Why did Britain vote Leave?

Issue: 152

Charlie Kimber

The British vote on 23 June 2016 to leave the European Union was a bitter blow for the establishment, big business, the international financial institutions, the rich and the politicians.1 With only minor exceptions they had united to support a Remain vote. Tory prime minister David Cameron had been very sure that he would win the referendum. That serene complacency lies in tatters. Just a year after his unexpected general election success, the EU vote destroyed Cameron.2 Chancellor George Osborne, the hitman of austerity, was also forced out and contrary to much expectation, Boris Johnson did not become the Tory leader. The Leave vote tore apart the Tories and, although there will be a brief period of calm after the insertion of Theresa May as prime minister, there will be further trouble ahead. But the Leave vote also revealed a much deeper bitterness and alienation from traditional political forces. Remain had the support of most of the Tory leadership, Labour, the Scottish National Party, Plaid Cymru, the Lib Dems, the Greens and Sinn Féin, parties that make up 97 percent of the House of Commons. But Remain lost.

There have been real fears expressed that the vote was motivated mainly by racism—and there were people who voted Leave for racist reasons. But this was certainly not the most important factor that explains why 52 percent voted Leave (on a 72 percent turnout). The central issue is that it was a revolt against the establishment. People who are generally forgotten, ignored or sneered at delivered a stunning blow against the people at the top of society; this was a rejection of the governing class.

The vote was partly driven by bitter anger at the grinding and relentless attacks on working class people since the onset of the financial crisis. A month after the referendum the Trades Union Congress produced research showing that British workers have suffered the biggest fall in real wages among leading OECD countries. Between 2007 and 2015 real wages in Britain fell by 10.4 percent—a drop equalled only by Greece. During a similar period the richest 1,000 people in Britain have seen their wealth more than double to £576 billion.3 But the vote also reflected a deeper political rejection of the people at the top of society. A few days before the referendum the Financial Times reported on research carried out by Professor Will Jennings of Southampton University. Jennings has studied British attitudes towards the political establishment since the 1940s. The paper concluded:

Trust has eroded steadily over decades, but is now running alarmingly low. The UK’s Mass Observation archive, which collects diaries and other private correspondence, shows that people today write about doctors, the clergy and lawyers in more or less the same way as they did back in 1945. That is not the case with politicians: “Citizens now described their ‘hatred’ for politicians who made them ‘angry’, ‘incensed’, ‘outraged’, ‘disgusted’ and ‘sickened’.” Among the words used for politicians are arrogant, boorish, corrupt, creepy, devious, loathsome, lying, parasitical, pompous, shameful, sleazy, slippery, spineless, traitorous, weak and wet. As Prof Jennings says, “whatever measure you use political mistrust is rising—you see a generalised malaise”.4

The Leave vote was that feeling made flesh. It was driven by such factors as the MPs’ expenses scandal, the decades-long sense that the political parties are now all the same, the widespread contempt for the “pillars of society”, the lies told to launch the Iraq war and the resentment that comes from sensing that a tiny group at the top of society are making millions while you’re suffering—and they are also laughing at you. It’s a mood that the right seek to channel, but it is also potentially subversive in a very radical way. Labour former prime minister Gordon Brown reflected the fear that engulfed the ruling class. He wrote: “An ugly EU referendum campaign has led to an even uglier aftermath. Historians will see the largest popular revolt against political, business and financial elites as the nearest Britain has come in centuries to a revolution”.5 He overstated the closeness to revolution, but he was right to detect the whiff of insurgency that escaped the control of all the normal containing factors.

The reasons for that rebellion are contradictory, and the fallout from the vote is uncertain. But that does not change the essential character of what has taken place. We should welcome this development. Liberals fear turmoil, revolutionaries should not. We are not going to get to the British revolution without some complicated and many-sided developments that require the left to grasp the moment—and if they don’t then the right can grab that feeling of anger instead. The year of the referendum also saw meetings in many places to remember 100 years since the Easter Rising in Dublin. Many in the audience would have nodded sagely at Lenin’s understanding of what happened:

To imagine that social revolution is conceivable…without revolutionary outbursts by a section of the petty bourgeoisie with all its prejudices, without a movement of the politically non-conscious proletarian and semi-proletarian masses against oppression…to imagine all this is to repudiate social revolution. So one army lines up in one place and says, “We are for socialism”, and another, somewhere else and says, “We are for imperialism”, and that will be a social revolution!… Whoever expects a “pure” social revolution will never live to see it. Such a person pays lip-service to revolution without understanding what revolution is.6

Of course the Leave vote was not the Easter Rising. But Lenin’s method is important.

Labour MP Diane Abbott was right to say the referendum result was a “roar of defiance against the Westminster elite”. Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn said that a clear message from the vote was “that millions of people feel shut out of a political and economic system that has let them down”. The Bagehot column in the bosses’ magazine The Economist said: “The vote for Brexit looks like—and to some extent is—a cry of fury by those who have borne the burden of European integration without benefiting proportionally from its advantages”.7 Elsewhere in the same edition the magazine editorialised: “Proponents of globalisation, including this newspaper, must acknowledge that technocrats have made mistakes and ordinary people paid the price”.8

John Hilary, the executive director of War on Want, who has taken a leading role in the fight against the neoliberal Transatlantic Trade and Investment Partnership (TTIP), said: “The Leave vote is a rejection of the political caste in this country, as most commentators already agree. The fact that voters in many traditional Labour strongholds came out for Brexit must be seen as a call for a new kind of politics based on decisions that benefit the many, not the few”.9

