It has been arguably the most tumultuous week in UK politics in living memory – but on Sunday certain members of Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet made the situation even more precarious.
The country has witnessed the wholly unexpected result of the EU referendum which saw the Leave campaign win with 51.9% of the vote; the resignation of David Cameron; the wheels of a second Scottish independence referendum put in motion by Nicola Sturgeon; the founder members of the European Union firing a barrage of salvos our way, and a negative economic contagion spreading like wildfire.
At this time the UK needs a strong, stable and steadfast opposition, delivering a message that is neither filled with simpering platitudes nor ignoring the democratic will of the electorate. For however many names are put on petitions calling for a second vote on the EU – at this moment, it’s unlikely to happen.
The stark reality is we are leaving the European Union. And the UK needs the Labour party to immediately begin fighting for a resolution which is in the interests of the people.
So what did the shadow cabinet do? They immediately decided to attempt to oust their democratically elected leader, plunging the country into even more chaos.
The likes of Hilary Benn, unceremoniously sacked by Corbyn in the early hours of Sunday morning because (according to a Labour spokesperson) “Jeremy’s lost confidence in him”, subsequently paraded himself on The Andrew Marr Show. He talked of the Labour leader’s presumptive resignation, saying:
I no longer have confidence in him, and the right thing for him to do would be to take that decision.
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Shadow Health Secretary Heidi Alexander also tendered her resignation, writing:
I do not believe you have the capacity to shape the answers our country is demanding, and I believe that if we are to form the next government, a change of leadership is needed.
Ian Murray, shadow Secretary of State was the next to go, followed by Equalities spokesperson Gloria de Piero and shadow Education Secretary Lucy Powell – and more were expected.
If there was ever a time for the phrase “head in the sand” to be used, it is now. Either these members of factions like “Labour First”, “Blue Labour” and “Progress” are so utterly detached from the public they cannot see the wood for the trees, or they are so rabidly self-interested they do not care.
Whichever it is, the working class sent a clear message to them with the EU referendum on Friday. And, in their usual, obtuse manner, they are choosing to ignore it.
Middlesbrough, in the North East of England, voted to leave the EU by 65.5% – making it one of the stronger Brexit areas in the UK. But the bizarre thing is that this is a Labour stronghold. So why did they ignore the party’s Remain message en masse?
The town was ranked as the most deprived in England in 2015, based on the number of areas it has that are considered to be impoverished. Over half its neighbourhoods were living in deprivation; an increase on 2010 statistics, and the town has been in the top ten since 2004.
Middlesbrough ranked third in the “Employment Deprivation” index; that is, the number of people who are on Job Seekers Allowance, Incapacity Benefit, Employment and Support Allowance, or Severe Disablement Allowance. Furthermore, a quarter of the population are considered to be living in “Income Deprivation“, which is, in layman’s terms, families who are staggeringly poor.
The child poverty rate is 37% in the town, with the ward of Thorntree having the highest level, at a shocking 61% – which means 1,288 children are affected. Overall, these figures mean that more than 9,000 children live in poverty in Middlesbrough. Other key statistics are:
- One in five children die as infants in Middlesbrough who would not have died elsewhere;
- The average lifespan for a boy is two-and-a-half years less than the national average;
- More than 10% of babies have a low birth weight compared with just over 7% nationally, which has been linked to the rising incidence of children with complex needs;
- The number of Child Protection Plans in place in Middlesbrough is double the national average with the number of looked-after children 88% higher than the national average.
This all paints a sadly disturbing picture of one of the North East’s largest towns. But it is also a damning indictment of an area which has always been a Labour stronghold.
The town has a Labour MP, Andy McDonald, who won his seat at the 2015 general election with an increased majority of 38.1%; the council is Labour controlled by a huge margin, holding 32 out of 47 seats, and even the Mayor is a Labour one.
But delve deeper into the statistics, and all is not quite as it seems.
“Democratic Deficit“, when institutions or governing bodies fall short of their obligations, and democracy appears to have been eroded, was a term first used (ironically) in relation to the EU. But it is what we see in Middlesbrough.
Andy McDonald was only elected by the will of 30% of the electorate, on a 52% turnout. The national turnout for the 2015 general election was 66.1%. On average, each of the Labour councillors that were elected in 2015 gained office with only 25% of the public voting for them, and the Mayor received just 20.1% of the vote.
Going by these figures, the public are utterly disengaged with politics. And this goes some way, when combined with the appalling statistics on poverty in the area, to explaining why people voted to leave the EU, and why the turnout in the referendum there was 64.9% – higher than the general election.
