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More in hope, less about immigration: why poor Britons really voted to leave the EU

A popular Brexit narrative is that those left out of rising prosperity lashed out at the establishment because they could take no more punishment. They had suffered years of recession and austerity exacerbated by a Dutch auction – in which the asking price is lowered until there’s a buyer – driven by rising immigration.

The latest NatCen British Social Attitudes Survey shows the true extent of concerns about immigration. Clear majorities thought migrants were having a net negative effect on British schools and the NHS. This was an area where there was substantial agreement between people with different levels of education. Another area in which the public was even more of one mind was in their awareness that the NHS has a funding problem.

To find out where those left out of rising prosperity differed from the rest, however, we need to look at other survey questions. These introduce two important caveats to the popular narrative: that at least until the eve of the referendum campaign, poor Britons were not sure that leaving the EU would reduce immigration; and that it wasn’t just rising prosperity that they felt excluded from.

Referendum campaigners said they heard on the doorstep that the poor voted to leave because they thought this would address the problem of immigration forcing down wages. Yet in the second half of 2015, when the survey took place, the poorest and least educated were less likely than anyone else to think Brexit would reduce immigration.

Just over half of those with less than A-level education thought leaving would bring down immigration. UKIP and sections of the press may have persuaded more of them once the campaign got going. However, according to the survey, those who were more likely to believe leaving the EU would reduce immigration tended to be in a higher social class and also more likely to express a great deal of interest in politics. Of course some of this group were for staying in the EU. They were more likely to think leaving would hurt the economy (and reduce British influence) and some of them will have thought lower immigration would be damaging.

Nevertheless, before the campaign got going, the issue of immigration was not what made poor Brits anti-EU. Brexit was, rather, a measure of their grim hope that any change in their country might just be a change for the better.

Views about what would happen if Britain left the EU, by highest educational qualification. British Social Attitudes 2015

Left out of the deal

Education and income were the big dividing lines between pessimists and optimists. Graduates were much more likely to think leaving the EU would make the economy worse off and reduce Britain’s influence. Among those with no or little education, few thought the economy would deteriorate or that Britain’s influence would wane. People without qualifications were unique in that a majority believed that leaving would make the economy better, reduce unemployment and increase Britain’s influence. On the other hand, those less educated Britons (who were also less interested in politics) were also much more likely than anyone to think leaving would change nothing.

Voting to leave was not just the desperate gamble of people who felt excluded and powerless. They had no investment in the status quo but they also felt they were being harmed by it. Even more than the vast majority of Britons, they felt social mobility was rare (the proportion who think this has grown a lot in the last ten years). When they had been told for decades that their future was in their own hands as long as they did well at school, people without qualifications might well conclude the system bore them ill-will.

For 40 years – as union membership declined and inequality increased – Britons were told that education and the labour market were level playing fields on which those with talent and application could shape their own futures. Employers concurred as they promised material rewards and self-fulfilment for those who took advantage of the new individualism. But many Britons were excluded from this neoliberal settlement from the start and their descendants still aren’t getting degrees or good jobs.

Good jobs are not just secure jobs. True, almost everyone in the survey said job security was important and only two-thirds said they had it, but they also liked their jobs to be interesting, to involve helping others and/or society, and to offer chances for advancement. Nearly three-quarters of British workers had a job with four or more positive characteristics – a remarkable increase from 57% in 1989.

Most have it, but it’s not the only thing of value. Shutterstock

Many of those who said they were in good jobs identified as working class but the poorest Britons have been excluded from this story of increasing self-determination and self-fulfilment. In the survey, six out of ten Britons said they would enjoy working even if they didn’t need the money (double the number from 1989). But to see the influence of education required a question which homes in on one of the key features of the individualism fostered by four decades of neoliberal consensus: is a job solely about earning money? Most in professional and managerial occupations said it wasn’t but the vast majority in routine or semi-routine occupations thought it was.

Political scientist John Curtice, one of the editors of the survey, and others predicted that the economy would matter more than immigration in the referendum and that less education would make people more likely to think that leaving the EU would be good for jobs. Many poor Brits hope this turns out to be true but their hope is tinged with despair.

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