Burning anger in the land of Nye Bevan: why a Labour heartland is backing Brexit

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Watch the politicians, and you’d think the EU referendum hangs on forecasts and calculation. Listen to the phone-ins, and you might believe that it’s about an insatiable appetite for more facts.

Only when you get out to somewhere like south Wales do you realise that it’s also fuelled by rage – a burning anger that spits in all directions.

This is Nye Bevan-land, birthplace of the most eloquent and effective socialist ever produced in Britain. And yet in one of the most dramatic yet under-reported shifts in British politics, south Wales is slowly falling for Nigel Farage. Labour-red is changing to Ukip-purple.

Since 1922, Labour has won every single election in Wales bar one. From the day the Welsh assembly opened in 1999, it has been dominated by Labour. But last month, Ukip came from nowhere to scoop seven seats. And the constituencies where it scored highest were the southern heartlands – Islwyn, Neil Kinnock’s former stomping ground, Caerphilly, Torfaen.

Ukip's share of the vote in Wales

The swing of half a country to the only party that wants Britain to leave the EU has huge implications for the referendum less than three weeks away.

“South Wales will be among the most pro-leave places in all of the UK,” said Roger Scully, professor of politics at Cardiff University. “Across Wales as a whole it will be very split between those who want to stay in the EU and those who want to go. But Newport and the southern Welsh valleys are pretty damned likely to come out as an outright majority to go.”

If this is a protest vote, then there’s plenty here to protest about. Look up from Newport’s Commercial Street, and the honeyed architecture reminds you just how wealthy this city was a century ago, when it exported coal to the rest of the world. The swankiest hotel in town, complete with ballroom, has turned into a pound shop. Where there was once a jewellers now stands a vaping den. The M&S has left, to be replaced with a Sports Direct.

In the temp agency’s window the magic number is 7.20: the national minimum wage on most of the cards for would-be warehouse operatives, security guards, forklift drivers. Peer down the street and you’ll see the transporter bridge dating back to 1906, its gondola still lifting cars from one bank to the other.

When that bridge was built over a century ago, south Wales was one of the big-earning regions of the UK. Now the coal and steel industries have either died or moved, and it’s among the poorest parts of Europe. For every £100 made by a Londoner, a resident of Wales makes £42, going by the calculations of gross value added. Whether under Thatcher or Blair or Cameron, Wales keeps falling further and further behind.

“The folk memory of Thatcher destroying our communities is fading,” said Iestyn Davies, formerly of the Federation of Small Businesses in Wales. “Now it’s Labour that’s blamed for economic failure.”

In Newport’s Victorian covered market, far more people were behind the counters than buying anything. The majority of the stall-holders said they were going to vote leave. Did they consider themselves to be winning or losing under “the current system”, I asked, without providing any definition – and yet with no hesitation the leavers replied, “Losers”.

On the comics stand, Terry reeled off what made him angry: benefits claimants in designer clothes, immigrants taking all the housing, and “Romanian gypsies”. He concluded: “I’m definitely a loser, because I’m financing other people’s lives.”

The medicine usually prescribed for such post-industrial malaise is devolution, whether that be a “northern powerhouse” or an English parliament. But in Wales they’ve had devolution since 1999. A government with as much autonomy as a teenager in a loftroom, its presence has turned Cardiff Bay into a government enclave, complete with jobs and infrastructure and expense-account restaurants. Wales has its own equivalent to the Westminster bubble, observes Roger Scully: a Cardiff Bay bubble.

Wales is where trickle-down economics and trickle-down politics meet ­– and driving out from Newport you see the lack of results. Instead, the hills that were black with coalwaste in the 80s have now reverted to green. Where once there was mass employment there are now abandoned buildings and warehouse units for one- and two-man bands.

At the village green of Cwmcarn, Kate and Casey were chatting while their boys played football. Again came the worries about immigrants. “They’re not even here two minutes before getting benefits and operations on the NHS,” said Casey. No, she’d never come across this personally. But it was a worry.

By local standards, a lot more immigrants have been coming to the Welsh countryside from Poland and the rest of eastern Europe. But there were so few here to begin with that the numbers are still tiny. In Merthyr Tydfil ­– which in all of Wales has seen the highest percentage increase in immigration over the past decade – you are still five times more likely to meet a working-age adult on benefits than someone without a UK passport.

However invisible the immigrants, they were mentioned by every leaver, in language that I once thought had been dropped in the 80s. “I don’t want to offend you.” Or: “I’m not racist.” Or: “I’ve got mates from Ghana.” Always followed by “but”. But we let too many in. But we need to look after our own. But I hear eastern Europeans turning up at the jobcentre are handed a grand.

“I can’t help thinking that 23rd June is really a vote on whether it’s OK to be racist or not,” said Iestyn Davies.

As in Donald Trump’s America, the collapse of the economy and the distrust of politicians has re-licensed opinions that would have been considered unacceptable until recently. And it has led to a new round of the age-old game of ferociously defending meagre prospects and entitlements.

The very landscape of south Wales is littered with broken promises. The mining communities were offered high-tech “industrial villages” by Labour. They never came. On the outskirts of Newport stands a giant white plant that was meant to be an LG factory. Millions in subsidies were poured in, the politicians prostrated themselves ­– and the Korean firm still bolted, leaving the site empty for a decade.

Up the road, in the old steeltown Ebbw Vale, residents were promised a Donington-style racetrack, along with an unlikely-sounding 6,000 jobs. The Welsh government pulled the project in April. But still, more wheezes are dreamed up. Better road links. A new shopping mall for Newport, despite a population without enough cash to spend in it.

Do all this often enough and badly enough, as has happened in south Wales, and the age-old contract between the governing parties and the governed breaks.

“If you don’t have an economic stake, what’s your engagement with society or with politics? And if you’re not earning to do the basic things you need to do in life, you’re more inclined to question the establishment,” said social economist Mark Lang.

The result is that a community that has been left behind now wants to leave. Not because they think it will help, but because it can’t hurt much more.

In the village of Llanhilleth, the Mining Institute towers over the houses like a cathedral – and a symbol of how much Wales has changed. Miners’ subs built it in 1906, but when it fell into dereliction, the EU was one of those that stepped in with public funds. As is common across this region, one window displayed a sticker in Brussels-blue ­– a reminder of how Europe gives Wales £79 per person per year.

Inside, Gareth Meek pointed to a case containing the trowel that helped lay the foundations of the institute. He too wanted to vote leave – although his ire wasn’t really directed at Brussels. “I’m angry at the British government. They sold the country out. There’s nothing we own anymore.”

So how would exiting the EU help? A shrug. “I don’t think it would make a great deal of difference. But the damage is already done. You ain’t going to pull that back now.”

Powered by Guardian.co.ukThis article was written by Aditya Chakrabortty in Newport, for theguardian.com on Tuesday 7th June 2016 12.04 Europe/Londonguardian.co.uk © Guardian News and Media Limited 2010