The City of Sunderland has been known for decades for its almost tribal like allegiance to the Labour Party. A former hotbed of mining, shipbuilding and union led socialism, the city has not elected a Conservative MP since Paul Williams won Sunderland South in 1953, an bygone area where the economic line between the two major parties was less polarized. Since then, Sunderland’s constituencies have been consistently ranked amongst the safest Labour seats in Britain, with Houghton and Sunderland South even ranking in the top ten. Yet, yesterday a Conservative Prime Minister was in town aiming to whip up votes in the closing days of the General Election campaign, an event which is unprecedented.
Inevitably, the former London Mayor got more than he bargained for. He was confronted on several occasions by Labour activists, an inevitable output of the party’s extensive organization and roots within the area, and seemingly grilled by a young mother in the city. Yet, these predictable events don’t change the broader trend: Although they are unlikely to win it in this election, the city of Sunderland is increasingly up for grabs. There has been a slow yet clear ideological change, and what Labour could once bank on instead looks more uncertain. With the city’s industrial roots long gone, the city’s political culture is now changing into something which has increasingly granting it notoriety. The election is likely to end with the transformation of these seats into marginals, here’s why:
Sunderland’s industrial heritage is fading from public memory. But the economic fallout of that plight in the 1980s and its ideological consequences, are not. There are no more mines or shipyards, and whilst Labour traditionalism remains a significant force in the city in some circles, it is nevertheless declining on the unavoidable reality is that it is no longer something that people can believe in. In its place has came a long set economic and social decline which produced a culture of widespread apathy, disillusionment and even anger in the city. In such conditions, it is not possible for an ideological status quo to remain intact, rather it can only decay.
The tipping point was 2016. The immense euphoria of the “Brexit” referendum on membership of the European Union drastically changed the paradigm of political consciousness in Britain to a question of nationalism, which gripped the frustrations of peoples in the North and thus unleashing momentum to break the steel chains of Labour loyalty. Corbyn’s party in 2016 had campaigned to remain, putting it at drastic odds with the “heartland” communities such as Sunderland as their more patriotic views came to the forefront. With Wearside becoming the first city in the country to declare a “Leave” result, one which was overwhelming, it quickly coined a reputation as the Brexit capital of Britain. Thus setting in stone a narrative which would further shape the events to come.
In the next three years, the city became a magnet for pro-Brexit parties and even far-right political forces. Nigel Farage would make several visits. Then 2017 saw the city inflamed in controversy after far-right movements, exploited unproven (and non-charged) allegations of rape to further an anti-Islam agenda. EDL founder and football hooligan Tommy Robinson unleashed violence and chaos in a confrontation with visiting Celtic fans in July. Then, extreme right wing group “Britain First” also engaged in a rally which turned violent and ended with the arrest of its deputy leader Jayda Fransen. Although the majority of people in the city rejected these groups rolling into town, they nevertheless set the stage for the fact the area was now ideologically contested. Since that time, the dominant Labour party have lost ground in local elections every single year.
Now, along came Boris. At no point has a Prime Minister yearning for election visited the city in any recallable memory. For both Labour and the Conservatives alike there has been no point. The seat is either safely in the bank, or outright unwinnable. Thus the presence of the former London Mayor indicates a shift in sentiment that alludes Sunderland may be now more significant than it used to be. Although it is not being directly targeted as a Labour-Conservative marginal in this election, the size of its Brexit support has pushed itself the periphery of national attention. Many locals continue to voice clear doubts about the upper class background and somewhat dubious character of the Prime Minister, but he has been successful since 2016 into tapping into the patriotic sentiment of these people whilst the Labour party has been rendered out of touch to some, despite its more open pledges towards working class policies. This is now set to produce a hefty swing to the Conservatives within the city which will transform these seats from strongholds into marginals.
Thus, named after the fact the river “Sundered” (split apart) the land, Wearside now finds itself at the forefront of political currents and change in Britain, shifting from a Labour fortress into a new frontier of a political battle for the country’s destiny. We call all three seats for Jeremy Corbyn nevertheless as the required swing to remove the opposition is huge, but nevertheless the sentiment here is never going to be the same again. June 2016 was in effect the commencing of a new world in Sunderland, but now are we only truly understanding just what that is. The city, famously associated with Alice and Wonderland, has gone through the rabbit hole.