The Socialist Workers Party called for a Leave vote. We did so for three main reasons. Firstly, the EU is an openly pro-capitalist institution which in recent years had shed any pretence of delivering social protection and instead has emerged as the enforcer of austerity across a continent. This was most vividly demonstrated by the brutal financial waterboarding of Greece in 2015 which broke the challenge of Syriza. Secondly, the EU, through its Fortress Europe structures, acts to repel migrants and refugees from outside Europe. The EU’s much-vaunted freedom of movement has always been highly limited: some freedom for those inside the EU; barbed wire fences, detention camps and a panoply of security forces to push back those from outside. As migrants poured from the war zone of Syria and elsewhere, such a policy turned the Mediterranean into a mass graveyard as thousands of people died in the desperate attempt to find safety. Internal barriers went up and border controls were reintroduced. The EU imposes racist laws. This was further underlined by the EU’s deals with the repressive Turkish regime to restrict refugees attempting to come to the EU and then to deport refugees in Greece to Turkey. Thirdly, the EU is part of the imperialist world order that, along with NATO, delivers important support for the United States and provides reliable partners in its murderous actions. That is why since the late 1940s the US has promoted European integration to secure a stable junior partner for managing global capitalism.10

Many radical parties in the rest of Europe shared our position, and celebrated the result. On 24 June the Portuguese Left Bloc held an international rally to launch its convention. Eric Toussaint from Belgium, a long-time campaigner against the imposition of debt on the Global South, said Leave had “made me wake up in the best of moods”. He added: “It is a rejection of the neoliberal EU and shows that it can be defeated and lays the basis for future exits around Europe on a radical left basis.” Zoe Konstantopoulou, former Syriza president of the Greek parliament, compared the Leave vote to the Oxi (“No”) referendum in July 2015 that rejected an EU austerity deal. “This is a day that proves that people write history,” she said, “a day that proves that people are more courageous than their leaders.” Left Bloc leader Catarina Martins said that reducing the Leave vote to racism or xenophobia was wrong and that the EU’s policies had strengthened racism and xenophobia. She urged the left to oppose the EU to cut across UKIP’s Nigel Farage, Front National leader Marine Le Pen and other racist forces.11

In Ireland the socialist grouping People Before Profit supported Leave and after the result said it was “chickens coming home to roost for corporate and increasingly undemocratic Europe”. Brid Smith TD said: “This vote should be seen as an opportunity for an alternative Europe. I welcome this blow to the EU project. The EU has never been about a workers’ Europe and its recent treatment of Greece and Ireland shows its primary concern is not the welfare of citizens or refugees but the welfare of the banks and the bond holders”.12

Gerry Carroll, a member of the Northern Ireland assembly said:

There are “reasons to be cheerful” about the outcome… David Cameron—one of Europe’s biggest austerity mongers—is gone. The British establishment, from top to bottom is in turmoil, and Britain may well be facing its biggest constitutional crisis for a century or more. The Tory party, who seemed to be in a position of unquestionable strength just months ago, is split. And the neoliberal project of the EU…is in a deep crisis.13

Eamonn McCann, another member of the Northern Ireland assembly, said: “There is no need for the pessimism and near panic which seems to have descended on many. There is no inevitable outcome here. It’s all to be fought for”.14

The EU played a key role in stopping anti-austerity policies in Greece. To put it more accurately, 2015 in Greece showed that genuine and consistent anti-austerity policies require breaking from the EU, a possibility that Syriza refused to countenance. This was part of its more general approach of “playing by the rules” of capitalism. The EU would play the same role if a Labour government under Jeremy Corbyn were elected in Britain. For example, it would be impossible to renationalise the entire rail network under EU rules.

The SWP believes socialists had to tell the truth about the EU and support a Leave vote. But the campaign had to eschew any element of racism and British nationalism. That meant it had to break completely from the official Leave campaign, dominated by right-wing Tories such as Boris Johnson and Michael Gove. The Left Leave campaign (“Lexit”) involved the SWP, the Communist Party, Counterfire, the Indian Workers Association (GB), the Bangladeshi Workers Council of Britain and some leading trade unionists. There was also a Scottish Left Leave campaign and a tour of more than 20 cities for a left exit campaign by the Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition (TUSC). These put forward a case against the EU that was the polar opposite to the one that came from the Tories, UKIP or for that matter the Labour Leave campaign. The significance of Lexit was not in moving millions of votes—its influence was relatively marginal—but in the demonstration of how to mount a principled anti-racist, anti-capitalist, internationalist campaign.

But this is hugely contested territory. Many on the left saw the vote as simply an affirmation of reaction and racism. Socialist Resistance, the British section of the Fourth International, is a very small organisation but it spoke for a considerable part of the left when it said, “The vote to leave the EU is a victory for the right-wing xenophobes and a disaster for the struggle against austerity in Britain”.15 It is a serious argument, but it is wrong, pessimistic and demobilising.

There is a good deal of contemptuous dismissal of Leave voters as stupid and reactionary and racist. Much of it is based on myth. To take a small example, one popular story immediately after the referendum was that people had frantically started searching on Google for “What is the EU?” in the hours after the result was announced. The numbers, we were told, had tripled. The implication was that the uneducated masses had voted Leave without any basis and now, after the event, were trying to find out what they had actually done. It’s true there was a spike in the numbers searching this question, but from an extremely low base. In the month before the Brexit vote, 8,100 Britons googled “What is the EU?” That’s around 261 a day. If the numbers did indeed triple, that’s still fewer than 1,000 the day after the vote.16 We don’t know if they were voters or not, or if they had voted Remain or Leave. The story was, like many, a slur designed to demonise Leave voters.

Who voted Leave?

In this article I have made much use of the survey produced by Lord Ashcroft and his team. The source is not perfect, but it is the most comprehensive one that is publicly available. Ashcroft says: “On referendum day I surveyed 12,369 people after they had voted to help explain the result—who voted for which outcome, and what lay behind their decision”.17 What do his results show?


There was a very strong class element to the Leave vote. The Ashcroft poll uses the National Readership Survey (NRS) social classification grades. These are based on occupation and are widely used in market research. They are not the same as class divisions but they do paint a very broad picture of class and the vote.

