Sunderland on Brexit: ‘We need to shut the border’

This depressed northern city is like ground zero for the Brexit movement

The passion for football in northeast England is renowned. On a balmy weekday evening, a few hundred people have gathered in a pedestrianised street in Sunderland city centre to watch England's final group fixture in the European championships on a massive outdoor screen. A St George's Cross dangle from nearly every shoulder.

There is no such devotion, and indeed little fondness, for the European Union.

“I’m for leaving. Definitely,” says Arnie Thompson of Thursday’s EU referendum. His portable merchandise stall, festooned with England sombreros and flags, is doing a decent trade, but he has few doubts that business would be improve outside the EU.

“I have to spend £1,000 on rent,” he says, “and you get Romanians turning up selling exactly what I’m selling and they haven’t paid anything.


Thompson’s brother Harry nods in agreement. “We could kick them out if we left.”

Cities such as Sunderland have emerged as key battlegrounds in the Brexit debate. These previously solid Labour strongholds in the de-industralised north are increasingly Eurosceptic and could play a crucial role in deciding the outcome when the results roll in on Friday morning.

The appeal of a fresh start, as leaving the EU has frequently been portrayed, is not hard to grasp in Sunderland.

Perched on the edge of the North Sea, this city of some 180,000 would make a fitting setting for a doleful Bruce Springsteen song. Its once- thriving docks are more popular with seagulls than trawlers. Disused chimneys and occasional postwar tower blocks punctuate an otherwise flat landscape.

Sunderland has less college graduates than most cities, and lower hourly wages. At 8.5 per cent, unemployment is more than 50 per cent higher than the UK average.

Left behind

"A lot of people are angry because the world has moved on and the northeast has been left behind," says Bridget Phillipson, Labour MP for Houghton and Sunderland South. "But leaving the EU won't solve that. Quite the opposite."

Bright, articulate and in her early 30s, Phillipson is far removed from the often dour image of northern Labour. But her party is struggling to connect with its traditional voters. Ukip won almost a fifth of the northeast vote in the 2015 general election.

In Sunderland, Leave holds a six-point lead, according to recent polling.

As elsewhere, most Brexit voters cite immigration as their main concern. “We need to shut the border. There’s too many people coming in to the country,” says Laura Smith (19), a bank clerk.

Just over 3 per cent of Sunderland’s population is foreign- born, according to the most recent census. But Smith is worried about the images she sees on television: “There’s Muslims and everybody coming in.”

Not all agree that Brexit is the solution to Sunderland’s problems. The city is home to more than 80 overseas-owned companies.

Nissan, the jewel in the crown, has been prominent in calling for a Remain vote. Earlier this week, the car giant announced that it was taking legal proceedings against the Leave campaign for erroneously using its logo in election material.

Factory employer

The Nissan manufacturing plant is an impressive sight. Set on a 799-acre former RAF base framed by rolling hills on the outskirts of Sunderland, the factory employs some 8,000 people and a further 32,000 in the supply chain.

On paper, the EU has been a boon for Sunderland. Nissan arrived in the mid-1980s, coaxed by a mix of government grants and easy access to European markets.

Since 2007, Sunderland has received more than £23 million of direct investment from Europe. The Tyne and Wear Metro extension, Sunderland Aquatic Centre and various other projects have all benefited from European funds.

Still, in the Nissan factory car park, support for Brexit is strong. None of the half-dozen workers I meet want to be named, but almost all say they will vote Leave. “I’m for out, but the company want us to stay in,” says one middle-aged man.

Labour, long the dominant political force in the northeast, has struggled to deal with the rise of a form of English nationalism that is very different to the stereotype of the Home Counties “Little Englander”.

Nationalism is a primarily working class movement in Sunderland, propelled by those who feel alienated, left behind in the postindustrial age.

Labour has controlled Sunderland City Council since 1974, but old ties between the party and its electotare are fraying. "A lot of younger voters can't even remember Mrs Thatcher," says council leader Paul Watson ruefully.

The main beneficiary of this disillusionment is the UK Independence Party (Ukip).

Alan Davies is typical of many Ukip activists. Since joining 2½ years ago, the onetime Royal Air Force engineer (63) has twice finished second behind Labour in council elections.

Regardless of the Brexit result, Farage’s party is here to stay, Davies says: “We have beliefs that aren’t just about Europe.”

Campaigning in Sunderland has been quieter in the wake of last week's murder of Labour MP Jo Cox, he adds. There are still plenty of Vote Leave posters on the city streets, however, including one the window of Ace Tattoos, nestled among a strip of cheap bars and ethnic stores near the city centre.

Whites leaving

Proprietor Phil Pescod sees the referendum as the “last chance for us to take back control”. He warns of the possibility of a “civil war”between races.

“London is just ridiculous,” he says. “White people are leaving in droves. Many are coming up here. It’s becoming a self- preservation society up here. That’s what politicians are doing to this country.”

Pescod’s nephew Gary nods his head vigorously. He expects Leave to win, but fears “vote- rigging”.

Haley Greenhail (34) has her T-shirt pinned up to reveal a half-finished floral motif on her back. “I think we would be better off on our own,” she says, as Pescod returns to work on her tattoo.

Greenhail’s father worked in the pits. “All my life I’ve been brought up vote Labour, vote Labour. But now I make my own choices.”