Look behind you! Labour pains in Heywood & Middleton

Ukip came within inches of taking a Labour seat in Heywood & Middleton. Can they go all the way today?

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The events that led to the current situation in Heywood and Middleton might be a case study for a GCSE history essay.

There are the long term causes: the rising unemployment in the North West, an increasingly audible anti-immigration lobby, the growing estrangement from a Westminster whose demographics are moving ever further from that of local residents. Then there are the short term - an abuse scandal in Haywood, the murder of Middleton-born Lee Rigby by two men citing Islam as their motivation. And then the trigger: the death of well-liked, long-serving MP Jim Dobbin.

It call came to a head last October, when Dobbin’s death lead to a sudden by-election in which the previously staunch Labour seat saw a serious challenge from Ukip candidate John Bickley. His narrowly-lost second place was close enough to call for a recount; now, Heywood and Middleton is one of the party’s “target” constituencies for May.

In terms of demographics, the area is not exceptional. During the by-election, the BBC mused that you could call the two areas “typical northern towns”, an accurate interpretation statistically if not necessarily true with regards to recent history. It is certainly not a hotbed of immigration. The constituency is mostly white and English speaking; indeed, with only 7.8 per cent of its residents classified as “non-white”, Heywood and Middleton has one of the more ethnically homogenous populations in the country. Over 70 per cent of people here identify as Christian.

It’s also not especially isolated in terms of infrastructure. Middleton is the town where I was born, and when I return, one Sunday morning, the journey is as easy as ever: the 163 bus leaves regularly from Manchester and stops by Middleton shopping centre, before continuing through Langley and up to Heywood. Even early on a Sunday, the town centre is relatively busy: the bakery and Britannia pub are both doing a fine trade while other residents pass by on their way to church. While my mother, who spent her teens in the town under Thatcher, recounts that the businesses here changed during the 1980s — from record shops to pound — Middleton is still a lively place.

That’s not to say, however, that residents aren’t concerned. I meet Terry smoking outside the Britannia, and he immediately mentions his employment situation. “Around Middleton, that’s the general feeling… I can’t get a job now.” His wife, he explains, works at a leading manufacturing business on an unsteady contract: “My missus is working today. It’s four on, two off - and she didn’t get a call until last night. They just rang her up, less than 24 hours before.”

It’s unlikely that Terry and his wife are alone in this. Unemployment in Heywood and Middleton is high, with 14 per cent of the population claim key out-of-work benefits like incapacity benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance compared to 10.2 per cent nationally. This used to be a mill town, and in the last census, many of the towns’ residents still reported working in industrial trades, with all the imbricated matters of economics and identity that that implies.

Politicians on all sides are careful to address Heywood and Middleton’s precarious workforce. On the day of Thatcher’s funeral in April 2013, Dobbins wrote a blog post lambasting the “rather questionable rewriting of history” that he perceived in the day’s press, and re-iterating that the labour market statistics - quietly released that morning - were significant for his constituents:

In Heywood and Middleton, long-term unemployment is still up 13 per cent on the year, and long-term youth unemployment is up 25 per cent.  It is getting clearer by the day that this government is letting down our area.”

The figures in the town are indeed high, and residents are certainly justified in their worry. For analytic purposes, however, the numbers are not necessarily higher than other comparable Northern towns. While 2.7 per cent of Heywood and Middleton’s population claim JSA, in places like Jarrow (4.7 per cent) and Huddersfield (5.1 per cent) the percentage is higher. This is not the only Northern post-industrial area facing the reality of needing to build new employment sectors, while tackling rising inequality and a growing north-south divide.

Heywood and Middleton’s most prominent cultural achievement is the founding of the co-operative group, which now graces high streets across the country. For a long time, the Co-op was a large part of people’s lives here: its Christmas club helped spread costs, and a token system allowed members to save for irons and other goods. Subsequently, a certain amount of political clout was afforded to the group, who now support parliamentary candidates including Ed Balls, Stella Creasy and John Ashworth (Co-op MPs can also be members of the Labour party, but no other).

The Co-op also supported Dobbin in his bid for parliament. A well-liked MP, Dobbin’s political record was closely allied with the local values of this working-class, Christian area. Born in Fife to a coal mining Father, Dobbin studied in Edinburgh and worked for the NHS for three decades before moving into politics. When he died suddenly in 2014, his Guardian obituary claimed he was part of the last generation of “committed socialists” compelled to pursue a career in Westminster.

Dobbin’s voting record shows an economically left-wing but socially conservative politician (he was part of the All Party Parliamentary Pro-Life Group and broke party line to oppose same-sex marriage). The residents I speak to in Middleton cite him as a popular MP; indeed, one woman named Lynn says she and her husband would be voting Labour “if Jim Dobbin was still alive”.

His death was truly unexpected. Taken to bed at the end of a meal in Poland during which he drank a shot with every course in accordance to local custom, Dobbin was later found to have had a blood alcohol level almost five times the UK drink-drive limit when food entered his lungs that night.

 In the aftermath of his death, political disputed raged: the Heywood and Middleton by-election was announced within a week, and a date set for October 9th, before Dobbin had even been interred. Labour MP Toby Perkins argued it was vital “the people … are not left without representation for an extended period”. Meanwhile, Ukip MEPs Paul Nuttall and Steven Woolfe accused Labour of a deliberate ploy to deny them the time to formulate a campaign.

The gains Ukip made are notorious, and a look at the campaign materials offers one clue as to why.

