The Welsh Valleys never really recovered from the de-industrialisation of the Thatcher era. The Valleys are, in some parts, as poor as countries in Eastern Europe. On this basis they had received large amounts of EU funding for regeneration projects, whilst also remaining some of the safest Labour seats in the country with a long historic relationship with trade unionism.
The Brexit results, showing that every Welsh Valley had voted to leave, point towards a slow process of socialist decay. The days that followed the result, I think I went through what could be described as a mini-grief cycle. Denial, acceptance, general despondency. I was coming to terms with the fact that an area which could be described as the birthplace of democratic socialism in Britain (home to Keir Hardie’s constituency and NHS founder Aneurin Bevan) may be moving irrevocably rightwards. The men and women of these areas were pioneers of collectivism and breaking capitalist monopolies. Put simply, the Valleys proved to me that if the small people get organised, they can provide a real challenge to the interests of money and power.
After the referendum result, a flurry of race hate crimes ensued. In the same streets that had nurtured Colin Jackson, there were reports that refugee families had knives posted through letter boxes, and in Newport, a Muslim family had their door kicked in.
I thought of all of the times I came across quite startling instances in Welsh history where ordinary people stood up against oppression, fascism and racism; like in 1839, when there was a 10,000 strong marchof working men on Newport under the banner of Chartism. This was one of the biggest political actions under the Chartist movement. Later leaders were to become passionate supporters of Indian independence. In 1936, the fascist Tommy Moran, was chased out of Rhondda by a mob of thousands who refused to let him continue with his planned public address. In the 1930s, about 120 miners went from South Wales to fight fascist forces in the Spanish Civil War. Ordinary men, not accustomed to leaving their close-knit valley towns smuggled themselves to Spain and risked their lives to fight against Franco. Even Paul Robeson, the black singer and activist, had a lengthy relationship with the miners of South Wales, whom he lived and worked with in order to better understand their struggles. In Wales, he experienced the dignity of living with no colour bar. There is no doubting the region’s historic leftist internationalist credentials. Given the xenophobic flavour of the referendum campaign, this made the vote to leave especially disheartening.
My initial reflection was that perhaps my rose tinted understanding of Welsh history may well be at significant fault. My only real day-to-day experience of the Valleys was when I took a door-to-door sales job 10 years ago, chugging for charities like Oxfam around parts of Pontypridd, Pontypool and Caerphilly. As a person of colour, I had heard the standard urban yarns about racism in poor working class white communities. But of course, myths and realities can often be quite different things. No one said anything remotely racist to me. I was touched by numerous acts of human kindness. Pensioners shoved fivers in my hand more than once “because the kids in those leaflets need it more than me”. This certainly was not the behaviour of a community which was somehow inherently bigoted or backwards. More importantly, it taught me to identify and challenge my own prejudices.
For me, Brexit signals a worrying change. Aditya Chakrabortty states that people’s willingness to frame immigration in a “them versus us” political narrative has increased. This was particularly marked in Wales, where people were willing to blame migrants for problems, despite the fact that immigration is particularly low. Of course, not everyone who voted ‘leave’ is racist, but there is no denying that the climate of fear, which was further promoted by the print media. The number of newspapers which favour more muscular and right wing approaches to immigration, as opposed to those which may adopt more informed and less sensationalist stances, is simply much greater.
This seems to go hand in hand with changes in voting patterns. From the 2010 to the 2015 elections, the share of the UKIP vote in the Valleys often went from single figures to between 12 and 20 per cent. UKIP was consistently the party that made the biggest gains. The party’s founder, Alan Sked, a professor of history and a passionate federalist, has had no hesitation in describing Nigel Farage as a “dim-witted racist” and has bemoaned the fact that the party which he founded has been infiltrated by far-right elements who hold nasty opinions about Muslims, black people and homosexuals. Let’s not forget that Farage’s campaign manager in South Thanet was a former member of the National Front. Farage has also discussed, quite nonchalantly on national TV, the repeal of the Equalities Act.
Have UKIP released the ogre of race hate in communities that have a proud tradition of challenging exploitation and imperialism? I fear that communities that have a pedigree of standing up to fascism and racism are forgetting some of the best pages of their history. Much to my moralising chagrin, they have voted for a right-wing political arrangement which is almost certain to reduce funding to the region. The result is more likely to entrench scapegoating mentalities in relation to immigrants, not alleviate them.
At least now, the political establishment is aware, in tangible terms, how divided this country has become. There may finally be some political urgency to address the huge disparities in wealth that the neo-liberal consensus has put into motion.
People are not born racist, they learn racism. Racism is often a proxy for other concerns related to reduced access to public services and downward pressure on wages. The Labour ‘Remain and Reform’ campaign undertook a gross miscalculation when it did not tackle these arguments head on. Jeremy Corbyn is fighting to become Labour leader for the second time, and it looks like he will win. If the Labour party is to ensure its own survival, it must resonate with ‘Left Behind Britain’, not just PhD candidates in London. City-dwelling progressives must stop, to use George Orwell’s phrase, “looking at the working class through the wrong end of the telescope”. Now is the time for proper conversations with real people.
The metropolitans must also open their eyes to the history of the Labour movement, and the near miraculous rights and privileges that ordinary men and women ensured for us. These were won in in the most difficult of conditions, and must be safeguarded. We need to re-learn the Valleys’ gift to us – the gift of effective, principled politics.