The anti-austerity narrative: Clues from Boston

A year on from the vote, the Brexit post-mortem has concluded. The public discourse has moved on, and no wonder, there has been a lot of politics lately. In its place, we endure constant, trite relabelling of the type of Brexit we face. Hard versus soft. Open versus closed. Red, white and blue versus black and white. Or simply, Brexit means Brexit – which is still doing the rounds.

The ‘why’ has turned to ‘when’, ‘what’ and ‘how.’ Add to that ‘by whom’ following the inability of Theresa May’s election campaign to enhance her majority and subsequent ministerial reshuffle.

In Boston, as elsewhere, there are many ‘whys’. However, there is a powerful set of characteristics which led to the 76% Leave vote, the highest in the UK. If you Google ‘Boston Brexit’ you will see that the blame is firmly placed at the feet of one issue: immigration. Indeed, Boston has the highest proportion of Eastern European immigrants of anywhere in England and Wales.

Lincolnshire has long been a migrant destination. Thousands arrived from Ireland in the mid-19th century, in large part a response to the potato famine, to work on the farms. Local councillor Paul Gleeson explained, “If you had been here 25-30 years ago, at 4am you would have seen hundreds of white vans arriving into Boston from Peterborough, Sheffield, Newark, and they would have been carrying day-workers.”

The Eastern European wave stemmed from an economic need. Technological advancements extended the farming season to just shy of 11 months, which, coupled with the growing number of food processing plants, created the need for permanent, rather than transient, workers. Simultaneously, free movement began from the 2004 accession countries, which meant large numbers of Latvians, Lithuanians and Polish arrived in Boston. The population has grown over 25% in the last 15 years to around 70,000.

Despite having spent the past five years living in London where over 40% of the population is foreign-born, I was taken aback by Boston. It took me 30 minutes of wandering around the town centre before I heard an English voice. Until you visit, you cannot appreciate it.

Naturally, the speed of change is not without issues. Rents are very high for the low-wage economy, educational attainment is sub-par with growing pressure on classroom sizes, anti-social behaviour has risen, and Boston has earned itself the undignified title as the murder capital of the UK. During my time in Boston, each of these issues, and more, were forwarded as reasons for voting Leave.

However, by far the most common reason is this: “It is not the level of immigration per se which caused me to vote Leave, it’s that government resources have not followed the numbers.” It is worth dwelling on this point. The most frequent explanation, in the highest Leave area in the country is, at its core, an anti-austerity protest.

A nationwide anti-austerity narrative is forming, which is sweeping much before it. This week’s Grenfell tower tragedy fast became politicised and developed into a metaphor for anti-austerity, anti-establishment sentiments.

Boston is a fine example of austerity Britain. In a 2016 report, the think tank Policy Exchange named Boston the least integrated place in the country, which is not surprising when you consider that I could not find a single government-funded integration programme – this is a job that falls to the voluntary sector. The trust behind the local Pilgrim’s hospital is in special measures, the local schools budget has been cut, and the local council did not have the money to fund Christmas lights last time round. A local community leader told me, “We’ve been banging on the door for years saying that we need more funds. But they just didn’t come.” This view is voiced by local Bostonians and immigrants alike.

Residents are willing to draw a connection between immigration and the lack of resources. What appears to be a vote against uncontrolled immigration is more complex than headlines would make it seem.

What is pertinent is that Boston is qualified to speak. A few months back, Nick Clegg presented a post-Brexit analysis for Newsnight on another high-Leave area; Ebbw Valley in South Wales. In that piece, he gathered that the majority reason for voting Leave was immigration despite only 2% of the local population being foreign-born. He put it down to the fear of immigration, rather than immigration itself. It was a response driven by perception rather than reality.

For Boston, it is a reality. It is a town that speaks from experience and is qualified to talk about the merits and demerits of immigration and the impact of budget cuts. It is for this reason that when Boston speaks, by voting 76% to Leave, Westminster must listen.

The 2015 Conservative campaign focused on economic competence with austerity at its core, and secured Cameron / Osborne a majority government. Merely two years later, the programme is hurting the Conservatives. The general election campaign saw the anti-austerity narrative adopt many guises; the resurgent youth vote, a tiring of the stability agenda versus change agenda, and public sector worker weariness.

Gavin Barwell, now Theresa May’s Chief of Staff, best summarised the cuts fatigue after he lost his Croydon Central seat; “There’s a conversation I particularly remember with a teacher, who had voted for me in 2010 and 2015, and said: ‘You know, I understood the need for a pay freeze for a few years to deal with the deficit but you’re now asking that to go on – potentially for ten or eleven years and that’s too much.’” The public-government austerity pact was always time-limited.

Soundings from Theresa May’s reconciliation with her party suggest that austerity’s days are numbered. It is unclear what this means in practice, but it demonstrates an awareness within the Conservative party that the Corbyn surge was in large part a consequence of the austerity programme.

The change in narrative appeared sudden, coinciding with the release of Labour’s higher-spend manifesto. However, anti-austerity rumblings could be heard in Boston’s markets and pubs long before then. The clues were there – it should have been no surprise to Westminster that a change in the narrative was imminent.

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