UK Honda workers split over Brexit as factory closure hangs over election

A lorry with car carrier trailer leaves the Honda car plant in Swindon, Britain, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
A lorry leaves Honda's Swindon plant, earmarked for closure in 2021. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

“I want to keep my job. I haven’t voted in a general election, but I’ll start now. I’m definitely voting Labour,” said one Honda (HMC) worker walking briskly to his afternoon shift at its factory on the outskirts of Swindon.

The carmaker announced plans to close the plant earlier this year, putting 3,500 jobs at risk and sending shockwaves through the town in south-west England.

The Japanese firm has repeatedly said it was not about Brexit — instead emphasising that it’s to remain competitive as it pushes to make more electrified vehicles. But several workers and local politicians told Yahoo Finance UK they believed it may have influenced the decision.

The closure looms large over the tight Conservative-Labour race in South Swindon, with at least one employee hopeful a Labour victory would see Brexit stopped and the plant kept open.

READ MORE: Lib Dems struggle to break through even in Britain’s most Remain seats

The marginal constituency has proved a bellwether seat, mirroring the national election result for the past two decades. If the Conservatives’ 2,464-vote majority were overturned on election night, it would bode well for Labour’s hopes of forming a government.

But Conservative candidate and minister Robert Buckland will be hoping his party’s pledge to deliver Brexit — and carmakers’ clear challenges beyond Brexit — are enough to hold on to his seat in the Leave-voting town.

Thousands of jobs at risk from factory closure

SWINDON, ENGLAND - FEBRUARY 20: A general view over housing on the edge of the town centre on February 20, 2019 in Swindon, England. The factory is Honda's only EU plant and has produced the Honda's 'Civic' model for over 24 years, with 150,000 of the cars rolling off the line annually. The manufacturer is a major employer in the town of around 220,000 and sits on the M4 corridor between London to the East and Bristol to the West. In 1986 one of the towns last major employers GWR (Great Western Railway) closed it's doors after a 140 year history of Railway locomotive manufacture putting around 1,500 people out of work.  (Photo by Dan Kitwood/Getty Images)
The Honda announcement will affect the wider town. Photo: Dan Kitwood/Getty Images

More than one in 10 cars made in the UK was built at Honda’s Swindon plant, one of several opened by Japanese carmakers in Britain in the 1980s. Cars from its Civic range are exported to more than 70 countries worldwide.

But one Monday morning in May, its 3,500 employees were told the factory would close in 2021, in a devastating blow for the town.

The announcement of 950 more job losses in October at a second Honda site next door – Honda Logistics, which supplies it with parts, compounded the disappointment. Other suppliers across the south-west will also suffer.

One worker in his 40s told Yahoo Finance UK: “I might lose my house. I’ve got a mortgage which I’m thinking ‘how am I going to pay.’ Everyone’s very sad, stressed in fact. It will not just impact people there, but on the outside, families and stuff.”

READ MORE: What the UK general election could mean for jobs in the UK

A 21-year-old employee said it was “shocking” and took workers by surprise, adding that he might look for a job in Aldi. “Everyone was like — what are they going to do now?”

Several voters interviewed in the town centre also said they had relatives or other connections to workers at the plant, one of Swindon’s major employers.

“It’s a big blow. Generations have worked there, and it’s not just those people – there’s a lot of parts companies. My midwife’s son and husband work there,” said Sarah Kinsella, out shopping in town.

‘Not influenced by Britain’s plans to leave the EU’

General view of the entrance to the Honda car plant in Swindon, Britain, February 18, 2019. REUTERS/Eddie Keogh
The Honda car factory in Swindon is due to close in 2021. Photo: Eddie Keogh/Reuters

Honda’s message could not be clearer: “This decision is not influenced by Britain’s plans to leave the EU.”

A spokesman told Yahoo Finance UK the decision was part of a shift towards electric cars, and towards production bases in its biggest markets — China, the US and Japan.

Its website suggests more than half its Swindon vehicles are exported to the US, while just over a third are sold in Britain or the rest of Europe.

The spokesman added that the company continually reviewed its strategy “to respond to market pressures.”

READ MORE: Honda’s call to quit the UK ‘makes sense’ as electric car age looms

The pressures facing carmakers globally are all too real, with Honda far from alone in slashing jobs. German firms Daimler and Audi both confirmed thousands of job cuts last month, while Ford and Nissan also made similar announcements earlier this year.

A slowdown in global demand, particularly in China, regulators’ growing clampdown on high-emissions vehicles and the trade war have battered many major firms.

