At the time of The General Election 2017 (GE 2017), I was away from London, spending three weeks in Middlesbrough asking questions about migration. Middlesbrough has become famed as a post industrial, dispersal area for asylum seekers. I was here to talk about migration, and yet all of my conversations were GE17 and Brexit.
Middlesbrough and its neighbouring town of Stockton on Tees voted to leave the European Union in 2016. As two of the highest asylum seeking dispersal areas in the country, they are in contention with Nigel Farage as the poster boys connecting Brexit to immigration. Of the top 20 asylum dispersal areas in the UK 15 voted to leave the European Union, the 5 that didn’t were all major cities.
The certainty of the link between migration to the UK and Brexit has rung out throughout national politics; we saw it in the GE17 campaign itself. When the government said they would reduce immigration to the 10s of thousands the response was that it couldn’t be done, not that it shouldn’t. Any opposing voices were quickly silenced.
However, three weeks in Middlesbrough and Stockton has roundly disproved this assumed link. Andy, a centre manager in North Ormsby, an area with the 2nd highest child poverty rate in the country, stated that to his astonishment many friends who had voted for Brexit, had also voted Labour. Middlesbrough, Stockton North and now Stockton South are all represented by Labour MPs, some of whom have a pro-migration stance.
In my short time in Middlesbrough and Stockton, I have learnt that Brexit had multiple motivations. Genuine fears exist about underfunding to the NHS, people feeling ignored, and unconnected to the decision makers who influence their lives. I was told that for some it was historical payback, the dish best served cold for having been forced to enter the EEC as it then was, and the referendum to stay in 1975. Notably in 2016, 60% voters aged 50-64 and 64% voters over 65 chose to leave the EU.
A common motivation was unexpressed anxiety about significant change within communities. Migration has certainly impacted these communities. With a disproportionately high dispersal rate of asylum seekers per person, communities in the north bear the national burden of hospitality in the UK.
Yet many other influences are changing the shape of community across the UK. Over and over again, people wanted to tell me how they felt. They wanted to tell me about their homes that had been demolished because of development, that they couldn’t get a job because they were considered too old and out of touch. They wanted to talk about surviving on benefits, breakdown of community, and ask how they could meet neighbours who don’t go to the church or the pub. These weren’t presented as insurmountable obstacles, or xenophobic statements, but grief to be felt and challenges to be considered.
Meena, who has lived in Middlesbrough for 30 years told me, “It’s not that people have a problem with asylum seekers… but they feel an anxiety about large scale changes in their community and they don’t feel able to vocalise it”. The Brexit vote provided that megaphone.
In Theresa May’s speech calling for a snap General Election, she claimed, “The country is coming together, but Westminster is not.” This was an astonishing failure of the Prime Minister to acknowledge the wafer thin margin by which the UK had chosen European divorce.
The ‘Brexit’ vote was a seismic shift in the political landscape, not simply the leaving of the EU, though groundbreaking, but the carving up of classic political voting lines. No longer halved neatly, but quartered at very least. What the calling of a snap general election ultimately revealed was fresh division in the country and the catastrophic absence of an investigation into the nuances of the Brexit vote.