In Grimsby, the former fishing capital of England, sandpipers scurry across the tarmac of derelict streets. The sandpiper isn’t a creature of asphalt and paving. It’s a small white-breasted bird usually to be found foraging on British foreshores in groups of twenty or so, scuttling up and down sandy beaches as the foaming forward edge of the sea roars in and hisses back. I’d come to Grimsby to see why, after seventy years of voting Labour, the town was flirting with the United Kingdom Independence Party. After a while I began wondering what had happened to make Grimsby a wild and lonely enough place for the sandpiper to feel at home. It turns out the reason is the same. Someone, or something, abdicated power in Grimsby, leaving swathes of it to rot. But who, or what? And what will the succession be?
People tell you in Grimsby there was only one power: that fish was king, and that it didn’t abdicate, it was overthrown by foreigners. Once, the world’s largest ice factory would turn out gargantuan ice blocks to be crushed by the ton, carried on conveyors to the dockside and poured from chutes into the holds of the world’s largest fishing fleet, queuing up for the means to chill their catch before heading for northern waters. When the ships came back they’d bury the quayside in haddock and cod. There were six hundred trawlers in Grimsby in the boom years of the mid-20th century, and each good-sized deep sea vessel had twenty men on board; each man at sea supported four jobs on land. The fishermen were paid a share of the profits made from each three-week trip; after a three-day break they went to sea again, a rhythm that sent pulses of cash-rich fishermen racing to the fleshpots and trinketries of Freeman Street, the backbone of the Victorian town, which ran from the docks to the Marsh districts where the fishermen lived. They would walk away from the cashier at the docks, get into a cab and let the meter run through all their sprees and benders and gift-giving, till the taxi dropped them back off on the quay, quite possibly broke, ready to set sail again.
That was until the 1970s, when Iceland closed its fishing grounds to the British, and European politicians mutualised Europe’s seas, including those Britain laid claim to, and told the Grimsby fishermen there weren’t enough fish left; they could only catch what Brussels allowed, and when. Boat by boat the fishing fleet was scrapped. Freeman Street darkened. It is still a desolate place. Half its shops are shuttered. An entire shopping centre lies abandoned. Life expectancy for people born in East Marsh is ten years lower than in the rest of town. The area is at high risk of flooding, and was almost inundated in the storm surge of 2013. Six 1960s tower blocks, each with more than a hundred flats, rise over East Marsh, hard by Freeman Street. Shoreline, the housing association that took over Grimsby’s council houses in 2005, intends to knock them down. It won’t replace them.
The ice factory is still standing, its machinery intact, but the conveyors are rusting, and although English Heritage has given the vast red brick building a Grade II* listing, this hasn’t prevented the roof falling in. Since the ice factory roof dominates the skyline, the visitor gets the impression the docks have been freshly bombed.
Billy Hardie was there at the end of fishing, a veteran of the Cod War and the glory days before. He was a trawler skipper then – he still captains a boat, now doing survey work – and he’s done well out of it, with a large, comfortable house in the suburbs. His wife has crowded fishing mementoes out of their living room with an abundance of Japonaiserie, and Hardie had to dig down into a stash hidden behind a sofa to show me the trophy he won in 1975. ‘Top 139-foot Trawler’, the plate reads, with the value of the catch engraved down to the last pound: £311,666. As the skipper, Hardie got five per cent, minus five per cent of the cost of the trip – a haul, for three weeks’ work, of perhaps £100,000 in today’s money.
Hardie, who is 72, has joined Ukip. He’s voted Labour, Conservative and Ukip in the past, but it will be Nigel Farage’s party for him this time. For Hardie, it’s not about immigration – there aren’t many immigrants in Grimsby – but about the European Union, and a lingering bitterness over the end of the old fishing days, and a sense that Labour has failed. ‘I don’t want to be ruled by Europe,’ he said. ‘Told what I can catch, what I can’t catch … Why Labour’s taken such a big knocking for Grimsby is, why would you vote for them? Take a look at it. What’s Labour done for Grimsby? All the industry has gone, we’ve got vast unemployment. Give somebody else a chance. Labour will lose this seat.’
As a boy growing up in the 1950s Hardie shared a house with his fisherman father and his fisherman grandfather. He lived on the top floor. ‘I got up in the morning and could watch the ships going up and down. When I was 12 or 13 they were saying: “What’s young Billy going to do when he leaves school?” He wasn’t going to be a plumber. He was going to sea, wasn’t he?’
It wasn’t an easy way to make a living. Crews worked 12 hours on, 12 hours off on the journey to and from the Icelandic fishing grounds. Once the fishing began, they worked 18-hour shifts. You could take a week off but the ship would leave without you and someone else would take your place. ‘We used to say in fishing the trawler owners were the last of the big Victorian gaffers,’ Hardie said. ‘Whatever happened, the ship was going back.’
The crews were dogged by superstitious prohibitions; no woman was let on board, and the colour green was taboo, as was any mention or depiction of pigs, or rabbits. The taboos were commensurate with the danger. Hardie’s other grandfather died in a U-boat attack in 1939. In 1998 Hardie lost a boat in a freak sea, though he and his crew were rescued. Off Iceland one winter he saw a ship, top-heavy with frozen seawater, capsize with twenty men on board. Only one man survived, his life raft driven into a fjord where, by extraordinary luck, he stumbled across a sheep shed. The warmth of the animals kept him alive until he was rescued.
In the mid-1970s Hardie was one of the last Grimsby trawler skippers to defy Iceland’s declaration of exclusive fishing rights over an area two hundred miles from its coast, in what had previously been international waters. Icelandic gunboats towing net cutters would slice through the steel cables British trawlers used to drag their nets behind them, while Royal Navy frigates tried to keep the gunboats away. Hardie was fishing with a group of twenty trawlers one afternoon, dragging his nets at the standard three and a half knots, when a gunboat bore down on them, twice as big as their boat and going at six times the speed. There was no way to manoeuvre, and hauling in the nets took half an hour. All Hardie could do when he realised the gunboat had picked out his vessel was yell at his crew to clear the deck in case the severed cable whiplashed back. The gunboat swept past tight across their stern, the cable went slack, and their net and all the fish it contained sank to the bottom of the Atlantic.
Soon afterwards, in 1976, under pressure from the United States and Britain’s military chiefs, who took seriously Iceland’s threats to opt out of the North Atlantic surveillance chain monitoring the Soviet nuclear submarine fleet, London effectively surrendered the two hundred mile zone to Reykjavik. Cruelly, the man obliged to seal the deal was the Labour MP for Grimsby, the then foreign secretary, Anthony Crosland.
Barred from the rich fisheries off Iceland, Hardie turned to Norway, which, although it was outside the EEC, offered EEC fishing vessels the chance to fish there under a quota system negotiated through Brussels.One time he arrived off Norway with quota to spare only to get a message from his company saying that because a French vessel had overfished, the Norwegians were cutting the quota of another EEC boat – which happened to be his. The only way he could cover his costs was to take his trawler into the perilous waters of the Arctic, above the 72nd parallel.
Hardie doesn’t resent Iceland and Norway for the way they asserted control over their two hundred mile waters. He envies them. He holds, with Ukip, that if Britain had stayed outside the EEC, as Iceland and Norway did, Britain could have had its own two hundred mile zone, and the three countries could have carved up the North Sea and North Atlantic between them. Instead, Grimsby trawlermen had to share with the Spanish, the French, the Danes and the Dutch and endure a European quota regime supposed to conserve fish stocks that until recently obliged them, when they caught the wrong fish, to dump it.
