Support 100 years of independent journalism.

  1. Politics
  2. Business and Finance
16 February 2016updated 27 Jul 2021 9:18am

Inside the Barrow shipyard, the eye of a political storm in Labour and beyond

Submarines under siege, Labour let-downs, and vanishing pubs: Barrow-in-Furness is a community relying on the prospect of nuclear war for its survival.

By Anoosh Chakelian

“Without the shipyard there’d be tumbleweed going down the street.” Jim Johnson, a 69-year-old retired shipyard worker, gestures from his armchair to the tidy row of redbrick terraced houses outside.

A lively fire flickers in the fireplace, the centrepiece of an immaculate front room decorated with delicate pieces of china. Rolling news rumbles away at a low volume from the television in the corner.

Once he’s made some tea, Jim settles down on his armchair beside the fire. He has a burly build and tattooed arms, but his cosy slippers and checked short-sleeve shirt hint at a more relaxed lifestyle away from his labouring days.

Parade Street, Barrow. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

He is reflecting on how important Barrow’s shipyard is to life on this remote tip of the Furness peninsula – an exposed hook of north-west England, surrounded on three sides by the sea.

Sign up for The New Statesman’s newsletters Tick the boxes of the newsletters you would like to receive. Quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics from the New Statesman's politics team. The New Statesman’s global affairs newsletter, every Monday and Friday. The best of the New Statesman, delivered to your inbox every weekday morning. The New Statesman’s weekly environment email on the politics, business and culture of the climate and nature crises - in your inbox every Thursday. A handy, three-minute glance at the week ahead in companies, markets, regulation and investment, landing in your inbox every Monday morning. Our weekly culture newsletter – from books and art to pop culture and memes – sent every Friday. A weekly round-up of some of the best articles featured in the most recent issue of the New Statesman, sent each Saturday. A weekly dig into the New Statesman’s archive of over 100 years of stellar and influential journalism, sent each Wednesday. Sign up to receive information regarding NS events, subscription offers & product updates.

The shipyard, which employs around 7,500 people, dominates the town. The corrugated peaks of its enormous dock hall slice through the charcoal skyline. It is the tallest building in Cumbria. The shipyard cranes squatting over the water are visible from almost anywhere in the town.

Content from our partners
How automation can help telecoms companies unlock their growth potential
The pandemic has had a scarring effect on loneliness, but we can do better
Feel confident gifting tech to your children this Christmas

Jim’s blue eyes crease merrily behind his tortoiseshell-rimmed glasses as he recalls joining the shipyard. He was 15 when he began work as an office boy there before becoming an apprentice at 16, learning his trade as a sheet metal worker. He was a tradesman by 21, and worked on building ships and submarines for the next 45 years. He retired in 2004.

He and his wife Brenda have lived in Barrow all their lives. December will mark their golden wedding anniversary. One of their three children is a storeman at the shipyard, and their grandson is a planner there.

Devonshire Dock Hall. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Barrow shipyard, a historic naval manufacturing hub, is where the UK’s next fleet of nuclear submarines will be built. The Successor programme is to replace the current Vanguard class of submarines. The contract is with arms company BAE Systems.

The phrase “Trident renewal” is a catchall term for updating the fleet, but Trident is actually the name of the missiles. There are currently four submarines, each with the capacity for carrying 16 missiles. Like a relay system, at any one time there is always one submarine patrolling, while one undergoes maintenance. The other two are used for manoeuvre training. This system is called a “continuous at-sea deterrent”.

The Trident submarines are based in the river Clyde in Scotland, but built and maintained here in Barrow. The government estimates that the price of replacement is £31bn. Greenpeace says £34bn, and the CND calculates £100bn.

Astute class submarine. Photo: Flickr/Defence Images

This huge cost, as well as the principle of having nuclear weapons at all, has long made Trident renewal politically contentious. The latest development in this debate is Jeremy Corbyn’s opposition to the programme as leader of the Labour party – out of step with his predecessor’s stance and many of his current MPs (including, for a while, his own shadow defence secretary), but in tune with the majority of Labour members.

Barrow has traditionally been a Labour seat. But Jim, a Labour supporter, remembers the fear of his fellow workmen at the shipyard last time a Labour leader proposed unilateral disarmament – Michael Foot in the 1983 election campaign. It led to a Conservative MP representing the Barrow and Furness constituency from 1983-1992.

