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Let’s talk about Ebbw Vale

Ebbw Vale is back in the news again thanks to a fleeting visit from émigré Guardian journalist Carole Cadwalladr in preparation for a TED talk that is currently doing the rounds on social media.  Her aim was to copy the US Democrats in claiming that their political decline can be laid at the door of Facebook.  But in the course of her presentation exposing the dark adverts that helped to sway the result, she glosses over some of the far more profound shifts that caused Ebbw Vale to vote to leave the European Union despite being the recipient of millions of euros in economic development funding.

Like Cadwalladr, I grew up (and still live) in South Wales.  I also, back in my public policy research days, oversaw research into de-industrialisation and poverty in and around Ebbw Vale in the 1990s.  As a result, I was quite shocked by the dismissive manner in which she shows “before and after” images of the town.  Ebbw Vale used to look like this, she informs her audience; pointing to a picture of the British Steel plant:

Ebbw Vale steel works
Image: Ian Taylor/Geograph UK

Now it looks like this, she tells her technophile audience, pointing to a purpose built, EU-funded further education college:

Ebbw Vale College
Image: Chris Andrews/Geograph UK

She goes on to repeat her earlier proposition that:

“It’s a town with almost no immigrants that voted to get the immigrants out. A town that has been showered with EU cash that no longer wants to be part of the EU…

“Wales isn’t just a net EU beneficiary, EU capital funding has been an essential part of attracting firms to come here. All around town are signs marked with the EU flag for the Ebbw Vale enterprise zone. The website notes that as an EU tier 1 area, ‘companies can benefit from the highest level of grant aid in the UK’.”

This is, in fact, a fairly common refrain among Westminster Village affluent liberals who, like their Democrat counterparts on the other side of the Atlantic, refuse to acknowledge their own role in the debacle that is now unfolding.  And since they cannot possibly have done anything to cause Brexit (or Donald Trump) then the people must have been duped.  As I put it two years ago:

“The standard view of Brexit is that it was little more than “Turkeys voting for Christmas.”  Ill-educated people, bamboozled by the wicked tabloid media and egged on by duplicitous politicians, were effectively conned into voting against their best interests.  Consider the South Wales valley town of Ebbw Vale where 62 percent of the population voted for Brexit:

According to the local council, the area received $9.68 million (£7.3 million) from the EU between 2007 and 2013 to invest in education, not just for schools but also for additional education facilities and training. The EU has pumped in $192 million (£145 million) since the steelworks closed in 2002 and brought an end to the local area’s main source of income. The town centre boasts a brand new silver statue of a dragon — the Welsh national symbol — and shiny silver balls that line the main street. Both were built with $5.9 million (£4.5 million) in EU funds for physical improvements to the town’s centre. Then there is the $105 million (£79 million) in EU funds that supported development of a new divided highway between Tredegar and Brynmawr, which has opened up employment and business opportunities across the South Wales Valleys.

How is it possible that people treated to such largess by their elders and betters should be so ungrateful as to bite the hand that fed them?  Surely it can only be due to people being duped by media lies, Russian spies and Facebook trolls.

One answer, though, is to be found in the contrast between the old steel works and the new technical college that Cadwalladr uncritically glides over.  Yes, the steel works (once the largest in Europe) – along with the coal mines that supplied them – were dirty and polluting.  Yes, they involved back-breaking, exclusively male physical labour.  But the steel works alone provided 14,500 highly paid manual jobs of a kind that barely exist in the UK today; the wages from which maintained a host of prosperous small local businesses.  In contrast, the new college offers just a fraction of far less well-paid work.  Less obviously, the college is a mixed blessing, since it acts as a feeder into university education; allowing the town’s brightest young people to leave an area which, even in the early 1990s was being “left behind.”  The same is true of the new by-pass.  Yes, it has curbed congestion on local roads.  But, on the other hand, it has allowed people to get work in, and eventually move to, the administrative centres on the coast; again resulting in Ebbw Vale being left behind.

