This essay is dedicated to –
Grandad, who gave me the badges and so much more,
Roger Clayton, (the unofficial “Lord Clayton Of Hull”) without whom this could not have been written.
THE BOAT IS tilting with the waves, tipping him towards the cold embrace of his two-faced mistress from whom he, and all like him, makes his livelihood and who demands a heavy price in return. But his face wears his years honestly, and he knows well enough how to stand to keep himself stable, body bent, hands gripping the netting which holds the catch that they have captured from the grasp of the depths. His features show no complacency – you feel he has only gotten to his age by remembering that even the most experienced of fisherman can find themselves knocked into the waters, never to be seen again.
Or at least, that’s how he looks to me when I see him. Not that he can confirm my imaginings – ‘he’ is the Fisherman’s Memorial Statue in St James’ Square, Grimsby, erected in 2005 in memory of those who lost their lives at sea on the trawlers that set sail from Grimsby docks. He stands in front of a flat green lawn in the town center, with St James Church framing him like a gigantic wave. He however is looking through the window of a coffee lounge, as though longing to abandon ship and nip inside for a hot drink and a scone.
It took six years to find the funds to pay for the statue, but by hook or by crook the money was found, and now he stands, a specter in bronze, as though part of the crew of a ghost-ship that became suddenly solid and stuck in the corporeal world. Often, if passing, you will find flowers in front of the statue, and every year there is a memorial service at St James for those from the area who lost their lives at sea.
In many ways, the statue reflects the present as much as it remembers the past. Grimsby sits on the north-east coast of England, just below the River Humber, population of about 90,000. Once it was known as “Europe’s food town,” and from its docks sailed the trawlers that, in its heyday, caught the majority of the fish eaten in the UK. But this is not the town’s heyday, and the statue stands not only in remembrance of those who lost their lives, but also of a way of life that has slowly and quietly been dying away. And, as its importance has dimmed in the decline of its principle industry, it has been largely forgotten about by the rest of the country, to the point where many people I have met down the years have never even heard of it.
But over the last few months this has started to change. Grimsby has become one of the most-watched parliamentary seats in the run up to what promises to be the closest UK General Election for many years, on May 7th. So close is it, that even with less than a week to go the various opinion polls seldom agree on the likely make-up of the next government. The little we do know is that no party is projected to manage to win a majority of the seats in the House of Commons, meaning that a second coalition government in a row is the most likely outcome, but which parties will make up that coalition and who will end up Prime Minister is as clear as an oil spill. Every seat counts.
Since 1977 the Great Grimsby seat has been held by Labour’s Austin Mitchell, and by the Labour Party since 1945. For the majority of this time, Great Grimsby was about as safe a Labour seat as you could find. But this year, there is a distinct possibility that the Labour domination might end. In 1997, Mitchell won 59.8% of the vote, with the Conservatives second on only 22.1%. But in 2010, Mitchell polled only 32.7%, with the Conservatives hot on his heels on 30.5%. You would be forgiven for assuming that the big story here is the chance of the Conservatives reclaiming the seat for the first time in 70 years. But the latest polling shows Labour in the lead, just a single point ahead of…UKIP, the United Kingdom Independence Party, who polled just 6.2% in 2010. If UKIP can take the seat from Labour it will not only have an impact on the potential make-up of the next Government but will also show that UKIP have the ability to appeal to the most solid of Labour strongholds.
Growing up in Grimsby resulted in a level of political complacency for me – even when I started becoming politically aware, I could afford to feel distanced from the local political scene because it was quite clear that Grimsby would continue to vote Labour, seemingly until Doomsday. Even though the days of leadership of Tony Blair and the deeply unpopular Iraq war, Grimsby remained loyal. For this relationship to be at risk now suggests that something strong enough to strain the allegiances of 70 years is challenging the status quo. Can UKIP really do it? And if so, what does that mean for Grimsby and the UK as a whole?
