We were wrong. I was wrong. Jeremy Corbyn can do it. His speech this week at Coventry University (the text is available here) gave us the first indication of what a coherent post-Brexit politics might look like. But to understand why this speech was so clever, we have to look back much further.
With Thatcherism, three things happened. Family, class and housing all changed forever. We may have had a period of the strongest economic growth in the post-war period, but for many it offered no compensation for the enormous trauma of unprecedented social change.
The nuclear family unit dwindled. Far fewer people get married today than in 1980, and more marriages end in divorce. The number of marriages per year has declined by almost a third. And this change impacted on low income families in particular. In figures released by the ONS in 2014, it was found that people in higher managerial professions were almost twice as likely to marry.
Manufacturing declined from occupying a fifth of the UK economy to just under ten per cent in 2010. And along with it, a whole mythology and social world disappeared too, and with it a political identity. The Labour Party had given a voice to the industrial class in Parliament and in public life. But in response to Thatcherism, Labour became a Metropolitan party, articulating the aspirations of the socially mobile and the productive.
In the same period, house prices surged. Average house prices increased from £11,519 per house to £164,785. Those who already owned capital were given an extraordinary boost in economic power. Poor areas saw little benefit.
All three of these changes meant that whole swathes of our country suffered a real and lasting trauma that is still working itself out.
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And all three were absolutely vital to British identity: four nations joined in one whole. Take manufacturing, for example. The working classes were predominantly the winners from Unionism and from Scotland’s participation in the British Empire. They gained new pride and dignity in specialised trades, taking their place in the world economy. Industrialisation meant there were real alternatives to a life of near serfdom and back-breaking work on the land. The right to work for a master freely chosen and new political enfranchisement in Westminster gave Unionism energy and meaning. But in the eighties, this world vanished forever.
It is unsurprising that, in 2014, the Scottish working class voted en masse for Independence, and for the SNP in 2015.
In the same way, in 2016, Brexit ignited long-festering divisions in England. The poor were more likely to vote Leave; the rich Remain. A staggering 47 of the 50 areas of Britain with the highest numbers of people in social classes D and E – the unemployed, the precarious and the unskilled – voted Leave. The North voted Leave; the South Remain. The winners of the past 30 years voted Remain; the losers Leave.
For the losers, the last thirty years have created a toxic legacy of material precarity and psychological instability. Corbyn’s speech this week spoke precisely to these grievances. He assured Leave voters that their overwhelming choice at the 2016 Brexit vote would be honoured: “We respect the result of the referendum.” This is vital. There is a surging pro-Remain movement that is trying to frame Brexit as an attack on the poor. A co-founder of ‘Our Future, Our Choice’, an activist group seeking to reverse the referendum result, Femi Oluwole, claimed this week on Twitter: “Brexit voters wanted to rebalance the country: North-East will be the worst off. Brexit voters wanted to curb globalisation: They got Global Britain. Putting conditions on Brexit IS supporting Brexit voters.” A quite extraordinary piece of sophistry.
Corbyn spoke to every one of the groups at the sharp end of the last thirty years, concocting an ethic of solidarity, care and fairness around a commitment to delivering on the Brexit vote.
Take this on manufacturing and home ownership: “That is why Labour wants a Brexit for all our people. One that offers security to workers in the car industry worried about their future, hope to families struggling to pay the bills each month and opportunity to young people wanting a decent job and a home of their own.”
He filled out a picture of a post-Brexit politics that focusses relentlessly on the poor, the marginalised, the homeless and the precarious.
Now I don’t think he has many of the right answers on those questions – I can’t emphasise too much that almost all the economics is barmy and will do long-lasting damage to our economy. But he is so much closer to the kind of political language that will appeal post-Brexit – right or wrong.
This week he made the Referendum result his own, but he was also able to show that the European question is just the beginning of a wider argument in the UK about skills, jobs and social life.
The Tories better wake up fast – because Corbyn has found his voice.