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Now you see it, now you don't: what optical illusions tell us about our brains

Illusions can offer insights into how the visual system processes images.

Maurits Escher: where do the staircases lead?

The human brain is a network of about 20 billion neurons – nerve cells – linked by several trillion connections. Not to mention glial cells, which scientists used to think were inactive scaffolding, but increasingly view as an essential part of how the brain works. Our brains give us movement, language, senses, memories, consciousness and personality. We know a lot more about the brain than we used to, but it still seems far too complicated for human understanding.

Fortunately, the brain contains many small networks of neurons that carry out some specific function: vision, hearing, movement. It makes sense to tackle these simple modules first. Moreover, we have good mathematical models of nerve cell behaviour. In 1952, Alan Hodgkin and Andrew Huxley wrote down the “Hodgkin-Huxley equations” for the transmission of a nerve impulse, which won them the 1963 Nobel Prize in Medicine. We also have effective techniques for understanding small networks’ components and how they are linked.

Many of these simple networks occur in the visual system. We used to think that the eye was like a camera, taking a “snapshot” of the outside world that was stored in the brain like a photo stuck in an album. It uses a lens to focus an image on to the retina at the back of the eye, which functions a bit like a roll of film – or, in today’s digital cameras, a charge-coupled device, storing an image pixel by pixel. But we now know that when the retina sends information to the brain’s visual cortex, the similarity to a camera ends.

Although we get a strong impression that what we are seeing is “out there” in front of us, what determines that perception resides inside our own heads. The brain decomposes images into simple pieces, works out what they are, “labels” them with that information, and reassembles them. When we see three sheep and two pigs in a field, we “know” which bits are sheep, which are pigs, and how many of each there are. If you try to program a computer to do that, you quickly realise how tricky the process is. Only very recently have computers been able to distinguish between faces, let alone sheep and pigs.

Probing the brain’s detailed activity is difficult. Rapid progress is being made, but it still takes a huge effort to get reliable information. But when science cannot observe something directly, it infers it, working indirectly. An effective way to infer how something functions is to see what it does when it goes wrong. It may be hard to understand a bridge while it stays up, but you can learn a lot about strength of materials when it collapses.

The visual system can “go wrong” in several interesting ways. Hallucinogenic drugs can change how neurons behave, producing dramatic images such as spinning spirals, which originate not in the eye, but in the brain. Some images even cause the brain to misinterpret what it’s seeing without outside help. We call them optical illusions.

One of the earliest was discovered in Renaissance Italy in the 16th century. Giambattista della Porta was the middle of three surviving sons of a wealthy merchant nobleman who became secretary to the Holy Roman emperor Charles V. The father was an intellectual, and Giambattista grew up in a house in Naples that hosted innumerable mathematicians, scientists, poets and musicians. He became an outstanding polymath, with publications on secret codes (including writing on the inside of eggshells), physiology, botany, agriculture, engineering, and much else. He wrote more than 20 plays.

Della Porta was particularly interested in the science of light. He made definitive improvements to the camera obscura, a device that projects an image of the outside world into a darkened room; he claimed to have invented the telescope before Galileo, and very likely did. His De refractione optices of 1593 contained the first report of a curious optical effect. He arranged two books so that one was visible to one eye only and the other to the other eye. Instead of seeing a combination of the two images, he perceived them alternately. He discovered that he could select either image at will by consciously switching his attention. This phenomenon is known today as binocular rivalry.

Two other distinct but related effects are impossible figures and visual illusions. In rivalry, each image appears unambiguous, but the eyes are shown conflicting images. In the other two phenomena, both eyes see the same image, but in one case it doesn’t make sense, and in the other it makes sense but is ambiguous.

Impossible figures at first sight seem to be entirely normal, but depict things that cannot exist – such as Roger Shepard’s 1990 drawing of an elephant in which everything above the knees makes sense, and everything below the knees makes sense, but the two regions do not fit together correctly. The Dutch artist Maurits Escher made frequent use of this kind of visual quirk.

