Whatever else it may have been, the Brexit vote was a working-class revolt. Britain’s two main political parties, Conservative and Labour, are still grappling with that fact. So far, it has created more problems than opportunities for both, but especially for Labour.
Though Britain’s left behind and beleaguered workers were not the only ones to vote to leave the European Union, they provided the bulk of support. This is especially true for the so-called C2s, a term derived from market research to denote skilled and semiskilled workers. Had political observers zeroed in on this group, they might have seen sooner how the Brexit referendum would turn out.
It was in the early 2000s that many British workers, alienated by a liberal consensus on immigration and European Union membership, drifted into apathy or switched allegiance. Historically, the C2s would have been considered “natural Labour voters,” though, in reality, many always leaned Tory. These voters, often socially conservative, are driven as much by anxieties over identity, belonging and borders, as by concerns about jobs and wages.
After the 2001 general election, some moved toward the far right, expressing support for a briefly resurgent British National Party, until the U.K. Independence Party, under the leadership of Nigel Farage, provided a more respectable option: Less overtly racist, its xenophobia centered on immigration from the European Union, while its nationalism was rendered socially acceptable as hostility to the despised bureaucrats of Brussels.
At the core of this strongly pro-Brexit group are workers who have enough to get by, and so something to lose, but not enough to get ahead. They are sandwiched between the unemployed on welfare and their more affluent employers; they see themselves as aspirational, but their reality is to belong to the squeezed middle.
Ahead of the referendum, they felt that Brexit would reduce immigration and were not deterred by warnings of economic doom. In fact, research conducted by me and my colleagues showed that it was precisely workers who felt they had been left behind and who worried about immigration who were the most likely to play down the risk of Brexit. In the event, nearly two-thirds of these voters broke for Brexit; an emphatic 65 percent of C2 men, and 59 percent of C2 women, did so, compared with 41 percent among the professional middle-classes (men and women together).
The latest rebellion of the C2s was a long time coming, but they have often proved a key “swing” segment of the electorate in British politics. In earlier decades, the C2s helped Labour win big majorities in 1945, 1966 and 1997, but their loyalty was never assured. It was Tony Blair’s achievement in the 1997 election to win back these skilled workers who, as he perceived, had played a critical role in cementing the electoral coalition of Thatcherism.
The so-called Essex Man, an approximate equivalent of the Reagan Democrat, wanted to get ahead economically — purchasing shares in newly privatized utilities and buying his own home, a “council house” that had formerly belonged to the public housing stock. Such workers also shared Margaret Thatcher’s social conservatism on the virtues of owning property, immigration, Europe, patriotism and crime.
Mr. Blair grasped that lesson and urged the left to focus on winning not only the progressive middle classes and those at the bottom of society, but also — in another coinage of the era, named for a popular model of Ford car — the “Mondeo Man.” Mr. Blair won these voters in 1997, but his embrace of free markets and light-touch regulation, and his liberal stance on immigration and Europe, lost them in subsequent elections as voter turnout among this segment of the electorate plummeted.
There is no British exceptionalism about any of this. Skilled and semiskilled workers have been at the fore of almost all national-populist revolts in recent history. Though many of Mr. Trump’s voters are fairly well off, the white working class broke for the Republican ticket over Hillary Clinton’s Democrats by a margin of roughly two to one. In France in 2017, the centrist Emmanuel Macron beat the National Front leader Marine Le Pen handily in the second round of the French presidential election, but the one group of voters among whom she outperformed him were blue-collar workers. As one review of research on the subject concludes, workers are now the “core clientele” of populist movements, which represent a “new type” of working-class politics.
A crucial element in the political movements that have capitalized on this group of voters is that they have succeeded in addressing an underlying desire not just for economic protection, but for cultural protection. The left’s identitarian deficit explains why it has been outflanked across much of the West.
Britain’s Labour Party is acutely aware of the challenge. In the general election in June, Labour did unexpectedly well with an eclectic coalition of the professional and managerial classes, students and those with the very lowest incomes. But the party’s message of economic redistribution fell flat among the C2s, significantly more of whom remained in the Conservative column, preferring the Brexit and anti-immigration priorities of Prime Minister Theresa May.
If Labour is ever to return to power, it must capture another 64 seats in Parliament; that requires a 3.6 percent swing away from the Conservatives. Preaching to middle-class liberals will not be enough, since almost all those 64 most winnable constituencies contain a high concentration of Brexit-supporting C2 voters. To compound Labour’s difficulty, the C2s are the voters most likely to think that the party has abandoned the working class.
How can they be won back?
As Britain approaches Brexit, some cling to the hope that the Brexit-backing workers will ultimately change their minds as inflation edges up and the economic growth stalls. So far, there is little evidence of this — on the contrary, these voters seem resistant to any cost-benefit analysis, much as they were ahead of the referendum. When one pollster asked working-class Leavers whether “significant damage to the British economy” would be a price worth paying for delivering Brexit, 62 percent thought it would. These are not voters who are about to radically change their minds simply because their weekly shopping bill is a few pounds higher. As in the United States with Trump voters, there is little sign yet of a change of heart.
There is one way forward, but it comes at a cost and will anger progressives. Labour’s resurgent leader, Jeremy Corbyn, hopes to lure workers back by promising to respect the Brexit vote and end the free movement of European Union nationals. His new immigration policy would also include a Migration Impact Fund — to target resources at communities facing high immigration. This is certainly more than Mr. Blair ever offered, and it may be enough for Labour to win back a sufficient number of pro-Brexit workers to create a broader electoral coalition — provided the party takes care not to alienate its pro-Remain base.
For those Labour Remainers, this means reconciling with Brexit and giving up on the liberal internationalist aims of a united Europe and open borders. That is the price for remaining electorally relevant and trying to reverse the trend of Labour’s loss of three elections in a row and its failure to win a parliamentary majority in 12 years. In the long run, it will enable Labour to be a player in the battle over Britain’s future, instead of merely a spectator.
The alternative is for Labour to turn up the volume of its attacks on Brexit. But preaching to liberals in London and the university towns will only further alienate the “Mondeo Man” voters who have developed a penchant for switching their votes. It would also mean that Labour had absolutely no chance of winning a majority and returning to power.
Over to you, Labour.
Matthew J. Goodwin, a professor of politics at the University of Kent, is a co-author, most recently, of Brexit: Why Britain Voted to Leave the European Union.