Table 1: Social class and the referendum

Social class


Percentage of population

Votes for Leave (percentage)


Higher managerial, administrative and professional


A and B: 43


Intermediate managerial, administrative and professional



Supervisory, clerical and junior managerial, administrative and professional


C1: 51


Skilled manual workers


C2: 64


Semi-skilled and unskilled manual workers


D and E: 64


State pensioners, casual and lowest grade workers, unemployed with state benefits only


Source: National Readership Survey, 2015; Ashcroft, 2016, table 2, p5.

Every group except A includes large numbers of workers. The B group, for example, includes some lecturers, teachers and healthworkers. Ashcroft’s survey found that the AB social group were the only one where a majority, 57 percent, voted to Remain. The C1 group had a small Leave majority, the C2 and DE groups voted 64 percent Leave.18 There is also a clear correlation between income and the Leave vote; the poorer you were, the more likely you were to vote Leave. The woman who told the Guardian’s John Harris: “If you’ve got money, you vote in, if you haven’t got money, you vote out,”19 might have been speaking about her local area and obviously making a very broad generalisation. But it has a glimpse of the truth.

Given these figures it seems strange that Ashcroft also found that most people in full time or part time work voted Remain. But this is because the survey weighting reflects actual turnout in the referendum and ABs were more likely to take part in the referendum than other groups. The survey used the views of 5,111 ABs, who, according to NRS, make up 27 percent of the population. But it used only 4,846 C1s and C2s combined, groups that make up 48 percent of the population.

YouGov found similar links between a Leave vote and social categories; ­according to their figures the AB group voted 39 percent Leave, C1 46 percent Leave, C2 63 percent Leave, DE 66 percent Leave.20 This survey also found that those with a household income of less than £20,000 voted 62 percent Leave, those with a household income of £60,000 or more voted 35 percent Leave.

There is plenty of other evidence showing that most working class people voted Leave. Ashcroft found, “around two thirds of council and housing association tenants voted to leave”.21 Just three of the top 50 areas with the highest share of people from DE class backgrounds voted to Remain.

Data from the Guardian shows that in areas where a lower proportion of residents had formal qualifications (an indicator of class rather than intelligence) people tended to vote Leave. Leave voters also tended to live in areas where people earn less.22

The Daily Mirror’s analysis showed that the areas voting Leave had an average weekly wage of £410.47 compared with £459.52 for Remain.23 None of this proves the vote was necessarily progressive. But it should surely give some pause to those on the left who see the 17 million Leave voters as just a racist horde.

There is deep bitterness and anger inside the working class. The referendum provided an outlet for it. The hatred of the elite, unaccountable power, the sense you are regarded as worthless and irrelevant—and the dislike of the ­undemocratic EU—combined in the Leave vote.

Unlike a general election there was no argument about “vote for us or you’ll let the Tories in”. Both the official Leave and Remain campaigns were led by Tories. The Remain argument about the positive effects of the EU and the disaster that awaits if you departed from it utterly failed. It doesn’t work to tell people who rarely have holidays, let alone foreign holidays, that a Leave vote might make it harder for their flights abroad. As Satyajit Das pointed out, “the inconvenience of the non-EU line at immigration or the ability to own a holiday retreat on the continent does not concern those who have never had those opportunities”.24

As Ralph Fevre argues:

For 40 years—as union membership declined and inequality increased—Britons were told that education and the labour market were level playing fields on which those with talent and application could shape their own futures. Employers concurred as they promised material rewards and self-fulfilment for those who took advantage of the new individualism. But many Britons were excluded from this neoliberal settlement from the start and their descendants still aren’t getting degrees or good jobs.25

This fury can be directed even more clearly against the bosses and the rich if it is given a clear lead. But that means welcoming it, not disparaging it.


London was the only English region to vote for Remain, although even in the capital over 1.5 million people voted Leave.

Every other English region backed Leave—by 58 percent in Yorkshire and Humberside, 54 percent in the North West, 59 percent in the West Midlands and the East Midlands, and more than 50 percent in both the South East and South West. Wales voted by 53 percent for Leave, Scotland voted by 62 percent for Remain.

Taking the analysis to a city and town level is very revealing. There is a close association between areas that suffered particularly badly from the Thatcherite assault of the 1980s and a Leave vote. Almost 70 percent of people in Doncaster voted Leave, and 57 percent in the steel and former mining area of Neath Port Talbot in Wales also voted Leave. In Hartlepool 70 percent voted Leave along with 61 percent in Sunderland. Blaenau Gwent voted 62 percent Leave, despite quite large amounts of EU funds being deployed in the area.

These are areas that were ripped apart by the global pioneers of neoliberalism three decades ago, and they have never recovered from it. Did anyone attempt to go to the areas where the mines closed or where the steelworks rust and tell people that their prosperity was at risk if they voted Leave? If so they would have been laughed at. The former mining area of Bolsover, where the main warehouse of Sports Direct, recently lambasted for its “Victorian working practices”, is situated, voted 71 percent for Leave.26

A small majority of those who voted Remain thought that for most children growing up today, life will be better than it was for their parents. Leavers thought the opposite by 61 percent to 39 percent. Nearly 60 percent of Leave voters thought life in Britain is not better today than it was 30 years ago—and for many that reflects the reality of their lives and their children’s lives.27


According to the Ashcroft poll, 73 percent of 18 to 24 year-olds voted to remain, falling to 62 percent among 25-34s. The 35-44 age group split almost equally between Remain and Leave. A majority of those aged over 45 voted Leave, rising to 60 percent of those aged 65 or over. This shouldn’t be translated into “only the old voted Leave”, and we should remember the median age of the British population is over 40 and the median age of potential voters is 46. One study suggested that 87 percent of eligible students in universities voted in the referendum, and 85 percent of them voted Remain. For many this was an expression of support for migrants and refugees, backing for some sense of internationalism, and a vote against UKIP and the reactionaries who headed the official Leave campaign. In the SWP we don’t think the EU has anything to do with real internationalism or anti-racism, but we know that lots of young people were motivated by positive reasons to vote Remain. This is a good sign for the future.

