Why has John McDonnell's constituency changed its mind on Brexit?

That the constituency that contains Heathrow voted strongly in favour of Brexit was a serious shock, but now it appears to have changed its mind

Tom Peck@tompeck
Wednesday 15 August 2018 20:28
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Can Brexit be reversed?

Probably, it was the deafening midnight cheers at Sunderland’s referendum count that has since made the city’s Nissan workers the poster boys for Brexit self-harm. That, and, perhaps, a vague anti-northern prejudice. Sunderland’s overwhelming vote to leave the EU summoned forth ultimatum style letters to the British government from their Japanese automotive overlords to make clear what the hell was going on, specifically re the single market, or face the consequences.

But there is an equally, if not more baffling example to be found much closer to the media’s traditional London home. During the height of the EU referendum campaign, scarcely a day went by when some politician or other didn’t walk out from under the wing of an aircraft in some blowy hangar somewhere, to warn of the peril faced by the aviation industry in the event of a Leave vote. In the best case scenario, British airlines would move their head offices to continental Europe. Ticket prices would soar. Air travel would get more difficult. Passport queues would turn blue but quadruple in length. In the worst case, flights would be grounded altogether.

But the people of Hayes and Harlington, the west London constituency best understood as the extended baggage carousel for Heathrow airport, took this advice onboard, stowed it in the overhead lockers and went out and voted for Brexit anyway, and by a large margin – 40.6 to 59.4 per cent.

But, according to a recent poll, that outlook has changed dramatically. Hayes and Harlington is near the very top of a list of 112 constituencies that have now changed their mind from Leave to Remain. Analysis by Focaldata, published in The Observer, suggests a 12.8 per cent swing.

So why has Hayes and Harlington changed its mind?

“Brexit? What a mess,” says Adam, a man in his twenties, on his way out of a Sainsbury’s near the station. Adam works for a catering company that manages the storage and delivery of airline meals to Heathrow. He won’t say whether he voted Leave or Remain, or even if he voted at all, but is clearly concerned about the potential impact of Brexit on his employer. “Have you seen the money they’re borrowing, Heathrow? Billions, in case it all goes wrong. Billions.”

And does he think it is all going to go wrong?

“I don’t know. People saying the planes are going to stop taking off and all that. I don’t think that’s going to happen, but you don’t know do you. I don’t think anyone thinks any of the things they said would happen are going to happen. More money for the NHS and all that. There won’t be any more money.”

The “billions” Heathrow is borrowing is not quite as Adam claims. At the end of June, the airport refinanced its debt to make more cash available in the event of a no-deal Brexit and whatever catastrophes that might cause. The UK falling out of various international aviation agreements when it leaves the European Union, and flights having to be grounded as a result is widely considered the most catastrophic and therefore the most unlikely outcome of a no deal Brexit. But, on anecdotal evidence alone, it is enough to make Heathrow workers worried.

A spokesperson for the airport said: “We trust the government to ensure the right steps are taken to ensure planes can take off. Our priority is running a smooth operation.”

But that trust is evidently not shared by staff. Almost none of the flight attendants, pilots, retail staff and other Heathrow workers embarking at the airport’s various underground stations are prepared to break instructions passed down from on high about speaking to the media about Brexit, but one young woman, who says she is a construction engineer, says “Who knows what’s going to happen? It’s not exactly all going to plan is it?”

Hard Brexit, soft Brexit, no-deal Brexit or no Brexit at all, Heathrow’s third runway becomes more likely by the day, but the likelihood of it opening within a decade is limited, and does not factor in to the day to day concerns of the majority of the current workforce.

In the event of a second referendum on the terms of Brexit, itself a growing likelihood, the precise geographical location of anyone who has changed their mind will not matter. But it does heap pressure on local MPs who may no longer be able to claim to be acting on the will of their constituents. And Hayes and Harlington’s MP is in a particularly curious spot. John McDonnell spent decades in parliament walking through the division lobbies with the usual Eurosceptics, became shadow chancellor and campaigned rather lukewarmly for remain. Now he is at the forefront of Labour’s Brexit policy which is generously described as “constructively ambiguous”.

His neighbouring constituency, Uxbridge and south Ruislip, represented by Boris Johnson, has also apparently had a change of heart. If Brexit does go wrong, it is hard to see how John McDonnell’s constituents will express their change of heart on Brexit at the ballot box. They are certainly unlikely to do so by voting Conservative.

“One of the reasons I campaigned for Remain was because I was deeply worried about impact on the aviation industry and Heathrow. I have especially consistently and at times vociferously explained that a Tory no-deal Brexit would have massive consequences for Heathrow and the aviation sector overall,” Mr McDonnell told The Independent.

“I have never thought Brexit would be good for airport workers in my constituency. That’s why I campaigned against it. Although we all respect the referendum result we need a government that will protect jobs and the economy and recognises the real vulnerabilities of the aviation industry. With the way this Government has handled the negotiations on Brexit I am not surprised that airport workers are now also worried about the future of their industry.”

It is clear that a general election will not give the people of Hayes and Harlington the opportunity to express their new found doubts about Brexit. Only a second referendum can do that.

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