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Brexit is a far bigger problem than the Conservative Party realises

As a result of Brexit, many people who voted Tory in 2015 did not vote for them in 2017, and won't in 2022 either. 

Why did the Conservatives lose their parliamentary majority? The party has correctly identified most of its problems: that it lost ground with the socially liberal, with affluent ethnic minorities, and with voters aged under 55, and that it suffered as a result of growing political resistance to austerity , particularly the public sector pay freeze and the planned cuts to school budgets.

Not all of the proposed solutions look likely to be effective, but the party can at least comfort itself that it is looking in the right place. But there’s another problem that the party struggles to articulate out loud: it was essentially absent from the party’s numerous post-mortems. That problem is Brexit.

Brexit means that a large number of people who voted Conservative in 2015 did not vote for them in 2017. Yes, the Conservatives got many more votes than they received in 2015, but the British electoral system isn’t about vote share. It’s about how many constituencies you win. As Michael Ashcroft, the Conservative peer and Brexiteer concludes in his excellent book The Lost Majority, the votes that the Tories gained from leavers were predominantly useless under first past the post.

(A good illustration of the problem: the Conservatives gained 7,000 extra votes, predominantly from people who voted Leave, in Iain Austin’s Dudley North seat, but fell short of winning it by 22 votes. They lost 2,000 votes in Kensington, predominantly among people who voted to Remain – and lost the seat by 20 votes.)

Brexit lost the Conservatives’ votes in two ways: firstly, it lost them votes because the Leave vote had decreased the strength of the pound against the Euro and the dollar. This is great news if you are a business that sells to the European Union or the United States, as the money you make abroad now goes further at home. This is bad news if you are a household which buys good from the European Union. As businesses don’t have votes, but households do, this is obviously a problem, electorally speaking.

More importantly, it lose them votes among Remain voters who hadn’t lost out because of the Brexit vote but for whom the issue was a proxy for a wider cultural divide. One of the things people get wrong about Labour and the Remain vote is that the bulk of people who voted for Cameron in 2015, Remain in 2016 and Corbyn in 2017 don’t have a particular affection for the treaties of the European Union – their relationship to the EU speaks to a wider sense of who they are.  That shifting vote proved instrumental in seats the Conservatives failed to win, like Wirral South, and ones they lost, like Brighton Kemptown.

That element is also fundamentally misunderstood by people who talk about Brexit being “over” by March 2019. As I’ve written before, Nafta, an American trade deal largely agreed to have been successfully by economists, and agreed in principle before the fall of the Berlin Wall, was a vote-moving issue in the Democratic primaries and the general election in 2016. Brexit will not lose its cultural power to damage Conservative standing with people who backed a Remain vote, who are a larger chunk of the electorate during elections as they are more likely to vote, and they are also the chunk of the electorate that is going to get bigger, not smaller, as time passes.

And even a successful Brexit will create winners and losers. Not every winner will thank the Conservative Party but you can be certain that almost every loser will blame them.

In any case, the Conservatives’ cultural problem isn’t going to go away if Brexit is a success. But what if it’s a failure? The cultural opposition to Brexit among Remainers means that if a slowdown in Japan causes the next recession, Britain’s Leave vote, and by extension the government that did it, will be blamed. If the next recession actually is caused by Britain’s Leave vote, not only will opposition to the government among Remainers increase, but Leave voters aren’t going to blame their vote for it. They will blame the government’s handling of it.

Whatever happens, to win a stable majority, the Conservatives are going to have win more votes from people who backed a Remain vote in 2016. Not only do they have precious few solutions – most of the party isn’t even aware they need one.  

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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Blood, blades and bitter: how ice hockey bloomed in 1980s Britain

In ailing northern towns, amateur ice hockey brought violence and validation to a generation of young men.

If you scarfed your evening tea – cold Sunday lunch meats, a scoop of pease pudding, perhaps – and got down early, you could claim seats so close to the action that you might feel on your face the cooling spray of tiny ice chips cleaved by gleaming blades suddenly braking. Here, in the front row of a semi-dilapidated, sub-zero warehouse nicknamed The Shed – where there were no Perspex protective barriers, and where a six-ounce black puck of vulcanised rubber once shot over our heads and into the jaw of a woman behind us – you could see blood from broken noses and split lips, dripping a brilliant trail of red across the cold blue mirror of Durham Ice Rink. In the recession-hit north-east of England in the 1980s, life didn’t get more thrilling.