A gang of men, mainly of Pakistani origin, were found to have preyed on local girls in what the Guardian describes as “Britain’s biggest child sex grooming scandal”. UKIP were quick to jump on the unfolding story, with candidate John Bickley producing a leaflet blaming the events on “Labour’s betrayal” and claiming “years of abuse were ignored and complaints swept under the carpet” to avoid offending immigrants. The father of one of the main witnesses for the prosecution accused Nigel Farage of exploiting his daughter’s ordeal, telling the Guardian that Ukip were in it “for the game”.

It was an event which exemplified the area’s anxieties. The May 2013 London murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby was another ongoing theme in the Manchester Evening News, who reported that the Middleton-born soldier had been “brutally murdered in broad daylight” and ran an anniversary remembrance piece in 2014. Floral tributes were laid outside his family home in Langley, and a permanent memorial announced; an open air service held in Middleton Gardens was well attended.

Although none of the residents I spoke to mentioned either the death of soldier Lee Rigby or Heywood’s sex abuse scandal, local press note that racial tensions had been growing in the constituency. The Manchester Evening News reported a group of Heywood cab drivers on strike after their boss allowed customers to request a white driver (the company, Car 2000, had employed two of the nine men later jailed for sex offences). Not long after, a group of Muslim community leaders came together to speak out against a 43 per cent rise in racially-motivated crimes.

The people out on Sunday morning seem uncomfortable talking about race with a journalist. When I ask Terry if immigration has drawn people away from Labour, he’s tentative, saying he doesn’t want to talk about immigrants if it’s going to be recorded. Where his wife works, though, he says there’s “loads of a certain nationality. They can be biased. They’re taking her jobs.”

The fact statistics suggest immigration is not the cause of Heywood and Middleton’s high unemployment is little help.  In an area where residents are left without practical options, the seemingly simple solution of reducing immigration is a tempting rhetorical line. For the people who live here, the possibility of a further threat to their livelihood in the form of an increasing population fighting for already scant resources is tangible.

Campaign materials from more than one party indulge in an elision of complexity which encourages residents to chalk the area’s woes up to immigrants, using the Heywood scandal to give the bait-and-switch emotional charge — and obscuring the actual mechanisms which keep the North West economically disenfranchised.

Any attempt to strip the immigration narrative of power is easily undermined. Ukip politicians, after all, have a - fairly valid - recourse to class, citing the north-south divide a key factor in voters’ alienation from Westminster. One speech by Paul Nuttall is indicative of the class tensions that underpin politics here, with Nuttall asking his audience to consider MPs voices: “does anyone sound like they’re working class?”

His test, he says, is to imagine whether a politician could go for a pint in a Jarrow working men’s club — a challenge Tony Blair might, at least, have passed, however queasy his regular photocells at the Trimdon Labour Club made some on the left. (Ed Miliband, more than one relative of mine has suggested, is unfortunately glaringly middle class.)

Nuttall’s rhetoric is easily dismissed as a blunt tool of electioneering, but to ridicule is naive at best. It’s not unreasonable to question why voters would want to engage with politicians who they may suspect would be fundamentally uncomfortable in their company (or their pubs). The Northern working class is too frequently denied a voice except as colourful TV characters – cf Shameless – or as the subject of media ridicule. A politician vocal about being on their side culturally is a powerful thing, and it’s no mistake that Bickley’s website stresses the fact he was raised on a Middleton council estate and reminds voters that his father was a Labour trade unionist. Politicians coming here to campaign would do well to note that businesses along the 163 bus route are festooned not with England flags, but the red and blue of United and City.

Localism, however, does not mean naivity, much as some would like to think it does. Voters on the streets are attuned to the nuances of the constituency’s politics.

Lynn and her husband Jeff are unhappy at the prospect of Ukip getting in, citing competing interests and the vacuum of trust left by Dobbin’s death as problems. Both say they’re “dreading” the election, and would be equally unhappy with Labour or UKIP. When I ask why, Lynn says the latter are “a bit too racist for my liking.” Immigration is “all they hear about; they don’t seem to have any answers to anything else, it’s all about that.” When I ask if Westminster has let the area down, however, both are optimistic about the North more generally, saying that it seems politicians are “getting a bit better” and “waking up to the problem”. Jeff mentions the BBC move to Salford, and hopes the North is on the rise.

Terry is less positive, and is certain politicians aren’t doing enough — and aren’t on his side. A Labour voter for 37 years, he indicates that the party is moving away from the working class: “Let’s have it right. They’re clamping down on people who can’t get a job. They let some people have thousands of pounds a year, plus expenses, plus tax avoidance … and they’re clamping down on the working class.” Politicians, he claims, are “not doing their job.”

Still, Terry is confident Labour will win again. Jeff and Lynn agree, suggesting voters will become more engaged as the election draws near. “We know people who voted Ukip as a protest vote: but I’m not sure about the general election. I’m not sure they all will this time.”

It’s a question I’d like to put to voters, and I’m disappointed to have not met anyone who intends to vote Ukip – although perhaps they were those who shook their heads at the mention of politics, or were unwilling to speak to a reporter. I text my Middleton-raised mother to complain, and she replies: “Dad reckons Heywood. They had that abuse scandal”.

The latest polls suggest that Lynn is correct, and what felt like a safe chance to protest won’t carry over once the stakes are higher. If Jim Dobbin hadn’t died, it’s likely he’d be approaching the election in a safe Labour seat as a long-standing, popular MP. Likewise, if Lee Rigby had been from elsewhere, or the Rochdale abuse scandal hadn’t broken when it did, the rhetoric of the by-election would have been different entirely. The towns would still have high unemployment, and their residents may still have complained about clueless politicians and unstable contracts - but the result might have not been the same. What matters is whether they are this week.


Stephanie Boland is head of digital at Prospect. She tweets at @stephanieboland.