How do we make sense of Brexit and how should we respond to the 2016 referendum result? If Labour doesn’t identify the concerns of those who voted against the status quo and take steps to address the discontent and disaffection that lay behind their decision to do so, there is a risk it will not govern for a long time. I represent a Labour seat where nearly 70 per cent of people voted Leave and I wanted to understand why so many did. I spoke to seven people from my Ashfield constituency who opted to exit the EU – one person from each age group between twenties and seventies. I wanted to hear the stories behind the statistics and identify some common themes that might help Labour reconnect with our natural base.
It is worth putting the Brexit vote in context first, and that starts by acknowledging that the trends that resulted in a narrow win for Leave are deep rooted. For anyone who had been paying attention, the shock result was not a bolt from the blue, but a reckoning for which we should have been prepared.
It is nearly 14 years since Labour last won a general election. We made some incredible gains in 2017, winning Canterbury and Kensington for the first time, but election night in the former Nottinghamshire and Derbyshire coalfields told a different story: we lost Mansfield and North East Derbyshire and the biggest Tory swings came in my own Ashfield seat and Dennis Skinner’s Bolsover. Lazy thinking put the loss of these heartland seats down to Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, but the left’s decline with many traditional voters had been coming for some time. My current majority of 441 looks quite healthy compared to my 2010 majority of 192.
In 2010, while I celebrated my first election victory by a tiny margin, I watched as a swathe of nearby coalfield seats fell to the Tories – Cannock Chase, Sherwood, Amber Valley and Erewash – all former mining areas that had returned Labour MPs since 1992 or 1997. That was long before Brexit or Jeremy Corbyn’s surprise leadership victory.
Some blame the financial crash for the loss of working-class support, but as Roger Eatwell and Matthew Goodwin point out in their excellent new book National Populism – The Revolt Against Liberal Democracy, in strong and growing economies like Austria, the Netherlands and Switzerland many of the most successful national populist movements (characterised by more restrictive immigration policies but also a more responsive political system and more equal economic settlement) emerged as major political forces long before the financial crash.
In the UK, the clearest illustration of a move towards a form of national populism came in the form of the shock 2016 referendum result.
Robert Peston tried to make sense of this in his recent book WTF?. In a letter to his late father, Peston writes: “We fucked up, didn’t we, Dad – all of us who prospered in a borderless world for capital and labour. We ignore the complaints of those whose way of life was being dismantled.”
I know what he means. I spent most of my childhood in poverty. I was very aware of that poverty, and life was miserable because of it. My parents put everything into providing an escape route – borrowing library books, reading, trips to museums – anything that might lead to better life. And it worked. I became a Labour Party activist as a teenager, went to the University of Central England and then studied for a Masters degree at Birkbeck University while working at the BBC. By the time I was 30 I was a reporter at GMTV and a member of the parliamentary group of lobby correspondents.
In 2010 Geoff Hoon resigned his seat abruptly, I left my job just as abruptly, and convinced Ashfield Labour members to select me as their parliamentary candidate. Then the door knocking began and it hit me like a truck. The conversations I had been having in London bore little or no resemblance to conversations in the former Nottinghamshire coalfield seat. I remember telling a friend in the lobby who called me to ask how it was going that none of the things we talked about in London were remotely of interest here. Without knowing or realising it – and though I always described myself throughout my time in London as working class – I now realise that my outlook had totally changed. I can never thank the people of Ashfield enough for bringing me back to reality.
The debate following our decision to leave the European Union reminded me of this chasm. Many said people voted to leave because they were too stupid; others said they had been conned; some even accused them of racism – even though one in three non-whites voted to leave. The apparent lack of will to engage with the fact people voted Leave because they may have liked what they heard, worried me and when some on the left made these points, it made me deeply uncomfortable. They are talking about the voters that Labour needs to attract in order to win again, most of whom are the very people they came into politics to represent.
Barbara, a 69-year-old pensioner and former local government employee, approached me in a supermarket surgery to give me a piece of her mind. I visited her at home the day after a particularly provocative Polly Toynbee column had been published in the Guardian. Barbara told me that Toynbee had said that there should be a second referendum because “there will be more Remainers now because those who voted Leave will be dead.”
“How evil!” Barbara exclaimed angrily. This argument is often invoked by Remainers, in public and private, but imagine how it sounds to those like Barbara who voted Leave.
