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‘People are cheesed off’: Brexit anger tests Teesside’s Labour loyalties

The Tories are eyeing the North East Labour stronghold as anti-establishment feelings run high over the region’s industrial decline.

Adam Bychawski
11 December 2019, 3.58pm
Boris Johnson delivers a stump speech to workers in Stockton-on-Tees.
PA Images

Teesside, a cluster of towns in the North East with a proud and pioneering history of steelmaking and chemical manufacturing, has long been one of Labour's traditional strongholds. But over the past decade, those industries have fallen away leaving a void that has shaken the region's sense of identity and shifted deeply held loyalties. There are signs of changes everywhere, not least of all in Saltburn. In the space of a few years, this Victorian seaside resort, just a few miles from the smokestacks on the banks of the Tees, has quietly become an enclave for artists, outsiders and environmentalists.

At the town’s third annual vegan festival, held in a local community centre, you can find stands selling crystals and dreamcatchers, take part in a yoga session or volunteer to join a conservation group. “Saltburn is full of hippies,” says Egypt, 23, an arts student, browsing the stalls with her friends, Ted, 23 and Sky, 22.

The upcoming elections, however, have shattered any guise of harmony. “My Facebook feed has been filled with arguments,” says Ted, a chef who moved from Brighton when his rent became unaffordable. All three are previous first-time Labour voters and are planning to vote for the party again on Thursday, but not all their peers share their enthusiasm. “Some think politics is all bollocks,” says Egypt.

Just days earlier, Boris Johnson paid a visit to Saltburn, where he posed for photos eating fish and chips, accompanied by the local Conservative candidate, Simon Clarke. He was greeted by a few supporters during his walk along the promenade, but was forced to retreat to his battle bus after being heckled by a group of protesters.

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At the pier's amusements arcade, Ryan is causing a stir for different reasons. People have stopped to watch as he effortlessly sinks one ball after the after through the hoop of an arcade game. After the referendum in 2016, Ryan noticed that things started to get ugly on social media. “I posted something on Facebook saying that Brexit had brought some racists out of the woodwork. I didn’t accuse anyone of being racist or say that Leavers are, but the comments got so personal that I haven’t posted since,” he says.

It seems as if the hostility has started to bleed into conversations outside the screen. “We were talking about politics in the pub recently and all of a sudden everyone started raising their voices,” says Ryan. "That's never happened before."

A stall selling jewelry and tarot card readings at a Vegan festival in Saltburn. Image: Adam Bychawski.
A stall selling jewelry and tarot card readings at a Vegan festival in Saltburn. Image: Adam Bychawski.
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Over the last year, a string of local councillors in Teesside have been suspended from their respective parties for posting offensive material on social media. In March, two Labour candidates withdraw themselves from standing in local elections after it emerged they shared and liked a post on Facebook of a mural that has been criticised for replicating anti-Semitic representations of Jewish men.

Last month, a Conservative councillor and chairman of South Tees Conservative Association was suspended by the party after he was alleged to have shared and posted Islamophobic content on Facebook. Weeks later, a Labour councillor, Craig Hannaway, accused two Conservative councillors, Craig and brother Lee Holmes, of commenting on Nazi imagery and drawing comparisons between Labour and the National Socialists on Facebook.

The story made local news, and when Hannaway shared the article on his own Facebook page, someone commented that he "should be shot at dawn". "I haven't knocked on doors in Skelton since then," he says.

The controversy originated from a Facebook group for locals in Skelton, a stone's throw from Saltburn. The group, which has almost 10,000 members, describes itself as a place for "sharing images and stories of Skelton". But there are no disclaimers that its admin, Craig Holmes, is a Conservative councillor, and both himself and his brother frequently share posts promoting the party. 

Just this week, Lee Holmes shared a post by a nurse alleging that the photograph of a four-year-old boy lying on the floor of a Leeds hospital, which Boris Johnson was questioned about, was staged. The nurse later denied making the post, which went viral, saying her account had been hacked.

Lee told openDemocracy that the post "seemed genuine enough" and that all political parties should “check and vet information before it's released to the public”. Holmes said he still wasn’t sure if the photo itself was faked or not, despite the hospital apologising for the boy's treatment.