As I listened to Hardie I thought of something John Fenty, the local businessman who owns Grimsby Town football club, had told me a couple of days earlier: how he got his start in 1984 hiring transport out to a local trader who drove around the colliery villages inland, selling fish factory discards to striking miners. I asked Hardie about the miners and he knew what I was getting at. ‘I feel for the mining industry,’ he said. ‘I feel for them because it’s the same as what happened to the fishing industry.’
The political scientist Matthew Goodwin has argued that ‘left-behind’ white voters will still be a political force after the election, however few seats Ukip wins. On an electoral map illustrating one of his articles, the blighted English fishing constituencies – Grimsby, Hull, Great Yarmouth – are included among Ukip’s target seats. But there is something awfully familiar about the deep purple blotches elsewhere on the map: South Wales, Nottinghamshire, South Yorkshire, County Durham. The places where most of Britain’s coal miners worked before the strike of 1984-85 (there were 180,000 miners then; now, fewer than 2000) overlap strikingly with the traditional Labour constituencies where Ukip support is strongest. Miners and fishermen, two groups of skilled workers winning goods from nature, exploited and well paid at the same time, doing hard jobs that women didn’t do, for whom the danger was not only a source of menace but also of pride, a way to test your manhood in front of other men. They might recoil instinctively from Nigel Farage, but they could say that since the coal stopped and the fish stopped, the implied utterance from London government to miners and fishermen has been: ‘What, are you still here?’
It’s not that they don’t still fish out of Grimsby. One morning I met Andrew Allard, who runs a ten-vessel outfit called Jubilee Fishing from an office in the docks. When he showed me on a map on the wall where his boats were at that moment I got a sense of the big world of the Grimsby fishermen, how unprovincial it had been to roam the far corners of Canute’s old North Sea Empire. One boat had just landed cod, haddock and monkfish in Peterhead, another was fishing for plaice off Denmark, another was taking shelter from gales in Orkney. ‘He’ll stay there till lunchtime, till it’s blown through. It was blowing seventy miles an hour, that’s a bit naughty.’
Allard had no ideological problem with Ukip, including their policies on immigration – ‘I know we’re at the end of a railway line, and not many people want to come here, and I’m OK with that’ – but that didn’t mean he was going to vote for them. Sceptical about Labour’s economic management, he’s leaning Tory. ‘During most government terms you generally get a protest vote and then, when it comes to the big one, people revert,’ he said.
He was still waiting for a credible explanation of how pulling out of the EU would bring a restoration of vanished days. ‘The Cod War thing was before my time,’ he said. ‘I joined when it had been and gone, the late Seventies, and gradually saw the harbour year by year emptying of fishing boats … If we’d been in charge of our own waters like the Norwegians and Iceland I think we would still see a vibrant catching industry round here. But the reality is we joined Europe … You can’t just say: “We’re quitting, we’re going to announce a two hundred mile limit.” You would have to be clear about the scenario if we came out.’
The fact is that fishing’s decline predated the Cod War and Britain’s EEC membership. The sharpest fall in the number of full-time fishermen in England after the Second World War was between 1948 and 1960, when it slumped from 26,000 to fewer than 13,000. Since then the fall has been steady but slow. Statistics make a poor meal for a hungry family, and are no comfort to the workless, but since 1960, the loss of full-time jobs in the whole English fish-catching business has been, on average, 135 a year.
The myth is that had Britain followed Iceland’s example, declared its own two hundred mile fishing zone, stayed out of Europe and kept foreigners out of its waters, the harbours of Grimsby and Fleetwood would be as packed with trawlers as in the good old days, whenever those were. The truth is that the Cod War was not about some Little Icelander vision of economic autarky, but Iceland trying desperately to impose control over unrestricted trawling – including by its own boats – that was taking more fish out of the sea than the sea had to give.
Canada also imposed a two hundred mile exclusive fishing zone in 1976, gaining control over the rich cod grounds of the Grand Banks for its Newfoundland trawlermen. Canada and Iceland took radically different approaches to stewardship. The Canadians reckoned that banishing the foreigners meant Canadian fishermen could help themselves to as much cod as they wanted. The result was overfishing on a heroic scale, followed by catastrophe: the Grand Banks cod was almost wiped out. Ottawa imposed a ban on fishing cod in 1992. Meanwhile Iceland, accepting from the start that cod stocks in its waters were perilously depleted, experimented with increasingly sophisticated forms of quota. Over time, fish catches and fish stocks moved closer to equilibrium.
We can’t know which version Britain would have gone for if it had stayed out of the EEC and imposed its own two hundred mile zone. What we do know is that lots of people would have lost their jobs either way. In Newfoundland and nearby regions, 45,000 jobs were lost almost overnight. In Iceland, the change was gradual but – for a country that only has a hundred thousand men of working age – no less profound. In the 1980s, fishing in Iceland employed 16,000 people; now, it’s 8000. After the Cod War, Iceland actually shed more fishing jobs, proportionately, than Britain.
Britain did get a two hundred mile limit, but it was the EEC’s, not Britain’s, and what followed was the Common Fisheries Policy, which began as a hamfisted mash-up of the Canadian and the Icelandic approaches, and is now, forty years and thousands of redundancies and ship-scrappings later, beginning to get catches and stocks in line.
Too late for most of Grimsby’s fishermen. Yet the fish keeps coming, even if British trawlers aren’t bringing it. ‘There’s more fish coming in to the Humber than there ever was,’ Martin Boyers, who runs Grimsby fish market, told me. ‘We’re still getting Icelandic fish but instead of us catching it they catch it themselves.’
The fish market is a generic low-rise industrial building deep inside the docks. It could be any industrial unit, anywhere: concrete block walls, low-pitched corrugated steel roof, trailers parked in loading bays behind a spiked steel fence. You’d never know from the outside that inside they’re auctioning off the fresh spoils of the chase. When I was there, at seven o’clock one March morning, a small area of a vast concrete-floored shed held rows of yellow boxes filled with fish packed on crushed ice: cod longer than my arm, skate like kites made of mangled flesh, the astonished eyes of haddock. Porters, buyers and auctioneers milled around in white coats and hats and yellow wellies, bidding for lots, marking their purchases with strips of paper. In Britain only Peterhead market is bigger. Boyers lifted haddock up by the eyes – a thumb in one eye, an index finger in the other – to show me the subtle difference in silver scales between fish caught in the North and the Irish Seas. The haddock was going for £1.50 a kilo. The week before it had been £3.50. The price goes up and down depending on how stormy it is. Boyers has the weather forecasts for Tromsø and Reykjavik a tap and a swipe away on his smartphone. ‘It’s the only commodity that people go out and hunt,’ he said. ‘You can’t catch it to order and if the weather’s bad, there isn’t any.’
Most of the fish is brought from Iceland in a container ship, unloaded at Immingham, ten miles to the north, then brought to Grimsby by truck. Much is bought by supermarkets, and much ends up being cleaned and filleted and skinned and chopped up and packaged in Grimsby, in scores of other concrete and corrugated steel hangars spread out around the town’s feeder roads. Grimsby – rich in obscure and hard to verify superlatives – claims more cold storage than any town in Britain, or, depending on who you’re talking to, Europe, or the world. One firm alone, Young’s, kings of the frozen fish finger, employs 1700 people; others are smaller, but there are dozens of them, including one perky outfit that deals in nothing but cod cheeks and cod tongues.