It would be fair to say that Britain has always had a bit of an issue with the European Union in its various guises. For its first ten years we were not interested in joining. In the second decade we wanted to join, but they (in the figure of France’s President De Gaulle) were less keen, and twice rejected our advances. We finally joined in 1973, but two years later held a referendum on whether to stay in or not following a motion proposed by the Labour Party (in opposition) which nearly tore it apart. That day the British voted 2-to-1 to stay in, but that wasn’t the end of it. In 1992 the signing of the Maastricht Treaty heralded the arrival of the modern form of the EU, including the movement towards monetary union across Europe – the end of the pound. To many this was utterly beyond the pale – symbolically as much as economically. The Pound Sterling, with the Queen’s face on the back, represented something hard to put into words, a sense of continuity, of history, a link to the days when Britannia ruled the waves (and huge chunks of the globe) and had a global significance that we will never have again. To attack the Pound was to attack the British sense of identity. This time it was the Conservative Party that suffered, and John Major’s time as Prime Minister was greatly undermined by rebellions and back-biting over Europe. The following Labour government felt unable to commit to the Euro, and the pound remains.
1993 saw the formation of a new political entity – the United Kingdom Independence Party. It was a largely single-issue party designed to push for the United Kingdom to leave the EU. Few noticed. The party grew slowly, making gains, ironically enough, in the European elections. When Nigel Farage (pronounced “Far-arge” like “garage”) became leader, the party started to make up ground. Farage, a canny media performer who has managed to present himself as a man of the people (his favorite photo opportunity seems to be in a pub with a pint of beer) has managed to catch on three major strands of discontent within the UK – the bland, overly PR-polished politicians who seem to have no understanding of the lives of those they represent, a deep distrust of the whole European project, and most contentiously, with the number of immigrants entering the country and the impact their arrival is having.
The emphasis on the latter has caused many to accuse the party of racism, a charge Farage firmly denies, and one the party has taken steps to counter. Members of the far-right British National Party for example are barred from joining UKIP, and Farage was quick to distance UKIP from any form of alliance with Marine Le Pen’s National Front in the European Parliament after both did well in the last European elections. Despite this, a succession of UKIP candidates have been caught making questionable statements about race. One UKIP candidate recently suggested President Obama should be kidnapped by Israel and be put on trial like a Nazi war criminal. Another is accused of making posts on social media including reference to “fucking Muslims” and “queers”[i] and suggesting that Romanian and Bulgarian immigrants would be looking for people to rob on the London Underground. Farage blames defectors from the Conservatives for bringing these problems with them, but it was the defection of two Tory MPs to UKIP that really put the wind up Prime Minister David Cameron, who had previously dismissed UKIP as “fruitcakes, loonies and closet racists.”
The Conservative stance on immigration (never friendly at the best of times) hardened and a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU was promised if the Conservative Party form the next government. Rather than pull UKIP voters back to the Tories however, all this did was show just how rattled the political establishment were by them – an impression backed up when Labour also noticeably started talking more about immigration issues in the run-up to the election.
Should UKIP manage to establish a foothold in the Houses of Parliament it would mean more than just the presence of another party on the backbenches. It would see the breakthrough into the political mainstream of a new, right-wing party whose main focus is not only anti-EU but also anti-immigration and who many consider to have a serious issue with race. They may not be the National Front but UKIP are probably as close to a Tea Party movement as the UK has, and should their ideas gain mainstream approval it would show a definite shift in the political mood of the country. And UKIP has decided to make Great Grimsby one of their main target seats in 2015. Winning would show UKIP capable of claiming the Labour heartlands and give them a platform for the future.
Accents are important in Britain. A person’s voice tells you more than just which part of the country they come from, but also which class they belong to. When Tony Blair became Prime Minister in 1997 he made the astute decision to make John Prescott (MP for Hull East, separated from Grimsby by the River Humber) his deputy. Prescott was one of the (very) few genuinely working class members of the Labour government, and was frequently mocked by the media for tripping over his words during interviews. But Prescott is no fool, and neither was Blair in appointing him. Prescott’s presence in government ensured that no-one could accuse Labour of forgetting its roots as the party of the working class. His rough, northern vowels lacked the polish of his colleagues’, but this was his strength. People related to Prescott. When someone threw an egg at him while campaigning in 2001, he didn’t wait for a party spin doctor to tell him how to react – he just punched the thrower full in face, right in front of the gleeful cameras of the media. The incident merely made him more popular – haven’t we all felt like punching someone annoying occasionally?