I know that many Brexit voters have never and will never vote Labour. These were not the pool of voters I was interested in. I wanted to understand why so many working people backed Brexit and I decided to speak at length to working-class voters with some Labour voting history. I wanted to get beneath the analysis and statistics that show working-class discontent and hear the personal stories to help the Labour Party reconnect with the people who feel they don’t have a voice in parliament. According to Eatwell and Goodwin, 58 per cent of those who voted to leave also say that politicians don’t listen to people like them.
One in four Brexit voters had a degree, whereas a whopping 80 per cent of British graduates aged under 34 with a degree voted to Remain in the EU. Only 37 per cent of the same age group without a degree did the same.
I searched out voters in Ashfield who do not have a degree and who voted Leave. I sat down with Paige, Natalie, Julie, Mark, Barbara and Tony.
I had little idea about their lives before we talked, but many common themes emerged. All identified strongly as working class and two had little or no voting history until they cast their vote in the referendum. Five out of six had left school with no formal qualifications.
Individual human stories are never scientific but they do help us to understand the problems voters face and how we put them right. I set out some possible remedies in my conclusion but one is clear – Labour hasn’t always connected with its natural base, but many of our core values are shared by our natural supporters even if many of them don’t vote for us now.
The motivations of many ordinary people who voted Brexit are not always given a fair hearing, despite the fact that their reasons are logical and coherent, even if you might not agree with them.
Mark, 52, came to see me about a veterans’ project he had organised. He voted for the first time in the referendum. “Democracy is very important”, he said. “Sovereignty is very important. The history of this country is very important.” He feels we are losing more and more power to Brussels and wanted that to stop.
Julie, 43, a mum of three, who is a support worker for autistic people and has worked night shifts for 14 years, made a similar point: “If I was still trade and it was just trade I would have voted to stay all day. But they have too much control over too many things and it’s becoming like a one-party state.”
She added: “I don’t think [Brexit’s] going to be plain sailing. I don’t believe it’s going to be jumping off a cliff. I think people need to step back, forget about nostalgia and what happened in the war and all that. Yes, we survived and we ruled that world at one time, and I do think we are in a position where we have got the chance and the opportunity to grow as a nation and to have our identify recognised again, not so much as a powerful nation but one that should be respected.”
70-year-old Tony, a former engineer and bricklayer, said: “I voted for the common market, just trade, which we could do now. I have no problem with that. But we have turned into this federal state. Gradually and gradually they have been taking money off us, then controlling us, telling us how many fish we can catch.”
Mark had a warning. “If they don’t deliver Brexit, what’s the point in voting? That’s the feeling on the street at the moment.” If Brexit is not delivered, he says, “Democracy is over. Brussels owns it.” He thought it would result in trouble.
Natalie, a 35-year-old hairdresser and salon owner, believes Britain will be fine after Brexit:
“Divorces aren’t kind, they aren’t nice to go through,” she said, “but you have to do it and go through the finances of it, and once you are through the other side everything will be OK. It always is.”
The divide between the people I spoke to and politicians is striking. Mark described the trust in politicians as “almost non-existent,” while Julie said people are “actually feeling insulted by politicians across the board.” This illustrates a wider perception.
Paige, a 24-year-old who lives on disability benefits due to her chronic anxiety, said: “We need people to realise there is a world outside the House of Commons and people need to experience how we live.”
Tony told me: “They are all the same. What’s the point in voting Labour if they are the same as the Conservatives? They are all tarred with the same brush, doing the same thing. You aren’t real Labour at all because you don’t know about working people. You have lost it. It’s called Labour because that was for the working class, now they are for themselves. They come from school to a bigger school, university, then out of this school into politics. What real world experience have they had?”
Army veteran Mark compared political families with military families: “Most I believe are career politicians and it’s handed down to them, family peers and the rest of it. You follow your father and grandfather, like you do in the Army.”
The professionalisation of politics is a huge problem as far as these voters are concerned.
Another strong theme emerged as I continued my one-on-one discussions. All of the people I spoke to felt the odds were stacked against people like them.
Julie said the decision to leave school at 15 with no qualifications is “the biggest regret of my life.” She earns little more than the minimum wage and would like to go to night school to get her GCSE English to prove to herself that she can. She would love to be a full-time author, having self-published four novels on Amazon. She’d love the youngest of her three children to go to university, but cannot financially support him to do so.
Paige also left school at 15 with no qualifications. She was diagnosed with mild autism but felt she didn’t get the support she needed to finish school. She dreams of becoming a midwife but says the education system is too rigid to allow her to learn at her own pace and would mean running up debts she couldn’t afford.
