Chesterfield in the north of England is where I learned much of my politics in the 1980s and early 1990s. It was there that Tony Benn, Britain’s great radical parliamentarian, led miners and their allies in a long and arduous political revolt against British Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher and the brutal austerity schemes of another era. The Labour left in Chesterfield preached solidarity with workers in Britain and around the world, it decried racism and sexism and environmental degradation, and it was profoundly skeptical about undemocratic economic arrangements that favored bankers over working families. Members of the Chesterfield Labour Party, who gathered at Unity House on Saltergate Street, were heartbroken when Thatcher’s cruel politics prevailed. The mines closed and the miners were forgotten, as were many of the communities of northern England, by British governments that grew ever more focused on promoting the financial trades of London bankers and on grand talk of markets and globalization.
Chesterfield has changed a good deal, as communities that experience economic upheaval always do. But it is still very much a Labour town. It never sends heirs to Thatcher’s Conservative Party tradition to Parliament. Nor does it have much taste for the candidates of the crudely-nationalist UK Independence Party, which has gained traction in other corners of England. Benn’s seat is now held by a member of his Labour Party. In the UK’s 2015 general election, the vote for Labour (which is currently led by Jeremy Corbyn who, with the member of parliament for Chesterfield, advocates for economic fairness and humane internationalism) was greater than the combined vote for Prime Minister David Cameron’s Tories and the immigrant-bashing UKIP.
Yet on Thursday Chesterfield cast an overwhelming “Brexit” vote, favoring Britain’s exit from the European Union. There were 34,478 votes for leaving, versus 22,946 to remain—a 60-40 margin that was echoed across the battered mining regions of northern England and beyond. There were many factors that underpinned Thursday’s narrow 52-48 UK win for the Brexit option. The Leave campaign employed xenophobic messages, playing on anti-immigrant and anti-refugee sentiments. There was also an old-school English nationalist thread that ran through the campaign. But there was, as well, an appeal to “Labour heartland” voters who were simply frustrated with the bold experiments of British and European elites that never seem to deliver for communities that have lost mining and manufacturing jobs.
Chesterfield is different from Lorain, Sheffield is different from Youngstown, the United Kingdom is very different from the United States.
Yet when I watched the UK count Friday morning—and the stunned reaction of the elite commentators who are always the last to know—I thought of the American cities that have been hit by globalization, outsourcing, and deindustrialization. And I thought of Donald Trump, who has directed so many of the messages of his campaign to the people who feel they have been left behind by political leaders who peddle free-trade schemes like NAFTA, most-favored-nation trading status for China, and the Trans-Pacific Partnership.