In 1832, the Swiss crystallographer Louis Necker invented his “Necker cube” illusion, a skeletal cube that seems to switch its orientation repeatedly. An 1892 issue of the humorous German magazine Fliegende Blätter contains a picture with the caption “Which animals are most like each other?” and the answer “Rabbit and duck”. In a 1915 issue of the American magazine Puck, the cartoonist Ely William Hill published “My wife and my mother-in-law”, based on an 1888 German postcard. The image can be seen either as a young lady looking back over her shoulder, or as an elderly woman facing forwards. Several of Salvador Dalí’s paintings include illusions; especially Slave Market With the Apparition of the Invisible Bust of Voltaire, where a number of figures and everyday objects, carefully arranged, combine to give the impression of the French writer’s face.

Illusions offer insights into how the visual system processes images. The first few stages are fairly well understood. The top layer in the visual cortex detects edges of objects and the direction in which they are pointing. This information is passed to lower layers, which detect places where the direction suddenly changes, such as corners. Eventually some region in the cortex detects that you are looking at a human face and that it belongs to Aunt Matilda. Other parts of the brain are alerted, and you belatedly remember that tomorrow is her birthday and hurry off to buy a present.

These things don’t happen by magic. They have a very definite rationale, and that’s where the mathematics comes in. The top layer of the visual cortex contains innumerable tiny stacks of nerve cells. Each stack is like a pile of pancakes, and each pancake is a network of neurons that is sensitive to edges that point in one specific direction: one o’clock, two o’clock and so on.

For simplicity, call this network a cell; it does no harm to think of it as a single neuron. Roughly speaking, the cell at the top of the stack senses edges at the one o’clock position, the next one down corresponds to the two o’clock angle, and so on. If one cell receives a suitable input signal, it “fires”, telling all the other cells in its stack: “I’ve seen a boundary in the five o’clock direction.” However, another cell in the same stack might disagree, claiming the direction is at seven o’clock. How to resolve this conflict?

Neurons are linked by two kinds of connection, excitatory and inhibitory. If a neuron activates an excitatory connection, those at the other end of it are more likely to fire themselves. An inhibitory connection makes them less likely to fire. The cortex uses inhibitory connections to reach a definite decision. When a cell fires, it sends inhibitory signals to all of the other cells in its stack. These signals compete for attention. If the five o’clock signal is stronger than the seven o’clock one, for instance, the seven o’clock one gets shut down. The cells in effect “vote” on which direction they are detecting and the winner takes all.

Many neuroscientists think that something very similar is going on in visual illusions and rivalry. Think of the duck and rabbit with two possible interpretations. Hugh R Wilson, a neuroscientist at the Centre for Vision Research at York University, Toronto, proposed the simplest model, one stack with just two cells. Rodica Curtu, a mathematician at the University of Iowa, John Rinzel, a biomathematician then at the National Institutes of Health, and several other scientists have analysed this model in more detail. The basic idea is that one cell fires if the picture looks like a duck, the other if it resembles a rabbit. Because of the inhibitory connections, the winner should take all. Except that, in this illusion, it doesn’t quite work, because the two choices are equally plausible. That’s what makes it an illusion. So both cells want to fire. But they can’t, because of those inhibitory connections. Yet neither can they both remain quiescent, because the incoming signals encourage them to fire.

One possibility is that random signals coming from elsewhere in the brain might introduce a bias of perception, so that one cell still wins. However, the mathematical model predicts that, even without such bias, the signals in both cells should oscillate from active to inactive and back again, each becoming active when the other is not. It’s as if the network is dithering: the two cells take turns to fire and the network perceives the image as a duck, then as a rabbit, and keeps switching from one to the other. Which is what happens in reality.

Generalising from this observation, Wilson proposed a similar type of network that can model decision-making in the brain – which political party to support, for instance. But now the network consists of several stacks. Maybe one stack represents immigration policy, another unemployment, a third financial regulation, and so on. Each stack consists of cells that “recognise” a distinct policy feature. So the financial regulation stack has cells that recognise state regulation by law, self-regulation by the industry, or free-market economics.