“You could easily just go in and observe and learn it first-hand instead of having to go to college and university. Obviously you are handling life so it’s a big job but what happened to experiencing it first-hand. You learn more first-hand than what you do on paper,” she said.
Barbara also brought up the fact you have to study for a nursing degree nowadays rather than being taken on as a trainee by a hospital as an obstacle to people going into nursing.
Tony believes it is harder now to work your way up from the bottom and there is too much emphasis on going to university. The opportunities presented by the traditional apprenticeship system – where people were properly trained and guaranteed a job afterwards – are denied to the younger generation, he says. He did a five-year apprenticeship in engineering and got a job with the company he trained with, but contrasts this with the experience of his son: “My son tried to do a course to learn plumbing and because he was on a course, they stopped his benefit. They would sooner he was on the dole.”
Barbara, his wife, added: “Our son is just as clever as those uni types but in a practical way. He has a vocation but they disregard people like that. They are just as important. I’m not saying no one should go to university because that’s important but you have to have practical people.” Barbara believes that it was easier to her generation to move up and get on. She worked at a factory before becoming a cleaner at the local council. While there, she attended a local college to learn how to use a computer so she could move into a clerical role, which she stayed in until retirement.
Natalie, a single mum of two who left school at 16, has a happier story. She juggled studying for an Higher National Diploma (HND) as a mature student with working as a hairdresser so she could open her own salon. Though her career is working our well, she did state: “I wish someone had given me some choices and said ‘why don’t you try this, because this is what you are good at,” rather than just letting her drift into hairdressing.
The message is clear. Too many people feel trapped with no way to improve their lives or those of their families.
It may come as a surprise that immigration was barely mentioned by any of my interviewees, although Julie acknowledged it as a factor for some local Brexit voters she knew. She said the nearby Derbyshire town of Shirebrook is now known as “Shirebrookski” because of the high number of Eastern European people who have come over to work in its infamous Sports Direct warehouse and it is now a place that the natives do not consider as a place they would or could work.
Nationally, 41 per cent of 18- 24-year-olds said immigration was too high and 58 per cent of those aged between 25 and 49 said the same, according to Eatwell and Goodwin.
Tony said that he had seen wages for British brickies go down since Eastern European builders have come over and worked for less – even as little as £3 or £5 an hour. He was as concerned for their standard of living as the British natives’ because he said they are living in sub-standard shared accommodation and gang masters line their pockets at their expense. “It is happening all the time and the poor little Poles are getting no money and living in a crappy caravan somewhere,” he said.
The level of support for traditional left-wing politics was striking given that most of the people I spoke to have voted Labour in the past but hadn’t supported the party for years. Mark had never voted before 2016, Tony hadn’t voted for decades, since he last supported the Labour Party, we have lost Barbara to the Conservatives, Julie hadn’t voted Labour for around ten years and Natalie did not vote Labour at the last election, although she has never voted Conservative. That leaves Paige as the only committed Labour voter. Paige is also the only person who I spoke to who has changed her mind about her vote: “I voted Leave…but if I had known further down the line this would be happening I wouldn’t have,” she told me. She describes the referendum campaign as “big words and broken promises” and wants “a chance to put it right.”
Mark wants more spending for the NHS and education. Julie said: “My Dad is in a care home and the pension and everything he has worked for all his life has gone towards his care and it’s still not enough to cover the cost.”
Social care spending is a priority for her and so, too, is investment in our Armed Forces, with her middle child having just joined the Army. She would also like to see university fees reduced.
Barbara and Tony live in a former council house bought under the Right to Buy scheme. “We thought the idea was we would buy this, then the council would have the money and build new council houses, which would be brilliant. They stole that money that we gave to them. Somebody stole that money and they haven’t built one house with it.” Their granddaughter and her partner are paying higher rents for a privately rented property and have little chance of being able to save up a deposit to buy their own home.
Theresa May’s efforts at getting more support for her deal by offering cash to constituencies like mine has won little traction here. People are not fooled and ask why, if she has money to give away, it isn’t already being spent in areas that need it most. As Julie put it: “How stupid does she think we are? I thought bribery was a crime.”
There is also anger from many about the fact big businesses do not pay their fair share of taxes.
This is all fertile ground for Labour. But we need to connect and we need more working-class voices in parliament to do make inroads.
In 1979, 98 of the 619 MPs in parliament had worked in manual jobs. In the space of three decades, the number has plummeted to just 19 – a mere three per cent of parliamentarians. Ex-miners like Dennis Skinner, once two a penny on the Labour benches, are now lonely voices in a chamber dominated by professionals and the university educated. 77 per cent of Labour MPs went to university and just seven per cent used to do manual jobs.
