When presented with a vote on the status quo, it is no surprise that those with the least stake in it vote to abandon it. The same happened in Scotland’s independence referendum. Threats of economic Armageddon resonate little with people living in communities that feel ignored, marginalised and belittled. “Economic insecurity beckons!” people who live in perpetual economic insecurity are told. A Conservative prime minister lines up with pillars of Britain’s establishment with a message of doom – and it makes millions of people even more determined to stick their fingers up at it.
The leave campaign knows all this. It is Trumpism in full pomp: powerful vested interests whose policies would only concentrate wealth and power even further in the hands of the few, masquerading as the praetorian guard of an anti-establishment insurgency dripping in anti-immigration sentiment. It is political trickery long honed by Ukip, a party led by a privately educated ex-City broker that claims to be the voice of the little guy against a self-interested powerful clique. If Donald Trump succeeds across the Atlantic, the terrible cost of leaving millions of working-class people feeling both abandoned and slighted will be nightmarishly clear. The same goes for this referendum.
What of Jeremy Corbyn, assailed for not making his voice heard more loudly? He is accused of secretly wishing leave to triumph. This is unfair. He is undeniably sceptical about the European Union in its current form, which puts him closer to the mainstream of British public opinion than a pro-Brussels ideologue. Stay in the EU to change it: that’s a message that certainly needs more emphasis. But the key fear of the Labour leadership is the Scottish scenario: if discontented Labour voters see their leaders parading with business tycoons and Tory cabinet ministers in a campaign of fear, they will abandon their party. Scottish Labour voters who opted for yes defected to the SNP en masse: this time, the fear goes, Ukip could be the beneficiaries.
It is certainly true that Labour’s coalition is fracturing. The Labour left – which has now assumed the party’s leadership – is in large part a product of London and its political battles from the 1970s onwards. London, of course, has increasingly decoupled from the rest of the country, economically and culturally. As the commentator Stephen Bush puts it, Labour does well “in areas that look like [the] UK of 30 years hence”: in particular, communities that are more diverse and more educated. In many major urban centres Labour thrives: witness the victory of Labour’s Marvin Rees in Bristol’s recent mayoral election. It is in working-class small-town Britain that Labour faces its greatest challenge. And it is these communities that may decide the referendum – as well as Labour’s future.
That’s why Labour’s remain effort needs to bring voices that resonate in northern working-class communities to the fore, such as Jon Trickett, who represents Hemsworth in West Yorkshire. These voices need to spell out the danger of workers’ rights being tossed on to a bonfire; to emphasise the real agenda of the leave leadership; and to argue that we can build a different sort of Europe. It would be foolish for either side to call this referendum. But unless a working-class Britain that feels betrayed by the political elite can be persuaded, then Britain will vote to leave the European Union in less than two weeks.