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North East cannot cope with another industrial extinction

Ghost Towns: Mining cars at Stanley, a colliery community in County Durham, circa 1970. Picture: John Bulmer/Getty Images - Credit: Getty Images

The North East has lost industries before and bounced back. After Brexit there will not be that opportunity, says Labour MP Phil Wilson.

When a business leader states the extinction of the automobile industry will be a ‘reality’ post-Brexit, you listen. When you represent a constituency in the North East of England, you listen even harder. Because up here, we’ve had our fair share of industrial extinction

According to Paul Drechsler, the outgoing president of the CBI, the automobile industry will be next on the list of things we have lost. That’s 850,000 jobs nationally. Mainly because of Nissan, that’s about 37,000 in the North East.

If you were around in the 1980s in the coal mining districts of County Durham, where I was brought up, you’ll have stark memories of what it was like to experience industrial extinction. Jobs were ground away, like so much coal dust. Collieries closed and so did communities. The 1980s were the end of an era, because extinctions don’t necessarily happen overnight. They may take decades. They can happen slowly and inevitably, end still comes.

For the car industry we know the reasons for Drechsler’s concerns: disrupted supply chains caused by exclusion from the customs union and single market. Delays at the border will be catastrophic for manufacturing, not just the car industry. Nissan only keeps half a day’s inventory in stock. Even minor disruption to the supply chain will cause major problems. At her recent Cabinet summit, Theresa May tried to reinvent the customs union and single market wheel. I believe she will discover her wheel will never be as round as the original.

I’m not one of those politicians who believes companies like Nissan will close the day after we leave the EU. I tend to agree with Mike Hawes, the chief executive of the Society of Motor Manufactures and Traders (SMMT) when he said the industry faces ‘death by a thousand cuts’. Already Brexit uncertainty is causing investment in the car industry to stall.

The £347 million earmarked for new models and equipment this year is half the figure for last year. Lack of investment, cuts to production, job losses – these are all the signs of early on-set extinction. I must admit Drechsler’s description stirred the memories that shaped my family and community for decades.

My dad was a coal miner for most of his working life. He faced redundancy twice at two different collieries over a decade, proving the slow extinction the industry faced. He was the proud owner of a gold medal for 40 years membership of the NUM and all his mates worked down one of the local pits.

Today, the view from the village where I grew up is of green land and windfarms. Back then the nearby coke ovens, pithead and pit heap were a constant reminder of my community’s purpose. Back then the colliery was everything.

In the 1960s, there were 500,000 miners working down 480 pits in the UK. By the 1980s, there were 133 pits employing 180,000 miners. Today there are none. Some 33,000 jobs were lost in the North East after the 1984 strike.

In the 1980s, the decade when the industry strived to stay alive and colliery communities fought for survival, resentments set in. Many of those resentments, even years after their source dried up, played into the Brexit debate and the willingness to leave the EU, because surely ‘things can’t get any worse than they are now’.

Life in coal mining communities led to early death, ill-health, lack of prospects and isolation. Even so, those communities believed they had purpose. Once the pits closed that purpose seemed to leave. After many years anxieties remain strong, especially among those old enough to remember different times. Many turned to UKIP and its offer of simple solutions to complicated issues. Before the EU referendum, 57% of UKIP supporters were aged 54 or over. At the time of the vote the figure was more than 60%.

Brexit allowed people to lash out and imagine a world where they could take back control, blame someone else and vent their frustration. In the North East, that reaction may have brought instant gratification when Leave triumphed. But when the local economy is based on trade with the EU, and more than 62% of the region’s exports end up on the continent, the long-term consequences will be less generous.

The car industry is one of the region’s core industries. If it faces extinction and tens of thousands of jobs are lost, old resentments will not disappear. They will be reformed, rekindled, and given new life.

I do not understand how making our people poorer will remove the grievances from the communities who voted to Leave. They will only be compounded. And shame on the populists such as Farage, Rees-Mogg and Johnson who say otherwise. I have no doubt those characters will be okay as the post-Brexit world reveals its woes.

We should listen to the warning of companies such as Nissan, Airbus, Jaguar Land Rover and BMW when they predict the future. They know their business and they provides hundreds of thousands of jobs in areas of the country most affected by Brexit. Even the government’s own regional impact assessments point to a dire outcome in the North east, whatever the Brexit deal.

Brexit is a self-inflicted wound opening a time tunnel only to the past. The Brexiteers want to own the past and that is where I fear we will end up, where constituencies like mine will relive the economic tragedies of the 1980s. Somehow, folklore has become twisted and the bad times have become good.

That is why, before we retreat to the past, people should be given another chance to decide whether that is where they want to end up. A People’s Vote on the final Brexit deal will give people a say on what it is we know in 2018 that we didn’t know in 2016. To do so is not to thwart the will of the people. A People’s Vote allows communities a chance to think twice about whether they want to make themselves poorer by leaving the EU.

The automobile industry is not the coal industry and there is one less obvious but still important difference between the two. After the closing of the coalfields in the North East of England, the region could still be transformed into a powerhouse of exports and manufacturing, attracting massive foreign direct investment, primarily because of the UK’s membership of the single market. The North East, after coal mines, shipbuilding and steel production, could reinvent itself. Extinction of one industry led to the evolution of another.

Brexit is an evolutionary cul-de-sac because it does not offer that opportunity. Brexit is an end, not a beginning.

• Phil Wilson is the Labour MP for Sedgefield

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