The overall political stance of any given political party is a choice of one cell from each stack – one policy decision on each issue. Each prospective voter has his or her preferences, and these might not match those of any particular party. If these choices are used as inputs to the network, it will identify the party that most closely fits what the voter prefers. That decision can then be passed to other areas of the brain. Some voters may find themselves in a state akin to a visual illusion, vacillating between Labour and Liberal Democrat, or Conservative and Ukip.

This idea is speculative and it is not intended to be a literal description of how we decide whom to vote for. It is a schematic outline of something more complex, involving many regions of the brain. However, it provides a simple and flexible model for decision-making by a neural network, and in particular it shows that simple networks can do the job quite well. Martin Golubitsky of the Mathematical Biosciences Institute at Ohio State University and Casey O Diekman of the University of Michigan wondered whether Wilson’s networks could be used to model more complex examples of rivalry and illusions. Crucially, the resulting models allow specific predictions about experiments that have not yet been performed, making the whole idea scientifically testable.

The first success of this approach helped to explain an experiment that had already been carried out, with puzzling results. When the brain reassembles the separate bits of an image, it is said to “bind” these pieces. Rivalry provides evidence that binding occurs, by making it go wrong. In a rivalry experiment carried out in 2006 by S W Hong and S K Shevell, the subject’s left eye is shown a horizontal grid of grey and pink lines while the right eye sees a vertical grid of grey and green lines. Many subjects perceive an alternation between the images, just as della Porta did with his books. But some see two different images alternating: pink and green vertical lines, and pink and green horizontal lines – images shown to neither eye. This effect is called colour misbinding; it tells us that the reassembly process has matched colour to grid direction incorrectly. It is as if della Porta had ended up seeing another book altogether.

Golubitsky and Diekman studied the simplest Wilson network corresponding to this experiment. It has two stacks: one for colour, one for grid direction. Each stack has two cells. In the “colour” stack one cell detects pink and the other green; in the “orientation” stack one cell detects vertical and the other horizontal. As usual, there are inhibitory connections within each stack to ensure a winner-takes-all decision.

Following Wilson’s general scheme, they also added excitatory connections between cells in distinct stacks, representing the combinations of colour and direction that occur in the two “learned” images – those actually presented to the two eyes. Then they used recent mathematical techniques to list the patterns that arise in such a network. They found two types of oscillatory pattern. One corresponds to alternation between the two learned images. The other corresponds precisely to alternation between the two images seen in colour misbinding.

Colour misbinding is therefore a natural feature of the dynamics of Wilson networks. Although the network is “set up” to detect the two learned images, its structure produces an unexpected side effect: two images that were not learned. The rivalry experiment reveals hints of the brain’s hidden wiring. The same techniques apply to many other experiments, including some that have not yet been performed. They lead to very specific predictions, including more circumstances in which subjects will observe patterns that were not presented to either eye.

Similar models also apply to illusions. However, the excitatory connections cannot be determined by the images shown to the two eyes, because both eyes see the same image. One suggestion is that the connections may be determined by what your visual system already “knows” about real objects.

Take the celebrated moving illusion called “the spinning dancer”. Some observers see the solid silhouette of a dancer spinning anticlockwise, others clockwise. Sometimes, the direction of spin seems to switch suddenly.

We know that the top half of a spinning dancer can spin either clockwise or anticlockwise. Ditto for the bottom half. In principle, if the top half spins one way but the bottom half spins the other way, you would see the same silhouette, as if both were moving together. When people are shown “the spinning dancer”, no one sees the halves moving independently. If the top half spins clockwise, so does the bottom half.

Why do our brains do this? We can model that information using a series of stacks that correspond to different parts of the dancer’s body. The brain’s prior knowledge sets up a set of excitatory connections between all cells that sense clockwise motion, and another set of excitatory connections between all “anticlockwise” cells. We can also add inhibitory connections between the “clockwise” and the “anticlockwise” cells. These connections collectively tell the network that all parts of the object being perceived must spin in the same direction at any instant. Our brains don’t allow for a “half and half” interpretation.