It’s pretty hard to find a politician these days with any kind of regional accent (or imagine any of them punching someone for that matter). Most sound remarkably similar, as though they all grew up within a few streets of each other or attended the same finishing school. Listening to representatives of the different parties during joint debates can be a strangely eerie, a political “Stepford Wives.” Few would be surprised it if turned out that politicians were grown in pods rather than born, so disconnected do they seem from whole swathes of the population. Many of the politicians in the top positions in this parliament actually do come from the same place. Eton, the famous private school, has produced so many members of the current government and its retinue that even a fellow government minister described it as “ridiculous,”[ii] while the Manic Street Preachers recently lambasted “the endless parade of Old Etonian scum” who “line the front benches.”[iii]
This distance from the average voter (particularly in more working class areas) adds to the distrust in our politicians – they aren’t like us, they don’t understand us, they look after their own interests those of their friends in the business world and ignore everyone else. In Grimsby I am occasionally looked at askance because of my accent and general way of speaking – northern, but somewhat neutralized by education, living in different parts of the country and (I think) years of singing in choirs when young which forced me to pronounce words “properly.” So, if I have that problem, imagine how David Cameron or Ed Miliband (Labour’s leader who actually went to a state school) sound to Grimsby. They might as well come from another planet.
Nigel Farage may share a similar background to the other leaders but he manages to cross this divide better – he’s seen as someone who says what he thinks rather than what he thinks people want to hear. He gives the impression of being the kind of man you could have a chat with in a pub – a test neither Cameron nor Miliband would easily pass.
Bruce Springsteen on the other hand has always passed that test with flying colors. His songs may be set firmly in the American heartlands, but their stories of characters struggling to survive in a game rigged against them from the start touches a chord in every small town that good fortune has passed by. When he sings that ‘No army stormed the shores for which we’d die / No dictators were crowned’ but despite that ‘Just as sure as the Hand of God / They brought death to my hometown’[iv] it always makes me think of what successive elected governments have done to mine. Springsteen of course wasn’t writing about Grimsby but Bernie Taupin did – his lyric to “Grimsby” was sung by Elton John on his album Caribou:
Oh England you’re fair
But there’s none to compare with my Grimsby[v]
As someone who grew up there, I’d say this takes the concept of rose-tinted glasses and branches out into contact-lenses and shades too. It certainly isn’t the common conception of the town. Traditionally it was known more for its industry than its natural beauty (although it does contain substantial green areas like the Freshney Parkway, where I spent summer holidays from school). The industry in question? Fishing. In the town’s economic heyday, fishermen brought boats with large catches into dock, which were unloaded by the dockers, before being sold on the local market, or sent to factories to be frozen and packaged up to be distributed to the rest of the country – up until the 1970s the majority of the fish eaten in the UK had come ashore in Grimsby. The dockers were managed by the National Dock Labour Board (NDLB), an organization made up half of union reps and half representatives of the employers. The fishing industry was the backbone of the town’s economy. My own family gives an indication of how deep this ran – my granddad was one of the dockers who carried the catch ashore, my dad worked for the NDLB (and still works in the docking and shipping industry), and I worked in one of the frozen fish factories (albeit briefly). What the town lacked in culture it made up for in fantastic and cheap fish’n’chip shops.
The town itself is made up of different layers. There are places like the East Marsh (listed in The Telegraph as the worst place to live in the entire country[vi]), or Nunsthorpe (known locally as ‘the Nunny’) which are known for their levels of poverty. There are the villages around the edge of the town (Healing, Caistor) where most of the people with money live. And, like many British towns, football has replaced religion as a target for devotional feeling. Few better examples of faith bettering rationality exist than supporting Grimsby Town Football Club, who when I was little were just one division below the might of Manchester United, but who have gradually sunk down the leagues until they settled at semi-professional level. It is tempting to try to match the fall of Grimsby Town Football Club with the decline of the town as a whole, but the town had been declining even whilst the football club was at its height.