Aisha Cunningham, 24, had forgotten she had joined one local Facebook group, Marske Uncensored, until she noticed a post, branding Anna Turnley, the MP for Redcar, a "traitor" had appeared on her feed. When she checked out the group's other posts, she discovered there were dozens more like it attacking Turnley with similarly inflammatory language for her pro-Remain position in the referendum. Diane Abbott, Labour's shadow home secretary, is another common target of the group.

Marske Uncensored Facebook group screenshot
One of many posts targeting Diane Abbott on the Facebook group Marske Uncensored. | openDemocracy

"People won't admit it, but there's racial prejudice behind those [Abbott] memes," says Cunningham, a care-worker. Marske Uncensored advertises itself as a place where users can post "without fear of the PC brigade" raising questions about whether Facebook’s rules apply to closed groups.

Shock Tory victories

Until recently, it would be unthinkable that Conservatives would be eyeing up Teesside in an election. The valley is split into six constituencies, five of which are held by Labour. But three years ago, the region voted overwhelmingly to leave in the EU referendum.

Since then the Tories have been making inroads. In May 2017, Ben Houchen, a local Tory councillor, beat out the Labour favourite in the race to become the first 'metro' mayor of Tees Valley. Month later, the Tories won the constituency of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland for the first time since the seat’s creation in 1997, one of the few consolations of Theresa May's otherwise disastrous snap election. Simon Clarke, a former solicitor educated in a local private school, won a 1,020 majority.

Labour also suffered badly at this year's local elections across Teesside, losing control of four councils, including Middlesbrough which it had held since 1974. 

On Thursday, the Conservatives are hoping to replicate their victory in Middlesbrough in other Leave-voting Labour marginals in the North East like neighbouring Stockton South and Bishop Auckland. 

Whether the Tories can capitalise on frustration over Brexit to swing Labour voters is unclear. When Johnson visited an engineering firm in Stockton-on-Tees last month he got a mixed reception from workers. He was grilled by employees on why he delayed a report on Russian interference in British politics and whether the NHS would be part of a UK-US trade deal. But most will not have seen the exchange. On social media, the party aggressively pushed a photo of Johnson posing with an engineer holding a homemade “We Love Boris” sign that was liked tens of thousands of times.

As Johnson delivered his stump speech to the plant’s largely male workforce, a group of women protested outside the gates. In a shakily filmed video, one of the women, Jessie Jacobs, took Johnson to task, “You don’t care about these families. You don’t care that they can’t get a bus to the hospital that takes less than two hours.” The video was viewed over a hundred thousand times on Twitter and Facebook. 

Jacobs, 41, is a former Stockton youth worker and is running as Labour’s candidate in next year’s Tees Valley mayoral race. “People have been ground down by government cuts,” she says. “We’ve had nine years of austerity and is it any surprise that its been places where there are Labour-led authorities which have been hit hardest."

Redcar and Cleveland council, which covers one half of the constituency of Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, has had its central government funding cut by £76.4 million between 2010 and 2018 – a reduction in spending power of 35%, higher than the national average of 29%. While Middlesbrough council, which covers the other half of the constituency, has seen a 36% cut in funding – a loss of £90m.

Labour's outgoing council leader blamed Brexit and government cuts for the party's losses in May. But some activists have questioned whether the council could have taken a harder line. “Councils can be a bit apolitical at times,” admits Jacobs. “I'd hear councillors use words like ‘savings’ but these aren't savings – you’ve had to make cuts.”

Infant Hercules

Austerity is not the only source of Teesside's decline, the region has struggled with the loss of its steel and chemical works. In 1975, the number of workers employed in manufacturing was 41%. By 2015, the number had shrunk to just 9.3%. 

Teesside’s booming industry put it on the map in the 19th century. On a visit to Middlesbrough in 1862, the former British Prime Minister William Gladstone – who is said to have invented modern election campaigning – famously described the town as an "infant Hercules". A century later, it had become the industrial heart of Britain; steel forged in its furnaces had travelled as far as Zimbabwe, Bangkok and Sydney. Workers shared in the town's prosperity: in the 1960s, Teesside was the third best place to live in the UK, behind only Aberdeen and London.      