When we analyse this network mathematically, it turns out that the cells switch repeatedly between a state in which all clockwise cells are firing but the anticlockwise ones are quiescent, and a state in which all anticlockwise cells are firing but the clockwise ones are quiescent. The upshot is that we perceive the whole figure of the dancer switching directions. Similar networks provide sensible models for many other illusions, including some in which there are three different inputs.

These models provide a common framework for both rivalry and illusion, and they unify many experiments, explain otherwise puzzling results and make new predictions that can be tested. They also tell us that in principle the brain can carry out some apparently complex tasks using simple networks. (What it does in practice is probably different in detail, but could well follow the same general lines.)

This could help make sense of a real brain, as new experiments improve our ability to observe its “wiring diagram”. It might not be as ambitious as trying to model the whole thing on a computer, but modesty can be a virtue. Since simple networks behave in strange and unexpected ways, what incomprehensible quirks might a complicated network have?

Perhaps Dalí, and Escher, and the spinning dancer can help us find out. 

Ian Stewart is Emeritus Professor of Mathematics and Digital Media Fellow at the University of Warwick

BRIAN ADCOCK FOR NEW STATESMAN
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Divided Britain: how the EU referendum exposed Britain’s new culture war

The EU referendum exposed a gaping fault line in our society – and it’s not between left and right.

There are streets in Hampstead, the wealthy northern suburb of London, where the pro-EU posters outnumber cars. A red “Vote Remain” in one. A “Green Yes” in another. The red, white and blue flag of the official campaign sits happily next to a poster from the left-wing campaign Another Europe Is Possible proclaiming that the world already has too many borders.

If you were looking for an equivalent street in Hull, in the north of England, you would look for a long time. In the city centre when I visited one recent morning, the only outward evidence that there was a referendum going on was the special edition of Wetherspoon News plastered on the walls of the William Wilberforce pub in Trinity Wharf. Most of the customers agreed with the message from the chain’s founder, Tim Martin: Britain was better off outside the European Union.

“Far too much Hampstead and not enough Hull” – that was the accusation levelled at the Remain campaign by Andy Burnham in the final weeks of the campaign. He wasn’t talking about geography; Remain’s voice is persuasive to residents of Newland Avenue in Hull, where I drank a latte as I eavesdropped on a couple who were fretting that “racists” would vote to take Britain out of the EU.

Rather, Burnham was talking about an idea, the “Hampstead” that occupies a special place in right-wing demonology as a haven of wealthy liberals who have the temerity to vote in the interests of the poor. The playwright and novelist Michael Frayn, in his 1963 essay on the Festival of Britain, called them “the Herbivores”:

“. . . the radical middle classes, the do-gooders; the readers of the News Chronicle, the Guardian, and the Observer; the signers of petitions; the backbone of the BBC . . . who look out from the lush pastures which are their natural station in life with eyes full of sorrow for less fortunate creatures, guiltily conscious of their advantages, though not usually ceasing to eat the grass.”

For Hampstead then, read swaths of Islington, Hackney, Brighton, Bristol, Cambridge, Edinburgh and Oxford today – all areas that were most strongly in favour of Remain and where Jeremy Corbyn is popular. But Remain never found a tone that won over the other half of Labour England; the campaign struck as duff a note among the diminishing band of pensioners on Hampstead’s remaining council estates as it did on Hull’s Orchard Park Estate.

The rift between “Hampstead and Hull”, in the sense that Andy Burnham meant it, is one that has stealthily divided Britain for years, but it has been brought into sharp focus by the debate over Europe.

Academics use various kinds of shorthand for it: the beer drinkers v the wine drinkers, or the cosmopolitans v the “left behind”. “It’s not just that [Britain] is div­ided between people who buy organic and people who buy own-brand,” says Philip Cowley, a professor of politics at Queen Mary University of London, “but between people who wouldn’t understand how anyone could buy own-brand and people who wouldn’t buy organic if you put a gun to their head.” Equating political preferences with shopping habits might sound flippant, but on 21 June the retail research company Verdict estimated that “half of Waitrose shoppers backed a Remain vote, against just over a third of Morrisons customers”.

