Where there’s smoke there’s fire

by Caitlin

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I spent yesterday walking around Hartcliffe, an outer suburb in the South of Bristol. It’s made up of council housing and was developed after the second world war as a large scale housing development.

I was up there to interview some council house tenants about home, and their experience of living in council housing. Recently, I’ve been photographing front doors and the people that live behind them, so decided to take a walk around the area.

The process was like a game of cluedo or guess who. Deduction was central to making sense of the striking symbols that were draped, hung, erected and flown from roughly every fourth house. The St George flag was everywhere. As if Sports Direct had done an air drop of bundles of Red and White nylon sheets.

I quickly became aware of two things. Community and patriotism. This was a neighbourhood where ideas are smeared symbolically though the streets. People are entwined in collective efforts to protect what they perceive as theirs; notably jobs, healthcare and homes.

The smoke became thicker, but the fire was still nowhere to be seen. As I walked around, a teenage boy returned from Morrison’s wrapped in a Union Jack. I asked if I could take his photo. I asked him why he was wearing it, and if he thought we should leave the EU. He laughed cockily but couldn’t or didn’t answer.

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I decided to head back to my studio and reflect on this unexpected encounter with a whole neighbourhood tapped into the leave narrative. Returning to my van I passed a duo of leave campaigners setting up stall close to the shopping centre. I thought this would provide the last set of clues to help me understand why such a high density of residents were voting leave, and listen to vote leave arguments from grassroots campaigners.

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In my interview with a resident of Hartcliffe about social housing and the area, she repeatedly commented on immigrants taking jobs and homes of local people, and directly blamed them for her perceived lack of social housing available for those waiting on lists to be housed by the council. When I asked the men campaigning why I should leave they had three main reasons. Immigrants are taking hard working peoples jobs, healthcare and homes. Britain will be better off financially if separate from the EU. As many leave campaigners argue, they told me that the UK spends £350 million on EU membership every week. They also said that there is too much red tape issued by the EU that is limiting UK businesses. When I told them I thought they were wrong, inaccurate and poorly cited one of them immediately ignored me, and another man with the group stated that he didn’t read the guardian, and had got his facts from “the other” newspapers.

Within these few conversations, there was a deeply held belief that the immigrants are taking public resources from working class communities, and they need to be stopped and removed from the country. This in itself needs time for analysis, given the fact that a lot of out campaigners are from similar places to Hartcliffe; working class communities with high levels of economic deprivation and welfare support, including social housing. Before heading onto thinking about the impact of poverty on EU political preference, I want to make a clear case, arguing against the reasons given by the grassroots leave campaigners.

False argument number one: Immigrants are taking hard working peoples jobs, healthcare and homes.

The UK government sets its own laws and policies on almost every other issue of serious concern to the British public— either because the EU has no right to act or because decisions are taken by unanimity. The list of issues on which Britain has sovereignty from Brussels include the NHS, taxes, pensions, benefits, education, defence and foreign policy, among others.

Studies that have been done do show that immigrants are less likely to claim benefits that native Britons. However, the proportion varies by origin. People who have asylum claims, for example, are not allowed to be employed while their application is being processed, so it is inevitable that they will need more support through welfare payments.  On the whole, the story is that migrants are less likely to access benefits payments.

In terms of healthcare,  recent reports have suggested as many as a one in four new nurses are recruited from abroad. Pressure on healthcare is to do with increasing age of population. Many immigrants are younger, and are therefore more likely to be having families. However, when we zoom out historically,  in the 1960s, the assumption was that the population would increase to as much as 80 million by the end of the century. All sorts of regional strategies were developed, including plans to create substantial extra capacity in towns like Milton Keynes, Swindon and Northampton. But then the pill was invented and that simply didn’t happen. If we zoom out, we are not over-populated if we look back to population forecasting from about 50 years ago.

False argument number two: Britain will be better off financially if separate from the EU

Leave campaigners argue that the UK spends £350 million on EU membership every week (or £18 billion every year) — money that could be spent on British public priorities after Brexit. But these figures ignore the rebate and investment Britain receives from Europe. In reality, the UK’s net contribution to the EU budget in the 2014/15 financial year was £8.8 billion.

This is just 1.2% of Britain’s total public spending of £735 billion that year. Even if you add back in money spent in the UK but decided in Brussels, such as agricultural subsidies, the British parliament still has sovereign control of over 98% of public spending.

False argument number three: Belonging to the EU is limiting UK businesses

Whether the UK is a member of the EU or not, it will be impacted by the decisions taken by its  neighbour and most powerful trading partner. Being inside the EU gives it a chance to influence such decisions in its favour,which it generally does successfully.

The nature of many trading and political challenges also lend themselves to collective, rather than independent, action. For example, Britain could not have implemented meaningful sanctions against Iran or Russia without its EU partners. It could not have achieved recent progress on climate change without working as a bloc. And it will not be able to maximise the potential of the EU services market without shaping the rules that regulate it.

