Why Britain’s Election Is All About Brexit

The U.K. election is looking tighter. How the northeast votes will be crucial.

Families play on the beach in front of the shuttered Teesside Steelworks in Redcar.

Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

On a boarded-up window of a dilapidated former pub near the shuttered steelworks is a royal-blue poster with one word: Conservatives.

Less than a week away from an election in Britain, it looks like a battle flag planted behind enemy lines. This is northeast England, dyed red by the Labour Party for generations, and the idea of anything else in the region’s dejected post-industrial towns would have been unthinkable just a year ago. Then the decision to leave the European Union split the nation along different lines.

Ian Barber walks his dog past a boarded-up property in Redcar.
Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

“This is the election where it could be make or break for the country — I know it sounds dramatic,” said Labour supporter Alison Curry, 37. A trained elementary school teacher who has struggled to find a job, she was returning home from a food bank in the town of Bishop Auckland. She voted for Brexit to reduce competition from foreign workers.

“People who were Labour can’t see the point of Labour anymore,” she said.

The region, a shrine to a faded mining, manufacturing and maritime past, has emerged as the clearest example of how the urge to get out of the EU is unhinging Britain’s political tribes. Polls are tighter than at the start of the campaign, and it will be the northeast that shows in the early hours of June 9 whether Conservative Prime Minister Theresa May has managed the emphatic victory she said she needs before negotiating Brexit.

On a two-day tour of northeast towns that voted strongly for Brexit, it was evident Labour, the 117-year-old party of the workers, and its socialist leader Jeremy Corbyn have plenty of staunch supporters. But it was also clear how Brexit has given May, who visited the region on Thursday to drum up support, an opening as campaigning resumed following the Manchester terrorist attack.

Previously a shipyard worker, Geoff Barber voted Labour all his life and is toying with a switch to the Conservatives, who made strong gains in municipal elections last month. “It’s all about Europe,” said Barber, 61, as he cleaned windows in Boldon Colliery, a former mining village. “We need a strong leader to sort things out.”

Geoff Barber.
Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

The northeast arguably has more riding on Britain’s ability to strike a favorable Brexit deal than anywhere else. It lays bare the economic disparities behind the desire to leave a single market that, on the face of it, provided so much. It also exhibits how deeply the rebellion against the modern world now runs among people whose ancestors produced the steel, ships and railways that once powered an empire.

After the 52 to 48 percent referendum result, May is counting on people to back what she calls the “national interest” as she prepares to clash with 27 other countries that are displaying a united front. In her favor are levels of voter volatility at home not seen for decades, said Matt Qvortrup, professor of politics at Coventry University.

“We’re moving away from tribal politics to bargain politics,” said Qvortrup. “It used to be like war and now you’re shopping for the best deal. There’s no brand loyalty anymore. But now May has to make Brexit work in these places and if she can’t deliver for the blue-collar types, the working classes, then she’s going to be in trouble.”

A pedestrian looks out towards the beach from The Headland in Hartlepool.
Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

From the Nissan car plant employing almost 7,000 people, down the coast to renewable energy companies, the American- and Saudi-owned chemical works and the Hitachi train factory, the northeast economy relies on foreign employers. It sends a larger proportion of its exports to the EU than any other region of England. Yet it’s also a place with the lowest disposable income in the U.K. and the highest unemployment.

“Even in the Industrial Revolution the wealth wasn’t necessarily here,” said Harry Manuel, 64, a retired industrial chemist who called himself a “Labour man.” “I don’t feel the Conservatives have the interests of the whole country at heart despite what they say.”

It helps explain why in some northeast districts, the Conservatives haven’t won since before the 1970s. That position hardened when Margaret Thatcher was in power in the 1980s as she shut coal mines and other heavy industry declined. The seat previously held by former Prime Minister Tony Blair, the last Labour leader to win a U.K. election, has been red since 1935.

Weekly pay in the northeast is about 10 percent below the average. Of the dozen places where unemployment is highest, five are in the region, though it’s now falling. At 9 percent, the rate in Hartlepool is twice the national average.

On the beach watching his sons play football up the coast from the swooshing turbines of an offshore wind farm, Kay Cee, 39, said he hasn’t worked for years and depends on sickness payments. He doesn’t vote, though his mother is nagging him to rebel against Labour. “She’s always been Labour all her life and she says she’s never going to vote Labour again,” he said.

Fishing off the pier in the town, Ken Tucker backed leaving the EU and, while cynical about all the parties, at least Labour leader Corbyn focuses on the poor, he said. “I’m one short of the soup kitchens and what have they done for me? Nothing,” said Tucker, 63. “It’d have to be Corbyn. What he’s saying, everything’s for the ones who haven’t got anything.”

The common theme among voters is neglect, and Brexit has forced Labour and the Conservatives to try to show they can defend the region’s interests.

“The northeast was caught in a cleft stick,” said Rachel Anderson, head of policy at the North East England Chamber of Commerce in Middlesbrough, where the air smells of the nearby chemical works. “One party took its vote for granted and another one wasn’t interested.” A majority of the chamber’s members wanted to remain in the EU and the region now wants “to get on with it,” she said.

Cobblestones line a passageway in Bishop Auckland.
Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

Between the farmland and coastal views, the relics of industry and the prosperity they once brought leap out along with their modern replacements. The cluster of grand Victorian buildings in Middlesbrough speak of a past when it produced the steel for the Sydney Harbour Bridge. Darlington and Stockton sit at either end of the world’s first steam-powered public passenger railroad.

In the town that welcomes visitors as “the Original Washington,” old mining land is covered by the vast grey box-like units of Nissan’s car plant, Britain’s largest. The Japanese carmaker invested in the northeast in the 1980s to access the European market. The government gave assurances last year that Brexit wouldn’t disrupt business.

Down the quiet road of neat red-brick terraced houses in nearby Boldon Colliery, lifelong Labour voter Joan Marriott, 87, is concerned companies will leave regardless.

Joan Marriott.
Photographer: Matthew Lloyd/Bloomberg

“They’ve taken everything from the workers,” said Marriott, whose late husband was a steelworker. “Even Nissan, you wonder if they’re going to stay here.” If the Tories do win as expected, there is one silver lining, she said. “The mess there’s going to be with Brexit, they’ll get the blame.”

On the coast at Redcar, people know what it’s like to lose a key employer. The bridge over the entrance road to the local steelworks carries the slogan “Forever Passionate About Steel,” but more than 2,000 jobs were lost when Thai owner Sahaviriya Steel Industries Pcl suspended production in 2015. Labour blamed the Conservative government for not doing more to save the plant. 

It’s in Redcar where the Conservatives stuck their poster on the former pub. Walking past with his dog, Ian Barber, 67, said he used to drink there. He’s happy to see the striking blue placard and will be voting for May because “she’s only doing what everyone wants” by pushing ahead with Brexit.

Still, she’ll have a tough job changing attitudes in the northeast, he said.

“You don’t feel part of what goes on in London,” said Barber. “They come up and score points, say they’re going to turn the northeast into a powerhouse,” he said, gesturing towards the towers and tubes of the steelworks that dominate the landscape along from the wide sandy beach. “Does this look like a powerhouse?”