The referendum has shown that there is another chasm in British politics, beyond left and right, beyond social conservatism v liberalism, and beyond arguments about the size of the state. The new culture war is about class, and income, and education, but also about culture, race, nationalism and optimism about the future (or lack of it). This divide explains why Ukip’s message has been seductive to former Labour voters and to Tories, and why Boris Johnson, an Old Etonian, led a campaign that purported to despise “elites” and “experts” and spoke of “wanting our country back”.

***

At the start of the campaign, the question that most accurately predicted whether you would back Remain or Leave was consistently: “Are you a graduate?” (Those who answered yes were much more likely to vote in favour of staying in the EU.) Stronger In never found a way to change that and win over those who left education at 18 or earlier. Pollsters also suggested that the much-vaunted Euroscepticism of older voters reflects generations where only one in ten people went to university.

This fissure has been growing for the best part of a decade and a half, but Britain’s first-past-the-post system, which deters newcomers and maintains entrenched parties, has provided a degree of insulation to Labour that its European cousins have lacked. Yet even here in the UK the mid-Noughties brought the brief rise of the British National Party, powered by voter defections from Labour in its strongholds in east London and Yorkshire, as well as the election of the Greens’ first MP on the back of progressive disillusionment with the governments of Tony Blair and Gordon Brown.

In office, both Blair and Brown calculated, wrongly, that Labour’s core vote had “nowhere else to go”. In opposition under Ed Miliband, the party calculated, again wrongly, that discontent with immigration, and the rise of Ukip powered by that discontent, was a problem for the Conservative Party alone.

In a 2014 pamphlet for the Fabian Society, ­Revolt on the Left, the activist Marcus Roberts, the academic Rob Ford and the analyst Ian Warren warned that Labour had “few reasons to cheer about the Ukip insurgency and plenty to worry about”. When the votes were cast in the general election the following year, that prediction turned out to be dispiritingly accurate. Defections from Labour to Ukip led to Labour losing seats to the Conservatives in Gower, Southampton Itchen, Telford and Plymouth Moor View.

For the most part, however, first-past-the-post papered over the cracks in Labour’s broad coalition: cracks that, in the harsh light of the EU referendum, have become obvious. The divide isn’t simply one of class, or income. The social profile and culture of voters in Cumbria are no different from that of voters on the other side of the border – but Scots in the Borders backed a Remain vote while their English peers in the border areas opted for Brexit. Inhospitality towards Brexit proved a stronger indication of city status than a mere cathedral: Vote Leave generally found Britain’s great cities more difficult terrain than the surrounding towns and countryside.

The problem of the fracturing vote is particularly acute for the Labour Party, which for much of the 20th century was able to rely on the Herbivores. In concert with Frayn’s “less fortunate creatures”, they have been enough to guarantee Labour close to 250 seats in the House of Commons and roughly one-third of the popular vote, even in difficult years. But Britain’s EU referendum placed Hampstead and Hull on opposing sides for the first time in modern British political history.

It was Tony Blair who, in his final speech to the Trades Union Congress as Labour leader in September 2006, said that the new debate in politics was not left against right, but “open v closed” – openness to immigration, to diversity, to the idea of Europe. Driven by their commitment to openness, Blair’s outriders dreamed of reshaping Labour as a mirror of the US Democrats – though, ironically, it was Ed Miliband, who repudiated much of Blair’s approach and politics, who achieved this.

At the 2015 election Labour’s coalition was drawn from the young, ethnic minorities and the well educated: the groups that powered Barack Obama’s two election wins in 2008 and 2012. The party was repudiated in the Midlands, went backwards in Wales and was all but wiped out in the east of England. (Scotland was another matter altogether.) Its best results came in Britain’s big cities and university towns.