The Pyeongchang Olympics, with its ramps, sleighs, rifles and Lycra-coated bodies being hurled down mountains with almost suicidal abandon – and where heroes retain an air of mystery behind mirrored masks and goggles – has reminded us that the winter Games offer a much more surreal and glamorous spectacle than their sweaty summer cousin. North and South Korea can unite on one issue at least: ice hockey, with the two countries fielding a women’s team simply called Korea.

Watching the Games has prompted a Proustian deluge of memories in me, to a time when a grubbier, more knockabout domestic incarnation of the sport enjoyed a rapid rise in popularity following the formation of the British Hockey League (BHL) in 1980, an era now regarded as the glory years.

This chapter of recent sporting history has barely been told, and I know why: the popularity of UK ice hockey existed predominantly away from the gaze of London’s media, and took seed in those ailing post-industrial provincial heartlands suffering the most under Margaret Thatcher’s government. Its top outfits came from places such as Billingham, Whitley Bay, Dundee, Kirkcaldy and my home town of Durham, where the club Durham Wasps enjoyed a golden run. Second-tier teams came from Telford, Gillingham and Sunderland while London Raiders (formerly Romford Raiders) rarely troubled the BHL’s Premier Division. Crucially, its stars were working men who held down jobs – if they had them – during the week. They were mechanics and electricians. They drove forklift trucks or sold wet fish on the markets. Some were just out of school, teenagers intent on glory among peers. They got paid little, took cold showers.

With hindsight, the success of Durham Wasps and their arch regional rivals, Whitley Warriors, was clearly tied in with the collapse of the key industries of coal mining and shipbuilding. Durham may be known for its university, but beyond the city were miles of mining heartland, where entire communities had been devoted to divining the dusky diamonds. Coal was the currency that fuelled an empire, while the shipyards at the mouth of the River Wear in Sunderland had built vessels that sailed the world.

During the Wasps’ 1980s boom-time, that all changed. The year-long miners’ strike of 1984-85 had failed to halt Thatcher’s hostile closures of the pits, while employee numbers in the British Shipbuilders Corporation dropped from 87,000 in 1977 to 5,000 in 1987. Fit and functioning men now found themselves without purpose, victims of an ideological vendetta.

“Geographically, the north-east became a ghost town, haunted by absences – of jobs, factories and pits, and people, as folk moved away to find work elsewhere,” says Katy Shaw who, as professor of contemporary writings at Northumbria University, has written extensively on the miners’ strike and its legacies. “Once the industrial heartlands had been ripped out of the region, the anomie that followed forced the working class to reassess their identity and purpose in the face of an uncertain future.”

***

The sport of ice hockey reflected the toughness of these collapsing worlds, and the anger of their disenfranchised. Games were violent and nasty, perhaps the closest the country ever came to a legitimate blood sport before cage-fighting offered an alternative outlet for working-class rage. The ice rink was the arena in which heroes and villains were made, each week a new drama. A player for Ayr Bruins in Scotland once reportedly faked a heart attack in the dressing room rather than return to a particularly bloody battle.

Built in 1940 from mottled corrugate, concrete and wood from unused coffins, the home of Durham Wasps was a notoriously rough building pitched by a river the colour of over-stewed tea. It was just half a mile from the Norman cathedral, a World Heritage site and architectural masterpiece, but when the autumn river mist drifted in through its many broken windows there was an ethereal quality to the on-ice conflicts, watched by more than three thousand tightly-packed people and several cooing pigeons. Its owners were the Smith family – headed by the near-mythical entrepreneur JJ “Icy” Smith, who made his money selling blocks of ice during the 1930s – with the team established in 1946 by Canadian airmen stationed nearby during the war.

