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Austerity, Brexit chaos and political failure – a warning of how the right can win

This article is over 4 years, 8 months old
Sadie Robinson reports from Doncaster and Barnsley on how bitter frustration at years of austerity and political failure have created the conditions for the right to benefit—but anger could also be pulled to the left
Issue 2675
Boris Johnson is no friend of working class people - in Yorkshire or anywhere else
Boris Johnson is no friend of working class people – in Yorkshire or anywhere else (Pic: Socialist Worker)

Ruling class machinations over Brexit are driving some working class people and left wingers into the arms of the Tories—or worse.

There is a battle going on about where the anger about the state of society will be focused. Talking to people in Doncaster and Barnsley gives a warning of how some working class people can come to accept ruling class ideas unless there is struggle and a powerful alternative from the left.

The vote to leave the European Union (EU) in 2016 was stronger among low income groups than it was among the better off.

People had many reasons for voting Leave. But one of them was a deep dissatisfaction with mainstream politics and a desire to give the establishment a kicking.

Three years on political leaders, bosses and others are still putting barriers in the way of leaving the EU. Many people have had enough.

“I’m fed up of hearing about it,” said Joan, who works in a pawnbrokers in Doncaster, South Yorkshire. “It’s gone on too long now. I just want it to be sorted.”

In Doncaster some 69 percent of those who voted in the EU referendum voted to Leave. Many now feel betrayed and let down by British “democracy”.

In May this year, on a low turnout, The Brexit Party took nearly three times as many votes as Labour—30,000 to 11,000.

In 2009—well before any talk of Brexit—the racist English Democrats won the directly-elected post of mayor with Labour coming third. It was the result of disillusion with the action of the Labour council and against Tony Blair’s government.

Unemployed Michael backs Johnson on Brexit

Unemployed Michael backs Johnson on Brexit (Pic: Socialist Worker)

It will be disastrous if the Labour right get their way and make the party a champion of the Remain ­project. It will intensify the idea that people’s votes don’t matter.

Steve works in a shopping centre in Doncaster town centre. “We need to get out of Europe now—deal or no deal,” he told Socialist Worker.

“Most people in Doncaster voted to Leave, but most of our local MPs want to stay in. So who are they representing?”

Project manager Graham said Brexit will “never happen”. “None of the parties actually want it,” he told Socialist Worker.

“They hope people will get so fed up with it that if they have another referendum, people will vote to stay.”

Doncaster has repeatedly borne the brunt of Tory attacks. It was a site of big battles during the 1984-5 Miners’ Strike that saw a Tory government destroy the mining industry.

The legacy of the strike has seen ordinary people shy away from ­backing the Tories. But anger over Brexit is changing that.


Howard Wilson used to work at Armthorpe pit in Doncaster. “I’m very worried,” he told Socialist Worker. “I’ve spoken to some ex-miners who were some of the most ardent left wingers during the strike. They voted to leave the EU. One said they support Boris Johnson because they want to vote ‘for the party that wants to leave’.

“Another said they’ll vote for Nigel Farage’s Brexit Party. These are people who have voted Labour all their lives.”

Howard said people are largely motivated by a desire to defend the democratic vote to leave the EU. And as Johnson presents himself as the defender of democracy, it isn’t only former miners who are listening.

Louise Harrison, an anti-austerity activist in Doncaster, said, “The issue is that Labour and the trade union movement are focusing on elections, getting one or two more councillors and winning a general election. But that victory is not guaranteed.

“There is just a frustration that for ordinary people like us, things are getting much worse.

“There is no respite from national or local government in terms of cuts. With a racist, sexist, anti-democratic prime minister in charge, it seems only a matter of months before we lose our NHS.

“Locally, our Labour council closes the only children’s library and can’t promise library workers they’ll have jobs in the new central library when it opens.”

Howard Wilson on strike during the 1984-85 Miners Strike

Howard Wilson on strike during the 1984-85 Miners’ Strike

Michael, a black unemployed worker, told Socialist Worker, “I’m pro-Boris Johnson. He went to Europe and he said, give us a deal because we’re leaving anyway. He gave them a date.

“Now he’s come back and MPs have cut his legs from under him. Why didn’t parliament back him up?”

Michael, Steve and Graham said they had always voted Labour. But none of them had much good to say about Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

Michael said he didn’t like Corbyn because he didn’t trust him. “Labour can’t make their minds up on anything,” he said. “Corbyn is sitting on the fence.