The food processing factories, and the cargo-handling business of Grimsby and Immingham, Britain’s biggest port, together with Immingham’s sprawl of refineries and power stations, have kept Grimsby going, but haven’t brought visible prosperity, or a sense of communal prosperity, or statistical prosperity. The constituency has the 23rd worst unemployment rate in the country. One in ten Grimbarian men is on the dole. One in four young people has no job. In the Marshes in 2011, the last time the clipboard-carriers peered down to that level of detail, unemployment was running at 20 per cent. For those in low-paid work, the introduction of zero-hours contracts and agencies, which prevail in food plants, are turning pensions, paid time off and job protection into luxuries.
And yet, at the executive level at least, there’s optimism. It comes from an unexpected new source of work, skilled work that matches brawn and endurance with extreme engineering finesse. Essentially Grimsby hopes to become to wind power what Aberdeen became to the North Sea oil industry. There’s an offshore wind rush on, primed by green taxes collected by private power firms through electricity bills. Like the movements of catchable fish, wind power is unpredictable; unlike fish, it’s inexhaustible. While there is only one common two hundred mile Eurolimit for fish, national two hundred mile zones remain in place for wind farms. Wind power could give Grimsby back a sense that seemed lost for ever, a sense of the sea as its domain. Four of the big wind power firms – Siemens, Centrica, Dong Energy and E.On – have set up bases in the docks, with maintenance boats and survey vessels coming and going. They’re renting houses and block-booking B&Bs for their staff; you see their corporate logos on synthetic fleeces at the bars in the resort of Cleethorpes, to which Grimsby is conjoined. Two wind farms, Lincs and Lynn & Inner Dowsing, are already fully operational off Skegness, south of Grimsby. Two more, Westermost Rough and Humber Gateway, are almost finished to the north. Construction of another three, Triton Knoll, Dudgeon and Race Bank, is about to start.
These are only the prelude to far more ambitious plans, the so-called Round 3 wind farms like Dogger Bank Creyke Beck, a staggeringly grandiose project to plant turbines in the middle of the North Sea over an area almost three times the size of the Isle of Wight, 130 miles north-east of the mouth of the Humber, producing about as much electricity as a mid-sized nuclear reactor. In cost and scale, the North Sea Round 3 wind farms are a £10 billion-plus enterprise, a kind of moon shot against climate change.
‘We’ve seen many an ex-fisherman, deck hands or skippers, converted and gone over to the new industry,’ Boyers told me. Yet it remains uncertain what wind power will do for the fabric of Grimsby, what kind of restoration there might be for the highly gendered culture of the fishing fleet, with its men hunting at sea and its women on shore, the culture of great skill and heroic effort and little classroom learning. There was no place for a woman on a trawler. And ever since the Middle Ages, when Grimsby first began sending members to Parliament, it has sent men. After May, it’s as close to a racing certainty as you can get that Grimsby’s MP will be a woman.
To talk about politics and abdication in Grimsby is, for most people, to assume you’re talking about Austin Mitchell, the 80-year-old Labour MP who will step down in May after almost four decades. Mitchell won the seat in a by-election in 1977 after Crosland died suddenly of a brain haemorrhage. Muriel Barker, a veteran local Labour leader who campaigned for both men, told me that the intellectual middle-class southerner Crosland had adopted Grimsby as his own, but had over-idealised the town’s machismo. ‘He liked the working class,’ she said. ‘I think he was just in love with the concept. I think if he’d seen the women being beaten up when the lads came home from the sea he’d have had a different viewpoint.’
Mitchell, previously an academic and TV interviewer, became the most prominent voice of fishermen in Westminster, and helped Billy Hardie’s mother, Dolly, in her successful campaign to get compensation for fishermen who lost their livelihoods after the Cod War. He was first elected as European restrictions on Britain’s fish catching began to bite, and talked up withdrawal from Europe long before Ukip appeared on the scene. In the early 1980s, in Michael Foot’s Labour Party, quitting the EEC was policy. When Neil Kinnock took over, Labour embraced Europe, but Mitchell didn’t. His banishment to the back benches as the epitome of old Labour – a socialist, an internationalist and localist rather than globalist, a believer in higher taxation and higher public spending, a champion of the working class, a sceptic on Europe, a conservative on gender – came about after he infuriated Kinnock with what would now be seen as a rather New Labour move. He took the Murdoch shilling, signing up as the leftie to Norman Tebbit’s Tory on Sky’s 1990s Crossfire knockoff, Target.
Mitchell’s successor will almost certainly be one of two women, Labour’s Melanie Onn, or Ukip’s Victoria Ayling. The polls have Onn edging it, but it looks close. Though Mitchell is stepping back from politics his legacy haunts both parties. Ayling was chosen by Ukip as the candidate who almost beat Mitchell in 2010, when she ran against him as a Conservative. Yet the choice has alienated the left-wing Ukip members in Grimsby who are its most effective campaigners, people who draw on Mitchell’s own paradigm of socialist anti-EU rhetoric. Onn, meanwhile, was selected from an all-woman shortlist of Labour candidates. The imposition on the local party of a woman-only list has soured the campaign; there is resentment that long-serving local Labour men were kept out of the running.
Rather than stand aloof, Mitchell weighed in. In a piece for the Daily Mail in August, a month after Onn was selected, he talked of Ed Miliband’s aide Anna Yearley orchestrating ‘the feminisation of Labour’. He went on: ‘Yearley believes that the best man for any job, except perhaps the Pope, is a woman … Most selections are now on the all-women basis, even where hairy-arsed local politics, a major Ukip threat or a substantial Muslim population might suggest that it’s better to choose a man.’ Women, he added, were interested in ‘small problems rather than big ideas and issues’.
When I met him, sitting at his cluttered desk in a big homely Victorian terraced house in Grimsby, he was emollient, and praised Onn as ‘a very good candidate’. But he wouldn’t recant. ‘I’m assumed to be anti-woman because I opposed an all-woman shortlist,’ he grumbled. ‘The point was we needed a large entry because the party needed a good choice. Cleethorpes had 14 [prospective candidates] with an open selection. We had four.’
Onn has avoided criticising Mitchell directly after his Mail outburst, which reads as a wounded personal cry against ageism as much as a diatribe against gendermandering.I understand from Labour sources that, following this and other outbursts, senior party figures staged a forceful intervention to get him to sweeten his rhetoric, asking him whether he really wanted Victoria Ayling to be the first Ukip MP for Grimsby.
‘We had our minds on other [candidates],’ Muriel Barker said. ‘But once it’s done, it’s done, you will line up behind someone who’s turned out to be extremely good. [Onn] pinched all the moral ground from Austin because of his stupid remarks but she did it like a little statesman. She wouldn’t attack Austin; she said it was uncomfortable, but let’s keep our eyes on the prize, let’s win. You could have easily descended to silly politics, because Austin needed his legs smacking.’