It would be too easy to conclude parliament is simply reflecting wider economic shifts. While the pits may have closed, Britain’s working class hasn’t disappeared. Instead, a new army of care workers, cleaners, Amazon pickers and supermarket packers has emerged, but where are the MPs who used to do those jobs?
Most of the people I spoke to thought politicians are all the same, but they don’t mean politically – after all Labour and the Tories are further apart ideologically than they have been for decades. They mean that we are all from the same group; a group they think knows nothing about their lives.
Another clear lesson is that lifelong education and training must be at the heart of our education policy. Too many people from ordinary backgrounds get a once in a lifetime chance to move onwards and upwards aged 15 or 16. If things don’t work out at that age they must get a second or third chance. One way of doing this is through apprenticeships, which give people the chance to earn as they train, but just over half (51 per cent) of apprenticeship starts in 2017/18 in Ashfield were at Level Three or above, compared to 55 per cent in the East Midlands and 57 per cent in England.
The stats show that the number of apprenticeships has plummeted during Barbara and Tony’s working lives. Apprentice numbers increased in the late 1940s and 1950s in line with the boom in manufacturing industry, and the proportion of male school leavers aged 15-17 entering apprenticeships reached approximately 35 per cent by the mid-1960s. In 1966, there were almost 250,000 apprentices. This number had fallen to 53,000 by 1990. It is on the increase now, but are these apprenticeships leading to the secure, skilled employment they once did?
We cannot fail Paige or Julie, or Barbara and Tony’s children. Going back to college as a mature student and achieving her HND in Hair and Beauty Management changed Natalie’s life, but she said that while she didn’t mind taking out what she felt were reasonable student loans for living costs and tuition fees, she would not have done this with the current level of fees and cannot imagine her children doing so.
Ashfield is the fourth worst place in the country for sending kids to university. In 2018, just 16.5 per cent of 18-year-olds started a full-time degree course, down by four per cent from the year before. The average for English constituencies is just under 34 per cent. Ashfield is falling further behind other areas and its strong Leave vote fits in perfectly with the statistics.
The truth is that none of these problems were created by membership of the EU and nor will they be solved by leaving. There is good news. Those I spoke to who didn’t vote Labour at the last election or indeed for many years all would have been attracted to what was in Labours last manifesto. They all wanted more public spending and asked where the money should go health, education, social care, council house building and support for the military came up.
After Brexit, we need to bring the country back together and the left back together too. I find it hard to comprehend that I’m now at odds with Tony Blair and Gordon Brown on whether to respect the referendum result, but I will remain ever grateful to these Labour giants for changing Britain and removing my mum and dad from the poverty my family had known for so long.
Some of my closest parliamentary colleagues and allies who once embraced me with a hug now look at me with a grimace. Left-wing friends I had made in London over the years now send me angry emails and attack me on social media for arguing that we should respect the referendum result. One such email just dropped into my inbox while writing this, from a woman I worked with in TV in my 20s.
“The question is how can you morally vote for something that you now know for certain, because of what has happened in the Brexit negotiations, is going to make your constituents’ lives worse off. Isn’t it your job as their representative to tell your constituents the truth?”
We are all entitled to different views but a split on the left will kill us and the sooner we realise that the better. We will never get a Labour government without assembling a coalition of the working class and the liberal middle class.
In the 1980s and 90s the emphasis was on winning over more affluent southern voters who weren’t voting Labour. The problem that was identified was that traditional Labour voters were a shrinking pool. Southern Discomfort – the famous Fabian pamphlets written by Labour MP Giles Radice to emphasise the point that without the support of C1, skilled working class, and C2, lower middle class, voters in the south of England, Labour would never form a government – argued that “while Labour’s traditional support in the manufacturing industry, trade unions, among manual workers and on council estates was being eroded, the Conservative “core” amongst white collar workers, those not in unions, and homeowners, was expanding.”
In the late 80s and 90s, heartland seats and Labour members were asked to make concessions to those voters. The argument was that winning seats down south was the only way we could get into government to transform the lives of our heartland voters. That process may have been painful for some traditional Labour voters and members but it was absolutely necessary to get a Labour government. It was the right strategy then. It is not the right strategy now because the working class did not die, it just changed. We need to reconnect with our traditional voters, particularly those in Leave constituencies in the North and Midlands, many of whom started to abandon us in the last couple of decades.
With that in mind, Southern Discomfort is no longer the challenge. It is time for Labour to rediscover its Northern Soul.