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Dagenham – the town that drove Britain, angry that Brexit has stalled

Ford factory in Dagenham, 1972. Photo: PA Archive. - Credit: PA Archive/PA Images

Dagenham is synonymous with automobile manufacturing and the go-getter attitude of the working class willing to put in a hard day’s graft and reap the rewards. But times have changed. WikiTRIBUNE’s JACK BARTON and LYDIA MORRISH report.

At its height Dagenham was the home to motor giant Ford’s European heart beat.

Built in 1931 the plant employed 40,000 people and provided a seemingly constant steam of high-skilled employment opportunities for likely east London lads and lasses.

And many dashed around town in one of the cars they had made: Zephyrs, Cortinas, Anglias and, of course, the Fiesta.

In total almost 11 million cars came off the production line in Dagenham. Add to this more than 37 million engines and the enormity and importance of the famous factory becomes abundantly clear.

But times have changed. When once every family had someone who worked at the plant now just 1,830 people are Ford employees in Dagenham. Car production stopped in 2002.

Dagenham high street was once bustling with people spending that Ford money but these days it is a hotchpotch of bookies, independent stores and charity shops.

But it is not unique. In many respects Dagenham could be any town, in any part of the UK ravaged by stagnating wages and the boom in online shopping. And, in fact, Dagenham is a London borough in flux, with regeneration projects bringing some jobs and new prosperity to the area.

One such project is a large-scale film studio and media complex to be built in Dagenham East. The council is currently looking for investors but says the ‘Hollywood-scale studio’ could bring around 780 jobs and generate £35 million a year for the UK economy.

According to figures from the Office for National Statistics, the borough of Barking and Dagenham has a higher proportion of people claiming job-seekers’ benefits than the national average – though the rate dropped consistently since peaking in 2011, levelling out in May last year.

Nearly 18 months after the referendum, a common complaint among voters is that in the absence of clear information from Government, there are few signs of progress. ‘They’re keeping mute,’ said unemployed Charles Etereri, a former veterinary surgeon, standing near the library. He is changing careers and studying for a PhD in hospitality.

‘People in this area are very disappointed, because nothing’s happening,’ he said. ‘There’s no sign that it will ever happen.’

Despite some progress, Prime Minister Theresa May’s Government has come under pressure for appearing to lack a clear vision for Brexit, inconsistent positions on key issues and a lack of transparency.

While the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the formal process of exiting the bloc began on March 29, when the Government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union.

Since March, UK and EU negotiators have been meeting every few weeks to negotiate the terms of their future relationship. Debate has focused primarily on settling the UK’s outstanding financial liabilities due under contracts agreed during its time as an EU member and questions over the UK-Irish border.

The pro-Brexit voters we met cited differing reasons for wanting to leave the EU, though many referenced high levels of immigration, which they said was responsible for a lack of affordable housing and depressed wages. They also said immigrants exerted pressure on already strained local services.

These issues were frequently debated in the build-up to the referendum, with proponents of immigration pointing out that services such as healthcare rely disproportionately on an immigrant workforce, as set out by fact-checking group Full Fact.

House prices in Dagenham have risen, but this is in line with the trend in the UK, and especially an area with such easy access to central London.

The borough has a higher than average resident population born overseas, at 38% in 2015, compared to 13% nationally.

Labour Party councillors brothers Lee and Phil Waker describe themselves as traditional socialists and internationalists but said that open borders had driven down wages for local working people.

From their perspective, things have gotten worse for the area while being in the EU. They said UK manufacturing, which traditionally supported areas like Dagenham, had fallen dramatically.

‘You have areas like this suffering particularly from housing, lower living standards, and you say ‘won’t you vote to tell us how marvellous everything is as it stands’,’ said Phil.

The frustration with governments in Brussels and Westminster, was a more general factor behind the area’s strong turnout in favour of leaving the EU.

Alan, who lives in neighbouring Southend but runs his family’s carpet business in Dagenham, was so sceptical of politics that he did not vote. ‘I thought it was already decided,’ he said. ‘I was proved wrong, I didn’t think we would leave.’

Political cynicism may have spurred voters into action, he added: ‘Brexit was just like, stick your fingers up to the government.’ He believes that many people wanted to ‘give them a kick’.

There were numerous reasons people backed Brexit, and the margin was small enough that any of these could have made a difference. But, despite recent polling suggesting Britain was changing it’s mind on leaving the EU, the people we interviewed seemed more convinced than ever of their original choice.

Those who cited immigration, and the perceived link to pressure on services and housing, said nothing has changed.

Debbie, a housewife from Dagenham, sat outside a cafe on the high street. ‘I think our borders need to be stricter,’ she said. Debbie and her friend Dot were both eager for Brexit negotiations to be over. ‘They need to stop mucking around, stop arguing among themselves, and just get it sorted,’ Debbie continued, adding that UK and EU leaders are ‘all as bad as each other.’

Those driven by frustration with the EU and UK governments said their views had been reinforced by the slow progress in Brussels and Westminster.

Voters who rejected forecasts of a post-Brexit economic downturn as ‘scaremongering’ – a stance frequently cited by pro-Brexit media such as the Daily Express – viewed the long-negotiated divorce bill as another creation of ’embittered Remainers’.

Councillors Lee and Phil were similarly steadfast in their views: ‘I don’t think we should be blackmailed,’ said Lee.

Charles, the former vet, said he had voted in favour of Brexit, but in the intervening period had lost faith that the Government could deliver the promises of the Leave campaign. ‘They’re very indecisive, Theresa May doesn’t even know what she’s doing,’ he said.

Pro-Brexit voters in Dagenham are weary of the debate, but feel their long-term scepticism is being validated.

They are disappointed with the perceived lack of progress, but not surprised.

WikiTRIBUNE is a not-for-profit news website where professional and citizen journalists work side-by-side.

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