Dagenham Heathway underground station
Brexit |Report

Brexit voters surprised themselves by winning, stick by decision

  1. Brexit was a protest vote for many but it really happened
  2. Despite Ford plant Dagenham voted to leave the EU
  3. Perceptions about immigration were a big factor

A year and a half after a majority of British voters made the shock decision to take the country out of the European Union despite warnings of economic doom and diplomatic isolation, those who were determined to give elites a kicking or “take back control” of their borders say they stand by their decision.

Dagenham, a working-class district east of London, embodied the hard-to-predict logic behind the Brexit vote. Voters there opted to leave the free trade zone of the European Union despite the biggest employer in the area being a Ford engine factory whose supply chain and exports depend on Europe.

‘Stick your fingers up to the government — give them a kick’

People on the damp streets of Dagenham told WikiTribune they stood by their decision for a range of reasons: fear of immigrants, wanting to tell politicians who was boss, a genuine desire to leave the European Union and in many cases a protest vote they never expected to lead to a national vote for “Brexit”.

“Brexit was just like, stick your fingers up to the government — give them a kick,” said Alan Jones, who runs a carpeting business on the main shopping street of Dagenham and says he didn’t bother to vote at all — believing, wrongly as it turned out, that the referendum wouldn’t change anything.

In fact, the very simplicity of the “in/out” referendum called by then British Prime Minister David Cameron led to a political earthquake since a tiny majority in favor of “out” overturned 40 years of alignment with the laws, common market and free migration rules of the European Union. “Out” polled 51.9 percent, “in” 48.1 percent with strong “out” sentiment in working class areas while metropolitan centers like London were strongly in favor of “remain” in the June 2016 referendum — a rarity in the British parliamentary system.

The Financial Times has reported that UK gross domestic product has already fallen nearly 1 percent as a result of the Brexit vote. The pound has fallen sharply, jobs are moving to Europe and inflation has risen. “The results vary according to the comparisons made, but all show the UK economy has been damaged even before it formally leaves the EU on March 29 2019,” the paper reported.

Barking…

The London Borough of Barking and Dagenham and neighbouring Havering rank highly on lists of Britain’s most pro-Brexit regions, with 62 percent and 70 percent of their respective electorates voting to leave the EU.

Heathway shopping center, in Dagenham by WikiTribune/Francis Augusto [CC-BY-SA]
Heathway shopping center in Dagenham. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA
The main shopping street — “high street” in Britain — near Dagenham Heathway underground rail station is populated by independent outlets and betting shops, as well as a busy and well-equipped local library.

Dagenham is a London borough in flux, with regeneration projects bringing some jobs. One such project is a large-scale film studio and media complex to be built in Dagenham East. The council is looking for investors but says the Hollywood-scale studio could bring around 780 jobs and generate £35 million a year.

The prospect of future prosperity provides a contrast to the area’s recent history. Dagenham’s Ford car manufacturing plant was once London’s biggest employer, peaking at 40,000 on-site workers in 1953, according to the company. Car production stopped in 2002, and Ford’s remaining engine manufacturing plant currently employs 1,830 people.

Coincidentally, the northern city of Sunderland, home to a huge Nissan plant which depends on exports to Europe, also voted in favor of Brexit.

According to figures from the UK’s Office for National Statistics, the borough of Barking and Dagenham has a higher proportion of people claiming job-seekers’ benefits than the national average – though the rate dropped consistently since peaking in 2011, levelling out in May last year.

Nearly 18 months after the Brexit referendum, a common complaint among voters is that in the absence of clear information from government on the impact of leaving the European Union.

“They’re keeping mute,” said Charles Etereri, a former veterinary surgeon who voted for Brexit, standing near the library. Unemployed, he said he is changing careers and studying for a PhD in hospitality. People in his area are very disappointed, “because nothing’s happening,” he said. “There’s no sign that it will ever happen.”

Charles, a former vet, voted for Brexit but has lost faith that it can be a success by WikiTribune/Francis Augusto [CC-BY-SA]
Charles, a former vet, voted for Brexit but has lost faith in the process. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA
Barry, who did not want to give his full name, owns a nearby car garage which offers MOTs and body repairs. He said the information available had become increasingly polarized and divisive since the referendum in June 2016. “Both sides are just trying to wind people up. How much of the coverage is true? How much is just made up to sell a story?”

Despite apparent progress, Prime Minister Theresa May’s government has come under pressure (FT) for appearing to lack a clear vision for Brexit, inconsistent positions on key issues and a lack of transparency.

While the UK voted to leave the EU in June 2016, the formal process of exiting the bloc began on March 29 this year, when the government invoked Article 50 of the Treaty of the European Union.

Since March, UK and EU negotiators have been meeting every few weeks to negotiate the terms of their future relationship (UK Parliament). Debate has focused primarily on settling the UK’s outstanding financial liabilities due under contracts agreed during its time as an EU member and questions over the UK-Irish border.