“It’s the only time I’ve ever known it [politics] change the mood,” he tells me. “That frightened them. It was when we got a Tory in. I remember his speech – he said ‘general election Thursday, Labour government Friday, what are the lads going to do on Monday?’ That was the famous Cecil Franks speech. And it got him into parliament.”

Jim is sceptical about Corbyn’s position. “You’ve gotta defend the country, haven’t you, at the end of the day?” he says. “You just don’t know what’s going to happen tomorrow. So you need the nuclear deterrent – you hope you’re never going to use it, of course . . . I’m afraid this man is just going to lead us into oblivion.”

Labour pains

One person I meet in Barrow who is suffering directly from the Labour leader’s anti-nuclear stance is its current MP, John Woodcock. But his problems began before Corbyn’s election. His majority plummeted from 5,208 to 795 in 2015. He puts this down to fear of Ed Miliband’s potential alliance with the anti-Trident SNP instilled in voters by the Conservatives.

Although Woodcock is sure the Successor programme will go ahead, he fears Labour’s nuclear policy split might contribute to a “false impression of risk” for potential investors in the area. His party’s stance could also result in him losing his seat.

“Clearly people pick up this idea that the Labour party – or rather, particular parts of the Labour party – are now questioning the policy that we have held a long time,” he says, over a sandwich at the rather appropriately named Last Resort café.

“We’ll see the impact that it has in the longer-term. My responsibility at the moment is to make sure people understand that the programme’s on track.”

Construction and launch of Astute. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Down the road, at the Duke of Edinburgh Hotel bar, the Keep our Future Afloat Campaign (KOFAC), which works to ensure Barrow’s submarine-building future, is holding a meeting about similar concerns. Pints and piles of paper cover the table. 10CC’s “Not in Love” plays in the background. The bar is dimly lit.

Chairman of KOFAC, Terry Waiting, is a softly-spoken 72 year old with white hair and a gentle manner. He started work on the shipyard as an apprentice fitter at 16. He worked there as an engineer before becoming Labour leader of the council in the mid-Eighties – a position he held until 2010.

He recalls Labour’s anti-nuclear stance the first time round. “It was a bit of a culture shock to come in with a Labour party that didn’t support our jobs. And there’s no way you can see it any other way. Because – rest assured on this – if we don’t build Successor, we will not have the workforce. We’d be talking about 10,000 jobs, and we wouldn’t have employment for them.”

But Waiting is optimistic. “I believe the government is determined to have the Successor submarine, and I’m happy about that. And it’s a Conservative government, and I’m a Labour party member,” he chuckles.

“But you believe me, the people of Barrow-in-Furness mean far more to me than any Labour party . . . The [MPs] that want rid of the Successor submarine haven’t even contemplated the devastation that it would cause. It has been our identity. Everything revolves around the shipyard.”

He calls Corbyn’s compromise – to build the submarines, just without nuclear missiles – “absolutely useless”. He doesn’t believe there are jobs in it. The people who work on the nuclear programme are “top-class”, he says, and “those people will be snapped up by other organisations”.

But a union representative on the shipyard, manual workers’ convener Harold “Azza” Samms, tells me, “On the whole, the workforce at this moment in time are reasonably settled . . . most of the guys and the girls in the yard are not political; they’re just going to earn a crust.”

He is serving his forty-first year on the yard, where he began at the age of 20 as a mechanical fitter. “The Labour party policy is for boats, the Conservative party policy is for boats,” he asserts. “So we haven’t got any great issues at the moment. It’s if those positions change, there’ll be a problem.”

Redundancies revisited

It’s not just Labour politics causing trouble in Barrow. Most current and former shipyard workers I meet bring up the huge round of redundancies of the early Nineties.

It was under the Tories that the workforce plummeted from 15,000 to 2,000 in the space of a few years. Woodcock says “the big failing of the last Conservative government” was its lack of foresight in retaining the high skills of the nuclear submarine workers at this time, and cutting the level of work too rapidly.

This had disastrous social implications for the town, and left a gaping skills gap when it came to the next nuclear defence contract in 1997 – building the Astute class submarines.

“Once-proud working people, who were trained to do the most advanced manufacturing on the planet, lost that dignity of being able to get to work, and ended up languishing on benefit,” says Woodcock.

