The country I walked through deserves better than Brexit
In May 2016, a few weeks before the EU referendum, I walked 340 miles from Liverpool to London to see what was happening to my country. I was travelling in the footsteps of a 1981 march against unemployment that my late father had helped to organise. In that year, Tory policies had devastated industry and sent unemployment skyrocketing. In 2016, Tory austerity was putting the final nail in the coffin of those broken communities.
Even so, on my walk I was shocked by the level of poverty, by the sheer number of homeless people in doorways and parks, and by the high streets of boarded-up shops and pubs, full of payday loan outlets and bookies. People in those former industrial towns spoke of their anger and betrayal, of having being forgotten by Westminster politicians, of their communities having been destroyed as the manufacturing that had sustained them either folded or moved to low-wage economies.
Nearly everyone I spoke to in those towns said they were going to vote for Brexit. There was a lot of talk of “taking back control”, and in the context of the industrial wastelands, that sentiment made a lot of sense. But the EU issue was, for a majority, a proxy for their pain.
There was a brief moment when it appeared the Conservatives grasped this. When Theresa May became prime minister on 13 July 2016, after David Cameron had fled the post-referendum carnage, she addressed the “just about managing” and said the government “will be driven not by the interests of the privileged few, but by yours … When we take the big calls, we’ll think not of the powerful, but you.”
But since then we have had a government paralysed by Brexit, effectively not governing at all. We have ongoing crises in most aspects of public policy: housing, transport, prisons, the benefits system, health, education. Homelessness is rocketing, as is food bank use. In some areas of our inner cities, Dickensian diseases such as rickets and beriberi have re-emerged.
At a time when politicians should be reaching out to leave voters with concrete proposals for rebalancing our economy, heavily based as it is on services and centred in the south-east, we get a continuation of turbo-charged austerity. In their call for a second referendum, remainers should ask themselves whether the anger that drove the result in June 2016 has been even remotely addressed.
In Nuneaton (66% leave), I met a man who reeled off the names of closed-down factories like you might your football team’s greatest all-time XI . That anger has long, deep roots. On my 2016 walk, I spoke to estate agents who told me that buy-to-letters from wealthier areas were scooping up whole rows of houses, paying cash and pricing out locals.
Tenants forced into the private rented sector were now spending 52% of their income on rent, compared with 7% in 1981. Thanks to the Tories’ right-to-buy scheme, the stock of council properties had fallen from 5m in the early 80s to 1.7m, a number set to drop further.
In Stoke-on-Trent (which voted 69% leave), 60,000 people had been employed in the potteries industry as recently as the late 1970s, before manufacturing was largely switched to east Asia. In 2016 only 8,000 jobs were left. There, I walked past Stoke City’s Bet365 stadium. Bet365, like most betting companies, relies on poorer people to generate a significant portion of its income. It had become Stoke’s largest private employer. In a city where nearly 40% of households were living on less than £16,000 a year and 3,000 were dependent on food banks, Bet365’s owner Denise Coates was paying herself the equivalent of £594,520 a day. “There’s a sense of powerlessness that pervades everything now,” the local YMCA chief told me. “People are waiting to be rescued.” But he knew it was a forlorn hope.
In Walsall (68% leave), the Labour leader of the council told me how Tory austerity had savaged his budget. In the near future the council would be able to do not much more than adult statutory services in social care and children’s services. He told me that until recently, “The council was seen by residents as a friend that could help and protect you … now we’re the hated enemy.”
That emasculation of local government has turned our country into one of the most centralised in the western world. “The establishment of a neoliberal consensus in Britain has been … an anti-municipal project,” wrote Tom Crewe in a 2016 essay for the London Review of Books. “Austerity is Thatcherism’s logical end-point. People can no longer expect the services they pay for to be run in their interest, rather than the interest of shareholders.”
On I walked, past privatised parks, closed libraries and museums; past a junior school outside which a sign asked parents for donations to make up its budget shortfall. In Nuneaton (66% leave), I met a man who reeled off the names of closed-down factories like you might your football team’s greatest all-time XI. He railed against the amount of money spent on infrastructure projects in the south-east compared with the rest of the country (figures from the IPPR in 2014 showed that every Londoner had £5,426 spent on them annually, compared with £223 in the north-east) and told me he would be voting out in the EU referendum. But that might make the economy even more precarious, I said. He paused for a moment, narrowed his eyes. “If the economy goes down the toilet,” he said, “at least those bastards [in London] will finally know what it feels like to be us.”
Later, I walked through Northamptonshire (59% leave), where the Tory county council had recently reduced its core staff from 4,000 to 150 and become the first council in the UK to outsource to private providers every single one of its services, including child protection, reducing itself to the role of a commissioning body. It is a model that other councils are investigating. In February 2018, the council declared itself effectively bankrupt. Others will surely follow.
In her 2007 book The Shock Doctrine, Naomi Klein charted the rise of disaster capitalism. In Britain and the US, in 1979 and 1980 respectively, it was introduced with the promise that a rising tide would lift all boats. Klein wrote that the end result was always the same: small groups did very well, sucking up more and more of the wealth, while large sections of the population became fragmented, left with decaying public infrastructure, declining incomes and either rising unemployment or increasingly precarious work.
Towards the end of 2018, Philip Alston, the UN’s special rapporteur on extreme poverty and human rights, undertook a two-week tour of the UK. He concluded – citing figures from the Institute for Fiscal Studies and the Joseph Rowntree Foundation, that showed around 14 million people were living in poverty and 1.5 million were destitute – that the UK government had inflicted “great misery” on its people with “punitive, mean-spirited and often callous” austerity policies, and that in this country “poverty is a political choice”.
In 1976, three decades of the postwar settlement had seen the UK reach “peak equality”, according to a 2013 economic study, when the country was better off than it had ever been before or since. Forty years of neoliberalism has destroyed that for ordinary people.
If you asked the vast majority of people what they want, they would say that essential services should be renationalised (a 2017 YouGov survey found only 25% and 31% of people respectively thought our trains and energy companies should be privately run). They want properly funded health and education services, and to live in a country where they are not afraid to grow old or sick. They want jobs with meaning and value and security. They want to feel that politicians are in charge, not their corporate paymasters. And many, whether progressives like it or not, want a conversation about immigration.
Brexit will deliver none of this. As driven by the right, it is the final part of the race to the bottom that started 40 years ago. There are no easy answers, but until our politicians begin to acknowledge that the globalised neoliberal economic model is a disaster for human beings and the planet we inhabit, we will remain angry and scared and vulnerable to dog whistles.