Kimberly McIntosh discusses how the discourse around ‘Left Brexit’ or ‘Lexit’ needs to be clearer about what assurances there will be that the poorest in our society will not be made even poorer and how we need a new narrative from our political leaders that leaves dog-whistle rhetoric behind

If I say the phrase “left-behind”, who do you think of instinctually? Not necessarily black, working class women. In the public psyche and media portrayals, the “left-behind” have a specific image – the ‘white working class’ of deindustrialised northern towns that have been failed by globalisation and public policy. This is true – these communities have been held back by successive governments. And the government’s austerity programme has been bad news for everyone on low incomes. But it has also hit people with protected characteristics: ethnic minorities, disabled people and women particularly hard. Some people are both on a low-income and have a protected characteristic, leaving them doubly disadvantaged.

As Brexit inches closer to no deal, there is little indication that, whatever the outcome, that these communities will see an improvement in their income or life chances.

At the Runnymede Trust and the Women’s Budget Group, we looked specifically at how gender, ethnicity and income intersect and interact with austerity policies. On the surface, government policies that apply to everyone should be fair but we do not all share the same starting point. Women, for example, tend to have lower incomes and receive benefits and tax credits for those they care for – particularly children. This is true across ethnic groups. Equally, Black and Minority Ethnic (BME) people are less likely to own their own home or have savings and are more likely to be unemployed, in low-paid work, overqualified for their role and face pay penalties in the labour market. This unequal point of departure makes black women vulnerable to austerity policies.

For example, cuts to the work allowance – the amount of money you can earn under the universal credit system before you start to lose benefits – have favoured couples over lone parents. This hits black women, who statistics say are twice as likely to be single mothers, hardest of all. Equally, a freeze to working‐age benefits, while the cost of everyday goods has increased, has had a negative impact on black women. Women and people on low-incomes are also more likely to use public services, which have been decimated by reductions to local authority funding from central government.

When we consider all the changes made since 2010 taken together and compounded, the poorest families have lost the most. And Black and Asian households in the lowest fifth of incomes are the most affected, with average drops in living standards of 19.2 per cent and 20.1 per cent respectively, compared to pre‐austerity policies.

If Theresa May remains in post, with Philip Hammond as Chancellor, the Work Allowance is set to increase, which is positive news for black women. But we can also expect spending to remain at historic lows, despite assurances that ‘austerity is coming to an end’ or is ‘over’ – depending on your verb tense of choice. The increase to the personal tax allowance is not helpful to those on low incomes and an increase to the National “Living” wage will not offset the cuts.

The other Conservative leadership contenders have little care for social justice and are unlikely to continue with May’s “burning injustices” mantra. This does not spell a post-Brexit settlement that helps to undo the disproportionate impact of austerity.

In regards to Brexit, BME communities are in a triple bind. Beyond continued socio-economical insecurity, we are oft blamed for economic insecurity and ‘cultural change’ (read: perceived loss of power); and, as a result, the main targets of hate crime as visible minorities. This is all likely to be exacerbated regardless of how we leave the EU or if we do not leave.

Research by Hope Not Hate found that levels of optimism about economic prosperity and opportunities post-Brexit are greatest in those areas that voted most strongly to leave the EU. If the economic prosperity envisioned in these areas is not delivered, BME people, EU residents and migrants may be the targets of resentment.

If we have a People’s Vote and there is a switch to Remain, BME people are at risk of a backlash from anyone harbouring a sense of ‘betrayal’. There will need to be a clear, positive vision as to what it can offer all of the country socially and economically – not just mobile, young people who want to do Erasmus or freelance in Berlin. 17% of Britons do not have a passport and as the Windrush Scandal showed us, it is working class people who are less likely to have them. Focusing on the merits of freedom of movement alone, a system which favours the mobile and majority White Europeans is not a convincing message.

Discussions of ‘Left Brexit’ or ‘Lexit’ need to be clearer about what assurances there will be that the poorest in our society will not be made even poorer. A strategy that relies on a change in government to not be a disaster is risky for people who have the most to lose when we leave.

Whether we leave or stay, we need to see increased investment in the industries, areas and people that have been held back by long term disadvantage – people on low incomes, disabled people, ethnic minorities and women. For our safety’s sake, we need a new narrative from our political leaders that leaves dog-whistle rhetoric behind. Right now, our political leaders are nowhere to be seen.

Kimberly McIntosh is policy officer at the Runnymede Trust and Race on the Agenda, focussing on research, network building, debate and policy engagement. She is also a writer, commentator and columnists for outlets such as gal-dem and the Guardian and Sky News. 

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One thought on “Austerity, Brexit and BME women

  1. ‘Whether we leave or stay’. Ah yes, the complete indifference of those who don’t seem to understand the enormity of what any brexit means.


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