Brexit and the valleys: a story of decline

In January, I visited Tredegar in South Wales to ask why people voted to leave the European Union. A version of this piece was originally published in The Welsh Agenda.

The figures speak for themselves. In 2014, the Campaign to End Child poverty said that the constituency of Blaenau Gwent had the highest child poverty rate in Wales. Over 30% of children were living in poverty. In a BBC report into the same area in 2013, some texture was given to that statistic: at a primary school in Waundeg, at the top of the valley, donated shoes were kept for children who arrived with nothing on their feet, something that used to happen during the Great Depression.

In the years following, the situation has not improved. A toxic mix of further benefits cuts, unprecedented pressure on council budgets and record wage suppression have injected places that were already on their knees with a formula that seemed custom made to make things worse.

Then, on 23rd June 2016, like most of Wales, Blaenau Gwent voted to leave the European Union. Brexit was a seismic shock, one that the Financial Times described as an ‘extraordinary political upheaval’. Suddenly there was a scramble to find the people who had swung the vote to leave. Statistically, however, they couldn’t be found.

In total, over 21,000 people in Blaenau Gwent voted to leave the European Union on an unusually high turnout. But it was impossible to ascribe this figure to a traditional eurosceptic base. Afterall, the number of Leave voters was more than double that of UKIP and Tory voters. It was this group that provided the element of the leave vote that pollsters simply hadn’t been able to predict. Their ballots were decisive but for a long time, it’s felt as if their voices have been left unheard.

One of these voices is Helena Llewellyn, a 60-year-old woman who has lived in Blaenau Gwent all her life. When I met her in Tredegar, I asked about the referendum and there was palpable anger in her response: ‘They’ve done me out of six years of retirement!’ she tells me. ‘I was supposed to retire in April, but instead they’ve put me on jobseekers allowance of £73 per week. I can’t live on that! I can’t even put gas and electric on the meter or food on the table. I’ve worked since before I left school! I’ve worked all my life and now I can’t touch money I’ve put away’.

Helena voted Leave and this was the first reason she gave for doing so. She knows that it wasn’t the EU that forced her onto jobseekers allowance, but voting for Brexit became a way in which to protest against it. And it was far from the only grievance she had: ‘I want my children to have a better future. Everybody I know voted out because we remember what it was like when everyone had work,’ she tells me. ‘Look what they’re doing to people now on this minimum wage nonsense. It’s not enough to live on!’.

Helena tells me that her son spent three years searching ‘all day, every day’ for a job before he had any luck. There is a swelling of rage on her child’s behalf as she recounts this ordeal. And for those who find a job, the story’s not much better. Helena’s sister, 52, works a 60-hour-week at a nearby furniture factory and brings home less than £300 a week. £140 of this goes on rent and council tax. Then there are bills, food, standard outgoings that must be met simply to sustain a level of existence and carry on, but it’s not a life.

When I ask Helena about the EU money that areas such as Blaenau Gwent benefit from, she points to boarded up buildings and asks ‘Well, where is it? They’ve taken the industries from the valleys; they’ve replaced the steelworks and sewing factories with lots of little companies that just exploit people’.

It is these testaments to decline that come across time and again in the conversations I have with people. In Tredegar, the old town hall stands over the central clock tower. It is partially boarded up and the grand facade is slowly wasting away. Two men nearby, Kevin and John, tell me that the building used to be the social club for the National Coal Board. ‘In years gone by it was really busy,’ one says, ‘in the 80s and 90s there were dances and shows’. When I ask how many people used to turn up, Kevin guesses around 250 – 300 people, a number that doesn’t seem possible today.

He points to the balcony and tells me that it was there that Nye Bevan, a child of Tredegar, once delivered a rousing speech. But as we look up to the spot now, the balcony has turned green with moss and the window where Bevan once stood has been smashed.

Valerie, 72, tells me that she used to work in a nearby sewing factory and that the town centre was bustling back then. ‘People would come from Rhymney and Bargoed,’ she says. The two cinemas she used to frequent have both disappeared. One has been knocked down, the other is a Wetherspoons. I ask her to explain what else has changed in the last 40 years, and the response she gives is one that comes up again and again: ‘When I was young’ she says ‘you used to be able to leave a job on the Friday and you’d be in another one on the Monday’. But now, she confesses, that kind of employment security doesn’t exist at all. ‘I feel sorry for the youngsters today,’ she tells me: ‘so many don’t want to get out of bed. I can see why’.

Asking who or what is to blame for this situation brings a mixture of responses, but two come up more than any other: government and immigration. The anger directed towards David Cameron is particularly acute, and it seems that he was the best campaigner Leave could have hoped for in a place like this. But even though there is anger at Cameron, nobody has filled the gap. ‘Not that I know of,’ is Helena’s response when I ask if there are any politicians that speak for her. ‘We only hear about them at election time’. She confesses that she doesn’t vote in general elections, but that the referendum was different.

Part of the reason she felt motivated to vote Leave, she says, was immigration. She is sure that when she received a reply from the government about why her pension was changing, it said that it was due to the economy and immigration. This sort of story isn’t rare.

David tells me that when a meat factory nearby was bought by Polish owners, they enforced a ‘Poles only’ recruitment policy. He contrasts this to the situation of his grandchildren, for whom he sees little future in the job market. Another story I hear is about a Welsh soldier who became homeless on his return from combat, only for an empty house to be given to a Romanian family. Getting details to confirm these stories often sees their factual basis slip away, but that hasn’t stopped them taking hold in a worrying way.

Despite this, several people tell me that immigration doesn’t affect them in any way and there is little discernable anger towards migrants themselves. Rather, immigration is only ever discussed in relation to jobs, welfare, the NHS and housing. It’s almost as if it has become the most accepted way to convey the deep anger there is over the gradual erosion of these basic rights. That makes no excuse for this sort of anti immigrationism, nor does it downplay the potential for it to turn into something much more viscous, but it’s important to understand.

There is no mystery about why places such as Blaenau Gwent voted to leave the EU. Here is a group of people who haven’t simply been left behind by the march of neoliberal economics, they have been deliberately pushed back to a place many thought they had seen the last of. It is a place of joblessness, low wages, poor housing, child poverty and a future people don’t want to be a part of. The conclusions being drawn from this situation are varied, but here, the response coalesced around a vote to leave the European Union.

As Helena bluntly puts it: ‘Our children can’t get work! No work. No families. No housing!’

The biggest surprise of June 23rd is that the referendum result was even a shock at all. If the people who dictate our political discourse had talked less and listened more, they would have seen it coming a mile off.

Brexit was a wake-up call from the people in Blaenau Gwent and beyond. It shouldn’t be ignored.

(all photographs copyright Seb Cooke)

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