Sympathy for Labour in the epicentre of Britain's manufacturing recession

Sunderland is fearful of a Tory government, finds Sarah Arnott
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Indy Politics

Is Sunderland on course for a clean, green industrial renaissance, its derelict shipyards transformed to churn out wind turbines and electric cars and put British engineering back on the map? Judging by the most common refrain of “I’m not voting, they’re all the same” on the streets of the city this week, the local branch of the Great British Public will take some convincing.

After decades struggling with seemingly terminal industrial decline, the North-East is both the poster child for the government’s post-recession brand of state interventionism, and also a region the Opposition consider ripe for “big society” Conservatism to capitalise on the disillusion of 13 years of New Labour rule. Notwithstanding the Britain’s Got Talent dazzle of the televised leaders’ debates, however, the biggest question on 6 May will be whether local voters care.

Many in Sunderland’s traditional Labour heartland believe there is much to thank the government for. The headline success is Nissan’s recent decision to build the all-electric “Leaf” at its Washington car plant just outside the city. With plans for a new battery factory, the Japanese giant is investing £420m, securing its own 4,000-plus jobs and 20,000 more across the region. Nissan is not a one-off. Nissan’s decision was eased with £21m from the Government, arranged by the Business Secretary Lord Mandelson. Another £4.5m is going to Clipper Wind’s for Britain’s first offshore wind turbine factory at nearby Blyth. Mitsubishi and Rolls-Royce both have plans for the area, with the help of government grants.

Lord Mandelson says such “industrial activism” is British manufacturers’ entry ticket to the global industries of the future. It also plays to the party’s core vote. Sceptics claim that the policy is as windy as an off-shore turbine farm. But Nissan made no secret that government funding played a vital role in securing the Leaf for Sunderland. And to the staff at the factory, industrial activism is far from rhetorical.

“This is not just talk, this is really starting to happen,” says Mick Sherriff, a lifelong Labour voter who works in the paint shop at Nissan. Mr Sherriff cycles to work every day past the site of the putative battery plant. “When I go to work in the morning now I see the JCBs on the site, clearing the trees and getting it ready,” Mr Sherriff says. “There are people who don’t like Peter Mandelson, but you can’t knock the bloke for what he’s done to help Nissan in Sunderland. Without the support from the Government this could all have gone to Spain instead.”

Plans to rebalance the economy are not unique to Labour. Shadow Business Secretary Ken Clarke and David Cameron have called for Britain to “make things again” and the Conservatives committed in their manifesto to making Britain “the leading hi-tech exporter in Europe”, in line with recommendations from the billionaire inventor Sir James Dyson. But there is nothing to parallel the stab at a national industrial policy being pursued with such gusto by Lord Mandelson.

Naturally wary of state intervention, the Tories deride the Business Secretary’s dollops of spending and designated “low carbon economic areas” as French-style dirigisme, a return to the disastrous attempts to “pick winners” discredited in the 1960s. Instead, the Conservatives offer so-called “supply-side” measures such as cutting red tape, lowering corporation tax and dismantling the network of regional bodies used to funnel much of Labour’s support out to the regions.

It is an approach that may prove tricky to communicate in an area still scarred by the loss of its coal mines and ship yards. “The Conservatives have never done anything but kick us in the teeth up here – we haven’t just lost factories, we’ve lost whole industries,” says Alan Armitage, who works in the press shop at Nissan. “The North East votes Labour based on harsh and bitter memories of the past.”

But in some quarters the memories may be fading – and the Tories are squaring up for a serious fight. Of the city’s three newly-drawn constituencies, Houghton & Sunderland South is still the 9th safest Labour seat in England; Washington and Sunderland West is the 11th. But Sunderland Central has become an unlikely marginal in an otherwise solidly red region and Conservative candidate Lee Martin is working hard to breathe life back into a tradition of “Tory workers”. Although the chances are low that David Cameron’s Sunderland “wild card” will turn out to be a trump, Labour has taken the threat sufficiently seriously to draft in the Foreign Secretary David Miliband, MP for nearby South Shields, to lend his support to Labour’s Julie Elliott.

Outside the magic circle of those directly touched by Lord Mandelson’s interventionism, there is some appetite for change. Graeme Wallace, a taxi driver who plans to vote Tory in May, says that for all the speeches about industrial regeneration, there is little evidence of action. “Politicians like to talk, but I don’t see a lot happening in the North East,” he says. “Labour has betrayed a lot of people in this area in the last few years and that will be shown in the polls.” It is a view often echoed in affluent, leafy Ashbrooke, a stone’s throw from the city centre. “This government have not changed anything,” says one resident who will vote Conservative in May. “We have Nissan, but apart from that there is nothing else.”

Even among local industry, there is not wholesale support for intervention from government. It may be hard to find a Mackem who does not welcome good news for Nissan, but many see the Leaf as a one-off. Local businesses of all sorts are “hungry” for a piece of Lord Mandelson’s pie, Alan Hall, the regional director for EEF, a manufacturers’ lobby group, says. But the largesse is unpredictable, “whimsical”, far from the thorough-going national policy that capital-intensive industries need. “The developments that the government has dropped into the lap of some manufacturers are entirely welcome and I would shake Peter Mandelson’s hand any day of the week,” Mr Hall says. “But no one can predict what will come next - will it be Rosyth dockyard or the aircraft industry down in Bristol? – so you can’t begin to guess what it might really mean.”

At the Liebherr Sunderland Works world-class crane factory in a loop of the Wear, managing director Ralph Saelzer questions how far Labour’s policies really go. “There is no effect on us because we’re traditional heavy engineering,” he says. “It is not possible to rebalance the economy without heavy engineering: it might work on paper but you will still need the skills and expertise of traditional manufacturing.” Mr Saelzer has some praise for Labour’s record, notably the apprenticeship programme that helped Liebherr find the highly-skilled staff it needs. But to be effective, an industrial strategy needs to apply to all. “What would make a real difference is taxation,” says Mr Saelzer. “Reducing Corporation Tax would be a more convincing commitment and would send a message that we are still interested in keeping manufacturers going.”

Such distinctions gain little traction on the streets of Sunderland, where the prevailing mood is weary rather than inspired. The newly-resurgent third party is more on the radar than in the past. “Just because of Vince Cable,” is how one Tory voter explains his plans to switch to the Liberal Democrats. But the Conservatives are still the only real challenger. And all parties face an uphill struggle to connect to voters shut down by the MPs’ expenses scandal and the scale of expected spending cuts. There is nominal support for Nissan, but little sense of industrial rebirth. “If Labour are all for supporting industry, how come they closed down the steelworks then?” asks local housewife Jeanette Blenkinsopp, referring to the mothballing of the Corus plant in nearby Teesside in February.

The city is still blighted by persistently high youth unemployment, and few see real change in grand statements on electric cars and green industry. “It is the young ones I feel sorry for: they want kids and their own place, but they can’t afford it because there’s no work,” Ms Blenkinsopp says. “Bring back the old shipyards - that will get the young ones off the streets.” She has been a Labour supporter all her life, but does not plan to vote in May. “What’s the point - there’s no difference between them,” she says.

It is an all-too-common response. The biggest challenge is not convincing people to vote for one party or another, but persuading them to bother at all. “I won’t vote because I don’t want to be the one responsible for voting in a government,” one young man at the local JobCentre says. “They’re all equally bad.”

Economic re-balancing has some way to go before it can bridge such a gulf. In the meantime, all three parties’ candidates have a mountain to climb.