Every esteemed expert, and every leader of a major political party, lined up to tell Britain that it would be crazy to vote to leave the EU. And on the 23rd of June 2016, Britain voted to leave the EU.
To Kharkiv, a city where barely more than a third of voters turned out at the last round of local elections, Brexit warns that people who feel they can’t engage in public life must be given genuine, positive ways to do so – or they’ll express their frustration in whatever way they can.
In elections, it can be difficult to know when people have really voted for a party or candidate, and when they’ve actually wanted to vote against someone else. (Low turnout in recent British general elections has seemed to imply that many people wish to vote against everyone.)
This referendum was different, because the ranks of what was understood by the electorate to be ’the establishment’ were all massed on the same side of the ballot paper.
In this referendum, ‘the establishment’ was decisively slapped down.
The paradox is that in reality, Britain has both pro- and anti-European establishments, and the latter does not have the interests of ordinary people any more at heart than the former – actually, it’s pretty contemptuous of them.
But for now that’s by the by. The point I’m making here is this: people who hope to guide politics in a progressive direction – whether they think that’s towards the free-market ‘centre’, or to the left – need to step out of their echo-chambers. The only political movements that are gaining ground now are those which pay unremitting attention to the gripes of society’s most marginalised.
I’m not saying for a second that these political movements actually want to help marginalised people. Capitalists and socialists can agree that the rise of the xenophobic, atavistic hordes of the populist right would be a disaster for everyone. But the populist right has learned at least to speak in terms that marginalised people recognise as addressing them – even if its true agenda would actually make their lives much worse.
In Kharkiv, the fight against Russian-sponsored military aggression nearby has for now somewhat flattened the politics both of class and identity. But as attention pivots gradually back from war and towards everything else that needs to be done, these will soon come more into play.
The general lesson from Brexit for progressives of all stripes, in the East of Ukraine and beyond, is pretty simple: listen to everyone, even if their opinions sound stupid to you. If you don’t listen, somebody else will.