Melanie Onn: “What Brexit means for people is hardening all the time”

The Labour MP for Great Grimsby talks fishing, regeneration projects and Brexit.

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The story of this year’s local elections was Tory obliteration. The party lost 1,296 councillors, hundreds more than even the gloomiest pollsters predicted. But a few patches of the country, including Grimsby, bucked the national trend.

The Conservatives did reasonably well in several areas where they have historically faced hostility, including Barrow-in-Furness and Blackpool, where they dented the Labour majority. They won eight councillors in Stoke-on-Trent and seven in Darlington, putting the latter into no overall control. Finally, they took control of three councils: North East Derbyshire, Walsall, and North East Lincolnshire.

The last of those is home to Grimsby, where Labour MP Melanie Onn was reelected in 2017 by 2,500 votes. “I had thought, if we think [Brexit] is going to hit us, it’s going to hit the Conservatives twice as hard,” she says. “And actually, it didn’t. She observes that voters speaking to Labour campaigners on the doorstep brought up Brexit, but with the Conservatives they mainly raised local issues. The result saw the Tories win a majority for the first time since North East Lincolnshire Council was formed in 1996.

“Brexit plays a part in this obviously,” Onn says, “but at the heart of people’s concerns in Grimsby is that they feel like it is a bit forgotten.” She describes ageing Victorian buildings – some of them listed, many privately owned – which stand abandoned and dilapidated in the town centre. “Nobody seems to take responsibility for them, and that I think then frustrates people because they look around, and they see some of the impact of cuts of over the last nine years.” Coupled with rising antisocial behaviour, it makes people feel like the town centre is “not for them anymore”.

The town’s impressive architecture is a reminder of its heyday in the 1800s, when built up a powerful fishing industry. By the 1950s, Grimsby’s docks were the launch point of the world’s biggest fishing fleet. Over the past 70 years, that industry dwindled and declined, as the UK lost its fishing rights in rich parts of the North Atlantic in the so-called Cod Wars. “Imagine if you did take the nuclear plant out of Barrow, what would be left for people,” Onn says. “And that’s what happened. Not an immediate withdrawal, but gradually over time”.

Grimsby now processes fish imported from Norway and Iceland; seafood companies such as Young’s and Seachill are its biggest employers. Grimsby port is the busiest point of entry in the UK for cars, and offshore wind power is an emerging industry – though not a major job creator, because much of the work involved is automated. Other important sectors, such as pharmaceuticals, are facing challenges – Swiss giant Novartis has announced it will shut down its local plant, costing hundreds of jobs.

According to Onn, Grimsby’s problems mean that if Nigel Farage and his Brexit Party pay it a visit, “no doubt there will be a positive reception from a sizeable quarter of the town and the borough. You can’t hide from that. It is a reality. There are people who are getting increasingly frustrated about what they perceive to be a failure of Westminster politics, and he’s capitalising on that.”

First elected in 2015, Onn is part of a group of 30-odd Labour MPs who, to varying degrees, are opposed to holding a second referendum. She’s also one of a smaller number who has broken the party whip to register that opposition – on 27 March, she resigned as a housing minister to vote against a second referendum.

But she hasn’t yet lent her support to the government’s Brexit deal. “We’ve not had anything that I feel able to vote for yet,” she says – but she’s “not opposed” to backing the Withdrawal Bill when it comes to parliament in June, depending on what’s in it.

A significantly larger caucus of Labour MPs have now come out in favour the idea of a second referendum in the form of a “confirmatory vote”. They argue that this would allow the public to choose between the government’s negotiated Brexit deal and remaining in the EU.

But Onn is not impressed, and she says her arguments are making her unpopular within her party. “This is a second referendum, whichever way you look at it, because really what people want on the ballot page is leave or remain again”. She suggests that some of its proponents are being disingenuous – “I think it’s a mechanism just to revoke” – and are “taking people through stages, because once you've got there, where else do you go? You can't go backwards.  

In Great Grimsby, just four per cent of voters backed the six million-strong online petition to Revoke Article 50 in March – one of the lowest proportions in the country. Lisa Nandy has argued that the disparity between the number of signatures in towns like Wigan and Grimsby and cities like Cambridge and Bristol “reveals a war between two Englands”.

Theresa May has tried to woo voters in places that fall into the first category. She made a point of visiting Grimsby ahead of the second Commons vote on her Brexit deal in March, where she stressed how its importance as a gateway to the UK will increase. Grimsby has secured a £67m Town Deal from the government, and work funded by Historic England is underway to regenerate the Kasbah, a historic district on the docks, into a home for food and drink outlets, startup companies and creative projects.

But Onn says that people in her town are increasingly “looking around and seeing things getting slowly worse and not feeling that things are working for them.” She says that while Brexit remain unresolved and opposing sides become increasingly entrenched in their positions, the space for compromise is narrowing. “As time goes by, the views around what Brexit means for people is hardening all the time.” For MPs like her, the balance of opposing a second referendum and also the government’s deal is becoming increasingly more difficult to strike.

Eleni Courea writes about politics and is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2018.