WCP: Why Burnley Voted for Brexit – and Why It Matters

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Brexit is often presented as reflecting the politics and direction of the United Kingdom as a whole, but its roots lie in local histories and tensions. In Working-Class Perspectives this week, Mike Makin-Waite describes one example — Burnley, an industrial town about twenty miles north of Manchester. He worked in local government there and observed some of the political and social dynamics that drew many in north-west England towards nativist and right-wing populism years before they voted to leave the EU.

Brexit is often presented as reflecting the politics and direction of the United Kingdom as a whole. But this obscures the great variety of opinions about ‘Europe’ in different parts of the UK. It also diverts attention from how the big ‘national’ news story of Brexit grew out of complex local realities, issues, and trends.

Burnley, about twenty miles north of Manchester, illustrates how Brexit played out locally. I worked in local government there, so I observed – and worked on – some of the political and social dynamics that drew many voters in north-west England towards nativist and right-wing populism. In this region, voting to leave the EU was largely anexpressionof these outlooks, but they had surfaced years earlier. In 2002,Burnley achieved passing notoriety as the first place to elect a group of far-right British National Party councillors.

Burnley developed as a textiles manufacturing centre in the mid-1800s and is still routinely described as a ‘former mill town’. Along with its defining sector of cotton goods manufacturing, people worked in coal-mining and, after the Second World War, in light-engineering and assembly-line production as part of aerospace, automobile, and munitions supply-chains.

Deindustrialisation set the context for the town’s recent political shifts. During the 1950s, nearly 60 per cent of Burnley’s employed population worked in manufacturing. Factory and mill work declined during the 1970s, but those job losses were offset by relatively secure posts in expanding service industries and the public sector. Then, during Margaret Thatcher’s Conservative governments in the 80s, manufacturing jobs in Burnley fell from nearly 18,000 (45 per cent of the town’s workforce) to less than 13,000 (36 per cent). This spelled growing unemployment, benefit dependency, and poverty. Government funding cuts took away the council’s ability to be ‘the employer of last resort’. The 1990s saw further decline, so that by 2003, manufacturing employed just 26 per cent of Burnley workers. There was a gendered recomposition of work as thousands of men lost full-time and relatively well-paid posts while women found jobs in the new service-sector. Because most service jobs were part-time, ‘flexible’, and poorly-paid, average household incomes dropped significantly.

The political consequences of these economic and social changes were not immediate or automatic. The political shift in Burnley reflects how people made sense of these changes, and that in turn reflects the explanations provided by local political actors.

The Labour Party had long dominated Burnley politics, holding the parliamentary seat since the First World War (except for a few years in the early 1930s). Its style of running the local council became paternalist – and complacent. When I began working in the town in 1995, a party member assured me that I didn’t have to worry about the influence of any party other than Labour. The only consequential political discussions took place behind closed doors amongst Labour’s movers and shakers.

But meaningful opposition was already taking shape. One of Labour’s few effective communicators had resigned from the party, holding onto his council seat as an ‘independent’, and voicing increasingly right-wing and illiberal views. This man used his proletarian origins (father a coal-miner and mother a weaver) to present himself as an ‘authentic’ voice of the town’s ordinary people. After a few years, a few other councillors followed, leaving Labour after being caught pressurising public officials not to rent any of the council’s houses to Pakistani-heritage families.

This expanded ‘Independent group’ questioned government-funded projects in ‘certain areas’. The racial dimension to their ‘concerns’ was at first coyly suggested and then explicitly stated. Unmet needs in some neighborhoods were contrasted with other small neighborhoods that were included in regeneration programmes – areas that had become ‘mainly Asian’. The local press amplified the myth that ‘unfair’ levels of government funds were ‘going to Asians’. Resentment sells newspapers, and it also changes politics: Independents began winning seats in local elections.

Racialised politics took hold in Burnley in part because the local Labour Party didn’t respond to it effectively. Party members had never handled Burnley’s changing racial profile with any confidence. They didn’t establish or popularise a local sense of identity that included both ‘indigenous’ people and the immigrant workers who started arriving in the early 1960s, initially taking up vacancies in the cotton mills. Burnley Labour’s social base of formerly-unionised workers was still reeling from the redundancies of the 1980s and 1990s. Unemployed, allocated disability benefits, or in much worse jobs than previously, they were demoralised, demotivated, and – quietly – resentful. That made some receptive to the Independents’ ‘explanations’: someone needed to be blamed for what had happened.

The Independents built a new political identity based on people’s sullen sense of being badly done by, a strategy that also enabled voters to see themselves as ‘white’ and ‘patriotic’, people who had once run an empire and held an identity distinct from that of undeserving ‘outsiders’. These sentiments may have long existed at a subterranean level within Labourism, but they were sharpened in the material conditions of deindustrialisation and people’s perception that they were being culturally and politically marginalised.

When Tony Blair and New Labour gained power in 1997, they failed to address the dreadful economic situation. As poverty in Burnley increased, it was one of three northern English towns which saw serious racialised rioting in summer 2001. British National Party (BNP) activists took up themes which the Independents had pioneered. Harking back to a simplified, nostalgic image of Burnley’s past when people had decent jobs and the co-ordinates of everyday life were familiar and predictable, BNP candidates blamed the growth of Burnley’s Asian community for ‘our decline’. Promoting exclusionary, isolationist nationalism as ‘answers’, they won seats on the local council by recasting and warping class resentments into resentments about race. The BNP were always a minority group, and they never won a single vote in the debating chamber, but they held seats on the town council for ten years, even as a series of Labour and Liberal Democrat council leaders and MPs tried to recover the town’s reputation.

The BNP had used the ‘political space’ which Burnley’s Independents had created, giving people a way to understand why Labour had ‘abandoned’ them. They claimed that Labour had ‘become middle-class, more concerned about so-called victims of racism than it is about your living standards and prospects’. 

Then a bigger and better-funded organisation stepped in and expanded the political space which the BNP had opened up in Burnley and a few other towns. Nigel Farage’s United Kingdom Independence Party (UKIP) voiced concerns about immigration and ‘Europe’ in more polite terms than the far-right BNP had ever used. From 2009, UKIP’s growing popularity in several parts of England, and their influence on the Conservative Party, helped pressurise David Cameron into calling the 2016 Brexit referendum. He fully expected to win a majority for remaining in Europe.

Just over two-thirds of its voters supported Brexit, but by now, Burnley no longer stood out as particularly unusual. In 2019, Burnley was one of dozens of ‘traditionally Labour’ constituencies where the largest number of voters supported Boris Johnson’s party because of his promise to ‘get Brexit done’. This marked the first time that places like Burnley had returned a Conservative for 110 years.

Whatever emotional satisfactions some Burnley voters feel as the UK leaves the EU, Brexit will likely exacerbate the town’s economic challenges. The well-regarded left-leaning think tank IPPR North suggests that Brexit will have double the impact on the north of England compared to the south. The EU has generated over ten per cent of the north’s gross domestic product (GDP), compared to just 7.2 per cent of London’s, and the north west’s significant dependence on trade with the European Union now makes the region susceptible to the major economic shifts which are coming.

Decent jobs and stable co-ordinates for everyday life are unlikely to return to this area anytime soon. Burnley’s politics and prospects will continue to be shaped – at least in part – by the consequences of the deindustrialisation which hit the down in the 1980s and 1990s, and the defensive xenophobia which developed in response to this.

Mike Makin-Waite is the author of On Burnley Road: Class, race and politics in a northern English town  (Lawrence Wishart Books, 2021).