A letter signed by 1,280 UK business leaders from 51 FTSE 100 companies has been published, backing the campaign to keep the UK in the EU. The reasons behind the collective statement to remain provide a clear counter to the Leave campaigners concern that staying in the UK will limit business. When in fact, the statement given in the collective letter signed by the businesses state that leaving would cause economic shock and leave SME’s open to de-growth and economic shocks. The other key points that counter the Leave campaign’s assertion that staying in is bad for business, is that the UK economy is more dependent on the EU for export of products and services, than the EU are on us. If we leave, we will still have to conform to EU trade legislation to remain within the EU single market. 

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Personally, the political landscape has become simplified and extreme. It is also ugly in terms of the values that are coiled up and inserted into the language used by the campaigns, and the leave campaign in particular. I see aggression, intolerance, and violence. I see people feeling so squeezed that they leap onto the back of half baked reasoning and steroid fed extremism. This is no longer just ideological, it’s falling out of the mouths of neighbours, citizens and colleagues. When I was in Hartcliffe, anger and the reactive blaming of “those immigrants” with no names, or addresses, but seemingly everywhere was rife. This debate is about so much more than who gets what, it’s about what is being proffered in the first place, by whom, and who  is set to gain and who is set to lose.

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There is disquiet within the waters that lie between us, that is more nuanced than the for or against Brexit argument. We will vote, the world will change, for better or worse. But, why is there such a reactive and angry climate amongst us? Why are so many people game for jumping on misinformed claims about immigration and slating migrants? It is a perceived threat, yet research shows that EU migrants actually contribute more to the British economy than they receive in public services and payments.

I think we are distracted, and looking the wrong way. For me, the issue lies in the neglect of the working classes and precariat. I am talking about people on low paid, temporary contracts, taking home significantly less than the average salary of £26,500 pa. In 2011, the mean working class household income was around the £13,000 mark. When people have very little financial security, low earnings and no assets, married with a culture that values individualism above collectivism, of course there is fear abound. Fear of not being able to afford to pay your rent, fear of not being able to eat, fear of not getting your next job. This is a state of perpetual survival; like constantly running from a predator, intent on biting off your legs and devouring you in one. So of course, there is reactive defensiveness of basic public services. But, the real problem here is austerity, privitisation and poor political protection of the welfare state. The lens of blame is easier to focus on individuals than on opaque, ranty, and multi layered political systems. But we’ve got to focus. We need political purpose that serves the interests of the working classes as well as the economic elite.

According to a new joint report by the Sheffield Political Economy Research Institute (SPERI) and the University of York.Low income households in the UK are struggling to sufficiently eat and heat their homes.

Dr Hannah Lambie-Mumford, co-author of the report and research fellow at SPERI, said: “The ‘heat or eat’ dilemma is real, but our research suggests that this winter many low income households won’t be able to afford either sufficient food or fuel.

“These incredibly tough budgeting decisions are leading households to prioritise and ration their spending in complex ways. Food is often prioritised over heating, although cheaper food is often bought out of necessity, and using energy for lighting, cooking and hot water is often prioritised over heating.”

The research found that government welfare reforms, benefit payment delays and an increase in benefit sanctioning are all negatively impacting the budgets of low income households. Cuts to local government budgets are also reducing the ability of local services to support people at risk of fuel and food poverty.

Dr Lambie-Mumford added: “Low income households face a combination of further large cuts to the welfare budget which risk forcing them to reduce their spending on food and fuel, and cuts to council budgets which risk weakening local support services. Action is urgently needed to address the root causes of food and fuel poverty.”

I could go on. I use the above to paint the picture of poverty and struggle. There are now seven social classes, according to the Great British Class Survey. Approximately 48% of the British Population are at the poorer end of the working scale, falling into demographic groups, the precariat, traditional working class and the emergent service sector worker. With this in mind, the constituents who are being squeezed, punished and pushed by the governments fixation on making savings by cutting public services is fuelling the fire of fear of lack. Beyond Brexit debate we need to continue lobbying to protect local authority welfare services, and stop the privatisation of schools and the NHS. Not getting distracted by divisional debates about who uses what, in a welfare system under attack.

There is also the worrying point made in a speech given by Prof Michael Dougan is that there has been a major omission from both sides of the debate. If we leave the EU, and the Conservative government stays in, it will likely be handed the power to completely rewrite UK law and policy. This would mean that in pursuit of our ‘sovereignty’ we could in effect become a one party state. Zooming in further, the government would get to write the rules, and in the case of exiting the EU, further cuts to public spending are likely to occur.

Chancellor George Osborne has already warned that leaving the EU would result in a £30bn financial black hole which could only be resolved through tax rises and more public spending cuts. Great news.

So, in an effort to look more closely, think harder and vote in; my final line is about the need for increased interrogation on what forces are really putting a squeeze on vital public services, and invite those who need them the most to zoom out beyond the blaming of nameless immigrants,  and a fixation on access and ease of trade. Now, and post Brexit, I think the real political questions being asked in the street, in the pub, in the shops, in the work place needs to be an interrogation into the individuals in government who are imposing aggressive cuts in basic welfare provisions. Austerity hurts, and it plays at least part in driving the fear of “lack” displayed in public opinion on Brexit. Such mentality is understandable  given the harsh economic conditions for many workers, and in turn leads to aggressive protectionism of basic resources, leading to a deficit of tolerance, compassion and simply put; sharing.

Smarter social policy please.

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