Brexit and the ‘left behind’: deconstructing the popular narrative
Illustration: Pearl Onyeneke

Upon the British electorate’s marginal vote to leave the European Union in 2016, academics, journalists and public figures alike sought to explain the referendum result: expected to some, totally unpredicted to others. A popular analysis framed the Leave vote as a ‘working class revolt’; a mass mobilisation by Britain’s ‘left behind’, or its ‘globalisation losers’. More often than not, the ‘left behind’ are depicted as white, older working class voters, the term ‘left behind’ nominally referring to their political and social needs having been long overlooked. And while this demographic was certainly a significant contributor to the UK’s Leave vote, not only are older, white working-class voters far from Britain’s only ‘left behind’, they were also not the largest demographic of Leave voters.

In fact, a number of academics have recently stressed that framing Brexit as the actions of the ‘left behind’ misrepresents socioeconomic realities regarding race and class – many of Britain’s working class are not white – as well as what the majority of Brexit voters looked like. Examining Britain’s departure from the EU through the lives of many BAME Brits provides a very different picture to the one we have become familiar with.

Analyses of the 2016 referendum result did identify a strong link between older age and likelihood of voting Leave. Others pointed to the negative correlation between average education level in an area and the proportion of Leave voters. Based on such patterns, some sociologists concluded that those who voted for Brexit were Britain’s ‘left behind’, namely older Brits overlooked by an increasingly globalised employment landscape and ethnically diverse society. These changes are set against a backdrop of growing inequality since Margaret Thatcher’s premiership and a generational value shift.

Ten years of austerity act as the more recent context bolstering the argument of the ‘left behind’ Brexit voter. Furthering the thesis that Leave voters have been disproportionately affected by government policy, researchers have shown that more intensive local spending cuts predicted a higher proportion of Leave votes in 2016. A recent and relative increase in migration to a region was also a predictor of greater likelihood to vote Leave. Brexit has therefore been framed as the result of a vote by a unified, homogeneous and white working class – the ‘left behind’ – responding to their own economic situation and concerns about immigration.

But the notion of the ‘left behind’ Leave voter is problematic for two primary reasons. Firstly, academic arguments detailing the links between socioeconomic factors and the Leave vote have infiltrated the public consciousness, losing much of their original nuance in the process. Perceptions of the typical Brexit voter have therefore been used to vilify many working-class people as uniformly Brexit-voting and anti-immigration. 

Secondly, a more holistic assessment of Britain’s ‘left behind’ reveals that many of them are not white, old, or Brexit-voting. Socioeconomic realities in Britain reveal a much more diverse ‘left behind’ class than the mainstream explanation for Brexit implies. The popular argument overlooks the long-term presence and precarity (both socially and economically) of many immigrant and non-white people in the UK.

Black Brits are twice as likely to live in poverty than white Brits; half of Bangladeshi households were living in poverty in 2015/16. Research has shown that BAME groups (especially women) are more likely to be underemployed or unemployed, regardless of their educational achievement, and are hardest hit by austerity measures. Sociologist, Gurminder Bhambra has pointed out how the decision by 68% of Britain’s BAME communities – many of whom could legitimately be given the moniker of the socioeconomically ‘left behind’ – to not vote for Brexit was largely ignored.

The British working class, therefore, are far from homogeneous, and are certainly not homogeneously white. In framing Brexit as the political expression of the ‘left behind’, academics and others have taken to racializing the working class as white, thus overlooking the daily effects of racism on many working-class people, often experienced in tandem with the harmful impacts of economic inequality.

The ‘left behind’ argument is also lacking in its failure to address who, exactly, voted Leave in 2016. Proportionately, white working-class Brits were more likely to vote Leave. But numerically, a majority of Brexit voters were white, middle class and lived in the South of England. Indeed, while over two thirds of BAME voters opted for Remain, a closer glance at the sheer diversity of those broadly referred to as ‘ethnic minorities’ in the UK further complicates the Brexit narrative. It is significant that a third of Asian Brits voted to Leave; this trend was disproportionately strong in South Asian communities. Just over one in 4 Black people also voted for Brexit. Closely examining the demographics within the Brexit-voting majority therefore problematises the concept of a homogeneous, anti-immigration, white working-class voting bloc.

On 30th June, the deadline passed for the UK to request an extension to the transition period, the 11-month window during which Britain and the EU must reach an agreement on their future relationship. The period is due to end on 31st December of this year; in spite of coronavirus throwing something of the spanner in the works of Brexit negotiations, the government opted to not extend the transition. As the deadline approaches, the absence of a formal agreement between the UK and EU – necessitating a ‘no-deal’ Brexit on World Trade Organisation terms – is set to impact those in poorer households most harshly. 

BAME Brits are overrepresented in low-income households and low-paid jobs. In 2018, Conservative MP Michael Gove conceded that an increase in food prices is likely in the event of a no-deal scenario; race equality think tank the Runnymede Trust have since predicted that such circumstances would ‘have a much larger impact on ethnic minority families with lower incomes’.

Before and since the 2016 referendum on Britain’s membership of the EU, over-simplified narratives have framed the democratic exercise as a response to growing inequality, globalisation and political disaffection. Britain’s so-called ‘left behind’ were consistently depicted as white, working-class and Brexit-voting. But a closer look at those who voted for Brexit, as well as a diversification of our understanding of the ‘left behind’, suggests that this widely accepted analysis does not stand up to scrutiny. 

The COVID-19 pandemic has shone a harsh and revealing light on Britain’s racial inequalities, while the killing of George Floyd and the wave of Black Lives Matter protests that followed have reignited conversations around Britain’s relationship with anti-Black racism. But the established narrative around Brexit – who voted it for it and why; who it will affect – may prove difficult to shift.