A reactionary vote?

Racist attacks, and hate attacks in general, increased in the immediate aftermath of the Leave vote. Some 6,193 incidents were reported across England, Wales and Northern Ireland in the four weeks after 16 June 2016, according to the National Police Chiefs’ Council. The most common offences reported were harassment, assault, verbal abuse and spitting. This includes homophobic, transphobic, racial, religious and disability hate crime.

There were 3,001 offences reported between 1 and 14 July. This was a 6 percent drop compared to the two weeks before, which saw 3,192 reports. But the figure is a 20 percent rise on the same period in 2015. There were many other reports of a similar nature. It is undoubtedly true that some racists were emboldened because they, wrongly, believed the Leave vote meant voters supported them. Many migrants to Britain and many black, Asian and Muslim people felt fear as the news of racist attacks spread. We should not dismiss it. The murder of Jo Cox MP during the referendum campaign by an alleged Nazi enraged by her pro-refugee views, is a reminder of the high stakes involved.

Some people argue that the Leave vote was fundamentally reactionary. Commentator Omer Aziz wrote: “Since the results were finalised, there has been a stubborn refusal among the commentariat and the political class to acknowledge the role that racism played in the vote. Racism not as a peripheral cause. Racism not as a tertiary cause, but rather racism as the central factor in ­determining who won on June 23”.28

Racism was an issue in the Leave vote. It was the dominant aspect for some people (a minority) and a factor for others. But it was not the central component. Half of Leave voters told Ashcroft’s pollsters that the biggest single reason for wanting to leave the EU was “the principle that decisions about the UK should be taken in the UK”. A third said the main reason was that leaving “offered the best chance for the UK to regain control over immigration and its own borders.” Just over one in eight said remaining would mean having no choice “about how the EU expanded its membership or its powers in the years ahead.” The reasons most people gave for a Leave vote were, at least in large part, democratic and anti-elitist, not racist. But the Ashcroft poll has been systematically misinterpreted to provide spurious evidence of reactionary Leave voters.

Sayeeda Warsi, a Conservative member of the House of Lords, for example, tweeted that “around 75 to 80 percent” of Leave voters believed multiculturalism, social liberalism, immigration, and feminism were “a force for ill”. Her misunderstanding (if that is what it was) of the statistics was frequently followed by left-wingers on social media. It is true that, for example, 81 percent of those who think multiculturalism is a force for ill voted Leave. But that is not the same as 81 percent of Leave voters thinking that multiculturalism is a force for ill.

People were asked to rank how they felt about multiculturalism on an eleven point scale where a score of ten means it is “very much a force for good” and zero “very much a force for ill”. In this survey Remain voters were, overall, more favourable to multiculturalism that Leave voters. But it is also true that 52 percent of Leave voters thought multiculturalism was a force for good or a mixed blessing. This is a very long way from the oft-repeated claim that 81 percent of Leave voters were against multiculturalism.

Table 2: “Do you think of multiculturalism as being a force for good, a force for ill, or a mixed blessing?”

10 (good)










0 (ill)

Leave voters (percent)












Remain voters (percent)












Source: Ashcroft, 2016, table 27, pp112-113.

To take another example, 74 percent of those who thought feminism was a force for ill voted Leave. But 44 percent of Leave voters thought feminism was a force for good and only 23 percent a force for ill (33 percent were in the “mixed blessing” neutral category).29

Nearly a third of both Leave and Remain voters thought capitalism was a “force for ill”, a cheering statistic for socialists given that there is so little discussion of alternatives to it in the mainstream and no major political party (including Labour) actually declares that it is hostile to capitalism.30

The figures for immigration are more disturbing. Just 14 percent of Leave voters thought immigration was a force for good, 62 percent a force for ill (24 percent in the “mixed blessing” category). Remainers saw immigration 57 percent a force for good, and 17 percent a force for ill (26 percent “mixed blessing”). Partly this reflects the fact that people in the lowest three social class categories C2, D and E were much more likely than A, B or C1 to admit that they thought immigration was a force for ill, and nearly two-thirds of C2, D and E voted Leave.

There is a serious battle to be fought over immigration, but the weaponisation of the issue occurred well in advance of any EU referendum. Huge numbers of people have been convinced over a long period that immigration is a problem and must be brought down. The 2016 British Social Attitudes report says:

The proportion of respondents favouring some reduction in migration rose from 63 percent in 1995 to 72 percent in 2003 and 78 per cent in 2008, just before the onset of the economic crisis. Since then, there has been a small decline, with 75 percent of respondents in 2011 advocating a reduction in immigration overall and 51 percent wanting a large reduction. Most of the increase in demand for reduction thus dates to the late-1990s/early-2000s, and the balance of public concern has remained broadly stable since 2003.31

Such figures are worrying, but utterly unsurprising. All the main political parties (including Labour) have spent years telling everyone who would listen that there are “too many” migrants coming to Britain and that they cause problems for housing, jobs, wages and public services. Labour’s infamous “Controls on Immigration” mug produced for the 2015 general election is an example of such a push.32 One of the most refreshing aspects of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership is that he has bucked this trend. But not a day goes by without a newspaper running a story about the supposed bad effects of immigration, with hundreds of stories a year about the threat to the NHS, the criminal nature of migrants, the threat to “our culture” and so on. Such saturation coverage has an effect.

Politicians and the media have systematically sought to link the issue of immigration to the very real questions of a declining NHS, a lack of affordable and good quality housing, low pay and insecure work. It is particularly poisonous when people’s anger is directed away from the actual culprits—the rich, the bankers, the corporations—towards migrants. It substitutes an illusory enemy for the real one. It also tells people that if they want to improve their services and living standards they need to take action over immigration. This is what much of the polling data reflects: angry people who want change and imbibe some anti-migrant myths in the absence of collective struggle.