The fishing industry was many things – macho, hard, dangerous. But it was also reliable. As long as there was fish to catch there were jobs. But while the US and the Soviet Union were fighting a Cold War in the 1950s and a maintaining tense relations throughout the 1970s, the UK (with Grimsby at the fore-front) and Iceland were fighting a different kind of war – the Cod Wars, sparked by Iceland’s attempts to extend which waters classed as “theirs,” and which led to a reduction in the fishing areas that Grimsby’s trawlers could sail. Then as part of the European Union, Britain signed up to the Common Fisheries Policy, which was designed to conserve fish stocks and allows all European fishing fleets equal access to European waters.
If all this sounds like ancient history, it isn’t. Nigel Farage doesn’t think so. “What we have done, as a result of membership of the Common Fisheries Policy, we are now allowed to catch less than 20 per cent of the fish that swim in British waters,” he said on a recent visit to the town. “The other 80 per cent we have given away to the rest of Europe.”[vii]
Whether you see the Common Fisheries Policy as an important measure to preserve fish stocks or a restrictive policy robbing small communities of what they can earn through their endeavor, it is hard to over-emphasize the impact it has had on the town. But you can illustrate it.
If there is something that most perfectly sums up the decline of Grimsby it isn’t its football club – it’s Freeman Street. Freeman Street was one of the most important streets in the town. Running from the docks to the town center, it acted like an artery that allowed the flow of the lifeblood that kept the town alive. Walking down it you would have passed the Freeman Street Market, which specialized in the freshest fish and other sea-salvaged delicacies. There was The Regal Cinema (later the ABC, the Odeon, and briefly the Regal again), and a plethora of shops trying to take advantage of the primary retail location the town had to offer.
Walking there in 2015 however it’s a pale reflection of what I remember from my youth, let alone its heyday. The market is still there, but there’s little that would make a modern visitor think this was once the heart of the town. Many of the shops are boarded up, and with less ships coming in the importance of the docks has shrunk and with that, the need for Freeman Street.
Instead there’s the shiny and modern Freshney Place shopping center in the middle of town, free of unnecessary connections to the town’s fishing heritage. In 1951 there were 36,882 regularly employed fishermen in the UK. There are now just 12,000. While not all of those were employed in Grimsby, it is easy to picture the impact that decline would have on a town of around 90,000 people, especially when you consider that the fishermen are just a part of the fishing industry – factor in the dockers, dock administrators and factory workers. It’s no surprise to learn that in April 2014 Grimsby was named as the 4th worst place for youth unemployment in the country (25%).[viii] It isn’t just the young suffering. Those who used to work in the fishing industry and lack educational qualifications or “transferable skills” have a limited number of employment options. Shopping trips as a child with my parents were often elongated by conversations with security guards – not because they thought we had stolen anything but because they were ex-dockers who knew my dad, security being one of the trades they could most easily get into once work on the docks dried up.
If it feels like I’m laboring (pardon the pun) the point, imagine living in those conditions for forty years. This well of bitterness is tipping the political scales. During that time the town has been represented in Parliament by the party that was set up to represent the working class, and what has the town had to show for its loyalty? A succession of party leaders in similar suits promise the UK that they know the best way forwards, but on the streets of Grimsby you see more decline than development. Austin Mitchell is a popular figure – a known skeptic of the UK’s position in the European Union and a political maverick (an increasingly rare commodity in the homogenized political class), but he is retiring, and this could be seen as the ideal time to try something new.
Mitchell himself has commented that, “Labour inevitably focuses on the big cities because you can help more people. We are being left out.”[ix] Unfortunately he was also quoted as saying “There is no chance we’ll lose Grimsby, even if we selected a raving alcoholic sex pedophile we wouldn’t lose Grimsby –”[x] a comment which screams the very complacency that he criticized in the national party. When the mainstream looks to have abandoned an area, the more extreme ends of the spectrum will try to fill the void.
For decades the political structure of the UK has stayed pretty similar. In the same way that US elections are always between the Democrats and the Republicans, British elections are between Labour and the Conservatives. The easy shorthand is Labour equal the Democrats, and the Conservatives (or Tories) the Republicans, which ignores the fact that the political center in the UK is more to the left than in the US. (See the kerfuffle over President Obama’s attempts to set up some kind of health service provision, which the UK has had since 1945 and which no government would dare openly attempt to dismantle, even if both parties have attempted to privatize parts of it on the quiet). Between the two established parties, the Liberal Democrats present themselves as more business-oriented than Labour and more socially progressive than the Conservatives.
