I’ve spent the last few years studying and documenting the demographics and voting behaviour of people who were voting for UKIP in local and national elections. This process meant I often found myself in towns rather than cities, since it was in towns like Grimsby, Oldham, Dudley and Rotherham that former Labour supporters were most likely tempted to vote for UKIP. In discussing their reasons, it quickly became apparent that the characterisation of such voters as ignorant racists was wide of the mark by some distance. Voters often expressed longstanding economic challenges in the towns they lived in, and much more pragmatic concerns about immigration than you might believe if you read their somewhat hysterical representation in the media.
In setting up the Centre For Towns we wanted to push back against the unfair characterisation of such places and provide a platform for more research into the challenges they face. At the Centre For Towns we recognise the importance of historical context when trying to understand the importance of place. Without an explicit recognition of how towns have changed over time, we shouldn’t be able to describe why such towns are often the context for racial tensions and fertile territory for political parties like the BNP or UKIP. In recent years, towns like Grimsby, Hartlepool, Oldham, Dudley, Burnley, and Rotherham have seen UKIP take votes from the Labour party as concerns about immigration reached a peak in around 2015. However, the political impact aside, those towns have too often been unfairly characterised as ‘left behind’; an unfortunate label which too often is shorthand for ‘backward’ or ‘ignorant’.
Residents of all backgrounds in our towns face significant economic challenges. The last fifty years have seen significant and profound changes visited upon them. The decline of manufacturing from the 1960s onwards resulted in hundreds of thousands of job losses in industrial towns across Britain. Many of our industrial towns were also the destination of choice for immigrants from the second world war onwards. So, when the decline in manufacturing came it impacted on both immigrant populations and the white British residents of such towns. One example of such a process highlights how this decline in manufacturing impacted on both white British and Pakistani households; the Mirpuri immigration of the 1960s.
A little over fifty years ago the construction of the Mangla Dam in the Mirpur district of Kashmir in Pakistan submerged hundreds of towns and villages, leading to the displacement of thousands of Mirpuris. The British dam constructor provided legal and financial assistance to the displaced, many thousands of which were granted visas by a British government in need of workers for its textile factories across the north of England; some of which made their home in the town of Oldham. The recent male immigrants and white residents of Oldham were both ill-equipped to deal with the decline in manufacturing when it came from the 1960s onwards.
By 2016, Oldham was reportedly the most deprived town in England. However, it is also one of the towns with highest levels of inequality between its white and non-white population. There is still a disparity between employment, health and education outcomes are worse for Asian residents than they are for white residents. Four in ten of residents in Oldham do not have a qualification. Health outcomes are amongst the worst in the country. Both communities have suffered, and whilst recent political advances by UKIP in the town provide a convenient outlet through which to express anger at this suffering, we believe the story of Oldham is one which requires a community-wide and overwhelming response from central government. Only by such an overwhelming response can towns like Oldham recover.
For while the town of Oldham still struggles to adjust to the realities of the decline of its manufacturing base it is by no means on its own. Towns and communities across ex-industrial Britain have faced similar challenges, and for too long have been left out of economic models which see highly-skilled cities as the only engines of economic growth. Successive governments have appeared to pay lip service to the challenges faced by towns like Oldham, preferring instead to advocate for high-skilled, white collar employment. Underlying the shift from manufacturing to high-skilled employment was an assumption that places were equally capable of making that shift. However, the shift inevitably favoured places with access to skilled workforces and marginalised those with workforces with non-transferable skills in manufacturing. These shifts produced significant geographical patterns in unemployment both for white and non-white residents of our towns.
Little surprise then that the residents of such places view central government and politicians of all parties with suspicion. They have long felt ignored by Westminster, believing that politicians are not interested in ‘people like them’ or the places where they live. This combination of economic decline, high levels of inward immigration and record levels of dissatisfaction with mainstream politics provided a space for populist right-wing parties like the BNP and UKIP to drive a wedge between communities in places like Oldham.
The demise of the BNP, and the slow death of UKIP, are to be celebrated for those of us on the progressive side of the aisle. However, the belief that the anger and disaffection they catalysed has disappeared is a dangerous illusion. Only by meeting the multi-faceted challenges faced by ex-industrial towns across Britain can we hope to head off the next populist right-wing challenge. Failure to do so will condemn us to fighting repeated manifestations of this anger, rather than dealing with the conditions which invoked them.