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Studdert and Walkerdine on 'Leave' and 'Remain' Brexit Voters

David Studdert and Valerie Walkerdine, authors of Rethinking Community Research, discuss their research into community voting patterns around the 2016 EU Referendum in the UK.

The EU referendum decision generated shocks at every level of British life. Early analysis into motivation has largely confined itself to the vote itself and to the attitudes of particularly metropolitan audiences. This tight focus has tended to obscure the complex circumstances and reasons that led to the Leave vote for many people in the majority ‘Leave’ areas.

In this short essay, we think about another way to work towards an understanding, not only of what happened, but to use our previous research and publications (Studdert, 2006, Studdert and Walkerdine, 2016, Walkerdine and Jimenez, 2012) to think about the relationship between community solidarity, sociality and the state that began to emerge for public view. In this approach, we take the vote as an action of sociality (Studdert and Walkerdine, 2016).

Here, we focus on events arising from and around the vote, more than on the vote itself. Seeing the Leave vote in this way, we sought the immediate consequences for the local state and community and for their inter-relationality. We also wanted to see how Brexit expressed itself as a general action placed in different physical and social geographies, as well as how histories of community experience expressed themselves in communal sociality, thus validating and making alternative ‘Leave’ narratives expressible.

To do this, we set up public meetings in two areas in which we had researched before: a deindustrialised town in the south Wales Valleys and a market town in south Wales (Funded by ESRC Impact Accelerator Grant). Both areas voted Leave: one narrowly and one with a 5% margin. In Market Town, one meeting was on a hillside estate on the edge of the town, the other in the town itself.

What we found was that in two of the three meetings, the action of voting and the debate that had ensued, provoked further local political action to occur. In both cases this political action resulted in long-established county and town councils being voted out of office within the year. Many of the people who attended our meetings in both towns took part in these successful political actions. Thus in both locations, Brexit presented itself as a spring for further social action around changing ‘communal being-ness’ (Studdert and Walkerdine, 2016), though in different ways.

 These differences were based on location and geo-spatial relationships of micro-sociality within all spaces of appearance and local webs of relations.

The meeting in the deindustrialised town had a strongly coherent Leave view, which referred to a socialist Bennite politics relating to the 1975 referendum. People argued that the EU is a corporate-driven enterprise reductive of the role of local communities in deciding their own fate. Given the socialist history of the town, it isn’t surprising that people understood the difference between the various strands and levels of government. They pointed to EU projects from which their community had received no benefit. They were highly critical of the EU stance on the free movement of labour, seeing it as an issue of employment and communal wellbeing-ness.

The market town housing estate, conversely, despite having low levels of employment and high poverty not dissimilar from the Valleys, showed little interest in Brexit. This passivity was confirmed by the low meeting turnout. Those who reported support for ‘Leave’ on the estate did so simply to ‘give politicians a kick up the backside’. None of them claimed to understand the referendum debate or the choices presented, but as an action of sociality the action itself evoked a social power that they had not expected (Studdert and Walkerdine (2016), Previously, we described the historical and physical losses endured by this estate. The estate is one of the poorest in Wales. It suffers from overcrowding, drug abuse and from being immediately surrounded by much more prosperous areas. Their meeting concentrated on a series of generalised complaints against ‘government’, centring on the on-going lack of security in all areas of life as well as the intrusive control of state and governance.

Thus, though both voted Leave there were significant differences in their sense of their own social being-ness. The meetings in the deindustrialised town and the more middle class area of Market Town both felt they could and should do something. In the case of Market Town, where all of those who came to the meeting voted to Remain, it was to work to overthrow the long-standing Conservative majority on the town council.

In the deindustrialised town, coherent social bonds, derived from a shared history, bound people together. This communal being-ness existed in day-to-day sociality, in shared political and working culture. They understood very effectively the different tiers of government and were sufficiently linked by long-term socialities. The estate community had a much more impoverished space in which it could appear in public to itself. Yet both voted Leave.

Thus, understanding differences of location and history reveals many sides of communal solidarity and governance at the local level. Not exclusively in terms of votes cast but in relation to social and communal life.

Brexit was much more than the binary choice imposed by the narrative of governance. As an action of sociality, the action of voting and discussing, Brexit was an event within sociality, an action engaging commonality. Smaller than a war, larger than placing a bet, Brexit functioned as a catalyst.

The middle class attendees in Market Town voted Remain, while the deindustrialised town voted Leave. Yet in both cases, Brexit was as a trigger for a positive, public community involvement, which is still not yet possible for the estate. What does this suggest for community solidarity and governance in the 21st century? How does it answer questions and fill holes in our grasp of what solidarity is and out of that what social power is? Does it help us understand state power? Our next book aims to address these questions using our method in some detail.