Neoliberal society says that if there are problems in your life then the root is individual failing and the way out is atomised, individual and competitive action. If you don’t have a house or a good job it is because you didn’t try hard enough at school or won’t work hard enough now. The solution is to trample on others. If the area where you live is crumbling then don’t try to act collectively, try to protect your own piece of turf and don’t worry about the rest. Such an ideology is fatally undermined if people start to realise that their personal experiences are not finally about their individual efforts but about the collective organisation of society. The ruling class has every interest in peddling the idea that instead of addressing that question you should turn on your neighbour. For decades racism has been deliberately employed in this way.

An important report about racism after the Leave vote, based on social media groups and analysis and with the support of the Institute of Race Relations, was unsparing in its description of the racist attacks that occurred.33 But it gave a central role to events before the referendum and in particular the role of former home secretary and now prime minister Theresa May (who supported Remain). The report, “Post-referendum racism and xenophobia”, said that May had helped create the “hostile environment” that paved the way for post-referendum attacks: “If a hostile environment is embedded politically, it can’t be a surprise that it takes root culturally.” Singling May out as one of those who helped create such a “hostile environment”, the report recalls that in 2012, she used a newspaper interview to declare: “The aim is to create here in Britain a really hostile environment for illegal migration”.34 The report said: “This was brought to fruition in July 2013 when the Home Office deployed mobile ad-vans in six London boroughs telling people to ‘GO HOME or face arrest’.” It adds, pointedly, “Around a quarter of the incidents recorded in our database specifically use the words ‘Go Home’ or ‘Leave’.” It concludes that the politics dominating the official Leave campaign were “a continuation of this politically mainstream, hostile stance towards immigration and xeno-racist narratives”.35

During the referendum campaign Nigel Farage unveiled a vile poster with a picture of a queue of mostly non-white migrants and refugees with the slogan “Breaking Point: The EU Has Failed Us All.” It clearly incited racism. Unison union leader Dave Prentis reported the poster to the police and even Douglas Carswell, UKIP’s only MP, called it “morally indefensible”.

Immigration was the main issue for the official Leave campaign for the final weeks before the vote, but the heads of Remain also used racism. David Cameron ran a brutally Islamophobic campaign against Labour’s Sadiq Khan in the London mayoral battle in May. He had previously called migrants a “swarm” and had denounced Corbyn for meeting a “bunch of migrants” in Calais. Other official Remain figures made similarly racist comments. Cameron launched the referendum on the basis of a deal to cut in-work benefits to migrants from the EU, a measure that would have meant one section of the working class was effectively paid less than another. This was overtly rooted in the idea that migration was an evil.

So both the official Leave and Remain campaigns used racism. The exception was Scotland where the Remain campaign was dominated by the SNP, and did not use racism as part of its argument.

The remarkable fact is not that anti-immigration views have percolated into substantial sections of the population but that millions reject the myths. These include a substantial number of working class people. Most workers are not racists, and neither are most Leave voters. A poll in September 2015 found that nearly a third of people in Britain had personally backed the refugee relief and solidarity effort. More than six million people, 12 percent of the population gave money to a refugee charity appeal, a further 10 percent donated food, clothes or other goods, and another 9 percent volunteered their time or backed social media campaigns supporting refugees.36 A major international poll taken in the immediate aftermath of the referendum showed that the percentage of people in Britain who were positive about immigration was 35 percent, the fourth highest figure of the 22 countries surveyed, and the highest figure in Europe. It was well up on the 28 percent in 2015 and the 19 percent in 2011. Similarly the percentage in Britain saying there were “too many immigrants in our country” was 49 percent, down from 60 percent in 2015 and 71 percent in 2011.37

If Leave was solely or predominantly an anti-immigrant and racist vote, we would not expect those most directly targeted by racism and Islamophobia to be part of it. It’s true a majority of black and Asian people voted Remain, but about a third of those describing themselves as Asian voted Leave, as did over a quarter of black voters; nearly a third of Muslims voted Leave.38 Of course there are a few black UKIP members, and some black and Asian people might have opposed the EU because, for example, they think it has allowed too many Eastern Europeans to come to Britain. But it’s far from the whole explanation of these figures.

Such findings undermine the view that the racists and fascists will be in the vanguard after the Leave vote. If the racists were really roaring ahead we might expect UKIP to advance in confident form. After all, it has secured its declared main aim of winning Brexit and it made some advances in the May elections before the referendum. But certainly UKIP did not benefit in the immediate aftermath of the vote. Nigel Farage resigned as leader, which he was unlikely to have done if he thought there was a clear path to future victories. Paul Nuttall who had been tipped as his successor (and regarded as “worse than Farage” by some on the left in case we thought there was anything to be celebrated about Farage’s departure) then ruled himself out of the contest. Nuttall also said he would be standing down as UKIP’s deputy leader after their next conference, although he would continue as an MEP, with all its attendant luxuries and bounties.

Then it got worse for UKIP. The second favourite after Nuttall, Steven Woolfe, was banned from standing by the party’s national executive as he didn’t get his application in on time. The ruling led to bitter infighting among UKIP members and three executive members resigned. The declared candidates recalled the odd, horribly reactionary and weirdly obsessive people who are normally found only in the contest to be Republican candidate for US president. So UKIP now has a completely unknown and untested leader in Diane James—unless Farage once again reverses his pledges and returns.

