Race or Class? Political Consciousness in Britain Today

Patterns of voting in the EU Referendum raise questions about types of political consciousness present in Britain today. (The data presented here mainly comes from the survey of 12,369 people conducted on polling day by Lord Ashcroft Polls.) For the seventy-two per cent of the registered electorate who voted fairly clear tendencies were present among remainers and leavers.

                                                         REMAIN                                      LEAVE

Age                                                   Younger                                      Older

Class                                                 Middle                                        Working

Region                                               London & Scotland                    Rest of Britain

Party                                                  Labour                                       Conservative

Contrary to what critics of Jeremy Corbyn’s performance in the EU referendum campaign would like us to believe, the majority of Labour voters (63%) were for Remain while the majority (58%) of Conservative voters were for leave. However it should not be forgotten that these differences are present within a fairly even split of the vote between Leave (52%) and Remain (48%).

Many of the people who voted to leave are those who have been hardest hit by the economic and social problems experienced in twenty-first century Britain. These are falling real incomes, job insecurity and unemployment, housing shortages and deteriorating health and care services. It is working class people living in the Midlands and North of England who suffer most from these blights and it is they who were most likely to have voted to leave the EU.

The main reasons given by leavers for their decision were the wish for Britain to regain its sovereignty from the EU and concerns about the number of immigrants entering the country. These two issues are the ones which leave campaigners particularly emphasised and were crucial for them winning the ballot. Their campaign agenda consisted of thinly disguised nationalist and racist ideas. Unpalatable as it may be to some people, we must face the fact that many working class leave voters were influenced by nationalism and racism. With the victory of the leave campaign open expressions of racist beliefs have become more widespread and open. Why?


In order to make sense of the society we live in and decide how we respond to it we need a guiding ideology, a pattern of ideas which explains our social circumstances and appropriate responses to them. An ideology embraced by a particular individual need not be logically consistent and people often draw upon conflicting ideologies in trying to make sense of their social situation. In a capitalist society such as contemporary Britain there are two main ideologies; bourgeois ideology and proletarian ideology. The former is generated out of the collective life experiences, the social practice, of the capitalist ruling class while the latter arises out of the responses of the working class to their economic and social circumstances. Given that the capitalist class is dominant in society and thus controls the main means of communication in society it is their ideological outlook which is widely disseminated throughout the whole of society, including the working class. Thus the working class have a contradictory social consciousness, a bourgeois side and a proletarian side and both are expressed on different occasions and sometimes simultaneously. Similarly with the middle strata (the manageriat and intelligentsia) their intermediate position between the capitalist class and the working class determines that they too embrace a contradictory class consciousnesses.

Nationalism and racism are important aspects of bourgeois ideology. These doctrines were generated out of the territorial expansionist and imperialist drives present right from the beginnings of modern capitalism during the fifteenth century. These ideas provided a rationale and justification for the conquest and exploitation of peoples living in pre-capitalist societies. Nationalism and racism which have been evolving for hundreds of years are deeply embedded within the culture of British society. Imperialism is still alive and well today and thus nationalist and racist doctrines are constantly being generated but in modern forms while retaining their essential original content.


Most working class people in Britain have suffered very real deteriorations in their living standards since the financial crisis of 2008. The Tories have been very successful in propagating the lie that drastic cuts in public spending are necessitated by overspending by the last Labour government. The truth is that the Labour Government had to borrow vast amounts to bail out the bankers. Interestingly, Labour politicians such as Ed Miliband have been reluctant to contradict this Tory lie. This has helped the Coalition and Tory governments to get people to reluctantly accept or at least not actively oppose cutbacks in public services and welfare benefits as necessary to reduce the national debt.

Coincidental with this development has been the influx of large numbers of immigrants from the EU countries, especially those in Eastern Europe, and from other countries outside of the EU. It is hardly surprising that many people imagine that there is some connection between growing immigration and their deteriorating living standards. They assume that the correlation of these two trends is also one of cause and effect. That immigrants hold down wages and cause unemployment by their willingness to take the least desirable jobs, that there is a housing shortage because of immigrants increasing waiting lists and that access to health services is restricted because of immigrants using this facility. In general many people assume that it is foreigners, outsiders, who are to blame for the difficulties faced by the indigenous population. This is a racist perspective.

At the same time the solution is seen as one of British people “getting back control of own affairs” from the faceless bureaucrats of the EU. This is a nationalist perspective which fails to recognise the fact that the working class and middle strata never have controlled “our own affairs” but rather it is the capitalist ruling class who make the really important decisions which impact on our lives and this will be so regardless of whether Britain is in or out of the EU. In Scotland nationalist ideology as embodied in and expressed by the Scottish National Party has been exerting a very strong appeal. The narratives that most working class people draw upon to explain their situation are part of bourgeois ideology and are not derived from its opposite, proletarian ideology.


The political expression of proletarian ideology, which is generated out of the everyday social practice of working people, is socialism which takes reformist and revolutionary forms. As a coherent political doctrine socialism first appeared in early nineteenth century Britain precisely because it was here that the modern industrial working class first emerged. Socialist ideas were embraced by large sections of the working class, although not all, so there was a long tradition of anti-capitalist consciousness among many working people. If we look back fifty years ago or so millions of people in Britain, some working class and some middle strata, regarded themselves as “socialist”. They had some general ideas on what was wrong with capitalism and what a better socialist society would be like. This is no longer the case.

In Britain today very few people regard themselves as socialists. Most people hold at best a very vague idea of the meaning of the term. Also there is little clear understanding of “capitalism”. In so far as there are people who self-consciously are socialists they are mostly situated in the middle strata, members of the intelligentsia, rather than being working class. Thus although critical, oppositional sentiments are still generated out of everyday working class experience these are not consciously and coherently expressed as distinct, consciously held radical political doctrines. For most people a socialist narrative is not available to them for making sense of the problems they encounter. It is hardly surprising then if they draw upon readily available nationalist and racist narratives to try to understand the problematic situation they are in.


In order to resist reactionary political forces and to open up the way towards revolution it is necessary to recreate and establish an awareness of socialist ideas among the working class and middle strata. This will not be an easy task but it is a very necessary one.

Harry Powell July 2016