“The Rust Belt is the north of England on a continental scale”: on industrial decline & left behind places

Ohio loves Trump. Image: Getty.

It took an hour to find somewhere to eat in Youngstown. It was a week before election day in the United States and there had been no breakfast on offer at the motel I’d stayed at the previous night in Pennsylvania. I was due in Cleveland by lunchtime, so crossed the border into Ohio before stopping. Youngstown, the first place you reach heading west on Interstate 80, is the heart of a conurbation of nearly half a million people: it seemed as likely a spot as any for a meal.

When I arrived in downtown Youngstown, there was nothing there. Or rather: there was a state university, a few high-rise office blocks left over from the gilded age and a neat grid of huge and beautiful old houses of the sort James Thurber was writing stories about eighty years ago. But shops and restaurants and cafés, the sort of bustling street life that suggests a thriving community? Nothing. Some of these businesses had moved out to suburban strip malls. Others are just gone.

Youngstown is an extreme example of a phenomenon that can be seen all over the American Midwest. Over the past 80 years, the population of the city has fallen by two-thirds. In 2007, a CNN report ranked it as the poorest substantial city in the US. The Rust Belt is full of places like this: mining or manufacturing towns that were once industrial powerhouses but now feel too big and too grand for the shrunken populations that remain. The pictures of Detroit never show the glories of its half-empty central business district.

The Rust Belt is like the north of England on a continental scale. Its cities are Sheffield and Bradford, over and over again. When I visited, Ohio was about to commit what most metropolitan observers believed would be an act of enormous self-harm, just as much of the north had in June with the EU referendum.

As I finished my breakfast at an Italian café on the highway back to the interstate, a man at the next table waved me over. He had heard my accent, he said, and wanted to know about Brexit. It didn’t seem like a good sign that the UK’s political news had become a talking point in a place like Youngstown.

The man – who asked to be identified only as John – was an Italian-American and a lifelong Democrat, until now. He voted for Barack Obama in 2008, and he would have voted for Jim Webb, a Democratic Virginian senator who flirted with running for president in 2016, but dropped out before the primaries. John said he didn’t like the Clintons, even though he had voted for Bill twice. He wouldn’t be voting for Hillary: she was too establishment.

Donald Trump, though, John liked – the tycoon’s comments about changing the rules of trade in order to bring back American jobs resonated. And Trump’s comments about women? Well, Bill Clinton has his issues in that area, too, John said, and he was a great president. (The more we talked, it became clear that when John said he didn’t like the Clintons, he meant one Clinton in particular.)


I had heard similar comments about the relative merits of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump in Pennsylvania the day before. In the former mining city of Scranton, a trucking magnate told me that he admired Trump’s stance on avoiding taxes, on the grounds that it was what any sensible businessman would do.

This kind of sentiment was usual among the Republicans I met. The difference with John was that he was a Democrat and a blue-collar non-graduate – the kind of unionised worker who has traditionally made up the Democratic Party’s base.

Although I didn’t know it then, it was voters such as John who would win the election for Trump. In 2008, Obama carried Mahoning, the county that contains Youngstown, by 63 per cent to 35. This November, Hillary Clinton scraped it by 50 to 47, and Trump won Ohio by more than 8 points.

Ohio has long been a bellwether state. This pattern was repeated across the Rust Belt, with states that had not voted for a Republican in a generation – Pennsylvania, Wisconsin, Michigan – narrowly opting for Trump. He didn’t win the popular vote, but thanks to the US electoral college system, he didn’t need to. If Hillary Clinton had won just over 100,000 more votes in those three states combined, she would be president-elect.

So why didn’t she win here? Part of the explanation can be found in the economic anxiety that has been described in any number of reports about Trump voters from cities such as Youngstown. (Oddly, there have been very few similar reports about why people voted for Clinton in places such as Detroit.) The Trump campaign’s shameless mobilisation of racial resentment had a lot to do with why she lost, too. However, these explanations are merely two sides of the same coin: out-and-out racism has always been a more successful electoral strategy when voters feel insecure about their place in the world.

There is something else at work here, too, and I wonder whether it is the same force that caused much of the north of England to vote for Brexit, and may yet propel Marine Le Pen to the French presidency. In the Republican primary, one of the biggest predictors of how likely someone was to vote Trump was not having a college degree. There are millions of those voters in Rust Belt towns like Youngstown, because there are so few graduate jobs to do there. If you have skills or ambitions, you will leave.

The result, in the US as in the UK, is a divide that is as much geographical as it is cultural. Some thriving cities are liberal and global; others are left wondering where it all went wrong. Those big rambling houses by Youngstown’s manicured park can be bought for as little as $70,000 – because why would someone who can afford more choose to live there?