UKIP stood in 20 council by-elections between the Leave vote on 23 June and 11 August. In 11 its percentage of the vote fell, in eight it was standing for the first time and in just one its vote increased. The fall in the vote happened even in areas that had voted heavily for Leave. For example, the Bexley St Michael’s by-election of 30 June saw UKIP’s vote fall by nearly 15 percentage points. This is an area (Bexley) that voted 63 percent Leave.39

Nor have the British fascists, fragmented and broken by the campaigning work of Unite against Fascism and others, seen an increase in their numbers. Many stories of post-Leave racism were illustrated by a picture of the Nazi demonstration in Newcastle the weekend after the result. But the demo wasn’t some novel reaction to the vote, it was one in a series of tiny Nazi mobilisations that have taken place across Britain over the last few years since the defeat of the English Defence League and the Nazis were easily outnumbered by anti-fascist protestors. The local anti-fascist group, Newcastle Unites reported:

Nazis from the EDL, North East Infidels and National Front descended on Newcastle with the aim of spreading hatred and dividing our community. 20 fascists, who lived as far as Dover, arrived with their “Stop immigration, start repatriation” and “refugees not welcome” banner hoping they would be heard in the city. Unfortunately when they arrived at the Monument hundreds of antiracists were there waiting for them. Considering the EDL had this planned for months, their grouping could be only described in one word: PITIFUL! Throughout the demonstration many members of the public doing their shopping were joining us. By the end of our demonstration we had almost 300 people of all ethnicities and religions standing as one condemning them and their ideology. After three hours the fascists left sodden and demoralised. They could not be heard over the “Refugees Welcome” and “Nazis out” chants.40

Not exactly a warm welcome. In early July the Nazis went to Southampton. They mustered 16 on their side and were met by over 1,000 anti-fascists, the city’s biggest such mobilisation for decades. There is, of course, no room for complacency, but it is not true that the Nazis are on the march. They must be kept down.


The entire referendum debate, and the future of British politics, would have been transformed if a Corbyn-led Labour Party had argued for a left Leave vote. It would have meant the campaign would have been much less about immigration and much more about anti-austerity and workers’ unity. It would have won over large numbers of young people to the reality that there is a progressive and internationalist case against the EU.

Ashcroft’s survey says that nearly 40 percent of Labour voters at the 2015 general election (quite a low base) voted Leave anyway. If Labour had backed Leave it would have meant an even bigger defeat for Remain. It would have been Corbyn who was photographed celebrating the morning afterwards, not Farage. Labour would have connected with a much wider section of working class people who voted Leave, and offered a left focus for their anger at the world rather than abandoning them to reactionaries. Labour would have been in a better position to attack the new May government and to define the Brexit negotiations in terms of internationalist and working class concerns.

It didn’t happen. During his battle for the Labour leadership in 2015, Corbyn hinted he might support leaving the EU. He said he had “not closed his mind” to exit and was opposed to giving David Cameron a “blank cheque”. At one hustings he said, “I think we should be making demands—universal workers’ rights, universal environmental protection, end the race to the bottom on corporate taxation, end the race to the bottom in wage protection.” In this he was entirely in line with his history of opposition to the EU and the Maastricht and Lisbon treaties. Corbyn said the Maastricht Treaty “takes away from national parliaments the power to set economic policy and hands it over to an unelected set of bankers who will impose the economic policies of price stability, deflation and high unemployment throughout the European Community”.41 Corbyn’s political mentor was Tony Benn, a wholeheartedly anti-EU figure.

It turned out the way to make Corbyn back the EU was to elect him Labour leader. He compromised to keep at least some of the right within his own party vaguely and, as it turned out, temporarily on side. Corbyn campaigned for Remain but certainly without any of the enthusiasm and verve that he generally brings to his political activity. He often gave the impression that he was doing it as a duty. But crucially Corbyn did not campaign alongside the Tories. Regrettably Sadiq Khan, Labour’s new mayor of London, took to the streets for Remain alongside Cameron, the man who had savaged him in a foul Islamophobic way just weeks earlier. Former shadow chancellor Ed Balls sat smiling at a Remain event next to axe-man George Osborne. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock joined a Remain phonebank with Cameron and former Lib Dem leader Paddy Ashdown. These people were replaying a horror film—the Labour campaign alongside the Tories during the Scottish referendum. This resulted in a wipeout at the subsequent general election, with Labour suffering a fall in Scotland from 41 MPs to one.

Meanwhile the union leaders seemed determined to undermine the reasons for their existence by insisting that workers’ rights, in the past and today, derived from the benevolent largesse of the EU. The EU tore into Greek workers and cheered on the French government as it battled to introduce a new Work Law stripping away rights. The EU made not a whimper as the Tories pushed through their new anti-union laws in the run-up to the referendum. Nevertheless the union leaders (except for the RMT, ASLEF and BFAWU unions) loyally trooped behind Remain. Len McCluskey of Unite recognised that “voting for the status quo is not exactly a popular option” but he still called for his members to do it.

This abandonment of working class interests by the Labour Party and most trade union leaders risked directing those who rightly opposed the EU towards the racists and reactionaries. This was pushed further when a string of Labour figures, obviously believing that the way to win the working class is to be more racist, began pushing for further restrictions on freedom of movement. Tom Watson, Labour’s deputy leader, said EU immigration rules would have to be revisited, saying “woe betide” the party if it ignored public concerns. Ed Balls said: “We need to press Europe to restore proper borders, and put new controls on economic migration”. Even shadow chancellor and Corbyn ally John McDonnell was reported to have said that Labour would “look again at the free movement of labour”. To his credit, Corbyn refused to go along with this shift.42

Contradictory ideas

Workers’ ideas are not fixed. Socialists should seek to direct the rebellion of
23 June further in a positive direction and squash any reactionary elements. Those on the left who see only a further spiral downwards are turning their back on an opportunity to connect with and broaden working class revolt.

The Italian Marxist Antonio Gramsci argued that workers have contradictory consciousness. He wrote that a worker has “two theoretical consciousnesses (or one contradictory consciousness): one which is implicit in his activity and which in reality unites him with all his fellow workers in the practical transformation of the real world; and one, superficially explicit or verbal, which he has inherited from the past and uncritically absorbed”.43 The experience of collective work and society is pitted against the individualist pressures and ideologies of capitalism.