Honda’s global profits slipped in its latest results as vehicle sales have fallen. Like its rivals, it is ploughing huge resources into electric vehicles in the global scramble for a growing market.

‘They came to Swindon because we’re the gateway to Europe’

Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with South Swindon Labour parliamentary candidate Sarah Church before a rally while on the campaign trail in Swindon, Wiltshire. PA Photo. Picture date: Saturday November 2, 2019. Photo credit should read: Aaron Chown/PA Wire
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn with South Swindon candidate Sarah Church. Photo: Aaron Chown/PA

But whatever Honda says, even some of its Swindon workforce believe Brexit may have helped seal their fate. If enough voters share that suspicion and want to stop it or punish the Conservatives, that could influence the election result.

One Honda employee said he and his colleagues did blame Brexit and would vote Labour, who back a second referendum, in the hope of saving their jobs.

“That’s the talk every time we go for a break,” he said. “There’s an impact if you leave the EU. There are different parts from different suppliers. If 10% [tariffs] were added to each part, how much is that going to cost?”

READ MORE: Brexit uncertainty hits UK car production

Japan’s carmakers and even its government have sounded the alarm over a hard Brexit before, fearing new barriers such as EU tariffs would damage currently frictionless imports and exports of cars and parts.

Meanwhile the Society of Motor Manufacturers and Traders (SMMT) also regularly warns Brexit means Britain’s “global competitiveness is under threat,” with a catastrophic £40bn ($51.7bn) hit to UK carmakers in a no-deal scenario.

Lib Dem candidate Stan Pajak acknowledge the global car industry’s woes, but noted: “They came to Swindon because we’re the ‘gateway to Europe.’ Take away the gateway, and there’s little point being in the UK.”

Pajak, who lost his deposit by winning just 4.1% of the vote in 2017, said he hoped his party’s clear anti-Brexit stance would boost his chances. But he acknowledged his vote could be squeezed by the tight race, with Labour less than 5% behind the Conservatives.

The South Swindon election result in 2017. Chart: Parliament
The South Swindon election result in 2017. Chart: Parliament

Labour’s candidate Sarah Church also said Brexit was “part of the picture,” telling Yahoo Finance UK: “Honda’s decided to go because of the global automotive market, and because we’ve made ourselves a more uncertain place to do business.”

She said of the worker voting Labour: “I don’t know if we can make Honda stay, but we can provide an alternative for him.”

Labour has floated turning the Honda site into a battery factory for electric cars. Her leader Jeremy Corbyn recently visited the seat, in a sign of its importance to the party.

“We need a place for those thousands of workers to go,” added Church.

Honda and the Conservative government, council and candidate have all said they are working hard to secure alternative high-skilled jobs on the site and support staff facing redundancy.

‘People are clear we need to get Brexit done’

But there is far more to people's views on Brexit than whether it makes them jobless.

The Conservatives’ Brexit stance could win support in a town where 54.7% voted Leave in 2016, particularly after the Brexit party withdrew.

Another Honda worker who blamed Brexit for the closure still called prime minister Boris Johnson “the best thing that’s ever happened,” and said he would probably vote Conservative.

Shaun Carroll, a retired ex-employee still wearing his old Honda cap, said he voted Leave and would probably back Johnson too, albeit in a neighbouring seat. “People are blaming Brexit, even if you put the bread the wrong side these days they blame Brexit. They need to get it over and done with,” he said.

Britain's Justice Secretary Robert Buckland is seen outside Downing Street in London, Britain November 5, 2019. REUTERS/Yara Nardi
Britain's justice secretary and Conservative candidate for South Swindon Robert Buckland. Photo: Yara Nardi/Reuters

“The weather in this winter election is cold, but we are getting a warm reception on the doorsteps here from people who are clear, like me, that we need to get Brexit done so we can focus on the domestic priorities,” said Buckland in a statement.

Other voters raised the NHS, children’s centres and other domestic issues with Yahoo Finance UK, but most said Brexit would determine their vote either way.

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Even residents opposed to Brexit agree they want it resolved quickly. Marie Palaskova, a carer who moved from the Czech Republic, said: “It’s been taking too long. I’d like some results so we know what’s going to happen.”

With not long left until polling day on 12 December, Labour’s candidate said the race was “in the balance.”

Church said: “People are switching all over the place, and actually reading the leaflets. I just can’t make any predictions, but it’s definitely winnable.”

A list of candidates in South Swindon is available on the Electoral Commission website.