Trump, Brexit and the inability of the Establishment to speak to the working classes

Analysis of why working class people voted against the establishment.

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Photograph: 'Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. ' / Gage Skidmore
Photograph: 'Donald Trump speaking at the 2013 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in National Harbor, Maryland. ' / Gage Skidmore

Those who voted for Trump or Brexit are not racist. I personally know many people who voted Brexit who are not racist. Many are just ignorant to how racist rhetoric can have social implications and the magnitude of the effect this can have on minorities. This is partly due to their inability to connect with these concerns and partly due to the inability of political leaders to communicate these concerns.

If they do get the concerns, it is certainly not at the top of their agenda. Most Brexit and Trump supporters can be seen in the older generations and the working classes.

They grew up in a time where low skilled labour was a secure job. A low skilled worker could raise a family with one income, earned from one job. They would own a home, have ample money for a holiday, be able to get a job on experience and motivation alone, without a degree.

Currently, they see themselves and their children with insecure jobs. Today, incomes from low skilled labour jobs barely allow you to get by. Many work multiple minimum wage jobs, on zero-hour contracts, or exploitative part-time contracts, and no unions to communicate their concerns either. These create for loopholes whereby businesses do not have to provide full holiday pay, all to make their profits slightly larger. My generation will not own homes, perhaps will not even receive pensions. Those without 5 GCSEs have practically no jobs available to them. For those who do, but don’t have a degree, the situation is hardly any better.

I am not saying things have got worse. For the resounding majority in the West, quality of life has drastically improved. Some of these claims may seem untrue or at least half true, I agree, but it is the perception of many.  These individuals who voted Trump and Brexit look at the time they considered life to be without these problems and see the changes that occurred. What they see is free trade and immigration. They draw a simple causal connection and decide that these things are to blame. And to some extent, they are not wrong.  

The problem is that the response to these concerns have not been effective. The far right pander to scapegoating in order to get votes to implement semi-racist or outright racist policies. The left and the centre often criticise this, and rightly so, or they pander to it in the case of France. They then either brush these concerns under the rug or push the positive argument to maintain the immigration status quo.  

This line of argument almost solely centres on one phrase: “The immigrants do the jobs we don’t want to do”. This is defeatist in its own right. It creates an ‘us and them dynamic’. This reinforces the narrative that immigrants are different, less advanced, and less capable than us. This indirectly reinforces anti-immigrant rhetoric and certainly is not an effective argument, as exemplified in the continual rise of the alt-right in OECD countries.

However, the main point is that this mentality creates demand for companies to seek immigrants to do the jobs we would rather not do. And a lot of these jobs really are jobs what we wouldn’t want to do. This is the main problem.

When workers rights don’t go far enough, are not universal enough, they go to the lowest common denominator. As a result, workers that are used to these conditions or are more prepared to work in these conditions, are going to.

The agricultural industry provides a great example and I speak from my own experience in the industry in Kent. Much of the low-skilled work in this sector requires 12 hour days, the work is on a temporary basis, making the worker miss out on key working benefits. Many are also convinced or manipulated into working over 48 hours a week. Commonly workers will do up to 60 hours a week of very physically demanding manual labour. No native British or American person would even consider these jobs, or offer any competition in the field. This is obviously not fair for the workers that actually take these jobs either.

Regulation in this industry needs to rise to the acceptable standards of the working class within the country, not the acceptable standards of the most abundant immigrant labour. If British people were willing to work in this industry, and other low-skilled industries, the dependency on immigration will reduce, and mass immigration would no longer pose a threat and reduce in numbers too.

The current situation in the agricultural industry and other low-security jobs has direct implications for the low skilled jobs most British or American workers take too. The reduction in choice for them means that the market is more competitive in the jobs they do take. These jobs are mainly in the service sector. Lack of choice and increasing competition means the workers have no choice but to settle for less. This is why many chose to work in minimum wage jobs with exploitative zero-hour contracts and part-time contracts. They have absolutely no choice and companies can take advantage as much as they want.  

The only way to reduce immigration is if the market demands it. The only way the market will demand it is when the market is on a level playing field for all low-skilled labour. The only way the level playing field can happen is if working conditions are properly regulated.

Theresa May and Donald Trump will not reduce immigration in these sectors because they are vital arteries in the economic system. Without the workers, the sector fails. For the UK, whether these workers come from Eastern Europe or somewhere outside the EU is irrelevant. They will still come because they have to under the current system.

Unfortunately, for those working class people who voted Trump and Brexit, the situation will not change for you, and may perhaps get worse with more deregulation of workers rights. Brexit provides the opportunity for the Conservative hard-right to further push down these regulations in the interest of company profits and better economy statistics, but the core concerns of the working classes will not be addressed, as usual. I also fear a similar path for those in the US.

Currently, there are three tiers to worker rights. At the bottom is the low skilled labour immigrant population. Slightly above them is the native low-skilled labour population. Lastly, way above both of them is everybody else. Eliminating these tiers will appease the working classes, unlike the misery Brexit and Trump will cause.

The task of the opposition arguments is to address the real concerns of the working classes. Currently, their message is not getting through and it is time for a shake-up. Address real concerns on immigration and address real concerns on free trade and free movement of people. This can all be achieved by regulating the industry to make a fair playing field for everyone in the country, not settling for the lowest common denominator.

With the French and German elections on the horizon, I fear the worst. The establishment politics is out of touch with the working class who will ultimately tip the elections towards the alt-right unless they wake up now. 

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About Luke Osborne 5 Articles
Luke Osborne is currently studying for an undergraduate degree in politics at the university of Kent. He has a keen interest in the politics of the European Union, identity and multiculturalism.

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