The idea of contradictory consciousness is not the same as describing uneven consciousness—that, for example, some workers vote Tory and others back Jeremy Corbyn. Nor is it an attempt to link particular ideas to different sections of the class—the false idea that manual workers and white collar workers will have different ideas because their experiences in the workplace are not the same in some respects. Instead the term contradictory consciousness seeks to engage with the reality that workers as groups or even individuals may simultaneously have brilliant anti-racist instincts but may be opposed to strikes. Others may be for very militant struggles over pay and conditions but be wholly signed up to an agenda of aggressive British nationalism. Even this description (which anyone who has argued for socialist ideas will immediately recognise) underplays the level of contradiction.

The Social Attitudes Survey has asked people over many years whether they would describe themselves as very prejudiced or a little prejudiced against people of other races. The number who say they are very prejudiced is tiny (around 3 percent), and the total who say they are very or a little prejudiced has fallen by around 10 percent since the 1980s to around 30 percent. This is far lower than the numbers who think immigration is negative in some respect. Opposition to immigration is rooted in racism, but it does not mean that people are wholly wedded to racist ideas.

Karl Marx famously said that it is “social existence that determines consciousness”44 and this is very powerfully borne out by a poll taken just before the referendum. It found that 42 percent of voters overall, and 65 percent of those intending to vote Leave, thought immigration had a bad impact on Britain as whole. But asked about the area where they lived, only 24 percent overall thought that immigration had a bad impact. Well over half of Leave voters said immigration was either a good thing for where they lived or had no impact. When it came to individual experience, 78 percent of voters overall, and 62 percent of Leave voters, said immigration had been either good for them personally or had no impact. So the view that was based most on what the media and politicians say (the effect of immigration on Britain as a whole) was the most hostile to immigration. The one that involved the most direct material experience (personal impact) saw just one in five people say immigration was a bad thing.45

The most powerful factor shaping ideas is struggle. During a period of big strikes workers tend to see each other as partners in a fightback rather than competitors. When strikes are low the rotten ideas of division are more likely to find an echo. It’s worth looking at UKIP’s polling figures over the past five years. In January 2011 UKIP was polling at 5 or 6 percent nationally. After a year that saw the biggest trade union demonstration in British history (March 2011), a strike by two million workers over pensions (November 2011) and a series of inspiring international battles, UKIP was down to just 2 or 3 percent in the polls—a negligible number. It is when the struggle stopped from 2012 onwards, choked off by the union leaders, that UKIP support rose steadily to reach nearly 14 percent in the 2015 election. This underlines the criminal effect of the union leaders’ and Labour leaders’ failure to organise resistance.


The SWP believes the Leave vote will benefit the working class across the world and the struggle against racism. It is a further blow to the coercive neoliberal power of the EU and its racist laws. The dismantling of the pro-capitalist EU must begin with revolts at a national level. But we do not think the question of how someone voted in the referendum is a supremely defining question. We recognise that we have more in common with an anti-racist, or a striker or a Corbyn supporter who voted Remain that we do with a racist or a Tory who voted Leave. It matters for us all to understand what happened on 23 June.

There is a very important political task for all socialists after the Leave vote. However we voted on 23 June, we have to unite against racism, austerity, the Tories and the anti-Corbyn Labour MPs. We have to come together over the general issues but also the specific ones that are raised in the negotiations about Brexit. For example, Theresa May has repeatedly refused to guarantee the future rights of all EU citizens who are presently in Britain. This is a very important issue, directly affecting the three million EU citizens in Britain (two million of them workers) but indirectly affecting all of us who benefit from the contribution these people make. Over 100,000 EU nationals work in the education sector, and 80,000 in healthcare. Over a quarter of food business workers are EU nationals, and there would not be nearly enough skilled construction workers without EU nationals. For anti-racist reasons and for the unity of the working class we need a strong campaign from Remain and Leave voters together to win cast-iron commitments to the full rights of EU citizens in Britain—and to defend and extend the free movement of labour.

That has to be backed up by a wider programme raising issues that can engage with workers angry at the political elite and austerity—a major programme of council house building, higher taxes for the rich and the corporations, an end to the perks and expenses of elected officials, £10 an hour minimum wage, the repeal of all the anti-union laws, cancelling Trident and using the money for the NHS and education, stopping the privateers, no more powers to snoop on and police us, real action to stop climate change and so on. We need to define more clearly what we want from a possible Labour government and what we demand in policy terms from a Corbyn leadership. We need to move from generalities to campaigning specifics.

Mobilisations by Stand Up to Racism will be very important because issues like refugee rights, the defence and celebration of migrants, opposition to state racism and support for and participation in Black Lives Matter are going to be constant features of the political scene. Agitation for more strikes and protests, and building the People’s Assembly will also be crucial.

The class anger, and the class issues underlined by the Leave vote need to be addressed by the left. That doesn’t mean bending to racism, it means bringing together the battle against racism and the fight for social change and real improvements in workers’ lives.

British politics has seen big shifts in recent years. UKIP emerged as a populist racist party that could mobilise millions of votes. In Scotland the independence referendum became a focus for class resistance to the Tories and a way that people believed they could fight for a better world and produced a radical social movement. Independence lost (quite narrowly) but the SNP all but eliminated Labour parliamentary representation in Scotland at the 2015 general election. A radical challenge to austerity politics then emerged around Corbyn, but unexpectedly this challenge emerged within the structures of the Labour Party rather than taking the form of a new party. We should expect more shifts and lurches. We are not (or at least should not be) spectators. We must be participants in the outcomes, and that means intervention, innovative thinking, and organising. After the Leave vote the battle is on. Socialists should gladly embrace and shape it.

