by Emma Jackson
On election night I always proudly watch as my hometown is first to declare. First to declare and always Labour, although the worrying UKIP proportion at the last election should have been a warning sign. In the referendum, though, Sunderland has taken on a different kind of symbolism. ‘Did you know it was Sunderland that threw the markets on Thursday night?’ my colleague tells me afterwards (61% Leave, 39% Remain). Later in the day I find myself in tears at a story about a neo-Nazi display at a school I used to walk past on the way to primary school, and that many of my friends attended. The story concerned an event that happened in October but it had a visceral impact on me. I think because seeing these displays on the streets where you grew up ‘hits home’ but also because over the last few weeks my hometown has become shorthand for stories of ‘the state of the nation’ in troubling ways. In short, Sunderland is being used as a marker of a narrative about Brexit as a protest vote by deindustrialised white working class people – who are then set in contrast to a metropolitan multicultured elite. The reality is that both Sunderland and white working class people are more complicated than that. And that by focusing in on Sunderland as representing this situation other stories are left out.
That Sunderland voted ‘Leave’ was not a surprise. There had been a flurry of pieces on Sunderland before the referendum. As Gary Younge has pointed out, journalists have headed into the North of England and ‘anthropologised the British working class as though they were a lesser evolved breed from distant parts, all too often portraying them as bigots who did not know what was good for them.’ If a simplistic story about a disenfranchised white working class is what you are looking for then you can find this in Sunderland. In a New York Times piece (yes, even the New York Times is sending journalists to Sunderland) a young man called John is interviewed:
“We’re segregated from the south, and the north is a barren wasteland,” he said, wearing a heavy black leather jacket with metal studs despite the summer heat. “It’s us against them.”
“The E.U. is a mystery to us,” he added. “We’ve never heard about it up here.”
‘This depressed northern city is like ground zero for the Brexit movement’ begins a piece in The Irish Times
Sunderland as location and representative of working class loss has also been explored in Grayson Perry’s programme ‘In the best possible taste’.
I do not want to trivialise the feelings of disconnect expressed through these accounts or the portrayals of post-industrial neglect that they point towards. Sunderland has been repeatedly clobbered, its shipyards and mines closed down and now it is part of one of the regions bearing the brunt of the Government cuts. If you live in a city that is a Labour stronghold (so you can’t vote the Conservatives out) and suffering from disinvestment, cuts and disillusionment with the council (see for example the wranglings over the use of the Vaux brewery site) then I can see how voting Leave does feel like exerting some kind of control or sending a message to those in power. And these are the kinds of stories that run through these newspaper accounts of Sunderland. But, and there is always a but, that is not the whole story.
Firstly, this tight focus on the deindustrialised white working class (lumped all together as a group without considering how whiteness is constructed and groups incorporated and excluded over time, see also Satnam Virdee’s excellent book) as the Brexit story misses state, elite and middle class forms of racism which may be institutionalised, more polite, or less visible. It focuses on vocal expressions of xenophobia without probing what Paul Gilroy calls ‘post-colonial melancholia’, a longing for the glory days of prosperity and ship-building that are tied up with histories of empire. It reaffirms a key argument of the Leave campaign, which as Akwugo Emejulu has argued, was the promotion of a story of ‘white victimhood’ rather than interrogate the logic and effects of austerity:
‘a key argument of the campaign was that the ‘working class’ (who were unquestionably assumed to be white) were suffering under the burden of mass immigration, which transformed the culture of their neighbourhoods and put undue strain on public services.’
Furthermore, it misses complex stories of racism and resistance that exist in places like Sunderland. The far right has tried many times to gain ground in Sunderland, and the North East more widely. Attempting to capitalise on the dispersal of asylum seekers to Sunderland and in the wake of the murder of Peyman Bahmani in 2003, an asylum seeker living in the city, the BNP tried to whip up support and contested every ward in the city that year – but failed to win any seats. And much earlier than this in the 1990s, and on a more anecdotal level of resistance, I remember my friend’s mam not only telling a BNP canvasser where to go, but chasing him down the garden path. At this time, I was part of an anti-racist youth group that used to go and demonstrate against the BNP across the North East. In 2012, a spate of demos by the EDL et al were held in Millfield, the area I grew up in, against a mosque being built – and were met with fierce resistance.
I heard more everyday and recent accounts of racism and resistance in Sunderland described by Anoop Nayak in a recent talk – if you are interested in the inter-relationships of race and class in the North East of England then read his work because this is based on years of research in the region. Racism is a real and continuing problem in the city and Anoop’s most recent work focuses on young Bengali people in Sunderland (and another coastal area in the North East). There is a small but well-established Bengali community in Sunderland whose experiences I have not seen included in these discussions of Sunderland as the epitome of ‘Leave’. The expansion of the University has also impacted on the ethnic make-up of Sunderland. The city is putting forward a City of Culture bid and has a lively music and arts scene (with many key figures coming from the ‘white working class’), best represented by the Pop Recs shop/gig space/almost community centre. I suppose what I am saying is that Sunderland is more complex, or that there are other Sunderlands. There are other predominantly working class cities too, that do not mirror these voting patterns: Liverpool, Manchester, Glasgow.
In our project ‘Mapping Immigration Controversies’ we examined how anti-immigration campaigns intervened in specific places. For example, in Glasgow, in the run-up to the independence referendum, the ‘Go Home’ campaigns were interpreted as an English/Westminster intervention in a more caring Scotland. Alongside encounters with racism and xenophobia we heard of resistance and support. If we are trying to understand the voting patterns across the UK, and if we are to challenge new iterations of old racisms, then it is crucial to examine the different kinds of spatial and social histories in which the referendum intervened. The metropolitan elite/regional whiteworkingclass division is just too simplistic to help us do that work. Meanwhile, I suspect journalists looking for a post-referendum state of the nation snapshot will continue to visit Sunderland’s tattoo parlours and hair salons. What effect will this have on the city, I wonder? And what effect on our understandings of racism and class?