What Cadwalladr is espousing – either consciously or unconsciously – is the neoliberal prescription identified and critiqued by her fellow Guardian columnist Thomas Frank.  Frank might have been talking about Cadwalladr when critiquing the neoliberalism of political scientist William Galston:

“In an article he co-wrote in 1998, he told Democrats that ‘the new economy favours a rising learning class over a declining working class.’ To keep up with ‘new realities’, he wrote, Democrats needed to understand that labour was in decline, that the New Deal generation was dying, and that the future belonged to a certain group of affluent, well-educated people. The rest is history. New Democrats did indeed defeat populism. High-minded Democratic centrists did indeed abandon their traditional identification with working people in favour of the ‘learning class’.  And Democrats started finding it ‘difficult’ to take action on matters of basic economic fairness…

“Galston… understands that economic stagnation made Trump possible – that growing inequality and the fraying of the middle class played a huge role. He argues that liberal leaders have been ‘oblivious’ to the sufferings of their fellow Americans and that ‘this blindness is often tinged with meritocratic snobbery toward those with less education and status’.

“This is exactly right. Unfortunately, in Galston’s telling, these things are all the result of impersonal forces, of ‘globalisation’ and ‘technological change’ adjusting ‘the balance between labour and capital, setting in motion the slow erosion of the postwar middle class’. Shit happens, you might say.”

And so the inhabitants of the US rust belt and the residents of ex-industrial towns like Ebbw Vale should just suck it up.  There is no going back to the heyday of British Steel; they’ve been given the educational establishments that are the supposed cure to impoverishment; and they’ve been given the road and rail links to move to where the jobs are.

Like an antibiotic to which bacteria have grown resistant, however, this was a treatment that stopped working decades ago.  Those of us fortunate enough to get into university in the 1970s and 80s did not have to stump up the cash to pay for tuition; nor did we have to pay council tax. Instead we received maintenance grants and support with rent from our local authorities; so that we only worked in the evening and at weekends if we chose to.  And, because less than 10 percent of the population went to university in those days, most of us were able to walk into well-paying employment immediately after graduating.  None of those things are true for Generation Z today.  They face the prospect of huge debts to cover their tuition and living costs; but outside a few courses in tier-one universities, they have little chance of finding high-paid employment when they graduate.  Indeed, the average starting salary for a university undergraduate today is little different to what it was a decade ago.

Stephen Young – an Ebbw Vale resident replying to Cadwalladr’s TED talk – spells it out for her:

“I’ve lived in Ebbw Vale all my life, worked in the steelworks and ran my own business for many years. Whilst you can go out on any street anywhere and get the answers that suits your agenda, there are also voices to the opposite if you look hard enough. This town has a new learning zone, new roads and some other EU funded projects……….it doesn’t have jobs. The steelworks at one time employed 13,000 and the mine about 800 I think. Heavy industry has gone and our town has no air pollution and heavy lorries running through it constantly, which is good, but it has no money either, little has been done to replace the jobs that were lost, we have been in austerity before the rest of the country heard of it. Recession? We think that is our way of life. We see billions spent in London and the south east, we see billions spent in Cardiff……….in comparison we, and a lot of Wales and large tranches of England are feeding off crumbs from the table.

Young’s anecdotal response is confirmed by The Bevan Foundation – a local think tank researching and engaging on poverty issues around Wales – named after Ebbw Vale’s famous former MP :

“A huge deal has been made of Wales’ EU structural funds over the years. Such has been their prominence that a row over match-funding toppled Wales’ first First Minister, Alun Michael, in 2000. And they’ve taken up an inordinate number of headlines and Assembly debating time ever since.

“They frankly don’t deserve this coverage, because the actual spend – about £4 billion over 20 years – is a drop in the public spending ocean. The average annual allocation of about £200 million (i.e. £4 billion divided by 20) is just 1.5% of the Welsh Government’s budget. Indeed EU funds are tiny compared with mega-cash splashed by the UK Government, like £9 billion on the 2012 Olympics or £14.8 billion spent over nine years on Cross Rail 1. Even England’s Regional Growth Fund – which may well have passed you by – beats Wales’ EU funding with £3.2 billion over five years.

“EU funding pales even further into insignificance when the huge problems Wales faced are taken into account. Over the 1980s and 1990s parts of Wales had seen their local economy devastated as a result of coal and steel closures and multiple recessions. In truth, EU funding simply wasn’t enough to address problems on this scale…

“The statistics on the economy speak for themselves. Despite 16 years of the EU’s maximum level of help, Blaenau Gwent – the most pro-leave local authority area in Wales – saw a decline in the number of jobs in the area. Neighbouring Merthyr Tydfil, Caerphilly and Torfaen, also leave-voting areas, saw barely perceptible growth (2 – 3,000 more jobs in each). If these towns were ‘showered with cash’ it appears to have gone straight down the drain.

