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Andy Dawson on how Labour created the disaster that was Sunderland’s referendum vote, and now locals won’t face up to the consequences

Andy Dawson - Credit: Archant

The London media recently converged on my home city of Sunderland, choosing it as the idea place to rake through the ashes of the post-Brexit fallout. After all, the city’s shock 61pc Leave result was the first real signifier that David Cameron’s gamble was about to seriously backfire.

A couple of weeks ago, I inexplicably found myself in a nightclub in the city – I’d been to watch a mate play a gig in the club and as it was a balmy evening, we hung around the smoking area afterwards for a couple of drinks.

Out of nowhere came a confident young man, asking if we were having a good night and if we wanted to hear his impressions of Pacino’s Tony Montana from Scarface and Brando’s Godfather Don Corleone. It turned out that this was just an icebreaker ahead of a bid to sell us some drugs (no deal – I’m in the cask ale phase of life now) but he stuck around after his pitch had failed and the conversation turned to Brexit.

This quick-witted, silver-tongued operator had no hesitation in proudly revealing that he’d voted to leave the EU, which elicited an exasperated ‘Seriously?’ from myself and my fellow Remain-voting pal. Our new friend had it all worked out.

He hated the government for hanging our city out to dry, so it made complete sense to stick one on them by voting Brexit – after all, things couldn’t get much worse around here. Oh, you reckon?

His face visibly dropped as we explained that Brexit would almost certainly lead to the SNP agitating for a second independence referendum, which would almost certainly lead to their victory, which would almost certainly lead to an unending spell of Tory rule. He hadn’t figured that out, or no one had suggested it to him until now.

It got worse as one of his pals joined in the conversation, another happy young Brexiteer. He works for one of the companies that makes up the supply chain for the Nissan car plant – the city’s largest industrial employer. More than 8,000 people work there, with another 3,000 employed in that supply chain.

His reasons for voting to leave the EU were similar – disillusionment with Westminster, along with that well-worn line about taking control of our borders and stemming the tide of immigrants that have flooded the country.

He must have been referring to another part of the country, because Sunderland’s immigration figures are a staggeringly low 3pc. The third member of the gang proudly declared that he hadn’t voted in the EU referendum and had never voted in his life. There isn’t the time or space here to go into what an atrocious standpoint that is.

The more I thought about all of this, the more I came back to Nissan. The coal mining and shipbuilding industries used to be the Sunderland’s beating heart, but a combination of ‘modernisation’ and Margaret Thatcher’s burning desire to wipe out heavy industry and the unions that she felt controlled it saw those industries wither and die.

It used to be simple around here – if you didn’t go on to further education and couldn’t land a white collar job, finding work wouldn’t be that tough. Head for the nearest pit or shipyard and you’d soon get fixed up. It was hard, demanding work but it kept tens of thousands of families fed and clothed.

Once those options had disappeared,

Thatcher helped to attract Nissan to the region and the production lines have rolled for three decades. Four hundred thousand of their cars are exported from here every year, many of them into Europe. If we leave the EU, exporting those cars is going to be a hell of a lot more complicated.

On the face of it, Nissan’s best bet would be to up sticks and move elsewhere, to stay under the EU umbrella. It’s said that the company has contingency plans that would make this an almost effortless procedure.

And yet, the people of Sunderland think differently. I’ve heard countless people refusing to believe that Nissan would ever leave the North East, as if the company’s bosses are sitting in their Yokahama HQ, romanticising about the faraway Sunderland workforce as though they’re long-distance lovers.

If it suits Nissan’s business operations to relocate lock, stock and barrel to another part of Europe, I’ve no doubt that they’ll do it without shedding a single tear. That 61pc in Sunderland were turkeys voting for Christmas.

For me, the reason for Sunderland’s thirst for Brexit is the same as the city’s recent upsurge in UKIP votes – Labour apathy.

As they always say around here, if you put forward a pig wearing a red rosette, folk will vote for it. There’s a lot of a lot of truth in that, and statistics bear it out.

But Labour complacency has meant that fewer and fewer Labour ‘faces’ have made the effort to secure those votes here over the years. I can only remember one occasion when a Labour candidate has knocked on my door since I became eligible to vote in 1990. If you take your electorate for granted and stop having a conversation with them, they’ll look to someone else instead.

A few years ago, the BNP targeted Sunderland as a potential seat-winning city, ploughing their resources into a local election campaign. They got nowhere (and hilariously got their battle bus wedged underneath a low bridge one afternoon) but they’d obviously done their homework and felt there was rich pickings to be had. UKIP picked up where the BNP left off, and their friendlier form of fascism has proven popular here. The 61pc Leave vote should have been spotted a mile away.

But it wasn’t and we ended up with a behemoth of a protest vote, with people hitting out at real and imagined enemies instead of making an informed decision. But if you haven’t been informed in the first place.

Labour has taken its core support in the city for granted, and if you don’t cherish your life source, it withers and dies. Maybe it’ll get worse before it gets better. With UKIP planning to pitch itself as the authentic voice of the working classes, historians might look back and see Sunderland’s vote for Brexit as the start of a massive sea change.

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