When John asked me about Brexit, I thought he wanted to know how it had happened, and what it would mean for the UK. But the more I think about it, the more I suspect that what he was really asking was this: for once, can we actually win?

His candidate, Donald Trump, will now be president. Winning, though, may mean something else entirely. 

This article was previously published in our sister publication, the New Statesman.

 
 
 
 

Worried Guildford will be destroyed by Chinese trains? Then you might not be very nice

A South West Train at Waterloo. Image: Getty.

Despite the collapse of everything else that more-or-less worked in 2008 Britain, before the Hunger Games years began, some things remain constant. One of the things that’s near-mathematical in its constancy is that, when a new train contract is let, people on both sides of the political spectrum will say extremely stupid things for perceived partisan advantage.

This week saw the award of the contract to run trains to the south west of London, and unsurprisingly, the saying stupid things lobby was out in force. Oddly – perhaps a Corbyn-Brexit trend – the saying of egregiously stupid racist lies, rather than moderately stupid things, was most pronounced on the left.

As we’ve done to death here: rail in Great Britain is publicly run. The rail infrastructure is 100 per cent publicly owned, and train operators operate on government contracts, apart from a few weird anomalies. Some physical trains are owned by private investors, but to claim rail isn’t publicly run would be like claiming the NHS was the same as American healthcare because some hospital buildings are maintained by construction firms.

Every seven years or so, companies bid for the right to pay the UK government to operate trains in a particular area. This is the standard procedure: for railways that are lossmaking but community-important, or where they are within a major city and have no important external connections, or where there’s a major infrastructure project going on that’ll ruin everything, special measures take place.

The South Western England franchise is not one of these. It’s a profitable set of train routes which doesn’t quite live up to its name. Although it inherited a few Devon and Dorset routes from the old days, its day job involves transporting hundreds of thousands of Reginald Perrins and Mark Corrigans from London’s outer suburbs and Surrey, Hampshire and Berkshire’s satellite towns to the grinding misery of desk jobs that pay a great deal of money.

(If your office is in the actual City of London, a fair trek from the railway’s Waterloo terminus, then you get the extra fun of an extra daily trip on the silliest and smelliest Tube line, and you get even more money still.)

Anyway. The South Western concession went up for auction, and Scottish bus and train operator First Group won out over Scottish bus and train operator Stagecoach, the latter of which had run the franchise for the preceding 20 years. (Yes, I know 20 isn’t a multiple of 7. Don’t ask me to explain, because I can and you wouldn’t enjoy it.)

First will manage the introduction of a bunch of new trains, which will be paid for by other people, and will pay the government £2.2bn in premiums for being allowed to run the service.

One might expect the reaction to this to be quite muted, because it’s quite a boring story. “The government does quite a good deal under which there’ll be more trains, it’ll be paid lots of money, and this will ultimately be paid back by well-paid people paying more train fares.” But these are not normal times.


First Group has decided for the purposes of this franchise to team up with MTR, which operates Hong Kong’s extremely good metro railway. MTR has a 30 per cent share in the combined business, and will presumably help advise First Group about how to run good metro railways, in exchange for taking a cut of the profits (which, for UK train franchises, tend to be about 3 per cent of total revenue).

The RMT, famous for being the least sensible or survival-oriented union in the UK since the National Union of Mineworkers, has taken exception to a Hong Kong company being involved in the railways, since in their Brexity, curly sandwich-eating eyes, only decent honest British Rail has ever delivered good railways anywhere in the world.

“A foreign state operator, in this case the Chinese state, is set to make a killing at the British taxpayers’ expense,” the RMT’s General Secretary Mick Cash said in a press release.

This is not true. Partly that's because a 30 per cent share of those 3 per cent profits is less than 1 per cent of total revenues, so hardly making a killing. Mostly, though, it’s because it’s misleading to call MTR “state-owned”. While it’s majority owned by the Hong Kong government (not the same body as the central Chinese state), it’s also partly listed on the Hong Kong Stock Exchange. More to the point, this a really odd way of describing a transport authority controlled by a devolved body. I wouldn’t call the Glasgow subway “UK-state owned” either.

So this fuss is intensely, ridiculously stupid.

There’s an argument – it’s a bad argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be properly privatised without government subsidy.

There’s an argument – it’s a slightly less stupid argument, but it exists – that the entire UK rail system should be returned to the public sector so we can enjoy the glory days of British Rail again.

The glory days of British Rail, illustrated in passenger numbers. Image: AbsolutelyPureMilk/Wikipedia.

But to claim that the problem is neither of these things, but rather that the companies who are operating trains on the publicly run network are partially foreign owned, makes you sound like a blithering xenophobe.

In fact, if you think it’s reasonable for a Scottish company to run trains but not for a Hong Kong company to run them, then that's me being pretty bloody polite all things considered.

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