especially the finance sector). T

    his is great for the companies involved (or rather heir bosses) but not so much for anyone else. Long term it gives the Tories the perfect excuse to cut spending (weak tax revenues) and weakens workers bargaining power meaning lower wages. For a party that puts so much emphasis on ‘fairness’ as the Lib Dems it’s highly inappropriate to come down on the corporate side of this argument by default, without argument and without even apparent awareness.

  • Rob – Zero hours are a potent expression of job insecurity. Another form is the way that many employers have responded to the increased minimum wage which was the subject of a very recent Panorama or Despatches (I forget which). Basically, many have frustrated the intent by cutting overtime etc. so that many workers are now worse off then they were before.

    Another aspect of insecurity is how much control people and influence have over their work. Studies on this are clear; those with strong influence like company owners or directors have much better psychological health than those with minimal control, zero hours, ever-changing shifts etc. That points us right back to the classic liberal territory of cooperatives and the like – but on the John Lewis model, not the Co-op one that failed so spectacularly.

    Closely related is the issue of pensions. Employees in company schemes that feel insecure have good reason to feel so. We have seen a string of collapses, most recently BHS with Tata in the pipeline each of which is presented as an “unfortunate” accident. Well, each is unique but these failures are no accident; they are the inevitable outcome that allows, even favours, asset-stripping at every turn.

  • Rob Parsons 9th Jul '16 - 7:13pm

    Barry, first of all I accept your correction of what I said you said – if that makes sense.

    Secondly “There is a vocal subset of the party whose heart is in ‘bold, radical and progressive’ and I respect and admire the viewpoint, but I see no political future without an offering that is also professional, economically competent and plausible.” I agree wholeheartedly. And I guess I’m hoping to stir a debate around those issues by writing these posts.

    With regard to Santa Claus, I think we’ve been quite careful not to appear like this by having all our spending plans for several years now independently assessed; we need to do more of the same.

  • Rob Parsons 9th Jul '16 - 7:16pm

    Gordon “Another aspect of insecurity is how much control people and influence have over their work. Studies on this are clear; those with strong influence like company owners or directors have much better psychological health than those with minimal control, zero hours, ever-changing shifts etc. That points us right back to the classic liberal territory of cooperatives and the like – but on the John Lewis model, not the Co-op one that failed so spectacularly.” Absolutely right here – this is where we should be able to identify good economic liberal policies which make a real difference to the power people have in their jobs.

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