“We don’t know where we are with him. But we do with Boris Johnson.”

Anne said she wasn’t “keen” on Corbyn. “There’s something about him I’m not sure about,” she said. “He wants to stay in the EU really. They all do, except poor old Boris.”

The mainstream media has repeatedly attacked Corbyn for being a “Marxist”. Newspapers have denounced Corbyn as antisemitic because he supports Palestinians.

They claim he is a terrorist sympathiser because of his opposition to British imperialism in Ireland. They attack him for not being deferential enough to the queen, and build up a picture of a Labour leader who isn’t fit to govern.

Howard said the “rhetoric from the media” has had an impact. “One ex-miner I know said, if Labour gets rid of Marxism I can get back to voting Labour,” he said.

“Even after Labour conference and all the good policies Corbyn announced, it hasn’t swung them.”

In Barnsley, where over 68 percent voted to leave, the impact of media attacks on Corbyn was clear. Unemployed Trudie told Socialist Worker, “I think Jeremy Corbyn has got a lot more to hide than the others.”

People referred to having read about Corbyn’s “links” to terrorist organisations.

Howard warned, “When the election is called, all the shit that’s been thrown at Corbyn will look like nothing. The problem is, they’re not combating it.”

It isn’t only the media that is shaping how people see politicians and politics. It’s the experience of their lives and the sense that politicians make up an elite that is cut off from their reality.


Howard said, “In places like Doncaster we’ve lost all the industry—the steelworks and the pits. So people are disillusioned with politics to start with.

“Now austerity has had a massive effect. The job situation in the north is all call centres and no-contract jobs. If you get £9 an hour, you’re doing well. People are pissed off.”

Some of this anger explains the vote to Leave. It has been characterised by some as a racist, reactionary move driven by a desire to cut immigration.

Thomas Cook - closed down in Doncaster town centre

Thomas Cook – closed down in Doncaster town centre (Pic: Socialist Worker)

This was true for some Leave voters. Graham said, “I voted to leave on one basis – immigration.”

But it wasn’t simply a racist vote. “The stuff about immigrants wasn’t that important to me,” said Anne. “I just believe we put more into it than we get out. And it was like the EU were the bosses and we had to do what they say.”

Trudie also said she voted Leave because “we’ve given too much money to the EU”.

And Lynne, an admin worker in Rotherham, said, “It really annoys me when people say that people who voted Leave are racists. It is dismissing people as if they have not given serious thought to other issues.

“I voted Leave and I didn’t even think about immigration. I voted Leave because I don’t think we have enough control over our own policies.”

There’s a serious danger that the Tories, divided, weak and in chaos, can cling to office or even strengthen their position because of frustration over Brexit.

The official Tory position in the referendum was to Remain. But Johnson is a leading light in the Leave faction of the Tories. And he could win working class support on that basis.

Not everyone is a fan.

Retired Doncaster nurse Janet said no one should be fooled by recent Tory promises of more money for services. “They’re trying to fool us by saying they’re giving us something back,” she said. “But they’ve taken away much more than they are giving back.

“People are poor, homelessness is going up and we’ve got food banks. They have taken away vital services. Why should it be like that?”

Janet voted to Remain and described Brexit as a “shambles, complete chaos,” but said she accepts the referendum result.

She isn’t sure who she’d vote for in a general election, but said it wouldn’t be the Tories. “I’ve always been a Labour voter,” she added. “But I don’t think Labour are strong enough at the moment.”

It isn’t inevitable that the Tories, or Farage, can fool wide layers of ordinary people to back them. But it’s more likely if they don’t feel that there’s any alternative that’s really on their side.

“Labour is vacillating all the time,” said Howard. “I think it will lose a lot of seats and there will be massive abstention because people will think, what’s the point of voting? That will help the Tories.

“Labour has missed a trick. They should’ve took up Johnson on his threat and gone for an election. They need to attack the Tories on their record—they need to come out fighting.”

Places such as Doncaster and Barnsley have been hit hard by the Tories. But they have also seen working class resistance.

Now some of those who have been part of that resistance are being pulled by right wing forces. Labour can’t be relied on to fight for the struggle we need.

Louise said, “School students around the world have been a true inspiration. They have shown us adults that we can demand better.” On 20 September hundreds of people including school students turned out for the climate strike in Doncaster.

It was a sign of hope and underlines that the left has to offer a way forward that isn’t based on manoeuvres by politicians in parliament.

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