“Throw into the mix some of the sobering figures on earnings, which show that a male on median wages in Blaenau Gwent is now more than £71 a week worse off in real terms than in the early 2000s, and it’s pretty clear that whatever else EU funds may have achieved, they didn’t boost the fortunes of Blaenau Gwent and many other parts of Wales.”

Add to this the inevitable graft and racketeering that accompanies the distribution of any sizeable pot of state funding and you have a recipe for revolt.  While I disagree with Tory MP Guto Bebb’s stance on Europe, as a beneficiary of European funding myself (I was once a partner in a multi-million pound EU-funded action research project on mental health in the workplace operating in Holland, Slovakia, Sweden and Wales) I have witnessed first-hand some of the ways in which EU funding is skewed in order to maintain Wales’ position (alongside Cornwall – another Leave-voting area) at the bottom of western Europe’s economic league table.  As Bebb explained in 2013:

“[My] lecture today is not on the failure of Brussels or Europe.  Wales’ failure to profit from huge European investment since 2000 falls on our shoulders as Welsh people and reflects the political leadership and major deficiencies in the Assembly’s strategy to utilise these funds.

“Indeed, the whole European jamboree has become a monetary fund for local authorities, education and third sector bodies, with the private sector, that sector of the economy which should be contributing to economic growth, getting virtually no portion of the financial cake.

“It is hardly surprising that having neglected the very part of the economy that exists in order to create wealth, we have seen Wales’ relative economic performance regress rather than develop for the better during a period that now extends over fifteen years of funding projects throughout Wales that should have contributed to our economic benefit but which did nothing of the sort.”

Like Bebb, I place most of the blame for the catalogue of failure on the shoulders of Welsh politicians and administrators – who could, and should, have used the funding to lift Wales out of poverty – rather than the European Union; but it is a distinction most likely lost on those who have watched their communities decline even as a crowd of overpaid local authority managers and university vice chancellors have continued to get fat on public subsidies.

As the economy has continued to breakdown in the aftermath of the 2008 crash – which is itself merely the financial dimension of a net energy crisis that has been accelerating since the mid-1970s – place has become increasingly important.  As the declining pool of high-skilled/high-paid jobs retreats into the south eastern Cambridge-Oxford-London triangle and the shrinking archipelago of tier-one university campuses, the rest of the population have come to realise that where we are is as good as it is going to get – and at least here on the periphery the cost of living is lower than in those few districts where the affluent class continues to cling on to its earlier way of life.

Here’s an odd thing about the South Wales valleys; if you look hard enough you can find a visible economic “high tide mark” – the furthest point along each of the valleys that the various economic upswings reached before recession set in once more.  In part it is visible in the buildings – far more of the shiny new ones like Cadwalladr’s college can be found down in the south of the valley than at the Heads of the Valleys just twenty miles to the north.  But that’s not it.  It is also the state of repair of the older buildings – more renovation in the southern commuter belt than the ex-industrial north.  It is certainly in the boarded-up shops on once prosperous high streets and the empty business premises to the north; built by successive local authorities in the hope that some passing entrepreneur would come and set up operations.  Maybe it is in the people themselves – more prone to hunching forward and looking down to the floor up in the north than their more upright and less depressed counterparts to the south.  Exactly where the economic “high tide” reached, changed over time.  But one thing is sure, since Thatcher’s recession in the early 1980s – during which more than two million UK jobs (many of them high-paid) were lost – the high tide has never returned to Heads of the Valley towns like Ebbw Vale.

Cadwalladr, perhaps, represents the majority of the population in the face of the Human Impact catastrophe that is unfolding around us.  Like her, most people believe that Ebbw Vale is the anomaly while London and the university campus islands of shrinking prosperity are the norm.  Go back to the 1930s, though, and Ebbw Vale was in a similar position.  Edward VIII famously recoiling in horror at the conditions he found there and crying out that, “something must be done…”  And, of course, something was done – although not by monarch or statesman.  Ebbw Vale caught the high tide of the unprecedented post war boom (1953-1973) supplying its insatiable demand for steel and coal, as much of the world made the transition to a US-style oil-based economy.  For a brief couple of decades it looked like Britain’s nineteenth century industrial periphery would be incorporated into an age of prosperity once more.  Instead, like the post-war economy itself, it was a petroleum-fuelled flash in the pan.

