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The working class battlefield of UK’s referendum

The referendum on EU membership in Britain has all the characteristics of class warfare, that is, a kind of politics that parties have not done since the 1970s, with a twist. This time, the primary cleavage between both Conservatives and Labour politicians seems to be between the winners and losers of globalisation. And that cleavage is within and across parties rather than neatly unfolding along partisan lines.

Working class cleavage

According to the FT, Remain supporters read broadsheet newspapers with long words and sentences, like the Guardian or the Times. They are more likely to be young (18-39), urbanites, educated above average, and vote Labour, the Green Party, Liberal Democrats, or be Scottish or Welsh Nationalists. They are also more likely to be middle class.  Leave supporters are lower and working class, read tabloids, have basic education, are 50 plus, vote UKIP or Conservatives, and read the Mail, Express, and the Sun; they are from East Anglia and the Midlands.

Young is not good for Remain: in most parts of the world, 50+ show up more on elections day.

Education is a mark of social class that is very significant. According to Professor John Curtice of the University of Strathclyde, there is little doubt as to how education weighs on this campaign. Citing the British Social Attitudes survey and the British Election Study, he points out that the difference in voting patterns between graduates and those without any educational qualifications “is somewhere between 30 and 40 percentage points.”

Graduates will vote to remain; those without any educational qualifications vote leave.

Symbols matter

But, without working-class voters Britain will not Remain a member of the EU. Labour’s Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary Owen Smith pleaded with Jeremy Corbyn on Thursday to do more for Remain. The issue is this: although parties have not neatly represented social class interests for nearly two generations in Britain and Europe at large, symbols still matter.

The style of campaigning for this referendum is profoundly symbolic and is shaped by features that appeal to particular social classes. Remain is making an economic argument; Leave is making the emotionally charged argument that EU immigrants are putting pressure on working class living standards: National Health Services, minimum wage, and the cost of housing.

Detail hurts the message

Substance can be lost in this discussion.

The Telegraph Business editor Evans-Pritchard – a middle of the road paper between the two camps – says the Leave campaign has yet to commit to “a model” for post-EU Britain.

If that model is Norway and retreating to the European Economic Area, then leaving makes no difference on freedom of movement for EU citizens. In sum, access to the single market of four freedoms – services, goods, and capital – also requires swallowing EU Acquis, paying into the EU budget, and accepting EU labour migrants. If that is the case, then forget about an Australian point system, of the kind advocated on Wednesday by Boris Johnson and Michael Gove.

However, the point is that this is the sort of discussion is that no one is quite following. Crucially, it is not being followed by a key “swing” audience that both campaigns are seeking to lure.

Importantly, the Labour Party is not full-heartedly behind Remain. Labour’s Birmingham MP, Gisela Stuart, was dubbed by the Sun as one of the three Brexiteers, along with Jonhson and Gove. She is the vice chair of the Vote Leave campaign and told Western Mail on Thursday her party should “stand with the working people of Wales.” She argues that the EU works best for the 1% of corporations rather than small businesses, who are the U.K’s biggest employer.

To make this argument properly, you need to speak volumes. To counter it properly, you also need to speak volumes. That is why it is so beautiful. It can be made in 30 seconds, but to refute it you need 30 hours. That makes the difference between a winner and a loser in 30-second attention span TV cultures.

A former Welsh Secretary, Lord Hain, had a go. He told Ms Stuart that she is not entitled to speak for Wales and that the Labour government over there is committed to “fairness and opportunity” within the EU. Of course, Hain was talking about party lines, not small businesses. It was a totally unengaging argument, emotionally or cognitively, based on 1970s culture of party loyalty. The day for making this argument has come, and gone.

The working class battlefield

The battle of Britain is fought mainly in a Conservative and working class field. Whereas 18% of Labour voters are undecided, more than a third of Conservatives have yet to make up their mind. With this in mind, the Swiss and Norwegian “models” are not likely to feature in the campaign any time soon. Leave focus on immigration and with good reason: in September 2015, 71% of Britons thought immigration was one of the three most significant challenges facing Britain, FT reports.

Remain make the economic case with the danger of preaching to the converted. On Sunday, John Major made the biggest rhetorical breakthrough arguing that the likes of Gove and Johnson always wanted to demolish the NHS and leaving it with them makes the British welfare state as safe “as a hamster is with a python.” On Monday, Shadow Chancellor  John McDonnell reminding British voters that if there were no European “constitutional” guarantees on individual workers’ rights, they would have to trust the likes of Boris and Gove.

This kind of language has now become inevitable for the Remain campaign if they want to attract the working class.  According to Mr Curtice, Tory voters in May were split 50-50. But, momentum seems to be on the side of Leave.  Very few days remain until June 23rd, but this vote will be close. And on the final lap of this race, the battle will be for working class hearts and minds, of the kinds that feel they are losing out from globalisation. Hearts and minds.