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How desperate is Doncaster for Brexit? For the Tory Party to survive, it will need to claim some Labour heartlands at the next election. Our correspondent visits a prime target

Boris visits Doncaster. Credit: Jon Super - WPA Pool/Getty Images

September 27, 2019   8 mins

“We should be out — it’s a farce.” James Mitchell admits he had not really thought much about his country’s place in Europe before the referendum three years ago. But now he is adamant: the people voted to leave and politicians must respect their wishes.

We met as the 48-year-old was clearing up for the day on his fish stall in Doncaster Market. “I hope Boris Johnson will sort it all out,” he told me.

Mitchell, like many in this town at the heart of South Yorkshire’s mining community, is a lifelong Labour voter. Yet he admits to liking Johnson, who visited the market earlier this month, where he bought some English plums and a cob loaf. “People here were very impressed with him,” he said. “The other MPs all want to line their pockets but Boris seems in it for the good of the country.”

“Boris seems in it for the good of the country.” James Mitchell: Labour-voting Brexit supporter.

Mitchell, who hopes fish prices will fall post-Brexit after seeing his margins badly squeezed in recent months, views Johnson as closer to ordinary folk than most Conservatives, despite his Eton education and fondness for classical quips. “Boris does not seem a Tory to me. In the past Tories have been all la-di-da and posh but he seems more down to earth, not really posh at all.”

Since the affable fishmonger was dismissive of Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of Labour, I asked if he would put his cross next to the Conservative candidate at the next general election?

“No, I don’t think I would vote Tory,” he replied. “I like the Brexit Party. They are very similar in views to the Tories and Boris, while Boris and Nigel Farage also have similar views. I’d like to give them a chance.” I told him I was puzzled by this, given his desire for Brexit and admiration for the Prime Minister. “I don’t really know why I couldn’t vote Tory,” he said. “Maybe the Tories just seem southern, while Labour is the Northern party.”

And here lies the pivotal issue for British politics as the prospect of an election looms over the divided country. For the Tories, bound so firmly to Brexit, need to win scores of seats in the Midlands and North to make up for heavy losses that are anticipated in the Remain strongholds of Scotland, London and the south-east.

But can they really make significant incursions in traditional Labour heartlands?

So I went to Doncaster — which voted 69% Leave; has comparatively low rates of immigration; and three Labour MPs — to explore whether the party of Margaret Thatcher and David Cameron has a chance of winning over Labour supporters infuriated by Westminster’s failure to resolve Brexit.

Tiffany Allen, 52, a mother of four who works in social care, votes Labour because “it has always been for working class people” and backed Brexit out of frustration with the decline of public services and bad government.

“We were just fed up with the country,” she explained, detailing to me how the care system had declined “disgracefully” over her 25 years working in the sector. “No-one can get anywhere. Work, pensions, the NHS – it all seems a bit rubbish these days.”

“I could cope with voting Conservative.”    Tiffany Allen: Labour-voting Brexit supporter

She shares the widespread disgust over Westminster that I heard again and again from all shades of opinion — but admires Johnson, despite saying he was a clown. “I’m cross with everyone else, but not him,” she said. “There’s just something I really like about him – it may be that he seems laid back, he speaks our language.”

Allen should be a prime target for Labour. She works in the public sector. She saw her wages drop when moving to Doncaster from Stockport three years ago. She is worried about the NHS, which is treating her mother with dementia and son with terminal cancer.

She even admitted to liking Corbyn at first — until the Labour leader refused to meet US president Donald Trump, which she thought demeaned his position. Now she has no time for him and does not believe he could fund all his spendthrift promises.

So the big question: could she bring herself to put her cross next to a Tory in the voting booth? “It is all bizarre – but I think I could cope with voting Conservative,” she smiled.

Such voters show how fast the tectonic plates are moving in our politics. They are the reason Johnson was willing to visit Doncaster — where former Labour leader Ed Miliband sits on a 14,024 majority —  at the risk of facing public anger over austerity. This shift was recognised by Johnson when warned by a rebel MP the Tories could lose Guildford, among the truest of blue seats with a majority of 17,040 in 2017, if they backed hard Brexit. “Guildford will have to go then,” the Prime Minister replied.

The election, assuming it arrives soon, will be coloured by Brexit and speed up the electoral changes seen in recent elections as the Tories twist towards older, poorer and less well-educated citizens and Labour woos middle-class, affluent voters.

My snapshot, an escape from London’s bubble to drill down into views of northern voters, was fascinating. It was not a scientific study — I merely talked to people around town — although a polling firm source said my findings echoed focus groups they held in the same area last week.

“All they care about is that the 2016 referendum result is respected,” said my contact, who was testing views of Leavers. “They see it as a north-south issue, with northern working class people wanting to leave and southern people trying to thwart them.”

In fact, Danny Dorling, a professor of geography at Oxford University, has actually found that while some northern towns voted heavily for Brexit the bulk of support came from southern English voters. But perception is everything in politics.

What I did find in Doncaster was widespread disgust with Westminster, immense distrust of politicians and intense dismay on all sides Brexit has not been resolved. “They should all be sacked – they can’t do their job properly,” said Paul Singleton, a forklift truck driver.