The after-echoes of the all-woman shortlist row linger on, in the party and on the doorstep. It is a sign of Labour’s deeper problem in Grimsby. As odd as Mitchell’s assertion was that women politicians aren’t interested in ‘big issues’ (Thatcher? Merkel? Clinton?), it was less significant than the joking style of the article and the fact he felt it was a good idea to write it. It was written in the style and the spirit of the movement against political correctness, in resistance to a perceived overarching Authority that is out to stop people telling the truth about, or telling jokes about, groups they don’t like. Mitchell has always been an antic figure. He once changed his name by deed poll to Austin Haddock to promote the seafood industry. He hasn’t been ambitious or radical or vain enough to be accused of the sin of which the likes of Beppe Grillo, Vladimir Zhirinovsky and Nigel Farage are guilty – the uneasy merger of the comedian’s claim to offend harmlessly with the politician’s claim to need power to save the country. But the movement against political correctness is an essential marker of the Ukip way of looking at things. It is also extremely popular. And if political correctness is seen as strongly bound to Labour, the Lib Dems, David Cameron, the EU, the BBC, the Guardian and, in Grimsby, Melanie Onn, the movement against it is strongly connected to Ukip, Jeremy Clarkson, the Daily Mail and, in Grimsby, Austin Mitchell.
Before he stood aside, there was speculation Mitchell would be the first Labour MP to defect to Ukip. It didn’t happen. He told me that Ukip was ‘a fart on the political stage’ and that he was ‘Labour in the essence of my being’. Still, the tone of his discourse was ‘I’m Labour, but …’
‘I think we’re wrong in not offering a referendum on European membership,’ he said. ‘Some of Ukip’s policies are OK. Some are crazy. I think they’re right to say we have to be able to manage immigration, we can’t just open the floodgates. I think they’re right to say we need a degree of distance and more ability to control our destiny. I think they’re right to say the Common Fisheries Policy was a disaster that robbed us of food and jobs. They’re right to say the Common Agricultural Policy makes food too dear …’
I was beginning to think he’d forgotten the crazy policies.
‘… They’re wrong to say it all depends on Europe.’
In the early 1950s, Mitchell pointed out, more than 90 per cent of the British electorate voted Labour or Conservative. Now it was two thirds. ‘It means a third of the electorate is pissed off with the two main parties and pissed off with politics and pissed off with politicians. Their choice is not voting, or Ukip voting. A lot of them will come from Labour, and their main interests lie in Labour … Their world has been destroyed, largely by Thatcherism, but also by us. We went along with this free market economics, we believed we had a new paradigm and would have exponential growth, and we were wrong.’
On the morning I left my B&B to meet the Labour campaign, the three top items on the BBC news were about showbusiness: the crash of a helicopter full of reality TV stars, the ‘Blurred Lines’ plagiarism case and, the lead story, the Clarkson scandal. ‘They’re making a hell of a fuss about Clarkson,’ I said to the driver as I got into the cab. ‘Why do people care so much?’
‘Tells the truth, don’t he.’
Labour’s Grimsby campaign HQ is a two-storey building on a through road running parallel to the docks. The party bought it off the GMB union. It costs £100 a week to run. It’s not much to look at from the outside, and the shop window – with its larger than life photo of Onn and the red and yellow posters urging passers by to Make It Melanie – is covered in a layer of grime. Inside, it’s big, high-ceilinged, full of natural light, swallowing up people and furniture and boxes of leaflets. In the main room on the ground floor rows of chairs and a praesidium table are set out as if for a public meeting. The walls are hung with pictures of past battles and heroes. There’s a copy of a campaign poster for Tom Proctor, who ran in Grimsby in 1906 as a candidate for Labour’s precursor, the Labour Representation Committee. He came third. His campaign pledges were ‘No tax on food, votes for the workless, pension for the aged, fair play all round.’
Steve Elliott was Mitchell’s agent in the 2010 campaign. Now he’s doing the job for Onn. He was born to socialist parents in a long-demolished slum in the Marshes in the 1950s. He has a white beard and a wan resilience. ‘I’m the guy who goes to prison if we spend too much money,’ he said. Too much, in Elliott’s interpretation of the law, is anything over £32,000 per party, per constituency. In Labour’s case much of that comes in kind from the unions, in the form of staff hours and mailings.
‘We’ve had an MP for the last thirty-odd years who’s been consistently anti-Europe,’ Elliott said. ‘His views tend to be from the left of centre opposition to the European Union. He believes if we got out of the EU we could renationalise the railways, we could do things our way, we could have a socialist Britain … When Ukip came along they latched on to him. They said if you want to support good old Austin, vote Ukip.’
Onn arrived, a pink-cheeked 35-year-old who works as an organiser for the union Unison. She was late; her car had been stolen. The thief had walked into her house, taken the keys and driven off without her noticing. It hadn’t put her off her stride. She was thoughtful and intelligent, careful and distant, and wasn’t trying hard to be liked. It hadn’t been easy to get her to agree to meet me. Her rise has been against the odds. She was born on a Grimsby council estate, moved away with her mother to London as a small child, and was then separated from her mother and raised back in Grimsby by her great-aunt. She sat her A-levels while living in a hostel for homeless teenagers after her relationship with her great-aunt broke down. She never knew her father; she found out recently that he’d died when she came across his obituary in the Grimsby Telegraph. The benefits of the caring state are not abstract concepts to her.
‘If there hadn’t been education for as long as I wanted, if there hadn’t been good-quality social housing, if I hadn’t had the opportunity to go to university, if there hadn’t been the medical support, the social support – I was on benefits twice – if that hadn’t been there, there’s no way I would have been where I am now,’ she said. ‘Now … all the things that provide a level playing field for working-class kids just seem to be being taken away.’
Onn didn’t try to deny Labour’s complicity in what has happened. It makes her campaign a difficult proposition, hard to characterise as anything but ‘Please trust us one more time.’
‘Labour is now saying there’s too much [pressure] on the NHS and the accusation is quickly thrown back at us “it started on your watch” and it’s not easy to overcome because it’s accurate … I think there’s a whole new breed of people seeking election. We have seen mistakes that have happened in the last Labour government. We want to get back to the Labour Party that said it wanted to be a party that represented working people and people less able to support themselves.’
Onn was wary. It wasn’t hard to see why. Not only does she have to fight off Ukip at the polls; she has to deal with the festering aftermath of the woman-only selection row and, inside her own party, with heads being turned by the allure of a local Ukip that is flying with a withered right wing and a pumped-up, mutant left. In 2013 a Labour councillor in Grimsby, Jane Bramley, defected to Ukip, saying it was a ‘fairer’ party. At last year’s council elections, Ukip gave Labour a drubbing, reducing it to a minority administration. Yet when Labour needed backing to pass its budget this year, Ukip members lined up alongside them against the Conservatives and Lib Dems.
Ray Sutton, chairman of the Great Grimsby constituency Labour Party, told me: ‘I know Ukip have got people who are socialist through and through.’ Sutton didn’t pretend he wasn’t still bothered by the all-woman shortlist, unless distinguishing between his official and personal selves counts as pretence. ‘As constituency party chair I accept the party has this policy, and we’ve operated within that … We’ve ended up with a very good candidate,’ he said. ‘Personally … it’s amazing that the 2010 Equality Act has a special law for parliamentary elections. The politicians are doing what nobody else can do … it’s something I can’t come to terms with. I don’t raise it with anybody, but people raise it with me.’
