Since the constituency of Erewash was created in 1983, the party that wins it has also triumphed in the UK general elections. Traditionally, voters here tend to favour whichever party is seen as the most economically competent. But this dynamic has become more complicated ahead of the December 12 polls: Erewash voted strongly for Brexit, even though it threatens to undermine the area’s burgeoning prosperity.
Located right in the middle of England, with lots of middle-income voters, Erewash is a classic bellwether constituency. It plumped for Margaret Thatcher and her social mobility agenda in the 1980s, then went to Labour when Tony Blair won his party a reputation for economic competence, before swinging back to the Tories in 2010.
While pockets of deprivation sprang up after the decline of heavy industry, many voters here have benefitted economically from trade with the EU since globalisation took hold towards the end of the twentieth century. Major international companies are big employers in the area, including Toyota and Rolls-Royce in nearby Derby, and Deloitte and Capital One in Nottingham.
‘Toxic’ Brexit debate
So it may seem surprising that Erewash voted 62 percent for Brexit. “Certainly people didn’t vote to lose their jobs, which is a potentially high probability, depending on what happens after the elections,” said a union representative in the East Midlands, who asked not to be named. Indeed, if implemented, Tory leader and Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s plans still risk a damaging no-deal outcome.
“But the whole Brexit debate has become toxic; you can’t have a reasonable discussion with people,” the union official continued. “The last time we tried to raise this we were booed; people shouted ‘We don’t want to talk about this!’ The whole political arena has been thrown up into the air.”
Labour is by far the biggest challenger to Erewash’s incumbent Tory MP, Maggie Throup, who has a small majority of just over 4,500. At the previous elections in 2017, Britain’s main opposition party got over 17 times more votes in the constituency than the third biggest group, the Europhile Liberal Democrats.
Jeremy Corbyn’s party proposes a second Brexit referendum, in which the Labour leader would stay neutral and the “Leave” option would keep Britain in the customs union. Diane Fletcher, a Labour councillor in the local town Long Eaton, argued that this is an attractive option for pro-Brexit voters, in a seat where the economy has tended to be the top issue.
“It is impossible to say all Leavers wanted the same form of hard Brexit,” she said. “Many areas including Ilkeston, Erewash’s biggest town, depend for jobs and prosperity on the investment of EU companies, and undoubtedly some Leave voters expect this to continue, which it would do under a softer Brexit.”
‘Johnson’s hands have been tied’
However, other Erewash voters regard the prospect of a second referendum in a very different light. “Corbyn can’t say what he thinks on Brexit; he can’t make a decision to save his life,” said one local retiree, who preferred to keep her name anonymous. “It just shows you that he can’t organise his party, let alone the country,” she continued.
Ron, a retired local government official living in Erewash, who preferred not to give his surname, was indignant that parliament blocked Johnson’s vow to take Britain out of the EU on October 31: “The country clearly voted to leave the EU, and I think Boris had no option other than to call an election, because everything he’s tried to achieve has been thwarted at every stage.”
Clive Toone, a former coal miner and businessman in the neighbouring seat of Amber Valley (very similar to Erewash: a general election barometer that voted for Brexit), put forward a similar argument: “I think we should uphold what the British people wanted and go for it. Boris Johnson’s hands have been tied; since he became prime minister, he’s not been able to get Brexit done because he’s been voted down in parliament all the time, and I do believe that whether you love him or hate him, given the chance he’ll do us a good job.”
‘Imagine putting the Berlin Wall back’
Since he entered Downing Street in July, Johnson pulled off one move to surprise those admirers and detractors alike. He spent his first few months in Number 10 professing insouciance about the UK leaving the EU without a withdrawal agreement. But just before the then deadline at the end of October, the former London mayor reached a compromise with Dublin and Brussels, proposing to ensure that there will be no hard Northern Irish border by setting up customs checks in the Irish Sea.
The UK’s sole land frontier with the EU grabbed the attention of many voters in places like Erewash when it became the main sticking point in Brexit negotiations. It’s something that many Leave voters in the area didn’t foresee, Ron acknowledged: “One thing that most of us who voted for Brexit never really considered was the Irish situation”.
Traditionally, Ireland was the biggest source of immigrants to Erewash – demonstrated by the many Irish names amongst pupils of the area’s Catholic schools, such as St John Houghton in Ilkeston. Brent Poland, a teacher there for sixteen years, is standing as the Erewash Green candidate. He grew up in a Catholic family in Warrenpoint – a mainly republican town just on the Northern Irish side of the frontier – at the height of the Troubles.
Despite Johnson’s last-minute deal, Poland expressed upset that many powerful Brexiteers seemed so sanguine for so long about the prospect of renewed physical divide between the two Irelands: “The thing that I find galling is that they have misunderstood the psychological impact of that border during the Troubles. It’s like the Berlin Wall – it wasn’t just a physical thing; it was a psychological symbol. Imagine putting the Berlin Wall back in the middle of Berlin. What kind of impact would that have on the people there?”
Although it’s a Conservative government that risked the prospect of a hard border in early autumn, Poland is keen to attract the party’s voters in Erewash as he seeks to build up the Greens’ support from a base of just 675 votes at the last elections.
“Strange as it may sound, I get on well with a lot of Tory voters,” he said. “Often people vote Tory because it’s comforting; they’re seen as stable. I talk to plenty of Conservative voters about some of the not very comforting changes Tory policies have brought to the area – the corporatisation of their kids’ schools, cuts to local hospitals, plans for a new high-speed rail line that would cut Long Eaton in two. Plenty of them end up saying that the only thing they disagree with me about – the only thing that would stop them voting for me – is Brexit.”