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.

Photos: Boston and surrounds

Boston & Skegness: A view from the campaign

Context

  • Conservatives have held Boston & Skegness since the constituency was created in 1997
  • Newly-elected Matt Warman won a 4,300 majority in the 2015 General Election
  • However, UKIP surged 24%, which pushed Labour into a distant third place
  • Boston’s status as the UK’s “Brexit heartland” – following a 76% Leave vote – has attracted UKIP leader Paul Nuttall to run as a candidate.

A View from the Campaign

Paul Nuttall appears to have given up hope of success. He has visited the constituency only twice during the campaign and failed to turn up to planned local radio appearances. Many predicted that he would pull out of the race following a disastrous showing in May’s local council elections in which UKIP lost all 13 of its Lincolnshire seats.

Nuttall’s decision to stand in Boston and Skegness has been met with widespread cynicism by the electorate, viewed by many as a case of Brexit opportunism. Even the UKIP candidate for neighbouring constituency Louth and Horncastle, Jonathan Noble, echoed this sentiment, “People like a local candidate and he’s effectively been parachuted in, so that will probably not be very well received. The fact he has a Liverpool accent probably doesn’t help.” Noble added, “If UKIP had picked a credible local candidate, someone with genuine ties to the constituency, that lived here and worked here, it would have gone better.”

Asked how constituents viewed Nuttall’s decision to stand, Conservative candidate Matt Warman told me, “I suppose I have to thank Sophy Ridge [the Sky News presenter].” He was referring to the car-crash interview in which Nuttall was unable to identify Boston from a series of images of UK market towns. This is the first thing many constituents mention when asked about Nuttall.

The UKIP ground effort has also left much to be desired. There is no campaign headquarters or evidence of UKIP activists putting the hard graft required in an election campaign. A party member acknowledged, “I remember campaigning at the last general election, there were very few people out there doing the footwork.” Signs of support are scattered around town in the form of campaign posters in front gardens, however the contact number does not work. Although Boston and Skegness is a target seat, it is clear that UKIP is a party with diminished funds which lacks a sophisticated grassroots operation.

Party infighting is rife and has led to numerous defections. Brian Rush, the newly-appointed Mayor of Boston, resigned from UKIP merely two weeks into the role. Labour councillors have taken to Twitter in jest, “Rumours of a new political party in Boston called UQUIT – for all those councillors that have left UKIP.” The stream of negative headlines denotes a party in disarray, which has been detected by voters who see little point in voting UKIP this time round.

Despite the recent relegation of Theresa May’s “strong and stable” rhetoric, the presidentialisation of the national campaign has encouraged Boston and Skegness voters to consider this election as a straight May vs. Corbyn decision. For an electorate with Brexit at the forefront of its mind, most trust May over Corbyn to deal with the negotiation process. One man, who described himself as a Labour-voting socialist, was clear that he will vote for Theresa May on 8 June.

Voters often speak of Theresa May rather than the Conservative Party, which I sense is a way to rationalise a first-time Tory vote in the minds of non-traditional Tory voters. It is no accident that Matt Warman’s campaign literature relegates “Conservative” references in favour of a large image of Warman and May as its centrepiece. Besides the transfer of the UKIP vote to the Conservatives, there is a sense that the traditional working-class Labour vote is tending the same way.

However, Warman is conscious that the UK’s highest Leave area is not a natural home for a Remain MP. In a Boston Market canvassing session, an angry voter accused Warman of being a “brown-nosed careerist” given his decision to vote Remain under Cameron, followed by his support for May’s “hard” Brexit agenda. During the campaign, Warman has been keen to stress that his was a 51%-49% decision to Remain. Notwithstanding this, Conservative activists, and Warman himself, appear confident about their prospects on 8 June, but repeated the need to guard against complacency. May’s so-called “dementia tax” has removed any risk of complacency.

The Conservatives will benefit from the lack of serious opposition in the area. Labour, historically Boston and Skegness’ second party before the rise of UKIP in the 2015 General Election, has opted to field Paul Kenny for a fourth time. An ardent Corbynite, Kenny’s task is a tough one: to persuade a predominantly rural constituency to adopt Labour’s left-of-centre manifesto and leadership team. UKIP is in rapid decline. Other parties are seldom mentioned.

It is hard to look past a sizeable increase in the Conservative majority come 9 June. Indeed, as one candidate said, “you could paint a donkey blue and it would be voted in around here.”