I met Sutton in the same room in Labour campaign HQ where I met Onn and Elliott. They’d left us, but though Sutton was forthcoming, and could see I was writing down what he said, he seemed nervous. At one point he looked round to see Phil Pocknee, one of the young Labour volunteers, sitting behind him, and asked if he was there to listen in. Pocknee, a student, seemed embarrassed to think Sutton should imagine such a thing, and left. Whether Sutton was being unduly anxious, or Pocknee really was monitoring dissent, it suggested Labour’s small ship – the party in Grimsby has two hundred members – doesn’t have a happy crew.
Ukip might seem well placed to take advantage. Yet as much as Victoria Ayling might talk up Labour’s all-woman shortlist kerfuffle – ‘As a female can I just say among my friends and female politicians generally we don’t need this patronising attitude’ – her position within her own local party looks less secure than Onn’s within hers. Grimsby Ukip is all about a localist approach to national problems, but Ayling is the only one of the candidates who wasn’t born and raised in the town. Even the Conservative candidate, Marc Jones, was born to a staunch Labour family in East Marsh. Ayling is from South London, and only moved to rural Lincolnshire, south of Grimsby, in the 2000s (she did have a spell in Hull early in her career, marketing cod liver oil).
She has also had to fend off accusations of racism. The Mail on Sunday got hold of a promotional video from 2008, when she was still a Conservative, in which she talks about immigrants. Between takes she says as an aside: ‘I just want to send the lot back, but I can’t say that.’ Ayling claims she was talking about illegal immigrants. This is not obvious from the video. The same newspaper claimed Ayling had been a member of the National Front in the late 1970s. Ayling denies she was a member, but admits having gone to meetings, saying she was carrying out research for a thesis.
Ayling comes to Grimsby from local politics in the Lincolnshire countryside, where her opposition to the twenty small wind turbines generating electricity in the fields at Conisholme was an uncontroversial, even popular stance: ‘Click here to email us if you can hear the turbine blades swishing at night,’ urged the website of the Louth Leader in 2008. She has transferred her hostility to windmills in the countryside to the gargantuan industrial project to reap the winds far offshore in the North Sea, where a single turbine will generate almost as much power as the whole Conisholme wind farm. During Round 3 more than two thousand of them are supposed to be planted in the seabed, each of their three blades longer than the wingspan of a jumbo jet. Ayling insists on the folly of wind power – its unreliability, its cost, its insignificant contribution to the local economy – even as Grimsby fights with other ports to be its champion. Listening to Ayling diss wind power is like hearing a resident who lives under the flight path of a local flying club trying to persuade Heathrow’s 76,000 workers to vote for her so she can shut the airport down.
Nationally, the party is on her side. One of Ukip’s unambiguous policies is to abolish ‘green taxes’, a small part of which, typically £2.50 a month on a household electricity bill (the amount will rise), goes to subsidise wind farms, solar energy, biomass generation and, in future, nuclear power. The cost of offshore wind farming, even without factoring in reduced pollution and carbon emissions, is on a steady downward curve, but a Ukip government would kill the industry instantly, as well as making new nuclear power stations impossible.
When I arrived in Grimsby it seemed possible the election campaign had already seen its two memorable moments. One was Mitchell telling the Independent on Sunday that the town’s seat was so safely Labour the party would win even if it selected as its candidate a ‘raving alcoholic sex paedophile’. The other was a clash at a local hustings over wind power between Ayling and the Green candidate, Vicky Dunn. Greens tend to be stereotyped as head-in-the-clouds tree-hugging Luddites who would rather see a city devastated by unemployment than harm the habitat of a single puffin, but Dunn is a no-nonsense northern gearhead Green who told me, when I asked about the future of the steelworks in nearby Scunthorpe, that the steel for wind turbine shafts would have to be made somewhere. When Dunn and Ayling went head to head it was Ayling who came across as the oddball.
Dunn (to Ayling): People in Grimsby remember that the fishing industry was stabbed in the back by politicians. I’m very concerned that you’re a politician that is lining up to walk down the docks and stab our new industry in the back.
Ayling : Certainly not. Because these renewables will not last for ever. The subsidies will dry up and when the subsidies …
Dunn : That’s kind of the point. (Audience laughter)
Although Ayling didn’t use the exact words, the Twitterverse has made sure she will always be remembered as saying: ‘What happens when the renewables run out?’
When you watch the Ayling-Dunn exchange on YouTube, it has the lexicon of a disagreement about economics and science, but the expressive mood of clashing belief systems and a shared disgust with a political status quo that blocks the triumph of passion over cost-benefit analysis. Dunn’s belief in the all-consuming primacy of climate change and Ayling’s belief that climate change is a lie divides them. But they are united by a desire for the kind of disruptive change that makes the Wagyu sirloin turn bitter in the mouths of fund managers.
Trying to describe the mood of the electorate, and why they’re drawn to Ukip, Dunn told me: ‘It’s about emotions, it’s about anger … [The truth] is not something you can easily persuade people of with statistics. That’s not what to listen to any more. They’ve got a feeling something’s not right. Which, interestingly enough, is something which drives the Green vote as well.’
I met Ayling in Freeman Street Market, a refurbished space which stands out in the retail desolation of East Marsh for having had money spent on it. Ukip Grimsby has its base there in a temporary wood and glass pavilion of the kind you see at trade fairs. It was clean and bright and neatly spread with purple and yellow leaflets. Too neatly: the place lacked the healthy turmoil of an insurgent campaign in high gear. Ayling had a bright-eyed zeal. She was friendly and good-humoured. She seemed to draw comfort from having come to rest in a place of absolute political certainty and hewed to her policy lines as if by repeating them often enough she would make the scales of doubt fall from my sceptical metropolitan eyes and compel me to follow her to a better realm where good English common sense prevails and things stand to reason.
She turned against Cameron in 2009 when he cancelled his pledge, if elected, to hold a referendum on the Lisbon Treaty. But four years passed before she left the Conservatives. ‘I felt he was just weak and doing anything to please his European masters. In March 2013, at the Spring Forum, he was spreading his lies and spin about how he controlled immigration. I went up to him, stopped him in his tracks and told him he was a traitor; he was disingenuous, and not fit to run the country, and I was going to Ukip. He was stunned into silence. He stood frozen to the spot as his security people pulled me away from him. They thought I was going to assassinate him … I’ve been a Tory since I was 14 and it was a big, big step to take … I can’t live a lie any more, I can’t follow the blue any more with this man at the helm.’
Ayling is a human definition of chutzpah. It takes chutzpah to sit in the middle of East Marsh, one of the poorest wards in Europe, and say: ‘I’m pro-austerity, as long as it’s targeted properly.’ It takes chutzpah to sit in the middle of East Marsh, almost devastated by a storm surge little more than a year ago, and say of man-made global warming: ‘I think it’s a lot of nonsense. I think it’s a con. Climate change is an excuse to tax people.’ It takes chutzpah to claim leaving Europe would save Britain £55 million a day, a figure that ignores the funds Britain gets back from the EU, when you’re sitting in an East Marsh market whose refurbishment was 50 per cent funded by that repatriated EU money.
