Report: Reasons to see Sunderland

There is a BBC show called I’ve Never Seen Star Wars – where celebs admit to embarrassing gaps in their experience.  Going round Britain is like that.  Millions of us Brits have never been to other bits of Britain. Perhaps the more we see of other countries the less we see of our own.

And so to my admission. I’d never been to Sunderland.  A city of 180,000 proud ‘Mackems’. Sunderland, the Poster Boy of Brexit, where 82,393 voted Leave – a whopping 61 percent. Sunderland, which provided the iconic Sun front page of jubilant leavers celebrating their referendum victory.

To outsiders like me, Sunderland was a puzzle. Just 3.6% of Sunderland is foreign born, yet the BNP was once popular there. The north-east has received significant amounts of EU funding. And crucially – as you already know – Sunderland depends very heavily on Nissan, which supports 7,000 jobs directly and 30,000 overall, and sends most of its cars to EU countries.  Why would turkeys vote for Christmas?

So on a bone cold late November day Charlotte Clapham and I set off to Sunderland for a full day of listening and learning.  We were curious. We didn’t get to the bottom of it on a day trip. What follows is just our impressions, based on a day of careful listening.

Sunderland feels very far from London, and quite cut off from the North East region. Compared to the grandeur of Newcastle’s railway station, Sunderland city centre felt run down. Several locals told us that Newcastle, Gateshead, and Durham are stronger, more successful, more interesting places. Newcastle and Gateshead together have a cultural scene, exciting night life, bars, restauants two universities, two major hospitals, the Baltic and the Sage Centre, and the stunning Tyneside vibe. Sunderland just doesn’t.

Sunderland really has been ‘left behind’.  It used to have shipyards, coal-mining, the glass industry and textiles. That all disappeared in the 70s, 80s and 90s. Whoosh! Tens of thousands of well paying, highly-skilled, confidence-building, secure jobs. Lifelong employment and job certainty, all gone.

But it isn’t the kind of town to sit around moaning. Sunderland has fought back. There is Doxford Business Park, the Leighton Group of digital firms at Rainton. There is a fantastic new football stadium where Monkwearmouth Colliery used to be.

But walking around the city you could see what feels like a generation now out of full-time, highly-skilled work.  Some of the pubs were – if not packed, then fairly full. By noon, on a weekday.   The people in them were all white, and typically aged between 40 and 75.

Some of the people we spoke to used the phrase ‘left behind’. But nearly all of them said ‘not listened to’ – by the government, by London, by the region and by the local Labour establishment. There feels like more dislike of London than of the EU.

Sunderland University has about 16,000 students – where there used to be just 3,000. We met three young people studying politics and history. Two Remainers and one Brexiteer.  They were smart, funny and pragmatic about Brexit. But none of them were planning to stay in the city after graduating. Why? “Because good jobs and careers are scarce. Men work in Nissan. Women work in retail. Young people at Doxford Call centres.”  They also told us, the vote was generational. “Older people were really all for Leave. Younger voters, tended to Remain.”

Everyone we met said Sunderland is a solidly Labour city. Another way to see that is that Sunderland has not had a direct line to the seat of power for decades. Hurrah for Labour that the town is so loyal – but there are dangers in having a mini one-party state.  Even the Council Leader conceded that a big chunk of the Brexit vote locally was a poke in the eye for the local Labour establishment.

Maybe Mackems are right to have taken their frustrations on EU institutions. Maybe after Brexit, the sun will rise again on industrial Sunderland.  But there’s also a feeling that Sunderland has been poorly served not by Europe but by national, regional and local government.

If you have not been to Sunderland, go. It is a friendly city. It has The National Glass Centre, the Stadium of Light, Roker and Seaburn beaches, Sunderland Museum and Winter Gardens. For a good account of the place, try Chris Mullin. He was MP for Sunderland South 25 years.

Whatever we do about Brexit – hard or soft, stay or go – we Brits have to get to know each other better. That means understanding Sunderland better. I’m looking forward to going to go back for a longer, deeper visit – and more time in those midday pubs.