The region's reliance on empire and industry, would, however, also be its downfall. The slump that followed the oil crisis in the 1970s together with increasing competition from overseas and the loss of imperial advantages led to a collapse in manufacturing. The decline accelerated in the 1980s under Margaret Thatcher, who believed that only the market should decide whether industries sink or swim. The closure of the last running steelworks in the town in 2015, and with it the loss of 2,200 jobs, has left an uncertain future. 

The former SSI steelworks in Redcar, in 2015 the Thai-owned firm closed the plant.
The former SSI steelworks in Redcar, in 2015 the Thai-owned firm closed the plant.
PA Images

At a community centre in Loftus, one of the more deprived wards in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, its manager Tony Gatehouse has been doing all he can to help revitalise the area. The centre opened in the middle of the 2008 global financial crash and just months before 1,700 steelworkers lost their jobs. Initially, it offered employment advice and served as a drug clinic. Now it hosts everything from choirs to martial arts classes, and provides office space for seven start-up businesses.

When Middlesbrough's furnaces were extinguished for the last time in 2015, many, including the government, blamed the European Union's state aid rules for preventing a bailout. But others have pointed out that the Italian government stepped in to save its steel industry in 2016, and that both Germany and France have spent more on state aid schemes than the UK.

"People are thoroughly cheesed off and distrusting of the system," says Gatehouse, who ran as a Conservative candidate in the 2019 local elections. But while voters turned away from Labour in Loftus, most were not yet prepared to vote for a Tory. "I had people telling they'd vote for me if I was running as an independent," he says.

Gatehouse believes that Britain will be "better off if we're allowed to stand alone". The promise of establishing a "free port", which would slash tax rates to near zero in the hope of encouraging investment, has been pushed heavily by Boris Johnson and Teesside Mayor Ben Houchen. 

Mounting frustrations over Brexit have left pundits questioning whether more of Teesside might turn blue. At a bike shop in Nunthorpe, owner Paul Godley voted to Leave in the referendum and is planning to vote Conservative. Despite owning a holiday home in Spain and importing most of the bikes he sells from Belgium, he’s not worried about the possible repercussions of Brexit. He points to events like the Tour de Yorkshire, a cycling race which started in 2015, modelled after its famous French counterpart, as an example of how the UK could prosper. 

Gary, who works alongside Paul, and voted to Remain, says Johnson is a “bungling idiot”. Nevertheless, he’s grown impatient with the Brexit process and approves of the Conservatives’ tough talk on cutting immigration.

It's possible that voters could also choose not to show up at all on Thursday, turnout was lower than the national average at this year's local elections. Over in Guisborough, the largest and most affluent town in Middlesbrough South and East Cleveland, a group of teenagers in a local video-game store have mutually agreed to ban discussion of politics. 

"It's for the sake of keeping the peace," says Tim Ross, 19, while playing the popular card game Yu-Gi-Oh! "There’s too much hate when you talk about politics. It’s too deep-rooted to have a civil debate.”

With funding for youth services cut, there are fewer places left to go for young people. Mathew, 16, has seen the effects firsthand. For the past six months, he's volunteered at youth centre and he hopes to one day become a youth worker. “They’re shutting them down everywhere,” he says. “They expect us to do something but then don’t give us any money.” 

Simon, 22, right, and Matthew, 16, at Excite Games in Guisborough.
Simon, 22, right, and Matthew, 16, at Excite Games in Guisborough.
openDemocracy, all rights reserved.

Mathew is too young to vote this time, but he's not a fan of the prime minister, who reminds him of some of his classmates. “He's like one of the wrong'uns that go into school and just sleep and do nothing,” he says. 

In Middlesbrough’s heyday, teenagers did not require formal qualifications to find a well-paid job, such was the abundance of skilled, full-time positions in manufacturing. Now those jobs, many of which provided life-long careers, have largely disappeared and been replaced by temporary, low-skilled and poorly paid service work. The future looks very different for the generation coming of age at this election.  

Simon, 22, the eldest of the group, is beginning to feel disenchanted by politics. “I don’t know if they’re just going to promise one thing and then do something else when they get in," he says. 

That frustration has spilled over into political arguments that have even ended friendships. But there is one thing that everyone at the table can agree on. "Someone younger needs to lead," he adds, prompting a chorus of agreement.


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