Voting against the status quo

The pro-Brexit voters WikiTribune met cited differing reasons for wanting to leave the EU, though many talked of what they saw as high levels of immigration which they blamed for a lack of affordable housing and depressed wages. They also said immigrants exerted pressure on already strained local services.

These issues were frequently debated in the build-up to the referendum, with proponents of immigration pointing out that services such as healthcare rely disproportionately on an immigrant workforce, as set out by fact-checking group Full Fact.

House prices in Dagenham have risen, but this is in line with the trend in the UK, and especially London.

Barry said that he is open to immigration, even “quite a high level of it,” but is against “open door” immigration. “This area lacks the infrastructure to handle all of the extra people,” he said.

The borough has a higher than average resident population born overseas, at 38 percent in 2015, compared to 13 percent nationally.

Local Labour Party councillors Lee and Phil Waker describe themselves as traditional socialists and internationalists, but said that open borders had driven down wages for local working people.

From their perspective, things have gotten worse for the area while being in the EU. They said UK manufacturing, which traditionally supported areas like theirs, had fallen dramatically.

“You have areas like this suffering particularly from housing, lower living standards, and you say ‘won’t you vote to tell us how marvellous everything is as it stands’,” said Phil Waker.

The frustration with governments in Brussels and Westminster, was a more general factor behind the area’s strong turnout in favour of leaving the EU.

Alan said that while many in the area are concerned about high levels of immigration, they also voted to leave the EU to give the government "a kick" by WikiTribune/Francis Augusto [CC-BY-SA]
Alan Jones, pictured with his dog Bobby, said that while many in the area are concerned about high levels of immigration, they also voted to leave the EU to give the government “a kick.” Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA
Alan Jones, who lives in neighboring Southend but runs the carpet business in central Dagenham, thought the referendum was a foregone conclusion: “I thought it was already decided…I was proved wrong, I didn’t think we would leave.”

In the car repair garage, Barry took a similar line: “I’m glad it happened … but I didn’t think for a moment [that it would],” he said. “A lot of it was a protest vote.”

Lack of change drives skepticism of politicians

People WikiTribune interviewed seemed more convinced than ever of their original choice.

‘Our borders need to be stricter’

Debbie (right) with friend Dot, both voted for Brexit, saying they were concerned about immigration by WikiTribune/Francis Augusto [CC-BY-SA]

Debbie Prager (right) with friend Dot Rees, both voted for Brexit, saying they were concerned about immigration. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA
Those who cited immigration, and the perceived link to pressure on services and housing, said nothing has changed.

Debbie Prager, a housewife from Dagenham, sat outside a cafe on the high street. “I think our borders need to be stricter,” she said. Debbie and her friend Dot were both eager for Brexit negotiations to be over. “They need to stop mucking around, stop arguing amongst themselves, and just get it sorted,” Debbie continued, adding that UK and EU leaders are “all as bad as each other.”

Those driven by frustration with the EU and UK governments said their views had been reinforced by the slow progress in the European Union bureaucratic center in Brussels and the British parliament in Westminster.

“I just want it done and over with – it’s dividing the country,” said Barry, who said the “divorce bill” settlement – currently estimated to be 50 billion euros is a “punishment bill” imposed by the EU.

Voters who rejected forecasts of a post-Brexit economic downturn as “scaremongering” – a stance frequently cited by pro-Brexit media such as the Daily Express –  viewed the long-negotiated “divorce bill” as another creation of embittered ‘Remainers’.

Local councillors Lee (left) and Phil (right) Waker, say that the EU puts businesses ahead of ordinary people by WikiTribune/Francis Augusto [CC-BY-SA]
Local councillors Lee (left) and Phil (right) Waker, said the EU puts businesses ahead of ordinary people. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA
Lee and Phil Waker were similarly steadfast in their views: “I don’t think we should be blackmailed,” said Lee.

Representatives of the 27 EU member states, without the UK, met earlier this month and agreed that sufficient progress had been made – based on a set of last minute “gentlemen’s agreements” to allow the next phase of talks to start next year. It was technically the last time a single member country can veto agreements as they stand, before the council transitions to a form of majority voting.

The pro-Brexit voters in Dagenham are weary of the debate, but feel their long-term skepticism is being validated. They say they are disappointed with the perceived lack of progress, but not surprised.

Dagenham Heathway underground station by WikiTribune/Francis Augusto [CC-BY-SA]
Dagenham Heathway Underground station. Photo by: WikiTribune/Francis Augusto used under Creative Commons license CC-BY-SA

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Tom Garrison

"Perhaps the story would benefit from ..."

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"Changing "majority" to "majority amo..."

Neil Beckhelling

"I'm not sure it's valid to say "a maj..."