EU migration isn’t a factual issue in Middlesbrough – 90.2% of the population were born in England, and the town has actually witnessed a decline in the size of its population. This wasn’t some anti-Islam backlash – the Muslim population is above the national average at 7.7%, but is an established one. It is unlikely that the vote was influenced by UKIP, either. While their candidate came second in the general election, only 9.9% of the electorate voted for them. Furthermore, they have no councillors.
However, the town does have the highest number of asylum seekers per 200 heads of population, at 1 in 186.
But as Peter, a former taxi driver from the town who now works in the NHS, told me concerning the situation:
it’s really hard for locals to see that as “not representative” [the levels of refugees] given the fact that we have a media hell bent on reinforcing those fears […] but at the same time, we’re a shipping community, a town built around a port, there’ve been European and other communities in thriving Middlesbrough since its birth in the 19th Century […] it would be really quite disingenuous, I think, to brand the place a nest of deep-running racism.
He goes on to say that people’s attitude is:
we have nothing already, why send more people here? “We can’t get our own kids in to see a doctor” “I worked a zero hours contract in a sandwich factory and most of them there was Czech!” […] and these same people have voted Labour for a century and STILL got nothing. The EU referendum was their chance to actually change the status quo, for better or worse, and for the first time in a long while actually have their votes count for something.
In summing up, Peter said:
Racism? Nah – if governments actually give them a f*cking chance at life – then we’ll see who’s racist.
What we are seeing in Middlesbrough is a public who have, quite simply, had enough.
The town was decimated in the 1980s by Thatcher’s de-industrialisation of the North and has never fully recovered. This has naturally impacted the lives of children, now adults, who grew up in that era. As Rebecca Saunders of the Heritage Consortium wrote:
In 1987 Margaret Thatcher’s famous ‘walk in the wilderness’ occurred on the former Head Wrightson site on Teesside. The situation at Head’s was typical of the 1970s and 1980s, when major industrial sites across the region experienced decline and closure. The ‘family community’ was also dismantled through huge job losses.
The North East as a whole hardly flourished during the Blair years, either. It contributed only 3% the country’s total growth, and after 2007 unemployment in the region grew faster than any other area of the UK – a staggering 10%.
But the closure of the Tata Steel plant in Redcar recently was probably the straw that broke the camel’s back. 2,200 jobs were lost. Lost, without so much as a finger lifted by Westminster.
When you repeatedly beat a dog with a stick, time and time again, it will eventually turn and bite you. Middlesbrough has now sunk its teeth in. But this is something we’ve seen up and down the North East – from Sunderland to Durham. Labour strongholds have opted to voice their utter hopelessness with the Establishment – by voting.
As William, a shop steward from North Tyneside told me:
A proud and battle-scarred region is rediscovering itself. The North East is a region of workers but it’s not frozen in time. Our call centres replaced our shipyards. Our Job Centres replaced our picket lines. What the decades of suffering and pain inflicted by the establishment’s ruling elites have left us is our ability to think and question, our instinct to fight, and our commitment to one another.
But these Labour MPs, in a seemingly detached state from the very people who should naturally be their core vote, are ignoring this.
The likes of Hilary Benn, Heidi Alexander and Ian Murray appear to think that by ousting the most progressive leader the Labour party has seen in decades, it will help. That they can take the party back to its former days of tip-toeing a line along the centre ground, creating a false veneer of trying to be everything to everyone. As I wrote in the Morning Star last year:
After 13 years of New Labour, and five of “Red-ish Ed-ism”, the public seem completely unsure of what the party stands for — “aspiration,” “hard-headed multilateralism” and “predistribution” — essentially all vacuous hokum to the majority of us.
And “hokum” is what people are sick of. These communities are made up of the forgotten working and underclass – or as many middle-class, metropolitan hacks refer to them, the “othering“. Perpetually ignored by the very party who they have for generations put their trust in, they’ve finally broken.
The last thing they need now, while the UK stands on a precipice staring wide-eyed into a chasm which has no precedent, is utter pandemonium followed by more of the same from the Labour party.
They need Corbyn’s progressive form of social democracy, more than ever. They do not need these self-serving MPs who, for whatever reason, are trying to oust the Labour leader.
These wholly obtuse Labour MPs are ignoring the message their core voters have sent to them. A message not of racism, not of xenophobia, not of concern over £350m – but essentially a message of “F*ck you. We’ve had enough. We cannot take any more. Now sort it out.”
By ignoring the message, they are merely reinforcing the long-fomented anger, fragility and hurt that exists in communities up and down the country.
They ignore it at their peril, however. This vote to leave the EU was a warning sign.
If they do not heed it, and don’t essentially put up or shut up, then communities may not revolt at the ballot box, next time. It may well turn up on their own doorsteps.
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