Brexit flotilla, London

Sarah Illingworth: Smug leftism won’t fix whatever’s going on right now

Last Sunday I got in a fight with a man on the London Overground. A panhandler walked through our car, asking for change in a pretty low-key way, and this man – white, middle-aged, didn’t look too scrappy – started muttering loudly about mugs and how PH should get a job. Dude, leave him alone, said I, reaching for my headphones and thinking that’d be that. Instead, this guy ramped up, continuing to insult the man, calling him a waster, and – again – shouted that he should find employment “just like the rest of us”. It’s not that easy, said I. You need to stop. He moved onto insulting me, I put the damn headphones in. But the man kept going, and before I could find Mariah, a girl sitting opposite took over where I left off, following my line and standing up for me. Eventually we arrived at her stop, I found Mariah, and the man continued his toxic rant.

It’s been a week of travel, and I’m now in Berlin – waking up to find a majority of voters have chosen for the UK to leave the European Union. Guardian journo Owen Jones reported this as a working class revolt, having predicted on June 10 that “unless a working-class Britain that feels betrayed by the political elite can be persuaded, then Britain will vote to leave the European Union in less than two weeks”. In March, 3,000 right wing demonstrators, including a cohort of neo-Nazis, marched through Mitte, the typically crisp, quiet neighbourhood that is central Berlin. Last week, a homophobe shot and killed 49 people at Pulse nightclub in Orlando, Florida, even as Donald Trump continues to hold ground in the US primaries. Facism and its precursors are feeling a little too close for comfort right now. And that’s without even acknowledging the many hate-related incidents that regularly occur in countries far less free than the democracies I’ve lived, and live in.

My current home is Salford, a neighbourhood in Greater Manchester historically known for its poverty. I’m in a quickly developing/gentrifying part of it on the border of one of the poorest neighbourhoods in the UK, Pendleton. The contrast between the apartments rising up around me, filling in the often trash-filled landscape a short walk from the centre of town, is stark, and illustrates a trend common in many so-called developed countries: pockets of prosperity slowly, or swiftly, push poverty further and further out. The poverty doesn’t go away. It gets squeezed further to the fringes, or onto the streets. Homelessness in Manchester has risen profoundly over the last couple of years. Indeed, one in five people in the UK live below the poverty line. Last year, sitting in a pub in Sheffield, I got into a conversation with a Jarvis Cocker-lookalike who’d just played ‘Common People’ on the juke. Clean-cut and educated, he was in his 20s and a member of Blue Labour – and spoke of feeling betrayed by the then-current drive to accept a greater number of migrants into Britain off the back of the refugee crisis. What about us? He asked. My community’s worked hard their whole lives, yet we’re still stuck – and poor people arriving from other countries get looked out for. We get forgotten, and it’s getting worse.

For many on the fringes, the equation is as simple as that. Poverty leads to feelings of isolation and disconnection from local processes, let alone global ones. The reason I feel so strongly about addressing the systemic, structural causes of poverty – as opposed to (only) throwing financial aid and secondhand clothes at people who live it – is not just because I think it would be nice for everyone to experience a decent quality of life, and equality of opportunity (although I think that too), but because if you don’t fix a break, it becomes infected. And infection, when left to fester, can lead to far worse things. The increasing volume of the conservative right wing – whether at the very wealthy or very poor poles of that spectrum – doesn’t solely signal a tussle over ideologies, it’s a fight over real world shit, that’s playing out around us, right now. The very wealthy are scared to lose control of that wealth in an increasingly fragile economic climate, and the poor feel already-forgotten and fear becoming even more marginalised.

In the lead-up to the Brexit vote, I saw a number of large billboards go up throughout Salford, shouting slogans like “Turkey is joining the EU, vote leave”. Both riffing off and tapping into xenophobia, the Vote Leave campaign knew that targetting poorer neighbourhoods would play in their favour, and showed no shame in doing just that.

Brexit, Manchester billboard
A Brexit billboard in Manchester, UK.

In my fledgling understanding of a complex economic, social and political global landscape, apathy seems like more and more of a fail. Smug leftism can’t continue to fly; us-and-them splits have proven themselves still strong around the world, and there are many reasons for conservative views like those expressed by my man on the train – or those still resisting improved gun control legislation in the US, despite last week’s massacre – to dig in their spurs. I really didn’t think Brexit would result in a win for the Leavers, but I also couldn’t, like *most of us*, comprehend that Donald Trump would get as far as he has in the US primaries. Poverty, and wealth and income inequality, are feeding feelings of resentment toward a political elite that have failed the working class, and helping to fuel prejudice and hate and the actions they trigger. It’s time to drill down and address these things at a systemic level.

Sarah Illingworth is a freelance journalist and Editor at Impolitikal. She has an MSc in Poverty & Development from the University of Manchester. Read more by Sarah.