One of the saddest things about listening to the interview with the guy from Teeside on this morning’s Today programme on Radio 4 was hearing his history. He had a good standard of living working in the steel industry and then, when the Redcar steelworks closed, he’d had to downsize and take a much lower paid job driving buses. With some anger and passion, he attached the blame squarely to the EU, because it seems to have prevented the government from rescuing Redcar – in the same way that it doesn’t seem to have prevented the government from rescuing Port Talbot.
Underlying it all was a sense of betrayal. I’m guessing that he, like me, was brought up into an environment where, if you worked hard, you could expect to rely on a job for life. You pay into the system and it will look after you when you need it. Except, in the 80s, that all started to go wrong. Industries were branded as uneconomic and left to fail, with scant regard for the hundreds of thousands of people left without jobs as a result. One regular feature on ITN news at the time was a jobs loss counter. Communities were destroyed, with people expected to get on their bike to look for work. The golden years and secure futures were at an end for these people.
At the same time the speculators and professional gamblers in the city, often pictured wearing red braces, started to rake it in. The entrepreneurial culture was in full flow. Reduction of regulation around money markets led to a more volatile stock market, which was even better for the short-term speculators who were in it just to make money for themselves. The old industrial areas in the north, the midlands and Wales, and the agricultural areas were simply left behind. If they couldn’t produce goods more and more cheaply, they were forced out of business – branded as uneconomic and therefore, in some way, useless.
Loyalty that was shown to big employers was revealed to be one-way only. If you had the temerity to claim benefits you were branded as a scrounger and lazy. The social contract that had existed since the War and Beveridge was destroyed. Those who played fast and loose benefited. Those who played by the rules lost. In so doing, the political and economic classes alienated those who had lived and worked in those now unfashionable communities. No answers were forthcoming as the media and politics conspired to make debates about management rather than vision.
It was that which Lord Heseltine missed this morning. The complete and utter sense of betrayal. All the statistics in the world, and there were a few reeled out in response, meant nothing to this chap. He had been forced out of his house into a smaller house and now had a job that he didn’t value. Instead of progress, all he’d experienced was struggle and retreat. He’d had hope beaten out of him. All those apprentices and new jobs that Heseltine mentioned – how many of them were zero-hour contracts or minimum wage jobs?
The debate around Port Talbot started to shift slightly when the idea of a steel industry being strategic for the country surfaced. Was it going to be possible that governments may start to see more value in an industry other than simply the pounds and pence it could generate for the speculators?
When a global economy is as unbalanced as our one is, then it is inevitable that a sole focus on the economic benefits of industry will tend to mean that those cheaper areas of the world will start to squeeze out the more expensive areas. The UK is expensive for heavy industry – high energy, environmental and labour costs being key. But the West is also, until recently, where a lot of the demand has been. So the balance isn’t simply the raw cost of the materials and labour, but also the cost of delivery.
All European heavy industry is under pressure, and lots of other European governments have found ways to support them until the emerging markets start to equalise out in price. So it’s not an EU issue but rather one of UK motivation. Our thirty-year addiction to simple economics has destroyed communities and destroyed any trust in whatever systems our politicians have created over the years.
And it’s that this is pushing the traditionally “working class” Labour voter to look at withdrawing from the EU. Globalisation has hurt them. They perceive EU regulations as hurting them. They want it to stop. And the only alternative offer on the table at the moment is withdrawal. The statistics aren’t believed – they’re not relevant. The politicians are all in on the conspiracy – they’re not trustworthy. The system has become corrupt – it needs to be replaced. Those are what motivates millions of voters at the moment. What should have been a simple referendum for Cameron to win has revealed an undercurrent of mistrust and anger only hinted at by the rise in the UKIP vote in the last four years. And, once again, it will reveal how unrepresentative the House of Commons is, as there the Leave campaign struggles to muster 25%.
That’s the mountain the Remain campaign have to climb, in two short weeks.