Saturday 11 June 2016

Why 'Leave' are winning

If you had asked me 6 months ago what the outcome of the EU referendum would be, I would have ventured an unambiguous answer: 'Britain will vote to remain in the European Union'. How wrong this answer would look today. The latest poll puts the Leave camp 10 points ahead of Remain.

Whether or not you believe the polls, everyone agrees on one thing: it's going to be close. Very close indeed. And it shouldn't be. So how did we get here?

There is now a consensus that the gravest threat to a Remain vote is the rapid decline of Labour in its heartlands. The Guardian and the BBC recently travelled into these areas where deprivation, long term unemployment and general hopelessness have dominated the political landscape since the 1980s. South Wales is a good example. Asked why they support Leave, the answers come thick and fast. And they are all of one kind: immigration. Whilst there used to be hesitation to discuss this issue, covered by the thin veil of British politeness, now people openly voice xenophobic and at times even racist prejudices.

Their opinions are peppered with flagrant falsehoods such as: 'immigrants get a grand in cash when they get here' or 'they get free housing', or 'most of them scrounge on benefits'. But the tenor is remarkably similar. The message is simple, straightforward and repeated up and down the country. And it is one that comes from one source alone: UKIP.

Neil Hamilton, of 'cash for question' fame, now sits in the Welsh Assembly for UKIP
Foto: WENN

Although the Labour Party does not want to hear it, its voters are abandoning Labour in droves. More and more Labour supporters have moved to the far right, taking the electoral fortunes of their party with them into an abyss of xenophobia and narrow-mindedness.

Why did this happen? And why now? There are essentially two reasons for this. The first is that UKIP has gone unchallenged for decades when it peddled its falsehoods and distortions about foreigners and migrants in the UK. The Conservatives felt largely insulated from the UKIP threat due to the first-past-the-post electoral system. And the Labour Party thought the UKIP message to run counter to the ideals of solidarity and mutual support that defined the party in the post-war period. So no one thought it worthwhile spending political capital on challenging the UKIP narrative (with the valiant exception of Nick Clegg, anyone remember him?).

The referendum changed this drastically. It gave Farage and his minions a national stage to articulate publicly the simple message that had already sunk into the nation's (sub)consciousness: It's the migrants' fault.

The second reason is of tactical nature. The Leave campaign settled early on a simple message and managed to define the terms of the debate: control, sovereignty, immigration. It shaped the content and nature of the terms by positively associating false choices like 'control' versus 'Brussels' with democracy. There are too many ironies in this to list them all here, ranging from the claim that the British political system is a beacon of democracy (House of Lords anyone?) to ignoring role the EU has played in democratising large swathe of the post-communist and post-Franco landscape since 1975.

Defining the terms of engagement is the key ingredient for political success and the Leave campaign understood this well. Once the campaign started Brexiters could rely on a solid foundation of animosity towards others, xenophobia and outright racism that was put in place long time ago by UKIP. All they had to do is to bring in their harvest of division and resentment.

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