Sunderland People’s Vote March – a Personal Account

The Sunderland People’s Vote march was on Saturday 6th October. The weather was good and the muster point was Mowbray Park. The “big name” on the bill was Anna Soubry MP. I must confess to being a big fan of Anna – I never thought I would say that about a Conservative. She  is one of the few  prepared to make a positive case for immigration and argues eloquently and passionately against a hard Brexit. I was delighted, if not surprised, that she had come off the fence and decided to support a people’s vote.

Sunderland is not a city I go to often, I live North of Newcastle and if I need to do any shopping etc. Newcastle is the obvious choice. Electorally however I had happy memories of  Sunderland. Sunderland South seemed to be always the first constituency to declare in a GE and Chris Mullen (one of my favourite MPs) was guaranteed to romp home for Labour – always starting GE night with  a positive result. Newcastle was rather envious of the Sunderland electoral counting speed and has been catching up for years.

On the fateful night of the Brexit referendum, Newcastle indeed declared first with a narrow Remain result. Sunderland famously declared next and voted Leave by a large margin. It was at that point I was convinced that my worst fears were realised – I had been expecting Leave to win up till Jo Cox’s murder but was hoping the country would step back from the brink. I went to bed shortly afterwards, dreading a Leave result and hoping for at least one good night’s sleep before calamity struck. The sleep was not good and the result worse.

I had been to Anti-Brexit events in Newcastle and Tynemouth earlier in the year. I had missed the big London march on the 23rd June as we were hosting a neighborhood party in memory of Jo Cox. There was the odd bit of heckling etc. in both the Newcastle and Tynemouth events, but nothing major. This was sadly about to change as there was an EDL type counter demonstration at Sunderland.

Our son had a rugby match at Kingston Park so was not present (just as well in retrospect), but my wife and myself took the Metro to Sunderland and walked to the Park and got kitted up with People’s Vote and OFOC stickers and EU and Union flags. As the crowd, of several hundred, gathered I spotted Femi. A very pleasant surprise as he was not on the billing – I am a great admirer of his videos. I went across to speak to Femi and briefly said hello. There was a local activist who wanted an impromptu video and discussion of how small the fishing industry was in comparison to the NE industrial base, so I hung discretely in the background.

Anna Soubry arrived. Hi Anna! She looked better and about 5 years younger than on television. I like to think she is finally at peace with herself. Putting country before party is particularly difficult in the Tory party. It is a real mark of true courage, particularly in these strange times.

Meanwhile the side entrance to the park that we had entered by was being used as the muster point for an EDL like counter demonstration. Plenty of noise and a rather ugly mood. The counter demonstration was fairly small – two dozen perhaps, in comparison to the hundreds on the People’s Vote march.

The march started and on exiting the park through the main gate we were kept separated by the police from the EDL crowd who were jeered as we walked past. One shoved a mobile phone almost in my face – possibly intending to intimidate me whilst videoing. I glared at her with a contemptuous look -“do you want me to shove it in your face?” – she said. I just walked on. Just as well my son wasn’t there. When I described the incident later and asked what would he have done? He said “I would have grabbed the phone off her and smashed it on the floor!”

We marched through the Sunderland streets to Keel Square Chanting slogans such as “Hey hey Theresa May give us all a final say” and “what do we want?” – “a people’s vote” “when do we want it?” “we want it now!” We ignored the jeering of the counter demonstration. Femi is made of braver stuff and engaged with some of them. Heroic!

We arrived at Keel Square where a stage had been set up and there was a dancing group in EU blue doing various numbers, finishing with a spirited dance to Abba’s “Waterloo”. The compère must have been a music teacher at a local school and introduced a number of young singers, finishing with a version of Tracy Chapman’s “Fast Car.” A very good showcase of talent in the NE.

The speeches began. The counter demonstration set up on the left of the stage and tried with little success to disrupt things, with chanting “liar! liar! liar!”, “traitor! traitor! traitor!” and trying to drown out the speeches with horns and sirens. The quality of the speeches were uniformly high but a few stood out.

Lucy Gabrielle Dixon a local teenager was introduced. At that point  counter-demonstrators pushed in right in front of the stage and tried to intimidate her.

Lucy was visibly shaken, seemed nearly in tears, but gave an impassioned speech about her dreams of a career in the travel industry and her admiration for John Hayes, who started with a corner of a shop in Seaham – 6 miles south of Sunderland and was now in charge of an empire of 147 retail branches. She believed that in order to succeed that she needed to visit and get experience of the places she was recommending to her clients, e.g. Spain, which would get far more expensive and difficult for her after Brexit.

There was an excellent speech by Dr Aidan King on the devastating effect of Brexit on staffing levels on the already overstretched NHS. This was accompanied by shouts of “Liar!” and “Traitor!” by the EDL counter demonstration, which Aidan ignored with the contempt that they deserved.

Anna Soubry was excellent and passionate. Superb oratory. She highlighted the likely slow decline of Nissan and the NE industrial base. She was really annoyed by the demonstrators and didn’t hold back. What is wrong with this parliament? Why to we have the Maybot and the worst government in my lifetime where there is such talent about?