In 2010, the Conservatives were the largest party in the House of Commons but without enough MPs to form a majority, so formed a coalition with the LibDems promising to cut the UK’s deficit after the financial crisis. The LibDems promised to be the government’s conscience, stopping the Conservatives from cutting too deep and too quickly, but the result was the most radical dismantling of Britain’s social support network in modern times (with, it is alleged, a further £8 billion worth of welfare cuts to come after the election[xi] that they’ve been keeping quiet about), while targets on cutting the deficit and borrowing have been repeatedly missed as the economy failed to grow as quickly as expected under the austerity measures. Many see this as taking money from the poorest to shield the banking sector from having to pay for the financial crisis. This – along with a recent scandal over expenses MP’s claim and some high-profile broken promises – has seen trust in politicians fall to an all-time low. Only 65% of eligible people voted in 2010, and even this figure was up on the previous two elections.
UKIP will not win anything like enough seats to form a government, but their anti-European Union and anti-immigration rhetoric has struck a chord with many. Although UKIP has a full manifesto (a party’s platform statement), they stress two points: the UK would be better off out of the EU, and immigration is out of control and straining the country’s infrastructure. They say that membership of the EU takes away too many powers from the democratically elected government, handing them to an unaccountable governing body in Brussels. One of those powers is controlling the country’s borders. UKIP’s supporters argue that they are the only party brave enough to talk about immigration, and that “political correctness” (seemingly the most powerful force on Earth) stops the truth being spoken about the issue by anyone else. Opponents argue that UKIP demonize immigrants who are often fleeing from terrible circumstances, and encourage the concept that they are parasites only coming here to sponge off the country’s social security provision – Farage’s recent comments about not allowing people with HIV into the UK caused particular consternation.
UKIP’s success nationally can be in part put down to their astonishing ability to stand for one thing while representing themselves as something quite different. Take their leader Nigel Farage, who stresses UKIP’s status as being outside the establishment, despite attending a public school and being a commodities trader before moving into politics. Or the way that they are seen as being an alternative to the traditional two-horse race between Labour and the Conservatives, despite the fact that a large number of their candidates and financial backers were previously members of the Conservative Party. Indeed, their candidate for Great Grimsby was the Conservative candidate in 2010.
In a recent televised leaders’ debate, Farage commented that he would represent the “little guy” against the big guy, yet UKIP’s manifesto proposes changes to taxation it is believed will lead to significantly greater benefits to the rich than the poor, and it is UKIP policy to repeal the Human Rights Act (although they would replace it with a British Bill of Rights). Farage has been highly critical of foreign workers taking British jobs, but his wife is German and she acts as his personal secretary, earning £25,000 per year from European Parliament allowances – something Farage defended by claiming no one else (and therefore, no one British) could do the job other than his wife due to its unsociable hours. On a recent visit to Grimsby, Farage stressed the importance of taking back control of fishing policy from the EU, despite having attended only one out of forty meetings of the European Fisheries committee when he was a member. As if to encapsulate this, one constituency office (Worthing West) even distributed a leaflet which listed their priorities. “Stop building massive wind farms” was printed directly above “Let’s invest in sustainable energy.”
Watching Farage on a recent leadership debate on British television, two things were most obviously noticeable – firstly, his ability to link any problems with any aspect of British life with immigration (he once blamed the fact he was late for an event on the fact that immigration meant more traffic on the roads), and secondly that he was prepared to offer support to a potential Labour government that stands firmly against most of their policies as long as they promised a referendum on the UK’s membership of the EU. The rest of the UKIP manifesto, it was implied, could go hang.
To an electorate with more reason than most to be sceptical of the EU, it is that clear, simple message that rings loudly – get out of the EU and reclaim the glory days of Grimsby’s fishing past, unfettered by those pesky bureaucrats in Brussels robbing them of their livelihoods, and supported by a British government that will actually stand up for them after years of being taken for granted by a Labour Party that took their votes and did nothing for the town when they were in power.
