by Robert Wragg
2016 has borne witness to perhaps the biggest rise in anti-establishment anger in a generation, but it hasn’t come from the usual suspects. No longer is it the radical left protesting the political elite, but rather it is regular working class voters, and they’re looking to the right. Culminating in the British public’s vote to leave the European Union, and the election of Donald Trump in the USA, liberal left parties are struggling to gather enough support from the electorate. The same is true on both sides of the pond, as in many others countries. So why is this happening?
In both the EU referendum and US presidential election, socially democratic and liberal parties failed to recognise that they had lost the support of the working-class voters, or where they did accept this, proclaimed those people to be simply ‘wrong’ in their growing dissatisfaction with liberal ideas, framing them as racists or bigots with neither the numbers nor the power to influence the vote. Proponents of liberalism refused to engage with them. Instead, they continued to provide more of the same moral superiority and neo-liberal economic, socially liberal package, with an ‘end of history’ style arrogance. In doing so they appealed only to those whose vote they had already won, their ideas bouncing around the echo chamber that is social media, reinforcing their feelings of righteousness.
Alienation of working class voters from the establishment in the UK, and alienation of white non-college educated individuals from the establishment in the USA – the story is the same; a political elite pushing a hegemonic ideology of social liberalism with such hubris that it either doesn’t notice, or chooses to ignore, the fact that huge swathes of the population simply no longer agree with the dominant position, largely because it hasn’t offered them anything. It is no surprise that the same individuals look elsewhere for opportunities to hit back at the establishment.
No-one considered the possibility that those with socially conservative views might have been talking from a meaningful position. Equally, no-one considered why those of a lower socio-economic position are less inclined towards liberal values than many middle class, college and university educated liberals, and as such, no one sought to understand the roots of their positions, they simply deemed them ‘wrong’ and moved on without them. And so, the protest voter is born, and it grows rapidly.
There are great parallels between the Democrats in the States and the Labour Party in the UK. Both failed to take serious notice of the protesters, both failed to acknowledge the atmosphere of anti-establishmentarianism. The Democrats fielded the living epitome of establishment politics in the form of Hilary Clinton, expecting that her experience alone would be enough to guarantee her the presidency against someone who, in contrast, had next to no political experience. But they fielded the establishment against a man who had tapped into a movement of anger and dissatisfaction across the country, a movement that was demanding an outsider. This was essentially a suicide note. Of course, many other obstacles stood in Hillary’s way, most notably her gender, as well as a possible ‘whitelash’ against the Obama presidency. Certainly, gender and racial biases are stronger in the States than the UK. However, it would be naïve to assume that this can explain the motives of all Trump voters, and to do so would be to continue a cycle which has contributed to the construction of this protest movement in the first place.
While the Labour Party, with the election of Jeremy Corbyn, has tapped in to the concerns of one section of the dissatisfied electorate – the hard left and the youth, it has ignored dissatisfactions elsewhere. The focus remains on policies to appeal to their current electoral targets – middle class liberals, the university educated, ethnic minorities, LGBTQ people. While Labour should be commended for building such a wide umbrella, unfortunately, however, it is not quite wide enough. The same people neglected by the Government see no solace in the Labour Party. While Labour rightfully promotes equality of race, gender, sexuality, ethnicity, this isn’t enough for those in working class areas who have taken the brunt of neoliberal economic policies. Nothing Is offered to those faced with discrimination purely because of their socioeconomic background. And let’s not forget that this discrimination exists. People from poorer backgrounds have been hit the most by government cuts. OFSTED scores are lower in low-income areas. There is still a huge lack of people from working class backgrounds attending top-UK universities. Jobs in working class areas are often remedial. Where is the promotion of equality for them, they ask? And so, they protest against the government, and they protest against the opposition. When both come together and patronisingly push Brexit down their throats, they push right back.
And while many commentators will brand these people as racists, even white supremacists, it would be much better to take a step back from this position of privilege and look at the causes of their dissatisfaction. It is unlikely that huge swathes of the UK are fundamentally racist. Much more likely is that immigration is a scapegoat. Immigrants are treated better than British people in their communities, it is believed. However rather than taking a hard line against immigration, the proper policy response would be to improve the treatment of the least-fortunate. Perhaps this would remove the fear and anger which has characterised recent public votes and instead promote tolerance, allowing left liberal parties to again capture their once-core voter.
Rather than keeping attacking and branding those who sought solace in Trump, Farage, or Brexit, look at the reasons why they did so. If centre left parties ever wish to defend their societies from the recent international lurch to the right they must widen their umbrellas and promise to tackle the concerns of those they once represented.
Robert Wragg is founder of an international volunteering programme, a charity trustee, and writes about international and domestic social policy issues.