And it takes chutzpah to denigrate the industry that seems to offer the best hope of revival for the town where you’re running for office. Ayling didn’t back down a milliwatt on her stance at the hustings. Wind power generated 9.3 per cent of Britain’s electricity last year, yet Ayling calls it ‘unreliable’, because the wind doesn’t blow all the time – in the way, presumably, that fishing is unreliable, because sometimes the trawlermen go out and don’t catch anything. ‘I do not want to have subsidies paid into something unreliable,’ she said. ‘I would like to have wind subsidies cut. I do believe it’s a passing fad. I’m concerned we, as a town, are going to be too dependent on something that may go tomorrow, and what then?’
The fourth woman running for the Great Grimsby seat is Val O’Flynn, the ex-Militant Tendency candidate for the radical left-wing Trade Unionist and Socialist Coalition. I met her one Friday lunchtime in a sprawling hotel bar near Grimsby Town station where mothers with pushchairs and plates of food shared space with tottering, booze-darkened drinkers. We talked for a while about TUSC, its desire for a socialist transformation of society and its policy of quitting the EU – ‘nothing more than a pro-business, neoliberal organisation’. I could see, when she talked about immigration, what a gaping space there was on the radical left for Ukip to enter. The open door immigration policy, she said, ‘suited the capitalist because it increases the labour force, it has a downward effect on wages, and immigrants are much easier to exploit. Immigrants come over here partly because of the faults of capitalism in their own countries. What is a minimum wage here is a good wage compared to what it would be at home. That brings the wages down for the rest of us.’
I asked her about Ukip. ‘Ukip is very divided here,’ she said. ‘I know branch members of Ukip who are locals who can’t stand Victoria Ayling. She was parachuted in.’ I suddenly remembered a bit of gossip somebody had told me about O’Flynn. Wasn’t she …
She smiled. ‘I’m engaged to a Ukip man,’ she said. To Chris Osborne, in fact, the campaign manager for Steve Harness, Ukip candidate for Cleethorpes. They met over a shared cause. ‘I’ve been banned from Morrison’s for doing a protest about them selling Israeli goods and Chris has been sort of fighting this pro-Palestine corner for years so that’s how we got talking.’ He would have been very much at home in the old Labour Party, she said.
I asked if I could meet him, and we got in a taxi. Osborne, a gentle, silver-haired man in a baggy black T-shirt, runs a tattoo parlour he co-owns in Cleethorpes. He sat down sheepishly next to his pink and blue-haired fiancée on a bench in the window and explained how he’d converted to Ukip after an encounter with Paul Nuttall, the party’s deputy leader, at a public meeting last year. Nuttall assured him that if he joined, he wouldn’t have to follow a central party line – he could campaign on local issues in his own way. ‘I had no interest in Ukip,’ he said. ‘All I’d seen was what everybody else had seen, Nigel Farage, his pint and his fag. But I was told you best represent Ukip by representing your community, and I like that. Ukip up here are largely ex-Labour. Up here is a far more grass-roots, hard working-class background than it is down south.
‘I was a Labour member for many, many years. I was at Orgreave and I was a steel worker at Scunthorpe during the strike of 1980, on the picket lines. But I’ve become increasingly disillusioned. When New Labour came along it just became “We are the Conservatives.” I drifted away from the party.’
We chatted for a while. You often hear people from Scotland talking about how exciting it was in the run-up to the referendum to have the country turned into one big political discussion group, well-informed, passionate and reasonable, and it was a bit like that, except that when I’d imagined something similar happening in England, I hadn’t put a Ukip activist in there. O’Flynn and Osborne sparred in an edgy way, and as they performed people who came in for their tattoos sat and listened quietly.
‘I’m fiercely, fiercely anti-racist,’ Osborne said. ‘We are aware that we have had people back in the south, very English, who have expressed ridiculous sentiments and have to be weeded out. Ukip is still in a state of evolution. Twenty-two Labour MPs voted against same-sex marriage but nobody says they’re homophobic.’
‘Clause 4 was removed,’ said O’Flynn. ‘They embraced neoliberalism. We were betrayed, totally betrayed by the Labour Party.’
Osborne: ‘People are working on these ridiculous zero-hours contracts, working for next to nothing, it’s an abomination. The main reason I’m not in TUSC … we have a lot of common ground, fighting for people at the bottom. But the organised socialism side of it leaves me a little cold.’
O’Flynn: ‘He’s not a revolutionary.’
Osborne: ‘We’ve made great strides in the north of England. The Labour heartlands are stopping being Labour heartlands.’
O’Flynn: ‘Ukip is making it OK for people to come out and be racist.’
Osborne: ‘We cut down immigration, we make the unskilled worker more valuable.’
O’Flynn: ‘But then you’re putting the focus on the immigrants rather than the employers.’
Osborne: ‘The Labour Party, for me, was a sacrosanct thing. It stood between the working man and the bottomless pit of poverty. It became about being elected.’
O’Flynn: ‘All Ukip seems to be interested in is getting rid of anything that impacts business. I think you’re delusional.’
A few days after I left Grimsby, there was another leak. The Sunday Mirror got hold of a recording of a showdown between the neo-socialist local Ukippers and a party official over the lack of support for Ayling. On the tape, Osborne is heard to describe Ayling as ‘possibly the worst candidate we could have’. He says: ‘I cannot endorse or support a candidate who I genuinely believe – whether anybody else does or not – who I genuinely believe is racist.’
In the recent past the word ‘disruptive’ has been a euphemism for ‘troublesome’, but in the language of those who write about society, technology and finance, it’s come to have the positive meaning of ‘transformational’, as in ‘Uber has had a disruptive effect on the old taxi cartels.’ Martin Boyers calls Ukip’s rise the ‘Lidl effect’, after the discount chain’s disruption of the complacent empires of Tesco and Sainsbury’s. Ukip, the Greens and TUSC offer the disruption so many voters seem to want, but won’t get the national votes to deliver it. The Conservatives, Labour and the Lib Dems will get the votes, but don’t offer disruption; they pledge to avoid it, bidding to manage the country in the best way, for the lowest price, with a few customer service tweaks, like train company operators bidding for a franchise – free wifi, complimentary drinks in first class. For all the talk of the 99 per cent, as long as at least 51 per cent of voters are content with the no-disruption parties, they win. The only party to combine vote-winning potential with the promise of disruptive change is a party that isn’t running in Grimsby, the Scottish National Party.
This leaves Grimsby with a problem, because the established parties have, in the name of no-disruption good stewardship, engineered a disruptive transformation in the way political power is exercised in small English towns; a change so massive and so gradual that neither the politicians involved, nor the citizens of those towns, nor even those exercising the power, are ready to admit that it has happened. The great abdication in Grimsby has been of power itself, local power, that essential trinity of access to resources; inspired, ruthless marshalling of effort; and care for what local people think. There is an abundance of autonomy in Grimsby, some of it remarkable and interesting. But local autonomy isn’t the same as local power.
In Grimsby, you can see the effects of two old disruptions that had unintended consequences. Thatcher hoped that privatisation would create globe-straddling British companies owned by small British shareholders, but instead most of the privatised firms and their small shareholders have been bought out by foreign governments and overseas pension funds. Thus Associated British Ports, which owns the ports of Grimsby and Immingham, as well as Hull and many others around the country, used to be publicly owned, then was owned by anyone with the means and the desire to buy its shares on the stock market, and is now one-third owned by the government of Singapore and one-third by the pension fund of former municipal employees of the Canadian province of Ontario, with a quarter just bought by the Canadian national pension fund and the remaining 10 per cent snapped up by a British investment house, Hermes.
