BLYTH, United Kingdom: The biggest shock of Britain’s general election was one of the first results, when Blyth Valley in northeast England – a staunch Labour heartland – suddenly turned Conservative.
The result would have been unimaginable during the 1980s industrial decline, which made Conservative prime minister Margaret Thatcher a hate figure in the working-class area.
But the turnaround was no surprise Friday to shoppers and traders braving the chill in Blyth, a town built on shipbuilding and coal on the North Sea coast near Newcastle.
Frustrated voters felt Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s Conservatives would finally deliver Brexit, more than three years after Britain opted to leave the European Union – something heavily backed in northern working-class towns.
Voters also felt abandoned by Labour main opposition leader Jeremy Corbyn’s affluent metropolitan socialism and push for another Brexit referendum.
“I’ve voted Labour all my life,“ said market trader Colin Spottswood, 65.
“It was Brexit that swung it because I was just fed up.
“Now, at least, hopefully the country can move on,“ he told AFP.
‘Disaster’ for Labour
The Blyth Valley constituency had been Labour ever since its creation in 1950, when northeast England was still an engine room of British industry.
But Conservative Ian Levy’s stunning early win set the tone for the sweeping victory that followed, as Johnson won an 80-seat majority in the 650-seat House of Commons.
It typified the way Brexit-backing, working-class towns – traditional Labour bastions – punished the party for taking them for granted.
Levy took 43% of the vote, with the Labour candidate on 41% and the Brexit Party third on8%, having also scooped up frustrated Labour voters.
While Johnson repeatedly pledged to “get Brexit done” by Jan 31, Corbyn’s new referendum was a bid to keep europhile metropolitan voters on board.
Ronnie Campbell, a former coal miner who stepped down as the Labour MP for Blyth Valley after 32 years this month, was a vocal eurosceptic.
“It’s a disaster,“ he told AFP, citing Brexit fence-sitting, Corbyn, and the leader’s fervent London fanclub as having cost Labour his old seat.
“We voted to leave. What did Labour do? Went the other way. If you do that, when you knock on doors, people will reject you.
“Jeremy is a nice bloke. But the leadership is part of the London metropolitan set, and that’s the trouble,“ Campbell added.
‘Over the moon’
“It’s the happiest day of my life!” said Dave Stephenson, a retired joiner, born and bred in Blyth, and a sprightly 81.
“It’s the best thing that’s ever happened. Look at the state of Blyth. It was a lovely little town but everything’s closing down.
“I changed my vote a while ago. I started voting Brexit Party but for this one I voted Conservative because I want Brexit done.
“Labour have let the people of Blyth down. I couldn’t stand Corbyn.
“It’s time we had a change and time Brexit was done.”
The Christmas tree is up in Blyth’s freezing market, where a handful of stalls sell lighters, camouflage gear, flowers, crossword books and bed linen.
The smell of fish and chips drifts across the granite-paved square, surrounded by rows of red-brick terraced houses and overflown by seagulls.
“I’m over the moon,“ said market trader Peter Gough, 59.
“I’ve voted Labour all my life. But Jeremy Corbyn’s policies, I didn’t like them, I didn’t trust the man so I’ve voted Conservative.”
Housewife Dana Harvey, 35, added: “Everyone’s voted on wanting to be out because we’ve decided that long ago: That we want to be out of the EU.”
Market stallholder Ron Coltman, 71, in between selling Christmas cards, said he had voted Conservative – and did not see Blyth switching back any time soon.
“It wasn’t a surprise. Basically, nobody likes Mr Corbyn,“ he said.
“We’re going to give these a chance and see what they can do.
“I’ve talked to all my customers; the general feeling is the Conservatives will have to do really bad over the next five years, or they’ll be in for a long time.”
Martin Farr, senior lecturer in contemporary British history at Newcastle University, said Blyth Valley was a “perfect storm” for the election’s biggest shock.
“A well-established Brexiteer local MP standing down in a town that has suffered enormously, and a totally inept Labour leader,“ he told AFP.
Several northeast constituencies followed Blyth Valley in turning from red to blue.
Farr added: “The Labour vote in the area has been declining over time. It reflects a longer-term disengagement with a sense of identity.
“It’s hard to see how Labour come out of this.” — AFP