Waiting adds that “the town was devastated”. “Eventually the skilled workers moved permanently,” he recalls. “It was desperate. There were thousands of people unemployed. And the deprivation levels were – and still are – very high. When we got the order for Astute, we didn’t have the workforce.”

Barrow town. Photo: Wikimedia Commons

Mike Fallon is the landlord of the Theatre Bar, a cornerstone of any Barrow town pub crawl. A popular night spot, it has been in Fallon’s hands for ten years, although he has also served his time at the shipyard – in plumbing and maintenance. He has seen how changes at the shipyard can affect a business like his.

The floor is a little sticky when I venture in at lunchtime, but the beer taps are polished and ready for another night of action. The sailors were in last night, who spend a lot of money and “bring in the single girls”. Tonight it’s Motown night.

“The last time [the yard] was well-manned it was about 17,000,” says Fallon, wistfully. “We’re nowhere near that now. And the town has taken a cut. You can see shops shut, pubs closing every week. Ten years ago, there were 109 pubs in the area – now there are only 49.”

If anything were to stall or scrap the Successor programme, Fallon sees Barrow “becoming a ghost town”. But he enthuses about the number of apprentices and contractors currently in the area, adding to his clientele.

“As long as the shipbuilding side keeps going the way it is, recruiting more apprentices, more staff, and the economy grows in Barrow, there’s no looking back. But it could just all stop at the drop of a hat if certain people get their way.”

Jim – though he avoided redundancy himself – remembers when job losses hit. “On the morning they’d do it, you know they’re going to,” he says, grimly.

“You have 60 men, and you know 20 are going but you don’t know who the 20 are. So on that morning, when you go in, you’re living on a knife-edge. Am I one of them or not? And every time the foreman comes down from the office, you’re looking round – am I going to get a tap on the shoulder?

“All you can say is, ‘all the best, Bill’, ‘all the best, ’Arry’, you know. It’s a very upsetting time for people. Where’s the money coming from next month?”

Skill seeking

Although Jim suspects the shipyard camaraderie isn’t what it was, he acknowledges that the jobs are better paid, and health and safety has greatly improved since the Sixties. He remembers seeing a fellow worker having all his fingers on one hand sliced off, another getting his foot crushed in a roller, and a full machine falling on and killing one employee. “What there was left, they had to hose up and put in a bag,” he says.

Such horror stories are unheard-of nowadays, but it remains a tough and claustrophobic job. Jim demonstrates how small the space is when building a submarine. Standing up, he points to the height of his mantelpiece and draws a shallow arc with his hand from it to the floor. “You have to be in that and fit five rungs of ventilation in. You can hardly move. It’s very difficult in the cramped spaces.”

Currently trying to squeeze into such confines are the BAE Systems apprentices at Furness College. A behemoth of glass and steel on stilts, the campus peers across the water at the imposing dock hall.

There is a mock-up of the belly of an Astute submarine in one of the workshops, complete with the curvature of the pressure hull. Students in blue boiler suits are calmly at work. They are training to be the shipyard’s next electricians, sheet metal workers, pipe fabricators and mechanical fitters.

Buccleuch Dock. Photo: © Copyright Chris Upson

I meet two apprentices training to work in design on the Successor programme. Georgia Brown is 23, and left her job in purchasing to train here in September last year. James Harrison, 17, joined at the same time, having just left school. Both Georgia’s parents also went into design at the shipyard, and James’ brother and father are electricians there.

Barrow has been suffering a population decline, with numerous young people leaving for university and never returning. But Georgia – casual in jeans and a BAE fleece – says she would be happy being on the shipyard “for the rest of my working life”.

James, however, is concerned that there may not always be work for them, “because submarines – who knows what’s going to happen with every election and such?”

He says he’s “not a fan” of Corbyn and finds anti-Trident politics “unsettling”.

“I understand that nobody really wants to think about nuclear war, but it’s at the expense of my town which I live in, and my family live here, so it’s kind of our livelihood, and most of Barrow’s livelihood. If that goes down, the town goes down.”

Despite stormy times ahead politically, there is pride and confidence throughout Barrow that submarines will define its future, as they have its past. As a poem carved in large letters on the flagstones of the town square reads:

“Those shipyard men and ships they’ve built, craftsmen of world renown
The skills passed down are the skills that made this little Barrow Town.”