The second disruption was the set of changes brought about by Blair’s Third Way. They were supposed to force new ideas into health, education and social housing. Instead, they were seized on by the Conservatives in 2010 as the vehicle to separate the welfare state from the state that created it. The NHS and the education system were split into autonomous, commercialised units with incentives to merge and form chains; housing associations are simply starved of cash to build homes. In Grimsby, in Anthony Crosland’s old constituency, the comprehensive school is no more. Each of the area’s ten state secondary schools has become an academy; six are part of national chains, administered from offices in Birmingham, London, Leeds and Grantham. It’s not that they aren’t doing good work, but they are part of a landscape of local political power entirely different from the one the election candidates and the media speak to, the one citizens still believe exists. For most people in Grimsby, when something big goes wrong, blame goes to ‘the government’, or ‘the council’ – in Grimsby’s case, the authority of North-East Lincolnshire, which covers Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham.
‘The local authority is in a very invidious position because it has no control over schools, but is held accountable,’ said David Hampson, who runs a local academy chain, the Tollbar Family of Academies, with two secondary schools and a sixth-form college. Tony Bramley, the head of Shoreline, told me: ‘The public will just see the NHS and the council and the police. Many people still think we are the council.’
Even though Labour masterminded the mass transfer of council houses to Shoreline, and introduced academies and NHS trusts, it tried to make sure something was holding it all together. ‘We all had to have a plan,’ Bramley said. ‘It was, if you like, structured and enforced by government officials. There were key performance indicators. Everybody got judged and ranked and we all resisted and kicked against it because we thought it was a top-down, centralised method. All that went in 2010 when the new government came in. The immediate reaction was a weight lifted off everybody’s shoulders. Then … combine a lack of direction with the fragmentation that has happened. When you want to talk to anyone it’s very difficult. Some do, some don’t. Without local authority goals it becomes much more difficult.’
Along with the fragmentation of power into sectoral fiefdoms is the hulking presence of Associated British Ports, known to all locally as ABP. From the window of Bramley’s office we could see thousands of identical white Toyotas, made in Derby, and the car carrier they were about to be loaded onto for shipment to the Continent. With Immingham and Killingholme, Grimsby is Britain’s biggest port for importing and exporting cars.
‘The issue is ABP’s control of the waterfront,’ Bramley said. ‘It locks the community away from the sea in large parts of the borough. Obviously it’s a private company with its own business model but Grimsby, Cleethorpes and Immingham have not been able to take advantage of their natural asset to the extent many other places have because of this unfair private sector control of that very key aspect. It’s a very big economic generator but it has a real impact on the ability of the community to help the town.’
The free burghers of Grimsby got their charter from King John in 1201, but the original harbour silted up in medieval times, the town went into decline, and by the 19th century it was a notorious rotten borough with a few hundred hereditary freemen choosing two MPs. The great fishing boom, and the current shape of the town, dates back only as far as the middle of the 19th century, when the Manchester, Sheffield and Lincolnshire Railway Company laid a line through the Marshes and built the grand network of docks linking the mouth of the Humber with the River Freshney.
‘Before the port was built, it was a hamlet,’ said John Fitzgerald, who runs ABP’s Humber ports. ‘Then two and a half thousand Irish navvies came with spades.’ The fishermen who flocked to populate East and West Marsh in the 1850s and 1860s were immigrants from other parts of Britain, most of them – coincidentally or not – from fishing ports in Essex and Kent where Ukip support runs high today.
Now, between the thriving waterfront – where the cars are transhipped and the fish is auctioned and the wind farmers are gearing up to sow the sea with turbines – and the just about bustling, pre-industrial Top Town district, where the main shopping centre is, lie the decaying streets of East Marsh, leading straight to the acres of desolation of the ice factory and its environs. Near the ice factory are the streets where the sandpipers forage, handsome, damp, cracked frontages of dark brick, with boarded-up windows and weeds growing out of the gutters. The odd puff from a smokehouse chimney or pile of polystyrene fishboxes shows where commerce persists, but the general atmosphere is of a place waiting to host the final shootout scene of a 1970s cop drama. It’s a strange thrill to look up at the street signs, see they have the ABP logo on them, and realise I’m on ABP territory. They look like public British streets, but are, in fact, private. Am I even in Britain? Or am I in a globalist anomaly, one third Singapore, 58 per cent Canada? John Fitzgerald told me that the doubly privatised ABP was good for Grimsby, and good for Britain. Yet the government of Singapore still owns the port of Singapore, and the Canadian state still owns the ports of Canada. ABP, which has a virtual monopoly on the Humber, Britain’s busiest trading estuary, recently went all the way to Parliament to try to block an entrepreneur’s plan to build a new port near Immingham to stage the turbines and masts for the Round 3 wind farms. Fitzgerald says he has £500 million to spend on new projects in the Humber, but his position as steward of one of Canada and Singapore’s far-flung estates does not permit him to set money aside to mend the roof of the ice factory. ‘We’re happy to talk to anybody who has a plan for it,’ he said. ‘Ultimately, the renovation of a building like that is not a business we are in.’
There’s a popular idea in Grimsby, as in so many other small towns across the country, that what is needed, all that is really needed, is jobs. Something will open, bringing jobs. Something will close, and jobs will be lost. Jobs joy, jobs gloom. Nothing must be done to destroy jobs. Everything must be done to attract jobs. ‘Jobs’ has nothing to do with the job you actually have, or the job you want but can’t get. ‘Jobs’ is the magical key to communal contentment, to Freeman Street lighting up with chain stores, to nice clothes and holidays and happy children. For sure, the town is desperately in need of work. But there is a problem with the jobs obsession, and not just because so many of the jobs are low-paid, low-skilled, insecure ones. (Grimsby holds first place in the country for ‘semi-routine’ occupations, ‘typified’, the statisticians say, ‘by a short term and the direct exchange of money for effort’.)
There were plenty of jobs during the hundred-year fishing boom; that’s what the people of Grimsby believe, anyway. Certainly fortunes were made by successful trawler owners. And yet it is striking how little mark all those jobs and all that capital left on the landscape in terms of great buildings or the endowment of institutes or galleries. Those who grew rich bought farmland, moved away, sent their children to private schools, got the smell of fish out of their clothes. In A New Kind of Bleak, Owen Hatherley describes how during its fishing boom years Aberdeen almost bankrupted itself with grand architecture and elaborate cultural legacies, yet ‘in the 35 years since Aberdeen became the oil capital of Europe, the city has not seen a single worthwhile building in the city centre.’ Grimsby was left with much less than Aberdeen from its fishing days, and risks having the wind power boom rush through without bringing anything to the city more rich and lasting than jobs.
There were countless signs in Grimsby that as a town it is somehow incomplete, all skewed one way. In the country as a whole, more than a quarter of the population have higher than school level qualifications. In Grimsby, it’s about 15 per cent. Nearly a third of people in Grimsby have no passport, one of the highest proportions in the country. Most of the town’s huge collection of maritime art is in storage because the town’s only public gallery, in the Fishing Heritage Centre, is tiny. ‘We don’t get anything new,’ Val O’Flynn said. ‘New ideas don’t come here, or if they do, they’re old by the time Grimsby gets them.’ David Hampson, of the Tollbar Academies, said his biggest problem with his pupils was lack of aspiration. I asked him about something Muriel Barker had said, that despite all her efforts, Grimsby was still seen as a cultural desert. Hampson seemed surprised anyone would think of looking for culture in Grimsby. ‘If I want culture,’ he said, ‘I go and spend two or three days in another city.’
