Ilove fake revolts of the underclass: I’m a veteran of them. At secondary school, we had a revolt in favour of the right to smoke. The football violence I witnessed in the 1970s and 80s felt like the social order turned on its head. As for the mass outpouring of solidarity with the late Princess Diana, and by implication against the entire cruel monarchic elite, in the end I chucked my bunch of flowers on the pile with the rest.
The problem is, I also know what a real revolt looks like. The miners strike; the Arab spring; the barricade fighting around Gezi Park in Istanbul in 2013. So, to people getting ready for the mother of all revolts on Thursday, I want to point out the crucial difference between a real revolt and a fake one. The elite does not usually lead the real ones. In a real revolt, the rich and powerful usually head for the hills, terrified. Nor are the Sun and the Daily Mail usually to be found egging on a real insurrection.
But, all over Britain, people have fallen for the scam. In the Brexit referendum, we’ve seen what happens when working-class culture gets hijacked – and when the party that is supposed to be defending working people just cannot find the language or the offer to separate a fake revolt from a real one. In many working-class communities, people are getting ready to vote leave not just as a way of telling the neoliberal elite to get stuffed. They also want to discomfort the metropolitan, liberal, university-educated salariat for good measure. For many people involved, it feels like their first ever effective political choice.
I want to have one last go at convincing you that leaving now, under these conditions, would be a disaster. First, let’s recognise the problem. For people in the working classes, wages are at rock bottom. Their employers treat them like dirt. Their high streets are lined with empty shops. Their grownup kids cannot afford to buy a home. Class sizes at school are too high. NHS waiting times are too long.
I’m glad it has become acceptable to say: “You are right to worry about migration.” But I wish more Labour politicians would spell out why. Working-class people, especially those on low pay in the private sector, worry that in conditions of austerity, housing shortages, wage stagnation and an unlimited supply of migrant labour from Europe has a negative effect on their living standards. For some, that is true.
They are right, too, to worry about the cultural impact. In a big, multi-ethnic city, absorbing a lot of migrants is easy. In small towns, where social capital is already meagre, the migrant population can feel unabsorbed. The structure of temporary migration from Europe means many of those who come don’t vote, or don’t have the right to – which feels unsettling if you understand that it is only by voting that the workforce ever achieved progress. It feels as if, through migration, the establishment got to create the kind of working class it always wanted: fragmented, dislocated, politically distant, weak.
But a Brexit led by Ukip and the Tory right will not make any of these things better: it will make them worse. Take a look at the people leading the Brexit movement. Nigel Farage, Neil Hamilton, Boris Johnson, Michael Gove. They have fought all their lives for one objective: to give more power to employers and less to workers. Many leading Brexiters are on record as wanting to privatise the NHS. They revelled in the destruction of the working-class communities and cultures capable of staging real revolt. Sir James Dyson moved his factory to Malaysia, so much did he love the British workforce. They talk about defying the “elite”. But they are the elite.
Suppose leave wins on Thursday and, within two years, most migration from eastern Europe stops. What is the most likely outcome? For all the rhetoric about “cheap labour”, nobody in the Tory Brexit camp has promised to end it. What they actually promised is to to cut wages and scrap the laws that protect people at work. So even if the migrants stop coming, and maybe a few fruit farms and meat-packing operations in East Anglia shut down, there will still be millions of low-paid jobs on long hours. But guess who will be doing them? Most likely it will be you, the very people flag-waving for the leave camp now: low-skilled people in small towns. And should there be a shortage of unskilled workers, the Brexit camp’s figurehead – Iain Duncan Smith – knows what to do. Before ultimately resigning over benefit cuts, he had made a career out of dragging people out of wheelchairs and off sickbeds and into job assessments designed to cut their benefits.
Some people are fantasising that, if leave wins, Cameron will fall and then there will be a Labour government. But there is no new election on offer. Boris Johnson has already signed a letter pledging to keep Cameron in power if leave wins. Because that’s what elite politicians do: stick together. If leave wins, the most rightwing Tory government since Thatcher will be in charge of negotiating the terms of exit. The same newspapers running fake stories about refugees now will run fake stories about the Labour party to stop it winning the next election.
In the past week, Labour’s frontbench has signalled, loud and clear, that they will take measures to stop the creation of low-paid jobs that only migrants can do; and they will take the issue of free movement into a big renegotiation with the EU as soon as possible. Frankly, they should have done this sooner. I’m glad face-to-face contact with the people they represent has pushed them to accept that free movement should be filtered through strong UK measures to protect the lowest paid and end migrant-only recruitment.
For many people, the Brexit campaign feels, for one brief moment, like the first time they have had control. But the clue is in the word “brief”. Once the vote is over, it will be the rightwing Tories in control. Ask Ukip; ask Boris Johnson: will Brexit guarantee a rise in wages, a cap on rents, a fall in NHS waiting times or class sizes? Ask the leave camp to put targets on these things – not for the longterm, but within 12-18 months. They can’t.
What can is a left-led Labour party, combined with the progressive nationalist parties and the Greens, which will institute real change. There will be no dilemmas in the newsrooms of the Times and Telegraph if that happens: they will unite to crush it.
That’s how you know the difference between a real revolt and a fake one: by its enemies.