In January Theresa May came to Stoke on Trent to make a speech in a bid to gain support for her Brexit deal. She was hustled in and whisked out and was probably back in London before most of us could catch the bus home.
“To the government and the media the only thing that defines us is Brexit.”
She didn’t stay to look around. She didn’t speak to any but a carefully selected few. She didn’t visit a food bank or meet people whose jobs are at risk or who can’t afford a home. She didn’t walk around the town and see for herself the potholes in the roads, the boarded up shops and the homeless people.
She came here for her own convenience. Stoke on Trent, the Brexit capital: left behind, working class, salt of the earth folk who voted Leave to take back control and whom she must not betray by failing to deliver Brexit.
She didn’t come for our benefit. She didn’t even see us. To the government and the media the only thing that defines us is Brexit. So don’t be flattered by the attention. If they were interested in our problems they’d have done something years ago. If they were listening they’d hear a range of different voices. If Sunderland had been closer to London maybe May would have gone there.
“Brexit mean Brexit” means nothing and people in Stoke on Trent, just as elsewhere, voted for multiple versions of Brexit (and, whisper it, some of us voted Remain) so it became a PR necessity for the politicians, aided by many in the national mainstream media, to create a caricatured version of our city, the Brexit Capital, populated by Brexit stereotypes as a prop to aid the Brexit drama.
Mention Stoke on Trent with a brief shot of a boarded up shop or a closed down factory and it’s short hand for “this isn’t about you comfortable, metropolitan elites; we’re doing it to show we’re listening to those poor unfortunate folk we’ve been ignoring for years”. But they’re not, they’re hoping to justify their obsession with delivering their own version of Brexit while still failing to deliver us public services or invest in sustainable improvements.
Those of us who don’t fit the full blooded Stoke Brexiter stereotype are airbrushed out of the picture. Nuance, doubt and reasons for voting Leave other than taking back control have been swept aside. Ask the women who thought they were voting for £350 million more a week for the NHS.
The BBC’s reporting of May’s visit carefully maintained the stereotype. The anti-Brexit campaigners were cut out of the shots and their soundbites not included in the selected vox-pop clips. It gave the appearance 100% of the city was in favour of Brexit.
When we at Staffs4Europe, which I joined in April 2018, first began campaigning on the streets of Hanley many people told us we were “brave” and dozens of Remainers said they “didn’t know there were any other Remain supporters in the area”.
“constant reiteration of a stereotype may be preventing those who are now having doubts about Brexit from speaking”
Even the locals had started to believe the stereotype, despite the fact that only 45.6% of the area’s electorate had voted leave, and its power had effectively silenced – even intimidated – those who did not identify with it.
But more dangerously, the constant reiteration of a stereotype may be preventing those who are now having doubts about Brexit from speaking out for fear of betraying themselves and their class. Is it already happening?
Our campaign over the last year suggests that the majority of people not being heard, those who are growing increasingly concerned and doubtful about Brexit are Leave voting women. Of the people we have spoken to fewer women than men want Brexit at any cost, fewer put taking back control over maintaining a strong economy and more are concerned with the increase in abusive behaviour. Women were more likely than men to tell us they were influenced by the £350 million a week for the NHS and to complain about the conduct of the referendum campaign. Alarmingly, when we asked the women if they would write to their MP and tell him/her what they had told us they said, no. They weren’t political. They hoped it would all work out but they did not want to get involved.
An article by The UK in a Changing Europe entitled “New Deal, no deal, second referendum – what do women want from Brexit?” reviewing research into women and Brexit says there is little sustained evidence of what women want and it suggests (with some supporting evidence) that women have been largely absent (or ignored?) in the debate.
Earlier research by one of the authors found that “perceiving a positive effect of Brexit on public services and especially the NHS was an additional driver of Leave voting for women, whilst male Leave voters prioritised this less” which is consistent with our anecdotal evidence.
It then goes on to say “Interestingly, women were more likely to be undecided at the start of the campaign, which suggests that aspects of the Leave campaign such as the pledge to fund the NHS instead of the EU may have been particularly attractive to some women” and our conversations, especially in the early days of our campaign bear this out.
The article does not address all the gender differences we noticed but it is generally consistent with those it does and it ends by surmising that women are more concerned about Brexit than men because they will disproportionately be affected.