Charlie Kimber is the editor of Socialist Worker.


1 An instant, and powerful, analysis of the vote by Alex Callinicos was published online by this journal—Callinicos, 2016.

2 Parker and Barker, 2016.

3 TUC, 2016.

4 Buck, 2016.

5 Brown, 2016.

6 Lenin, 1916.

7 Economist, 2016a.

8 Economist, 2016b.

9 Hilary, 2016.

10 A full analysis of the EU is provided in Callinicos, 2015.

11 See the videos of the sessão internacional on the EsquerdaNet Youtube channel—www.youtube.com/user/EsquerdaNet/

12 People Before Profit Alliance, 2016 (a TD is a member of the Irish Parliament).

13 People Before Profit Alliance, 2016.

14 People Before Profit Alliance, 2016.

15 Socialist Resistance, 2016.

16 McGoogan, 2016.

17 Ashcroft, 2016. The “I surveyed” reminds us of Bertolt Brecht’s “Questions from a Worker Who Reads”: “Caesar defeated the Gauls. Did he not even have a cook with him?”

18 Ashcroft, 2016, table 2, p5.

19 Harris, 2016.

20 YouGov, 2016.

21 Ashcroft, 2016.

23 Grant, 2016.

24 Das, 2016.

25 Fevre, 2016.

26 See also Higgins, 2016: “Wigan’s Road to Brexit”.

27 Ashcroft, 2016.

28 Aziz, 2016.

29 Ashcroft, 2016, table 29, pp128-129.

30 Ashcroft, 2016, table 33 pp160-161.

31 NatCen, 2016.

32 This pledge also appeared on the “Edstone”.

33 Komaromi and Singh, 2016.

34 Kirkup and Winnett, 2012.

35 Komaromi and Singh, 2016, p9.

36 Travis, 2015.

37 Ipsos-Mori, 2016a.

38 Ashcroft, 2016.

40 Newcastle Unites, Facebook post 25 June. Go to http://tinyurl.com/jukys45

41 Moseley, 2016.

42 BBC News, 2016.

43 Gramsci, 1971, p661.

44 Marx, 1977.

45 Ipsos-Mori, 2016b.


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Aziz, Omer, 2016, “Brexit Wasn’t About Economics. It Was About Racial Hatred”, Huffington Post (29 June), http://tinyurl.com/hjose23

BBC News 2016, “Jeremy Corbyn says EU Free Movement Means No Immigration Limit” (19 June), www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-politics-eu-referendum-36570383

Brown, Gordon, 2016, “Leaders Must Make the Case for Globalisation”, Financial Times (17 July), www.ft.com/content/a0849e08-4921-11e6-8d68-72e9211e86ab

Buck, Tobias, 2016, “Middle England Drives Brexit Revolution”, Financial Times (15 June), https://next.ft.com/content/63beb670-321f-11e6-ad39-3fee5ffe5b5b

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Das, Satyajit, 2016, “Brexit has Exposed how Ignorant the Educated and Cosmopolitan have Become about Modern Britain”, Independent (3 July), http://tinyurl.com/z6mh3uj

Economist, 2016a, “Brexitland versus Londonia” (2 July), www.economist.com/news/britain/21701540-britain-increasingly-looks-two-countries-divided-over-globalisation-brexitland-versus

Economist, 2016b, “The Politics of Anger” (2 July), www.economist.com/news/leaders/21701478-triumph-brexit-campaign-warning-liberal-international-order-politics

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Gramsci, Antonio, 1971, Selections from the Prison Notebooks (Lawrence & Wishart).

Grant, Rob, 2016, “Areas with Lowest Paid Workers Voted for Brexit while Highest Paid Backed Remain”, Mirror (24 June), www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/areas-lowest-paid-workers-voted-8275990

Harris, John, 2016, “If You’ve Got Money, You Vote In…If You Haven’t Got Money You Vote Out”, Guardian (24 June), www.theguardian.com/politics/commentisfree/2016/jun/24/divided-britain-brexit-money-class-inequality-westminster

Higgins, Andrew, 2016, “Wigan’s Road to ‘Brexit’: Anger, Loss and Class Resentments”, New York Times (5 July), http://tinyurl.com/zvsctyk

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Ipsos-Mori, 2016b, “Just One in Five Britons say Immigration has had a Negative Effective on them Personally” (20 June), http://tinyurl.com/zd5g6qn

Komaromi, Priska, and Karissa Singh, 2016, “Post-Referendum Racism and Xenophobia” Institute of Race Relations (29 July), www.irr.org.uk/wp-content/uploads/2016/07/PRRX-Report-Final.pdf

Kirkup, James, and Robert Winnett, 2012, “Theresa May Interview: ‘We’re Going to give Illegal Migrants a Really Hostile Reception’”, Telegraph (25 May), http://tinyurl.com/bvh9qae

Lenin, V I, 1916, “The Discussion on Self-determination Summed Up”, www.marxists.org/archive/lenin/works/1916/jul/x01.htm

Marx, Karl, 1977 [1859], Preface to A Contribution to the Critique of Political Economy (Progress Publishers), www.marxists.org/archive/marx/works/1859/critique-pol-economy/preface.htm

McGoogan, Cara, 2016, “Were Brits Really Googling ‘What is the EU?’ After Voting to Leave?”, Telegraph (27 June), www.telegraph.co.uk/technology/2016/06/27/were-brits-really-googling-what-is-the-eu-after-voting-to-leave/

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People Before Profit Alliance, 2016, “Press Statement on Brexit Vote” (25 June), www.peoplebeforeprofit.ie/2016/06/people-before-profit-alliance-press-statement-on-brexit-vote/

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Trades Union Congress, 2016, “UK Workers Experienced Sharpest Wage Fall of Any Leading Economy, TUC Analysis Finds” (27 July), http://tinyurl.com/hv6dgny

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