For six years now, often with my colleague John Domokos, I have been travelling around the UK for our video series Anywhere But Westminster, ostensibly covering politics, but really trying to divine the national mood, if such a thing exists. I look back, and find all sorts of auguries of what has just happened. As an early warning, there was the temporary arrival of the British National party in electoral politics from 2006 onwards, playing on mounting popular anger about immigration from the EU “accession states”, in the midst of Gordon Brown’s “flexible” job market, and a mounting housing crisis.
A few years later, we met builders in South Shields who told us that their hourly rate had come down by £3 thanks to new arrivals from eastern Europe; the mother in Stourbridge who wanted a new school for “our kids”; the former docker in Liverpool who looked at rows of empty warehouses and exclaimed, “Where’s the work?”
In Peterborough in 2013, we found a town riven by cold resentments, where people claimed agencies would only hire non-UK nationals who would work insane shifts for risible rates; in the Ukip heartlands of Lincolnshire, we chronicled communities built around agricultural work and food processing that were cleanly divided in two, between optimistic new arrivals and resentful, miserable locals – where Nigel Farage could pitch up and do back-to-back public meetings to rapturous crowds. Even in the cities that were meant to unanimously spurn the very idea of Brexit, things have always been complicated. Manchester was split 60:40 in favour of remain; in Birmingham last week, I met British-Asian people who talked about leaving the EU with a similar passion and frustration to plenty of white people on the same side. …
And all the time, the story that has now reached such a spectacular denouement has been bubbling a way. Last year, 3.8 million people voted for Ukip. The Labour party’s vote is in a state of seemingly unstoppable decline as its membership becomes ever-more metropolitan and middle class, problems the ascendancy ofJeremy Corbyn has seemingly made worse. Indeed, if the story of the last few months is of politicians who know far too little of their own supposed “core” voters, the Labour leader might be seen as that problem incarnate. The trade unions are nowhere to be seen, and the Thatcher-era ability of Conservatism to speak powerfully to working-class aspiration has been mislaid. In short, England and Wales were characterised by an ever-growing vacuum, until David Cameron – now surely revealed as the most disastrous holder of the office in our democratic history – made the decision that might turn out to have utterly changed the terms of our politics.
‘If you’ve got money, you vote in … if you haven’t got money, you vote out’