“They should all be sacked.” Paul Singleton

Not one person had anything good to say about Corbyn — and several lifelong party supporters were scathing, sometimes over minor issues such as refusing to bow to the Queen. Both Remainers and Leavers saw the party sitting on the fence over Brexit and spraying around spending promises that cannot be fulfilled.

This is astonishing for an area such as South Yorkshire, with its history of mining and municipal socialism. But my findings only underline polls showing Corbyn with the lowest approval ratings on record for an opposition leader, while Labour is level-pegging with the Liberal Democrats nine points behind the bitterly-divided Tories.

“It’s in my blood but I don’t know if I’ll vote Labour or not vote at all,” said Gaz Skoof, 38, a Remain-voting structural engineer from a mining family background. “It’s all just a mess, an embarrassment on the global stage. I’m fed up with it all.”

Skoof was contemptuous of Nigel Farage, who held a rally in Doncaster this month. Yet he did say that his father, who stood on picket lines during the 1980s miners strike, was likely to back the Brexit Party. “A lot of people will be swayed by them.” Indeed, a poll back in April had the Brexit Party down to win most votes.

When I asked Skoof about Johnson, he smiled before saying he admired his efforts on Brexit — highlighting the bizarre confidence many voters place in a politician with a record for duplicity, whose brief stint as Prime Minister has failed at every turn.

Yet not everyone is convinced. “I like Boris because he is quirky but I would not vote for him because he’s told  too many lies and fibs,” said Heather Stewart, a Labour Leaver who works in a pharmacy. “I don’t think he will deliver. I don’t trust him.”

Some responses I heard on Johnson echoed those I heard in the United States when talking to Trump supporters in states such as West Virginia: that he is different to other politicians, that he is selfless, that he talks their language. Others dismiss him as a buffoon, a clown, a joker. Clearly many people see every player in the Brexit drama and every twist in the debate through the prism of their own views, which only fuels the divisions and hardens attitudes.

“I want a leader that keeps his word.” Paul Smith: Tory-voter considering the Brexit Party.

And the stakes are high. David Smith, a Tory-voting health and safety official, said he would switch to the Brexit Party if Johnson failed to deliver on his oft-repeated promise to leave by October 31st. “I want a leader that keeps his word,” he said. Smith sees the stalemate as ‘parliament versus the people’ — and said many locals might vote Tory for the first time in their lives if Brexit goes through. “This is Labour heartland so it’s a big thing for them,” he said. “But if he fails, they will go to Farage.”

One local Labour source said voters might grumble about Brexit but most would stick with the party. “I notice on doorstep conversations that when you get them on to other issues, people say it is true, we are electing a government for five years.” Like many other northern towns, Doncaster was hit hard by austerity with council spending falling almost one-third since the Tories took office in 2010 despite rising social care pressures and above-average number of workless households.

Yet as Smith said, dumping Labour for the Tories is a big step for voters in an area such as this. For some, it is too big a leap — especially when the Brexit Party offers an alternative vehicle for angry Leavers to display their dismay over the deadlock.

Perhaps this struggle was best shown to me by Rob and Jenny, a couple in their fifties who I met as they left a supermarket. They are both lifelong Labour voters who backed Brexit, despise Corbyn and intend defecting to other parties. Jenny, a cook, said she would probably back the Tories since “Boris is trying to do his best”. But her partner was sceptical about his agenda, worried by Tory bickering, infuriated about immigration and saw Farage as “the only one who can get us out”.

Before we parted Rob repeated a now familiar refrain: voting for the Conservatives would be a betrayal of his background, having been brought up in a mining family in the colliery village of Denaby Main. “I can’t vote Tory – it is in my blood.”

Such complexities of heritage and outlook defy crude certainties of analysts, politicians and strategists. It makes predictions so uncertain as we struggle with the Brexit referendum fallout that is corroding constitutional and political norms.

Few would argue with Stephen Carling, 64, a palliative care nurse I met standing by Frenchgate shopping centre opposite the shuttered Thomas Cook shop as heavy rain fell on a grey urban landscape. “It’s a crazy time for this country,” he said. He told me he voted to leave. “I thought we were a strong country, we might have a couple of tough years but we’d get through. But I’d have voted to stay if I knew what I know now because people like farmers and small businesses are going to suffer.

“None of them have a clue,” says Mr John Hanson. A Tory-voting Remainer.

“I think it will come to a second referendum — but I don’t really agree with this. They should just do what people the country voted for – and if they go against this, people will just ask why they should bother voting?”

It is foolish to draw firm conclusions from such a flying visit, especially given the volatility of politics and unpredictability of public opinion. Yet it is clear discontent is growing, democracy creaking and Johnson’s divisive strategy may be paying some dividends in unlikely places.

Will it be enough? I am sceptical. And his populist approach — pitting ‘the people’ against ‘parliament’ and ‘the elites’ — is extraordinarily high-risk as another Brexit deadline looms: for himself, for his party and for his fearful country already so lacking faith in its tarnished political class.

“None of them have a clue,” said former soldier John Hanson, 71, a Tory-voting Remainer from nearby Bawtry, who did five tours of duty during The Troubles in Northern Ireland. On this point, at least, I found agreement in Doncaster.


Ian Birrell is an award-winning foreign reporter and columnist. He is also the founder, with Damon Albarn, of Africa Express.


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