I was only two when Margaret Thatcher came to the constituency where I was born and brought up. It was 1986 and she was opening the Nissan factory because, as she said, “within the whole of Europe, the United Kingdom was the most attractive country – politically and economically – for large-scale investment and offered the greatest potential”.
I have never pined for anything associated with Margaret Thatcher. How could I, given the damage she caused? Under her watch, shipbuilding finally disappeared from the Wear river and pit closures scarred communities across the northeast. Thirty-thousand jobs were lost in her time in our city alone. It was a devastating hit. Mining and shipbuilding were more than industries: they represented communities, identities, outlooks. Those communities were tight-knit, hardworking, but open to the world.
The growth of the Nissan plant, and of our emerging tech industry and call centres, have provided us with jobs, but not as many. Now the company has just announced 12,500 job cuts globally – leaving the fate of its 7,000 staff in Sunderland hanging in the balance.
Yet now it seems our new prime minister is willing to finish what Thatcher started and take steps the former leader never dreamt of. Analysis by the Office for Budget Responsibility, the independent watchdog for government spending plans, tells us that no deal will plunge the UK economy into a year-long recession and could leave a £30bn black hole in our public finances.
And this wasn’t even the worst-case scenario they explored. Boris Johnson will happily inflict economic hardship on my constituents to deal with the extremist factions within his own party. For the Tories, jobs and livelihoods in Sunderland aren’t things to look after: they’re things to gamble with and to put at risk for their own petty advantage.
Those who support leaving Europe with no deal – a prospect hardly mentioned back in 2016 – will call these dire warnings Project Fear. But being afraid of things that are clearly disastrous isn’t a cowardly response, or one that shows a lack of confidence in our people and our country. It’s a rational response. When I tell my children not to put their hands on the hob because they’ll get burnt, I am not “talking my children down”. When I warn friends not to do something rash in the heat of the moment, it’s because I care for them, not because I doubt them or fail to understand their motivations.
And I am absolutely terrified about what a no deal would mean for working people in Sunderland and across the northeast. All the evidence suggests that our region would be hit first and hit hardest. Our car industry is particularly exposed to the risk of delays at the border, endless paperwork, higher tariffs and trade costs. In fact, we have already begun to see the massive impact of Brexit with lost investment and opportunities, with Nissan abandoning production of the X-Trail car in Sunderland and cutting thousands of jobs.
This is why I welcome Labour’s new position of backing a Final Say referendum where we would campaign to stay in the EU in line with our values of internationalism, democracy, freedom and solidarity. It’s why I support the People’s Vote North, which is seeking to increase our region’s role in ending the Brexit crisis. And it’s why I was proud to join hundreds of campaigners at the packed rally in the Beacon of Light in Sunderland earlier this month, calling for a people’s vote.
None of this action is to dismiss the concerns of those who voted to Leave in 2016. People wanted a better future for their families. A government that called a referendum on keeping things as they are, after years of stagnant wages, declining living standards and crumbling public services, shouldn’t have expected to win an endorsement. A Conservative Party leadership that spent two decades belittling the benefits the European Union brought us shouldn’t have expected to be believed when it finally told the truth.
But the reality of 2019 is so far from what was promised in 2016 by Boris Johnson and his colleagues. All of us need to be clear about whether we want to go ahead with a form of Brexit that will hurt communities like ours first and most, inflicted by a prime minister with no mandate to do so.
Because unlike Thatcher or this Johnson government, I will not stand by and watch our industries get consigned to history. I will not let our community face the misery that followed the pit and shipyard closures. I will not tolerate our region being hit by a recession because the government is afraid of its own backbenchers. I will fight with all I have for a better future for Sunderland.
A referendum got us into this mess, and now only a referendum can get us out. It’s time for a people’s vote: it’s time for us all to be heard.
Read Bridget’s article in The Independent here