The family were frugal, pocketing large gate receipts from overcapacity crowds evenly split between men, women and children. In the early days, a dog behind the goal would frequently bite the opposition’s shirts, and even in the 1980s overhead heaters were lit with a burning rag attached to an old hockey stick.

I played a little hockey myself, training midweek with a junior team called the Midges, and then hitting the rink’s disco on Friday night (key song: “Opportunities” by Pet Shop Boys), where the cafe sold half-cooked chips and the ice-skates that newcomers hired were so useless they were dubbed “death wellies”.

Ben Myers in ice hockey gear aged 11 in 1987

Most fans would readily admit that the match highlights were the fights enjoyed at close quarters. There was none of the theatrics of Saturday wrestling, which had enjoyed a resurgence a decade earlier thanks to odd and often unathletic personalities such as Big Daddy or the Yorkshire pig-keeper, Les Kellett. Ice hockey was more accessible than boxing, too, and there was no room for prima donnas as in football. When two players decided to go at it, officials let them.

These battles were ritualistic, the combatants initially circling on the ice like two starved bantams thrown into a medieval cockpit, before the frantic wrangling of shirts pulled over heads, helmets tossed aside and fists thrown.

In these moments, ice hockey entered a strange, lawless hinterland, the referees gauging the grapple to allow just enough violence to provide catharsis for a crowd baying for their man to knock out his southern opponent, wipe the smirk off his handsome Canuck face, or rip his balls off and shove them down his Scottish throat. And all the while soundtracked by over-amplified jingles such as Gary Glitter’s “I’m the Leader of the Gang (I Am!)”. Referees would halt fights shortly after one or both plucky scrappers were hurt. It was ugly but honest, the players fearless superheroes providing colour in a monochrome world of dole queue drudgery.

***

Few such communal spaces in which the northern working man might verbalise his anxieties, doubts or depression existed 30 years ago. Hockey was one popular outlet. “Heavy industry offered a culturally specific form of masculinity, one that was decimated with the closure of the pits and shipyards,” says Katy Shaw. “The resulting social, political and economic crisis meant that sports – particularly team sports rooted in working-class communities – became a significant source of male identity.”

The language surrounding depression and what we might today broadly identify as a “crisis of masculinity” was entirely different in the 1980s.  My grandfather, a shopkeeper in nearby Houghton-le-Spring, a mining town where the pit closed in 1981, kept his depression a secret outside of the family and took his own life shortly after retirement in 1985. Antidepressant medication was in its infancy, too; anyone suffering from a loss of self-worth did so in silence.

The game fulfilled a need for heroes you could relate to, people who ached and creaked when they rose for work on Monday. Crucial to the team were a selection of Canadian imports. While millions of Britons were at home watching Songs of Praise, we were putting our faith in the likes of the stately, stoic defenceman Mike O’ Connor, or industrious goal-stealer Rick Brebant, decent-looking compared to the local players who had moustaches, missing teeth, and diets of stodge and Newcastle Brown.

During televised games, the Canadians brought speed, guile and a weight of sporting history with them, yet always with an unspoken awareness that their exotic otherness was perhaps tainted with failure back home. Why else would anyone move to the north-east of England in 1986? Had they not seen Auf Wiedersehen, Pet?

The Wasps won a string of trophies into the next decade, and some foreign players built lives in England, though my own short-lived hockey career ended when I lost a kidney in an unrelated injury.

A corporate buyout and attempted relocation to Newcastle in the 1990s killed Durham Wasps. The importance of localisation – so key to the identity of the team’s supporters during times of economic turmoil – was lost on its new owners. After turbulent years of perilous finances, the sport continues in the Elite Ice Hockey League, though it receives less media coverage. Durham Ice Rink became a bowling alley and was then razed in 2013 to make way for an office block. There is no trace of it today.

Ben Myers’s latest novel, “These Darkening Days”, is published by Moth/Mayfly.

Ben Myers’ novels include Pig Iron and Richard, a Sunday Times book of the year. His writing has appeared in The Guardian, NME, Mojo, Time Out, 3:AM Magazine, Caught By The River and many others. www.benmyersmanofletters.blogspot.com

This article first appeared in the 22 February 2018 issue of the New Statesman, Sunni vs Shia