Tony Bramley of Shoreline said he had always struggled to recruit experienced senior professionals, and the problem wasn’t money. He described a meeting where he and a group of private housing developers were talking about the future. ‘When it came to the key things that would make this a better place to live, the answer was culture. The answer was not the economy, not a different mix of homes. The answer was: what do people do in the evenings? … My big fear, which I keep voicing everywhere I go, is if there is to be a surge of economic activity, primarily on the back of the renewable energy, we will see job growth but not housing growth. They will come here to work but will go back and spend money in other settlements.’
An effort by a local trust to save the ice factory by buying it from ABP and turning it into an art gallery and cinema foundered when the Heritage Lottery Fund turned them down. Meanwhile, on Freeman Street, the hereditary Freemen – they still exist, eight centuries after they got their charter from King John, and still own the freehold of most of the shops on the street that bears their name – have renovated the market, with the EU’s help. The council has installed new lampposts. Everyone understands they are just pecking away at the rot and that only a determined, well-funded and imaginative vision to transform the entire area and bring the docks and the town together will succeed. But with the local arm of the state, the council, weakened by Third Way disaggregation, ABP essentially a buy-to-let proposition run by absentee landlords in Toronto and Singapore, and with no sign of the kind of buccaneering local capitalists who built the docks in the first place, this looks unlikely.
Rising high above the docks is the one great monument in Grimsby to the old power of local capital, the Grimsby Dock Tower. It was built in 1852 for strictly utilitarian purposes, as the container for a hydraulic system that opened dock gates and operated cranes. The ingenuity of its design was necessary to its function. The beauty of its appearance was not. It was built as a copy of the Torre del Mangia in Siena, but has a ruddy Hanseatic simplicity quite in keeping with the north. It was a boastful flourish added by businessmen who were around on the local scene, who cared what local people thought of them, who wanted to impress and awe. The tower remains. No such route to public magnificence exists today. ABP has no reason to perform that kind of boast because Canadian pensioners have no reason to boast to the people of Grimsby. Toronto and Singapore want neither to help East Marsh, nor to have the mighty of Grimsby look on their works and despair. They just want their five per cent return on equity, as smoothly as possible, thank you.
Would the Round 3 wind farms be different, should they go ahead? Ayling has made much of fears that the cream of the work will go to outside specialists, particularly foreigners. It’s true Round 3 would be built by mainly northern European energy companies who’ve done a deal with the government similar to the one Électricité de France has made to build nuclear reactors. Their focus is not on cutting a swagger on the Humber and leaving a legacy but on rate of return on investment, global markets and the advancement of Continental European technology – there’s no British technology in the field. It’s also true that current subsidies, guaranteeing Round 3 farms three times the regular wholesale price of electricity for fifteen years, are high, and vulnerable to political attack. What wind power offers Grimsby is the prospect of restoring a source of grandeur the town has lost – a harbour filled with working boats. The harder thing is to land something less transient than jobs, that leaves Grimsby more than memories of a life at sea.
The nearest to any kind of visionary capitalist embedded in Grimsby today is John Fenty, owner of Grimsby Town Football Club. He also sits as a Conservative on the council. Fenty, who made his money in the fish processing business, is trying to get the council to permit a big new housing development on the southern outskirts of town. In return for planning permission the developers would seed-fund a new stadium. ‘Of course the Victorians were gushing with wealth,’ he said. ‘You’re talking about a few key people in the local area building statements and investing in property for the long term. Today there isn’t that kind of individual wealth around and they are building for the short term, in truth. Do I see that changing with something like a football stadium? It’s a tremendous opportunity to build something that makes a statement … We’ve got to make sure we avoid the tin shed scenario.’
Indeed, central Grimsby is full of the hideous tin sheds of retail warehouses. But the Fenty family may not stick around to see the stadium dream through. Having sunk £3 million of his own money into the club already, Fenty would sell to the right buyer. He has already sold his fish business: none of his seven children wanted to take it on. ‘They were put off by the long hours,’ Fenty said, ‘the smelly clothes.’
Before leaving Grimsby I visited another tower, Garibaldi House, one of the ex-council blocks that is being demolished by Shoreline. As the Dock Tower and the ice factory are emblems of a vanished local capitalism that cared enough about the people to embody its wealth in boastful public buildings, so Garibaldi House is an emblem of that other abdicated local power, the state. Incompetent and indiscriminate as it was in its destruction of old buildings, the postwar, pre-Thatcher state also built decent homes for people who had no other way to get them.
According to Bramley, Shoreline has little choice but to demolish the blocks. It has the money to repair them, but a combination of the desperate poverty of the area and the way the bedroom tax has been designed to favour private landlords over housing associations and councils means Shoreline can’t keep occupancy rates up. Tenants and landlords in East Marsh are in a mirror world. In most of the country, rents on the open market are far higher than the social and ‘affordable’ rents charged by housing associations. In East Marsh, it’s the other way round: the rent you’d pay Shoreline for what used to be a council house is actually the same as, or higher than, rent on the open market. And because, under the bedroom tax, the government won’t pay a single tenant’s full rent in a two-bedroomed ‘social’ house, but will happily pay a single tenant’s full rent in a two-bedroomed private house, lettings agents have fanned out across the area, encouraging people to move from housing association flats to private ones. If an unemployed working-age woman whose husband has left her moves from a £75 a week two-bedroom Shoreline flat to a £75 a week two-bedroom private flat, she can save £10.50. The consequence of this is the permanent destruction of seven hundred well-maintained, not-for-profit homes in a series of controlled demolitions. ‘It’s not a level playing field,’ Bramley said. ‘In this area, low income households are definitely prepared to trade off an extra few pounds in their pocket moving into a low-cost private rented unit against not getting their heating fixed when it breaks down. Cash is king.’
I went to the top of Garibaldi House. The views are supposed to be amazing but it was a murky, hazy day, and the mouth of the estuary was barely visible. I knocked on a few doors. Near the topmost floor I met Denise Gibbs. She was watching an afternoon quiz show on a tiny TV set balanced on top of a small chest, one of the few bits of furniture in her flat. She’d thrown most of the furniture out because it reminded her of her abusive ex-partner. She’d scraped all the wallpaper off the walls for the same reason. She said she’d lived in the flat for thirty years, moved in from the YMCA, lived on the streets before that, had lost her parents when she was a child. Stuck to the bare plaster wall over the TV were two small, faded pictures of Freddie Mercury and Bob Marley, torn from a newspaper. ‘I like them,’ she said.
‘So do I,’ I said. She’d had a letter saying the flats were going to be knocked down, and they’d offered her another flat, but she didn’t really want to move. ‘I did have a carer, but with the government cuts she lost her job. She used to take me out to the big shops. I can’t fit in with people, I don’t know how to. This is the only home I’ve ever had.’ I asked her who the agency was that had stopped sending the carer. ‘Open Door,’ she said. ‘I got a letter saying I could pop in.’
I left Gibbs, and left Garibaldi House, and left Grimsby. It wasn’t until I returned to London that I realised I never asked her how she was going to vote.
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