On Roker Beach in Sunderland at the thudding heart of Brexit, everything looks like a metaphor. As Europe’s cold winds whip in from the Continent, battering the Victorian pier, the faces of dog-walkers on the beach are turned inland. Storm clouds are rolling in, threatening rain. “We’re getting a bit fed up with people saying we’re all stupid racists,” says Dawn Williams, 50, letting her dog off the lead. “Just because you can’t understand why we’ve done it doesn’t mean we didn’t.”
Stephen Chaytor, 65, a retired former shop steward from Gateshead, nods. “Aye, I voted Out,” he says. “And the people we know who voted Leave are all Labour voters sick of being ignored.”
He shrugs. “A lot of people round here actually voted Tory in the general election because Cameron promised the referendum. Labour people, whose mams and dads have always voted Labour.”
Given what Tory austerity has done to Sunderland and communities like it, this is an extraordinary admission, but Stephen shrugs. “How would voting in a load of Islington champagne socialists have made any difference anyway?” he says. “This
vote made an actual difference.”
And that was how a trip to Sunderland which was supposed to be a hard listening exercise about Brexit instead became a warning bell tolling out in the harbour for the drowning Labour Party.
Writing the Real Britain column at the Daily Mirror, I spend a lot of time in the poorest and most neglected parts of the country, those parts that Twitter and trickle-down economics never reach. I wrote about them in the Blair years, these Barking and Dagenhams, these Burnleys and Clactons; still proud but deprived and disconnected communities, left to drift dangerously by New Labour.
Those years, at best, were a kind of benign neglect. But since 2010 they have been under open assault by Tory austerity and rapacious globalisation, their safety nets shot with gaping holes that drop straight through to the food bank, lives blighted by poverty pay, welfare cuts and a new Uberised serfdom. In the absence of any other material help, these communities have fuelled their survival on rage.
Since 2010, Tory and Ukip masters of misdirection have performed an extraordinary mirror trick that has directed this fury away from the right-wing economics causing their poverty, and towards other poor people, here and abroad – immigrants, welfare claimants, disabled people. During the EU referendum, the magical resonance of Leave’s arguments, truthful or otherwise, was so great, that communities such as Sunderland – where Nissan, the Japanese car manufacturer, is critical to the local economy – voted against their own interests, in effect performing an act of self-harm. Most magical of all, there is no comeback. When I ask Stephen if he feels betrayed by the vanished architects of Brexit, he just laughs. “We never believed a word anyway!” he says. “Not a decent one among them.”
Does he think Brexit will bring any extra money or jobs to Sunderland?
“No, probably not.”
“So how will things get better?”
“Things won’t get better.”
It was my turn to laugh. All that time spent thinking about what Remain arguments could reach people like Stephen. There weren’t any.
But you’re still glad you voted Out?
“Aye. Because they’ll have to start listening to us now, won’t they?”
Dawn pats my shoulder kindly. “You don’t want to get yourself upset about all this, pet!” she says. “Nothing bad’s happened yet, has it?”
All that long day I keep looking up and down that lovely beach for a shred of love for the Labour Party. I find only anger, even among the people who continue grudgingly to vote for the party. The conversations I have at Sue’s little café on the seafront remind me of the weeks I spent in 2010 working with the Hope Not Hate campaign, when it seemed the British National Party would win control of Barking and Dagenham. The difference is that, where six years ago the BNP almost found itself a toehold in the crumbling political rockface, there is now a fissure through which masterful politicians have driven their lying bus.
When I ask Dawn if she’s sure her vote for Brexit was nothing to do with immigration, she hesitates. “Well, you see frightening videos on Facebook,” she says. “You hear about rapes. I think some people are getting scared for their kids. It’s not racist to say there’s no housing. The NHS can’t cope.”
I still believe that the Barking and Dagenham result in 2010 – where, against the odds, the BNP was routed, signalling the beginning of the end for the party – gave the left the only genuine hope from that bitter general election. Though the campaign was fought strategically, it was also fought on the streets, and it was fought with both courage and humility. It was fought on the ground because, for people without smartphones, social media is as pointless as writing messages on the moon, and fought by activists in the real sense – people who act.
People were listened to, about their bins, about their fears of immigration and what they were to become now that their factories were dead. Campaigners understood that the greatest challenge was to rebuild trust in politics by making themselves inseparable from the poorest communities, as innate a part of the fabric of ordinary people’s lives as going to church.
Six years on, we are not even on the battlefield. Instead, we are trapped in the back room, engaged in an arrogant brawl about which faction knows best for poor people while comfortably-off people, who have nothing of consequence to lose from a Tory government, dish out platitudes about the long path back to government.
I wish those people who talk about a “long game” would read my mailbag and know that every second the Tory government remains in power, there are children’s lives that are colder and hungrier and more narrow and less full of potential.
What scared me that day on Roker Beach was the realisation that while it has not been so dangerous in generations to be “ordinary”, the disconnection between everyday people and the Labour Party has never been so great. Yet instead of reaching out and breaking down barriers, rolling up our sleeves in communities, starting the fight for a progressive Brexit, our influence is diminishing in ever-decreasing circles, factions breaking down smaller and narrower, the silos ever more slippery and difficult to escape. If “compromise” is a dirty word, reducing our politics to the two people who share our exact view of the world is a dangerous habit.
What is happening inside the party right now is an allegory of what the Tories have done to Britain – that powerful imperial tactic of divide and rule. We are all angry and tired, and we keep losing. But if giving in to the undertow of these old routines is comforting, the tolling bell on Roker Beach also tells us it will be as fatal for our movement as stopping swimming in a pitiless sea.
Labour has serious answers for the people on Roker Beach, and it’s time we got our heads up and started delivering them, pushing back the Tory tides.
Ros Wynne-Jones is a columnist for the Daily Mirror
This article is part of a New Times collection of the future of the left. Read the other pieces here.
This article appears in the 15 Feb 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The New Times