Sunderland in north-eastern England has become the poster child for the post-industrial, working class anger that drove the Brexit vote, as Peter Geoghegan reports.
Sunderland, in a way, is a victim of its own success. This city of around 180,000 in north-eastern England has been the first to declare in the last six UK general elections, a record stretching back to 1992. Local officials are so fast at tallying votes that their expertise is sought internationally.
Sunderland was quickly out of the blocks in last month’s EU referendum, too, declaring not long after midnight. The result was unexpectedly emphatic: Leave won by 22 points.
In the wake of the referendum many in Sunderland complain that the city has unfairly been the focus of media attention. But David Saxon Adamson has no regrets about the decision he made to leave the European Union.
“I would vote the same way tomorrow,” the 36-year-old says. He is unfazed, too, by the on-going predictions of economic meltdown or the departures of the leading pro-Brexit political figures Boris Johnson and Nigel Farage.
“Everyone just needs to give it a chance. It’ll take a while but it’ll be OK,” Adsomson told DW over an afternoon pint in a quiet city center bar. His partner Rebecca Clarke agrees. “What will happen will happen.”
No love lost
Clarke, a mother of two voted, to leave because Europe “never did anything” for her family. “My dad worked in the shipyards but when the EU started he lost his job,” she told DW.
Sunderland was a once busy port town, but has been in the economic doldrums for decades. The last shipyard shut in 1988. The Stadium of Light, home of Premier League football team Sunderland FC, stands on the site of the Wearmouth Colliery, the last of the city’s mines to close.
Emma Jackson, a lecturer in Sociology at Goldsmith University in London, recalls growing up in Sunderland in the 1980s.
“When I was a kid all the shops in the city started to close. There was a lot of joy-riding, crime started,” says Jackson, who was also a member of the 1990s Sunderland pop group Kenicke.
Sunderland improved during the Tony Blair government, before the financial crisis, but years of grinding austerity have taken their toll. “What makes me really sad was after a little while of the coalition (the 2010-15 Conservative-Liberal Democrat administration) you could see things going backwards, the shops boarded up again” Jackson told DW.
Sunderland has long been a Labour heartland. All the local MPs are Labour, and the party has controlled the local council since 1974. Labour councillor Mel Speding says the UK Independence Party (UKIP) “are a protest party” but Sunderland, like other parts of post-industrial England, is fertile ground for the anti-immigrant party. UKIP won almost a fifth of the vote in the north-east in the 2015 general election.
“People are not going to vote Conservative because of what happened in the 80s, which is why you get UKIP,” says Jackson.
Brexit voters in Sunderland frequently cite immigration as their main concern. “We need to shut the border. There’s too many people coming in to the country,” says Laura Smith, a 19-year-old bank clerk. Just over 3 percent of Sunderland’s population is of foreign heritage, according to the most recent census. But Smith is worried about the images she sees on television and in the press. “There’s Muslims and everybody coming in,” she told DW.
It is hard to see how Brexit will solve Sunderland’s problems. The city is home to over 80 overseas-owned companies. Car maker Nissan employs around 8,000 people and a further 32,000 in the supply chain on a sprawling 800-acre site on a former RAF base on the outskirts of the city. More than 70 percent of the half a million cars produced here are exported to Europe, with most going to EU members.
Since 2007 Sunderland has received more than £23 million (27 million euros) in direct investment from Europe. The Tyne and Wear Metro extension, Sunderland Aquatic Centre and various other projects have all benefitted from European funds.
‘What has Europe done for us?’
But many in Sunderland see little benefit from the European Union. “What has Europe done for us?” is a common refrain in the often quiet city center shops.
However, Marie Nixon, chief executive of Sunderland Student’s Union, says that Sunderland is improving. A new creative and arts quarter is in the middle of development. The Brexit vote was a reaction to “decades of Sunderland thinking it’s at the back of the queue in how we are considered, how we are invested in,” says Nixon.
Sunderland university has one of the highest proportion of non-EU students in the UK and the university’s chaplain, Chris Howson, is critical of the leave campaign. “All these people who were leading us in this direction. Johnson, Farage, they are all gone,” he told DW.
Like much of the UK, the Brexit vote in Sunderland was split, with most young people choosing to stay in the European Union.
In a café with exposed brick walls and a youthful crowd near Sunderland’s main train station, Joe, 25, says that the current attention on the city’s Brexit vote is “what the city needs.”
“I don’t think Sunderland has been mentioned as much as it has been in the last few weeks. This will bring positives in the long run. A working class town has turned its back on the EU and people need to look at why.”