The 650 | 26th March 2015

Heywood and Middleton: Why is Labour’s safe northern seat now a Ukip target?

This week Ukip launched their plans on the economy from a seat Labour long considered safe. What happened?

Photo: Getty

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

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

Of course, historical rationalising of this sort is always a little reductive, and doesn’t capture the more nebulous aspects of local feeling. But the story makes sense. It’s difficult to otherwise account for what happened here last October, when Dobbin’s death sparked a by-election which Labour only survived against Ukip by 612 votes.

Ukip came close enough to force a recount; now Heywood and Middleton is one of the party’s target election seats.

How did this happen? In many ways Heywood and Middleton are not exceptional. During the by-election race, the BBC labeled them “typical northern towns”. The constituency doesn’t have a high concentration of immigrants, like Boston & Skegness – another Ukip target – nor are a third of its residents over 65, as in Clacton (seat of Douglas Carswell, Ukip’s first MP).

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Nigel Farage visiting the seat in October.

The constituency is mostly white and English speaking. Only a very small number of residents – one in 25 – gave their religion as Muslim in the last census, and over 70 per cent identify as Christian.

It’s also not especially isolated. I was born in Middleton, and when I return one Sunday morning, the journey is as easy as ever: the 163 bus leaves regularly from Manchester city centre 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 have changed during the 1980s — from record stores to Poundlands — Middleton is still a lively place.

That’s not to say that locals are unperturbed. I meet Terry smoking outside the Britannia, and when I ask about Ukip he immediately turns to his work. “Around Middleton, that’s the general feeling… I can’t get a job now.”

His wife, he explains, works at a major manufacturer on an unsteady contract: “My missus is working today – it’s four [days] on, two off – and she didn’t get a call until last night. They just rang her up, less than 24 hours before.”

Liz McInnes has replaced Jim Dobbin as Heywood and Middleton's MP.
Liz McInnes has replaced Jim Dobbin as Heywood and Middleton’s MP.

Terry and his wife aren’t alone. Unemployment in Heywood & Middleton is high. 14 per cent of people claim the main out-of-work benefits – incapacity benefit and Jobseeker’s Allowance; that’s 40 per cent higher than average. And only 70 per cent of adults here are are in work or seeking it – 10 per cent below average.

This used to be a mill town, but it doesn’t have the iconic cultural history of other post-industrial northern towns. Steve Coogan comes from here, and so does the footballer Paul Scholes, while the legendary Bobby Charlton was married in Middleton. And Ken Loach filmed his 1993 film Raining Stones on the Langley Estate.

But Heywood and Middleton’s next 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 among shoppers, 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). It’s no coincidence that the group supported Jim Dobbin in his bid for parliament.

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Many of the towns’ residents still work in industrial trades, but the steady jobs of an manufacturing past are gone.

On the day of Thatcher’s funeral in April 2013, Dobbin wrote a blog post lambasting the “rather questionable rewriting of history” he perceived in the national press, and re-iterated how Heywood & Middleton is still recovering from Thatcherism.

The latest numbers – quietly released that morning – showed long-term unemployment was up “13 per cent on the year, and long-term youth unemployment is up 25%.  It is getting clearer by the day that this government is letting down our area,” he concluded.

A vacuum of trust was left following Dobbin’s death.

But when a vacuum of trust was left following Dobbin’s death, people started to suspect Labour were letting them down, too. Brutal events have opened the party in power up to strong criticism. Although none of the residents I spoke to mentioned either Heywood’s sex abuse scandal or the death of soldier Lee Rigby, both were covered extensively in the local press.

In January 2011 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 story. Their candidate, John Bickley, began producing a leaflet blaming the events on “Labour’s betrayal”, claiming that “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 Ukip were in it “for the game”.

In neighbouring Rochdale, tensions grew. A group of Heywood cab drivers went on strike after their boss allowed customers to request a white driver (the company, Car 2000, had employed two of the nine men who were later jailed). The moment exemplified the area’s anxieties.

Ukip candidate John Bickley.
Ukip candidate John Bickley.

The May 2013 murder of Fusilier Lee Rigby in Woolwich was another endless story in the Manchester Evening News, with the paper reporting the Middleton-born soldier had been “brutally murdered in broad daylight” and running an anniversary remembrance piece in 2014.

Residents responded. Floral tributes were laid outside his family home in Langley, and plans for a permanent memorial were announced. An open air service held in Middleton Gardens was well attended. Not long after, a group of Muslim community leaders came together to speak out against the recent 40 per cent rise in racially-motivated crimes.

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The people out on Sunday morning seemed 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 stats suggest immigration is not the cause of Heywood & Middleton’s high unemployment, but that’s little help to those living here. For residents with few other practical options, the possibility that their livelihood is due to a rising immigrant population fighting for already scant resources is one of the only explanations to hand.

The people out on Sunday morning seemed uncomfortable talking about race.

Campaign materials from more than one party encourage residents to believe the two are connected, and use the recent scandals to give the bait-and-switch emotional charge – obscuring the actual mechanisms which keep the North West in an economic bind.

In an area where people have been left with few options, the seemingly simple solution of reducing immigration is a tempting answer.

Any attempt to strip the immigration narrative of its power is easily undermined. Ukip politicians quickly turn to class when challenged, grasping to the ‘north-south’ divide. A recent speech by Paul Nuttall, posted on YouTube with the title ‘Labour ends in North London’, is indicative of the class tensions that underpin politics here, with Nuttall asking his audience: “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 glaringly middle class.

Nuttall’s rhetoric is a blunt piece of electioneering, but can’t be easily dismissed. If a politician would be uncomfortable in your company, why should you trust them? Bickley’s website prominently stresses how he was raised on a Middleton council estate, and his father was a Labour trade unionist.

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Ukip’s approach may be simplistic, but voters here are not naïve. I stop Lynn, in her mid-fifties, in the street, along with her husband Jeff. They’re unhappy at the prospect of Ukip getting in, but think Dobbin’s death marked the end of trust in Labour. Both say they’re “dreading” the election, and would be equally unhappy with Labour or Ukip. Lynn thinks 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.”

Ukip came within 612 votes of winning here in 2014.
Ukip came within 612 votes of winning here in 2014.

But when I ask if Westminster has let the area down, 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 thinks the party are 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.”

Terry is still confident Labour will win here (so are the bookies). Jeff and Lynn agree. “We know people who voted Ukip as a protest vote [in the by-election]: but I’m not sure about the general election. I’m not sure they all will this time.”

I find no Ukipper’s throughout the morning – although perhaps they were those who shook their heads at the mention of politics, or were less willing to talk. I text my Middleton-raised mother to complain, and she replies: “Dad reckons Heywood. They had that abuse scandal”.