The referendum in Doncaster, and Labour's disappearing trick

Interviewing voters in Doncaster revealed the quiet irrelevance of the Labour party in its own heartland.

Anthony Barnett
Anthony Barnett
22 June 2016

Built over seams of coal and linked to the world by ancient Roman roads and the river Don, Doncaster was once prosperous. In 1980 it had ten deep mines, employing 17,000 men. They are all gone. Unlike the nearby mill towns, its population is overwhelmingly ‘white English’, and they have elected Labour MPs to their three constituencies at almost every opportunity since the 1930s, currently Rosie Winterton, Ed Miliband and Caroline Flint. In 2009, though, they elected an English Democrat mayor. And tomorrow, they will almost certainly vote to leave the EU.

On Monday, I went there with Adam Ramsay, who came down from Edinburgh, to talk with people about why.

It was easy to find men who wanted “Out”. Women were more for Remain and more reticent. Plenty had still not made up their minds. Talking to people in the centre of town is random and in no way representative. For systematic reporting of what people are saying, Ashcroft’s weekly focus groups are telling and funny. Our purpose was to listen to the reasons and texture of those wanting Out and also to meet local Labour activists to see what they thought was going on. I’d been lucky enough to join Adam in Scotland when his country had its independence referendum 19 months ago, and we found ourselves measuring what we heard against the Scottish experience.

The most striking difference was the negativity and sense of pointlessness about those wanting Out. This had an extreme form in the anti-immigrant view of one burly, articulate man (who blamed his conviction for racially aggravated assault after he “defended” himself on the police’s need to fulfil their quotas). He was loquacious and detailed: immigrants work hard but send their money back out the country. Poles live four to a house and can afford rents that push up prices for those like him who have one child and want to rent a home. From a mining background, what’s left is the family, seen as a unit to defend. He did not seem to be looking forward to taking on the world in a high-tech trading form of Britishness. Anyway, he was quite sure that Out would make no significant difference. I asked him about an English parliament and he replied, “we are the people of England, we are England’s parliament”. He was clear that he was English, rather than British, and thought Putin gets it right.

Those drinking with him, all in their 20s, seemed to shrink from his confident intransigence, and one woman who had said when we first asked that she would vote Remain disappeared back into the pub before we could ask why. One of the friends spotting us the next day, came to say hello and said he was not going to vote as nothing would change and Cameron would do whatever he wanted anyway.

For some, it felt like a vote with a shrug: it might decrease the “pressures’ of migrants coming in (“don’t blame them but don’t want them”) and this could bring down property prices and rents – a great attraction. But because they don’t think it will make a real difference the threat of a crash seemed remote, and was absent from the conversation; a marked difference with Scotland.

Another kind of Outer was a cheerful butcher, working in the central market, where trade is down. He had been a miner, where he liked the work and now missed the solidarity. He was Labour and would continue to be Labour but he wants “change”. He does not believe there will be change but that’s what he’ll be casting his ballot for, with no mention of migration or foreigners. Adam used the analogy of a lever. People have only given one, and asked if they want to pull it. They suspect it isn’t really attached to anything, and if it is, they aren’t really sure what will happen. But if it’s change you need, you may as well give it a go.

For me, as part of the greater London politically active class, Brexit is a potentially consequential decision. Because the financial system is swollen with uncertainties and has failed to recover from the crash of 2008, Britain trying to leave the EU could unravel a thread. Or, if the EU gathers its skirts and acts in a coordinated, punitive fashion, there might be a harsh collective punishment imposed on the UK for its pluck. The only economic argument I respect is Ambrose Evans-Pritchard’s, that it could be awful but it is worth it for self-government.

In Doncaster, however, many who want out do not share any sense of participating in a choice that will have an important consequence. Therefore, it is not seen as a threat. Where people do see consequences, many were vague about them, like faintly remembered facts learnt for an exam many years ago, rather than key points mobilised for their own arguments every day. One young fashionably dressed chef, who was leaning towards “Remain”, said that “Leave will be better for English industry… right?”.

If the UK votes to Leave it will be poetic justice for the masters of neoliberalism in Downing Street who for a third of a century have told industrial England that there is no alternative. The assault on collective agency and with it a sense of shared, pubic responsibility will have come home with a vengeance.

The contrast with Scotland could not be greater. There, with their own parliament growing in power, there is a public sense that they can “make a difference”. Yes voters were not indifferent to the ‘project fear’ to which they were subjected by the government but sought to measure what effects would be real. Some voted Yes with excitement at the prospect, others voted No to independence as they concluded it did not have the strength or economic capacity yet. It was an empowering process that inspired a record turnout. This is not how the Brexit referendum felt in Doncaster days before the vote. It’s reflected also in the way that UKIP are spinning the referendum. The emphasis is on the negative. They could have led with YES to independence, instead their attitude is NO to the EU. 

Simon Tilford of the Centre for European Reform has condemned the leading Brexiteers as “libertarian sovereigntists who support further deregulation of the British economy. Their opposition to immigration is aimed at appealing to disenfranchised and insecure voters”. This is right, but they are not appealing to their desire for security but a preference for more risk generated by fatalism and loss.

The alternative? It should have come from the Labour party. We hope to publish more about this, after interviewing Labour councillors in some depth. One of them told us that after a lifetime of active commitment she felt she could not canvass for Remain and she did not understand the argument. It was not tangible to her why she should be for In or Out. She wanted some reading and went online onto Facebook, and watched John Major. There is no Labour statement for its own members setting out the party’s judgment. Her own family are looking towards UKIP. In 1997 when Rosie Winterton first stood as Labour candidate for Doncaster Central she got 27,000 votes, 62% of those voting, the Tories got 9,000 and UKIP 462. Last year she got 19,840 votes, the Tories 8,386 and UKIP 9,747 (up from 1,421 in 2010). The Lib Dem vote collapsed from nearly 9,000 to 1,700. In Ed Miliband’s Doncaster North, where he got 20,708, UKIP also came second with 8,928. These are ominous figures.

The Labour party’s membership has grown significantly thanks to the Corbyn surge. But it is still facing inwards, arguing more about Trident and how to manage the catastrophic cuts in pubic provision that its council has to manage. If this is the Labour heartland, its pulse is dreadfully weak. We met a bearded solicitor, probably a Labour supporter. He was swift and clear. He is for staying In. Those for Out are “racists” and they have a secret agenda of destroying workers rights. This was not an opinion being advocated intransigently, in public by an organised Labour movement.  More than the mines have closed in Doncaster.

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