And that brings me on to this.
“the referendum process created them rather than merely counted them”
One of the few studies investigating why (rather than which) people voted for Brexit and how the whole process shaped the electorate and resulted in the national divide we see today: “Brexit in Sunderland: The Production of Difference and Division in the UK Referendum on EU Membership” (Bromley-Davenport, Harry; MacLeavy, Julie; Manley, David 2018).
The researchers focus on a cohort of white working class men aged 50 to 85 in Sunderland, an area with characteristics similar to those of Stoke on Trent. This cohort was selected because it most closely matched the stereotypes touted by media and government.
Through a series of interviews and focus groups the authors show
“how economic stagnation and the experience of different forms of marginality led to a nostalgia for times past and a mistrust of political elites amongst this cohort. […] how the feelings expressed by research participants became linked to the EU project and its real and perceived impacts on the local area. In doing so, it shows that the referendum shaped and changed the electorate by asking them to align themselves with those either for or against Britain’s membership of the EU.”
Let that sink in. May’s red lines are an attempt to appease this stereotypical Brexit voter but to some extent the referendum process created them rather than merely counted them.
The paper discusses a number of factors from the days of Margaret Thatcher and through the Blair years which influenced the participants and it is well worth reading in full but to me, as a woman and having talked to many other women, the following leapt out:
“Although the structural inequalities that deny the working class access to opportunities, resources and power are not particular to our cohort, UKIP and the broader Leave campaign used the 2016 EU referendum to justify a gendered politics of white self interest that galvanised a majority of those in Sunderland to vote Leave.” (My emphasis)
“They were persuaded to vote leave in opposition to a system they perceived had quashed their labour market capabilities though the reconfiguration of the gender and race order.”
“The deterioration in what had been the normative or standard employment relationships for white men was associated with EU policy supporting growing diversity of the labour market.”
So there we have it ladies.
“we’ll end up tied to the kitchen sink or trapped in the nursery financially dependent on men”
The men who tell us it was better “before we joined” and it will be better again after we leave and escape the laws “they” force on us mean better for men, not for women. We didn’t get equal pay with men (and the gap still hasn’t closed), many jobs were not open to us and discrimination was rife. I can’t be the only woman who was told “Well you seem to know your stuff but it’s out of the question giving you the job because it’s a management role and men would have to work for you and we can’t have that. They wouldn’t like it.”
The sad thing is they may not even realise. As Jess Phillips said earlier this month, those who have been privileged see equality as persecution. Well these men may see themselves as heroes working to save and restore our “traditional culture” and regain the pride they once felt. In reality they have been played by the far right.
Worse, despite the press and the government focusing on this stereotype other studies have shown that only a third of working class people in the lowest three socio-economic groups voted for Brexit.
What a mess. Fight the stereotype and whatever your views make your voice heard but, ladies, please don’t let the right wing manipulators in UKIP and its successor parties dictate our future or we’ll end up tied to the kitchen sink or trapped in the nursery financially dependent on men.
Two other interesting papers you may want to read:
“Who voted for Brexit? A comprehensive district-level analysis” (Sascha.O.Becker, Thiemo Fetter, Dennis Novy Economic Policy, Volume 32, Issue 92 October 2017 pages 601-650) which analyses the characteristics of an area which were most likely to predict a leave vote. It is well worth a read when you have some time to spare but it doesn’t attempt to understand why the people of those areas voted as they did or indeed what they hoped to achieve. It is however tempting to speculate, something much in evidence from the responses of politicians and the press, but throughout the paper its authors take pains to stress they have established an association and not a causal relationship.
“Brexit was not the voice of the working class” (L Antonucci, L Horvath and A Krouwel). This study, summarised in a LSE blog, investigated whether the Brexit vote was the response of the “working class” and “uneducated” and found that it was not, it was the voice of the “squeezed middle” but their findings, although reported in some sections of the press have not significantly dented the stereotype. So maybe we should have voted for chaos with Ed Miliband instead of “stability and strong government” with David Cameron. But again although it is tempting to infer reasons the squeezed middle voted for Brexit the paper limits its does not claim to identify any causal relationship.
Post updated 27/3/21 to amend link for Staffs4Europe, now European Movement Staffordshire.