Bob Clark

"I live in a working-class community -..."

Sources & References

Reporting done in collaboration with WikiTribune journalist Lydia Morrish.


Author

U
Jack Barton is a staff journalist at WikiTribune where he writes about international law, human rights and finance, whilst covering daily news. He was previously a senior reporter at Law Business Research and has experience covering law and international development, with credits in the Sunday Times, the New Indian Express, and New Statesman online among others. He has an LLM in Human Rights and worked on a UN-funded research project, looking at peace processes.

History for Story "Brexit voters surprised themselves by winning, stick by decision"

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  1. Time Contributor Edit
  2. Peter Bale Peter Bale (Contributions | Talk) Adding Brexit as primary category
  3. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) Removed "hardscrabble"
  4. Rich Holman Rich Holman (Contributions | Talk) Fix formatting on Captions
  5. Angela Long Angela Long (Contributions | Talk) hardscrabble one word/British voters
  6. Rich Holman Rich Holman (Contributions | Talk) Fixing formatting
  7. Rich Holman Rich Holman (Contributions | Talk) Fix formatting for captions
  8. Rich Holman Rich Holman (Contributions | Talk) Fix formatting
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  10. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) Fixing highlights
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  18. Jack Barton Jack Barton (Contributions | Talk) Minor tweaks
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  21. Jack Barton Jack Barton (Contributions | Talk) Full names
  22. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) Adding note in sources
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  24. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) Formatting fix
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  26. B Burhan Wazir (Contributions | Talk) editing
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  28. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) Categories, U.S. spelling of "skepticism"
  29. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) U.S. spellings, Labour Party councillors, tweak
  30. Lydia Morrish Lydia Morrish (Contributions | Talk) Tweaks, tidy, U.S. spellings, Borough of B&D, picture captions in line with others, film studio
  31. B Burhan Wazir (Contributions | Talk) editing
  32. Jack Barton Jack Barton (Contributions | Talk) Answered Qs
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Talk for Story "Brexit voters surprised themselves by winning, stick by decision"

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  1. Rewrite

    I’m not sure it’s valid to say “a majority of British voters made the … decision to take the country out of the European Union” although this phrase is often used by supporters of Brexit.
    If memory serves, the result was 37% for leaving and 34% for remaining – and 37% is *not* a majority of voters.

  2. Rewrite

    I live in a working-class community – not sure if my peers who voted leave ever really thought about the process of leaving.

    More about a ‘shout out’ due to a feeling of being left behind
    The process of leaving is now thought of as someone else’s problem. However, if you voted leave I am sure it feels good to watch the politicians each night actually doing the thing you asked them to.

  3. Flagged as bias

    The whole article seems based on one guy chatting to a couple of people on the street.

    This doesn’t seem unbiased journalism, there’s no facts to back up the headline. No opinion poll, no actual event which is being reported on.

    It feels like little more than “I asked my mates, they agree with me”.

    1. Rewrite

      Changing “majority” to “majority among those who voted” might be better. Technically the result is a plurality, which is commonly termed a majority. Many MP’s also would be elected by pluralities.

  4. Rewrite

    The subheading “Barking…” is very funny to a British ear, since “Barking” is not only a district in East London, it’s also British slang for “crazy”.

  5. You could also balance this on the ground study with some of the polling, latest polls show that support for Brexit is falling, but that some of those who voted Remain accept that they lost and Brexit has a mandate https://yougov.co.uk/news/2017/10/27/there-has-been-shift-against-brexit-public-still-t/

    1. Rewrite

      Perhaps the story would benefit from a little more meat on the bones, but the ‘person on the street interview’ is a common journalistic method.

      In terms of social research, interviews can produce qualitative data that is better at reading the heart, if not the mind. The mind may be better represented by the quantitative data produced by polls and surveys. However, the quality of most current commercial commercial opinion polls are not up to the job supporting representative, let alone, unbiased conclusions.

      “The heart has its reasons which reason knows nothing of… We know the truth not only by the reason, but by the heart.” – Blaise Pascal”

      What we meant by terms like ‘evidence’ and ‘fact’ seems a big subject that needs to become well-known by each of us before we forget about the need to do it. Without doing it, we’d have no standard for meaning or knowledge, and consequently, no ability to develop a distinctive journalistic voice.

  6. I’m not sure what scrabble means in the context of “Dagenham, a hard scrabble working-class district east of London” and while I get that it is both a London borough and east of the city of London, I think it would be less confusing to describe it as one of Greater London’s eastern working class suburbs.

    1. Rewrite

      Didn’t write this one, Jonathan, but hardscrabble should be one word – I’ve altered.

    2. Rewrite

      Hi Jonathan, I have removed “hardscrabble” as I agree it is potentially confusing for the global audience. Thanks for the feedback.

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