Economic neoliberalism was the response to the crisis of the 1970s which spelled the death knell for towns like Ebbw Vale.  As energy per capita in the developed economies collapsed – causing discretionary spending to plummet – so jobs were offshored to cheaper regions of the planet; where low wages and lax environmental standards kept the economic growth party going for another couple of decades.  But growth depended upon growing consumer demand in the developed economies; and so private debt was expanded massively – expanding the stock of debt-based currency and obliging governments to privatise public assets in order to maintain the value of their currencies.  Banking and finance, together with a handful of technical specialties like aerospace and pharmaceuticals emerged as the growth areas of the new neoliberal economies; and the people of 100 towns like Ebbw Vale were not invited to participate.

Recent Eurostat data shows that while London is still the most prosperous place in northern Europe, Britain also contains nine out of the ten most impoverished places (Ebbw Vale is included in the poorest, West Wales region):

EU rich v poor

Brexit may have been influenced by dark ads on Facebook and by blatant lies on the side of bright red buses.  It was the decades of grinding poverty, however, that provided the fertile soil in which those messages were able to take root and flourish. 

Just as the post war consensus was swept away by the neoliberalism of Thatcher and Reagan in response to the crisis of the 1970s, so we today are witnessing the neoliberal consensus being swept away in response to the post-2008 crisis.  To understand this, however, you must first understand the truce between left and right at the heart of the neoliberal project.  As the author of the Flip Chart Fairy Tales blog explains:

“Even during the Thatcher period, when economic policies shifted to the right, the liberal policies initiated during the 1960s, and the social changes that went with them, continued apace. Conservative politicians may have railed against ‘political correctness’ but they didn’t do much about it. Racist and sexist language that would have passed unremarked in 1979 was considered unacceptable by the time John Major left office. Corporal punishment in schools was abolished under Margaret Thatcher and, while there was much tough talk on immigration, her government did little to change the existing laws. The Conservatives even shied away from illiberal legislation that would have been overwhelmingly popular, such as the re-introduction of capital punishment. Voters might have thought they were voting for socially conservative policies but what they got was economic liberalism.

“If the right had quietly abandoned the culture war the left seemed to do something similar with the economic war. By and large, Labour under Tony Blair accepted privatisation and de-regulation. It tried, with some success, to mitigate the rise in economic inequality by using redistributive taxes and benefits while advancing its socially liberal agenda. Its Equality Act in 2010 said very little about economic equality. As Peter Mandelson might have said, the Labour government didn’t mind people getting filthy rich provided they had the right equality and diversity policies in place.”

The unfolding backlash involves a rejection of both sides of this accommodation – it is both socially conservative and economically egalitarian.  It might support whole-life terms of imprisonment for murder, halting immigration and stopping oversea aid; but it also supports nationalising key public utilities, increasing the top rate of tax and raising the minimum wage.  Corbyn – something of a throwback to the economic politics of the 1960s – did far better than expected in the 2017 general election because he promoted policies that addressed the economic pole of the emerging politics.  Bernie Sanders stumbled onto the same economic pole during the 2016 primaries; and may well have gone on to defeat Trump had the Clintons not rigged the primaries.

Trump’s “Make America Great Again” also addresses the economic sentiment of the emerging politics, although its substance has thus far amounted to little more than a once and done tax cut and some pressure on the Federal Reserve to keep interest rates low.  The US Republicans (along with Britain and Europe’s alt-right) do, however, tick most of the boxes on the emerging social conservative pole; making a Trump victory very likely next year.

Where the emerging politics falls down is that it is rooted in our collective quasi-religious belief in technological progress.  While Trump and Brexit supporters might long for a new age of prosperity in which the ex-industrial towns get to rebuild their mines, steelworks and factories; the cold reality is that in an era of declining net energy that will never happen.  What we are actually living through will be at best an era of managed decline in which our consumption of the planet’s remaining resources falls significantly.  It is a process that will see the economy re-localise; simply because the days when we could afford to operate global just-in-time supply chains for the plethora of goods and services we have become used to, are coming to an end.  Basics like food and clothing are likely to emerge as far more important items than such things as 5-G smartphones, electric cars and virtual reality headsets. 

In the new reality that awaits us, ex-industrial towns like Ebbw Vale may, however, have clung onto the one thing that will be prized above all else… a sense of community in the face of adversity.

As you made it to the end…

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