If you can measure important political events by the amount they are shared on social media, then the Grimsby campaign has already had its defining moment. It came during a debate between UKIP’s Victoria Ayling and the Green Party’s candidate, Dr. Vicki Dunn. Renewable energy has been a “hot” topic in this election due to substantial investment in wind farms, the building of which has brought money and jobs into the area. UKIP opposes the farms, and distributed a leaflet claiming that most of the jobs would be taken by foreign workers. Dunn denied the claims. And then came the moment that soon after went viral across the internet – Ayling, defending her party’s stance of opposition to wind farms, asked ‘What happens when all the renewable energy runs out?’
Cue much ridicule, led by the extremely popular scientist and television presenter Brian Cox who mock-congratulated the party on Twitter for taking the long view – after all, they would be correct in five billion years or so. There was just one problem – the story wasn’t strictly true. Ayling had questioned the wind farms but was talking about when the subsidies for the renewable energy projects run out, not the resources themselves. But this was an example of UKIP being wounded by the very sword they live by. Because while Ayling may have been misquoted, the incident did accurately highlight UKIP’s lack of enthusiasm for renewable energy in general and the wind farm project in Grimsby. And to oppose a project that is bringing jobs and investment into an area starved of both (whilst claiming to be the champions of those wanting work) is to offer their critics a narrative as easy to sell as their own anti-EU stance – UKIP would cost the area jobs, and are a bunch of cranks who don’t even know what “renewable” means. Unfair? A little, but they can hardly cry foul (especially as Farage has admitted choosing his tone while discussing certain issues to get attention[xii]).
They’ve also tried to make political capital out of the fact that Labour’s candidate Melanie Onn was chosen from an all-woman shortlist but have struggled against the fact that Onn is genuinely a local candidate (having been born in the area) and that Ayling, as well as her (somewhat unfortunate) renewable energy gaff, has also been undermined by a tape recording of her allegedly stating, “I just want to send the lot back, but I can’t say that.”
Ayling claims to have only been talking about illegal immigrants, but adding to this are accusations by her own mother that she used to belong to the National Front – again, an accusation she denies, saying she only attended meetings in the 1970s for student research. (It is worth noting that in a tape of a UKIP branch meeting, one member is heard to say that he cannot support a party candidate that they believe to be racist.[xiii])
The Telegraph (the national broadsheet, not the Grimsby Evening Telegraph) could never be accused of being a hotbed of lefty-liberal bias. The most right-wing of the British broadsheets, it’s proudly conservative (as well as Conservative). On the April 17th, they published two maps of the UK. The first shows the areas with the highest percentage of population born abroad, and the second map shows those with the highest likelihood of voting UKIP. Compare the two, and something interesting becomes apparent – the areas in which UKIP’s projected vote is strongest are the areas with the lowest number of immigrants. [xiv]
At first glance this may seem strange – after all, if UKIP voters are so worried about immigration, why are they clustered in areas where it is hardly noticeable? Grimsby certainly fits this description. When I went to secondary school in the 1990s, there was only one non-white student in my year-group, and only a handful noticeable in the lower year-groups by the time I left. Things have changed since, but the lack of diversity is still very noticeable when compared to other northern cities like Bolton or Manchester. So why does the fear of immigration strike deepest in those with least experience of it? The key word: fear.