The Remain campaign gave Labour a glimpse of how Miliband’s manifesto might have fared without the reassuring imprimatur of a red rosette. Britain Stronger In Europe has been rejected in the Midlands and struggled in the east of England. But it also failed to inspire passion in Sunderland, Oldham and Hull – all areas that, for now, return Labour MPs.

***

In appearance, Hull’s city centre is built on blood and sandstone, dotted with memorials to a lost empire and postwar replacements for bombed buildings, all ringed by suburban housing built by the private sector in the 1930s and the state in the 1950s and 1960s. It could be Bristol without the excessive hills, or a smaller Glasgow with a different accent. Unlike in Glasgow or Bristol, however, the residents of Hull are largely hostile to the European Union. Unlike Glasgow and Bristol, Hull is a post-imperial city that has yet to experience a post-colonial second act.

The William Wilberforce is named after a native son who helped destroy the British slave trade, the engine of Hull’s prosperity in the 18th century. The destruction of another local industry – fishing – drives resentment among the pub’s ageing clientele, who were there for breakfast and a bit of company when I visited. They blame its demise squarely on the EU.

Although the Labour Party now has only one MP in Scotland, the back rooms of the labour movement host an outsized Scottish contingent. For that reason – and the continuing threat that the loss of Labour’s seats in Scotland poses to the party’s chances of winning a majority at Westminster – the Scottish independence referendum of 2014 loomed large for Labour throughout the EU campaign.

From the outset, Britain Stronger In struggled to replicate the success of the Scottish No campaign, in part because the price of victory was one that Labour regarded as too high to pay a second time. In Glasgow, in the week before the Scottish referendum, everyone knew where Labour stood on independence – consequently, many voters were already planning to take revenge. The proprietor of one café told me that Labour was “finished in this city, for ever”.

Predictions of this sort were thin on the ground in Hull. Alan Johnson, the head of Labour’s EU campaign, is one of the three Labour MPs whom Hull sent to Westminster in 2015. But even late in the campaign, in his own constituency, I found uncertainty about the party’s official position on the referendum. For that reason, if nothing else, it didn’t have the feeling of a city preparing to break with a half-century-plus of Labour rule, as Glasgow did in 2014. In Scotland, most people I spoke to believed that they were on the brink of independence, which made the eventual result a big blow.

Only among Hull’s pro-European minority could I find any conviction that Britain might actually leave the EU. In September 2014 Kenneth Clarke remarked that Ukip’s supporters were “largely . . . the disappointed elderly, the grumpy old men, people who’ve had a bit of a hard time in life”. To listen to Hull’s Leave voters is to hear tales of the same frustrated potential: they feel that politicians of all stripes have lives entirely removed from theirs. In their defence, they are right – just 4 per cent of MPs in 2010 were from working-class backgrounds.

As for Ken Clarke, he has carved out a second career as every left-winger’s favourite Tory, but that tone of indifference towards the “disappointed lives” of globalisation’s casualties recalls his younger days as a rising star of Margaret Thatcher’s government.

Hull’s residents have been dismissed, first as the regrettable but inevitable consequence of Thatcherite economics, and now as small-minded opponents of social progress and racial diversity. Unsurprisingly, people who feel that their wishes have been ignored and in some cases actively squashed by successive governments of left and right did not expect to wake up on the morning of 24 June to discover that this time, their votes really had changed something.

Equally unsurprisingly, the Remain campaign’s warnings of economic collapse lacked force for people for whom the world’s end had been and gone.

In Glasgow in 2014 Scottish independence was a question of identity in itself, whereas in Hull, hostility towards Europe is the by-product of other identities that feel beleaguered or under threat: fishing, Englishness and whiteness, for the most part.

In Hampstead, a vote for Remain feels more like a statement about the world as you see it. One woman, who walks off before I can probe further, tells me: “Of course I’m voting to stay In. I buy Fairtrade.”