Steve Gavin (Veterans for Europe) finished off with a passionate defence of the EU as a peace project. Excellent stuff and something that should have been emphasised far more during the referendum. Gordon Brown did a very good video from Coventry Cathedral on the same theme, which was in contrast to the relentless negativity and project fear of Cameron’s Remain campaign. Even the NDL yobs were less vocal. I think Veterans must be one of the few groups they still have some respect for.

We finished with the compère saying that we should all come together and join in a rendition of “God Save the Queen.” To my surprise and wife’s astonishment I sang it at the top of my voice. As an Irish Republican it was something I never thought I would do but it seemed right in the moment. I don’t think the NDL joined in but at least they stopped jeering.

Postscript added Mon 8th Oct 19:47

The compère was in fact Dr Jacky Collins of Northumbria University – a colleague for many years, but in a different faculty and building  so our paths had not crossed. She was amused rather than annoyed by her description as a music teacher!

There has been a good response on Twitter and one great bit of news

Postscript added Tues 9th Oct 08:17

Just to confirm the far right thuggish types are in no way typical of Sunderland. North East for Europe have tweeted a picture of a Sunderland Brexitometer, which shows very considerable support for People’s Vote.



  1. Ivan Horrocks -

    Agree entirely on Soubry, Sean. She was good on CH4 News last week debating the smarmy, poser Rees Moog. Anyway, glad it turned out to be a worthwhile day even if the EDL tossers were on hand to make things a bit uncomfortable. Their ignorance makes me laugh. You can hear one woman in one of the clips talking about the EU being responsible for the decline of industry in the area when in fact it was that darling of the right wing, Thatcher who kicked that whole process off. And which country has made sure the EU has become far more neoliberal than most other EU countries would have liked – the UK of course. Inconvenient fact should not be allowed to get in the way of hatred, of course, at least not in the land of the EDL.

  2. Peter May -

    I’m less endeared to Soubry – she’s in favour of fracking!
    However, as I’ve said before if she’s in favour and it’s correct then support her we should!
    My own fun for an anti Brexit March was in Exeter months ago. About 800ish of us were hassled by a much smaller number of Brexiters -and worse – and we listened to lots of good speeches rather like Sean, though the local MP (Ben Bradshaw) has always been a fervent remainer and that is indeed how the local council area of Exeter voted.
    We had a lot of hassle from the anti Brexit crowd. They were certainly in a minority but no Police anywhere…
    I’m unsure if this is a cunning Police plan to reduce conflict or just that there are no resources. Roads were blocked off by what seemed to be the same contract people who would block off roads during roadworks.
    We went home happyish. I don’t know if the Brexiters did though.
    Mind you it helps them that the Brexiters still feel no need to demonstrate in favour of ‘get on with it’.
    As for the National Anthem I’m afraid it didn’t appear and I for one am grateful for that. (It would recall schooldays when I sat down throughout – oh dear!)
    Is anyone going to the London march on October 20?

    1. Sean Danaher -

      Fracking is an abomination, particularly in view of the IPCC report today. I have been passionate about climate change for many years – Brexit seems to have overwhelmed my limited band-with recently.

      Interesting to hear about your event in Exeter, I suspect without police presence things could have turned very nasty in Sunderland. I got a message earlier wondering if wonder if the voice of the female who was chanting loudly was one particular Amy Beth Dallamura aka Dalla Mura / Dallamora etc who is very close with EDL?

      Ceartainly Sunderland is fairly iconic in terms of a Leave citadel so national agitation would not surprise me. It does seem that Sunderland has turned very much towards Remain – the penny is finally dropping that Nissan mightn’t like it.

      I am hoping to go on the London march but will confirm one way or another early next week.

      The National Anthem was strange but strangely seemed right

  3. Jennifer (aka Jeni, Havantaclu) Parsons -

    I would have been on the London march but for one thing – my badly-crocked right knee makes any walking painful and a march would be impossible. Fortunately it’s being replaced on 12 November and I expect to be fully mobile for any marches later than December. Hope to see you all at one of them!

    And indeed Nissan have made it clear that they do not expect further investment in their plant in Sunderland, in the event of Brexit in any shape or form. I suspect they won’t be alone – many car manufacturers are looking at a compulsory holiday immediately following 29 March, with ‘we’ll let you know’ as the return date – while I’m told the Rolls-Royce (a subsidiary of BMW) factory at Goodwood (10 miles away from here) is waiting for clarification about its future.

  4. Donald Liverpool -

    The EU’s primary fiscal purpose didn’t get a mention, clearly. And I bet none of the people present could name more than 2 EU Commissioners.
    It’s surely time for Remainiacs to give it up and get behind the EFTA/EEA option, rather than trying to persuade people we should stay a full member of the protectionist club.
    I hope any intimidators get their full comeuppance from the law, of course.

    1. Samuel Johnson -

      What part of protecting European consumers from unsafe products causes you concern? Which protections in particular bother you?

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