Those with no experience of integrated communities are more likely to accept it when someone tells them of the problems immigration causes, while those with that experience can recognize is the disparity between what they’re being told and what they see every day. It would be foolish to dismiss people’s fears around immigration, whether in terms of economics, terrorism or housing, or to suggest they are only held by racists, but most of the main political parties have responded to the UKIP threat by toughening their position on immigration in the hope of rendering UKIP obsolete rather than the more politically risky strategy of tackling their rhetoric, even though the evidence is pretty clear – such as the study by the University College London that found that “European immigrants to the UK have paid more in taxes than they received in benefits, helping to relieve the fiscal burden on UK-born workers and contributing to the financing of public services.”’[xv]
In politics though none of the major parties are willing to challenge UKIP’s narrative, and in places like Grimsby the simple logic that “more people = less jobs” and “more immigrants = more families needing benefits and houses” can seem logical. Especially in a community that feels abandoned by those supposed to protect it. In this regard UKIP can be seen as part of a Europe-wide trend in which, as John Gray (Professor of European Thought at the London School of Economics) puts it:
In western Europe the far Right has undertaken a process of modernization as a result of which it has become a key player in democratic politics… By fastening on to immigration the far Right has been able to tap into the discontent of the casualties of globalization in rich countries – unskilled workers and middle managers whose work can be done more cheaply in emerging economies.[xvi]
On the rare occasions that Grimsby does appear in the media, the narrative is pretty much the same. Poverty. Crime. Drugs. Death of industry. And the lingering suggestion of racism and intolerance. After all, far right groups like the British National Party (BNP) and the English Defence League both identified the town as somewhere they can gain ground. While the BNP targeted council and parliamentary seats in the area in recent years, they failed to make any impact. And in last year’s local elections UKIP made gains, but were still only the third largest party even though such elections are often ways for electorates to register protest votes for parties they wouldn’t want to run the country as a whole. [xvii] In 2010 many feared that the far-right BNP would make a leap in support and gain a foothold in Westminster and in Town Halls across the country. It didn’t happen, and the party collapsed under the strain of infighting and recrimination.
These things represent an alternative narrative – a narrative that encompasses the town’s strengths and its history. On a trawler, if things go bad, you have to rely on your ship-mates. If a strike is called on the docks, you have to stand together and rely on your colleagues. Hard times create hardiness, a refusal to buckle under no matter what is thrown at you, and Grimsby has had more than its fair share thrown in its direction. The more the town is squeezed, the more escapes from the cracks. Grimsby Institute of Further and Higher Education ran the first professional writing degree program in the country, which aimed to teach its students not only how to write creatively (i.e. prose fiction, screenplays) but also to give their students a better chance of being able to find a place in the creative industries through an understanding of the business side. Groups like the Grimsby Writers and Driftnet Poets have and do create art through austerity, offering a voice to the too-often voiceless. There has always been a folk music scene in the area. I volunteered in a pop-up gallery that was established by three local artists in an abandoned building, and when I told my parents (who both grew up in working class households) I wanted to study creative writing in school they didn’t hesitate to support me. If working class culture is about anything, it’s about solidarity and empowerment, whether through industrial action or education, something British miners knew when they paid for their own libraries out of their own pockets – as the inscription above an old Pill Library in Wales says; “Knowledge is power.” (And those Welsh miners were not talking about Foucault).
In my grandparents kitchen when I was a child, there was a small bowl. It held pin-badges, most were Russian, given to my Grandad by the sailors who docked in Grimsby. He gave me some, including a genuine hammer and sickle which I (naively) wore on my jacket’s lapel as a teenager and, much to my regret, lost somewhere along the way (which is such a perfect metaphor that I almost wish it weren’t true so that I could come up with it myself). To work on the docks meant regularly meeting and working with crews from all across the world. I’m not saying that there wasn’t any prejudice, but those badges suggest to me a sense of comradeship, a cultural exchange. This sense of comradeship with those in need acts – I believe, I hope – as a counterweight to the far right’s anti-immigration agenda. The fisherman who clutches his nets on the Fisherman’s Memorial Statue would have traveled the world, meeting people of all nationalities. If there is hostility to “outsiders,” it is fueled more by economic desperation than inherent racism. UKIP offers an easy scapegoat and an easy solution to complex economic problems, just as other right-wing groups have attempted to do. The agenda that they are bringing to this election is not new, it’s just a bit more polished. The question is whether the people of Grimsby (and the country as a whole) will reject it this time.
[iii] Manic Street Preachers, ‘30-Year War’, Rewind The Film, Sony, 2013.
[iv] Springsteen, Bruce, ‘Death To My Hometown’, Wrecking Ball, Sony, 2012.
[v] Taupin, Bernie, ‘Grimsby’, Caribou, Pig Music Ltd, 1974.
[xvi] Gray, John, Black Mass: Apocalyptic Religion and the Death of Utopia, p115, Penguin Books, 2008.