***

Immigration, not the European Union, is the issue that moves voters in Hull. “Britain is full” was the most frequent explanation they gave for an Out vote. Knowing that immigration, rather than the abstract question of sovereignty, would be crucial to winning the contest, Vote Leave tried from the beginning to make it a referendum on border control. Leave’s main theme: the threat of Turkey joining the European Union and, with it, the prospect of all 75 million Turks gaining the right to live and work in Britain.

Although Turkey’s chances of joining the EU are somewhere only just north of its hopes of launching a manned mission to Mars, the tactic worked: according to an ­Ipsos MORI poll released on the morning of 16 June, 45 per cent of Britons believed that Turkey will be fast-tracked into the Union.

That same morning, Nigel Farage posed in front of a poster showing refugees – mostly from Syria and most of them non-white – on the border between Croatia and Slovenia, with a slogan warning that uncontrolled immigration was leaving Britain at “breaking point”. But the row over the poster came to an unpleasant halt just a few hours later as news began to break that Jo Cox, the Labour MP for Batley and Spen, had been shot and stabbed on her way out of a constituency surgery. She died of her injuries a little over an hour later. On 19 June Thomas Mair, who was arrested in connection with the killing, gave his name at Westminster Magistrates’ Court as “Death to traitors, freedom for Britain”.

The circumstances of the killing felt familiar. A little after midnight on 5 June 1968, Robert Kennedy was returning to the Ambassador Hotel in Los Angeles in high spirits. He had just won a crucial victory in the California primary and was well placed to secure the Democratic nomination to run in that year’s presidential election. Going through the kitchen in order to avoid cheering crowds and get straight to his press conference, he was ambushed by a man called Sirhan Sirhan, who fired six shots from a revolver. Kennedy was rushed to hospital, where he died early the following morning.

Five months later Richard Nixon was elected president. The American right held on to the White House for 20 years out of the next 25. Jo Cox’s killing, amid the nativist howling from Farage et al, felt like the beginning of a similar chapter of right-wing advance in the UK.

Labour’s problem, and that of its social-democratic cousins throughout Europe, is the same as the American left’s was in the 1960s. Its founding coalition – of trade unions, the socially concerned middle classes and minorities, ethnic and cultural – is united (barely) on economic issues but irrevocably split on questions of identity. Outside crisis-stricken Greece and Spain, the left looks trapped in permanent opposition, with no politician able to reconsolidate its old base and take power again.

***

When I arrive in Hull, preparations are under way for a vigil in Jo Cox’s honour, but it is the nation of Turkey that is weighing on the minds of undecided voters. On Park Street, residents are divided. Those who have exercised their right to buy and are concerned about their mortgages are flirting with an Out vote but are terrified about negative equity. Those who remain in social housing or the private rented sector are untouched by stories of soaring mortgages. To many residents, the Treasury’s dire warnings seem to be the concerns of people from a different planet, not merely another part of the country. As Rachel, a woman in her mid-fifties who lives alone, puts it: “They say I’d lose four grand a month. I don’t know who they think is earning four grand a month but it certainly isn’t me.”

As Vote Leave knew, the promise that an Out vote will allow people to “take control” always had a particular appeal for those with precious little control – of their rent, of next week’s shift, of whether or not they will be able to afford to turn the heating on next week. Never mind that the control envisaged by Vote Leave would be exercised by the conservative right: the campaign found a message that was able to resonate across class and region, at least to an extent that could yet create a force to be reckoned with under first-past-the-post in Britain.

Four grand a month isn’t a bad salary, even in leafy Hampstead, but in that prosperous corner of north London fears of an Out vote, and what will come after, gained a tight purchase. The worry was coupled with resentment, too, over what would come, should the Outers triumph.

The great risk for the left is that herbivorous resentment is already curdling into contempt towards the people of Hull and the other bastions of Brexitism. That contempt threatens the commodity on which Labour has always relied to get Hull and Hampstead to vote and work together – solidarity. The referendum leaves the Conservatives divided at Westminster. That will give little comfort to Labour if the long-term outcome of the vote is to leave its own ranks divided outside it.

 

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 23 June 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Divided Britain