News Column

Special report: No southern comfort for Labour as hard times breed resentments: Tension over housing and jobs is fuelling anger against migrants in Southampton and providing fertile ground for Ukip, Owen Jones finds

June 18, 2014

Owen Jones



If Labour has any purpose today, surely it is to represent people like Cassie Hillyard and Charlene Toms. I meet them in Bitterne shopping precinct in Southampton on a sunny afternoon; they're cousins, united for the first time only two weeks earlier.

Hillyard, 21, spent months in a homeless hostel and is now holed up in her aunt's house. Her aspiration is to save up for a deposit: not for a mortgage, but to be able to rent her own place.

Like hundreds of thousands of other unemployed people, her pounds 57.35 a week jobseeker's allowance has been sanctioned: a temporary suspension of bene-fits. Unable to afford to eat, she has been driven to food banks, but has exceeded the three annual referrals allowed.

Toms, 24, is struggling too. Her giggling one-year-old son sits in a pram; she also has a five-year-old to look after. She has had many low-paid jobs: in Argos, a chip shop, the nearby Cash Converters, a pawnbroker and a payday loan shop. It is one of the busiest stores in the precinct. But now she is out of work. "It's been getting harder and harder over the last year or so to get a job," she says.

After splitting up with her partner - who has just registered as self-employed - her benefits have been delayed for weeks as Jobcentre Plus takes ages to process her new circumstances. "Normally, I get by on just pounds 150 a week," she says. "But I've got bills to pay."

Like 1 million other families in Britain, Toms relies on payday loan shops, which charge extortionate interest, to make ends meet. "I keep getting into debt," she explains. "I have to get a loan, and then I run out of money and I have to get other loans to pay them off."

Neither Hillyard nor Toms seem to have much hope. But they have anger; and above all, it is directed at immigration. "People are coming over here, and they're taking jobs and homes," Hillyard says. "I'm not racist - I've got lots of foreign friends," she says, echoing a common refrain among other Bitterne residents. But she blames the fact she is being sanctioned on an influx of foreigners: she believes she cannot get interviews to satisfy her benefits advisers because of migrants taking jobs.

Although she says Labour could "win our support by building more homes, having decent jobs for people on benefits," neither votes.

Like other working-class communities in Southampton, Bitterne has been hit by the city's deindustrialisation. In the Conservative and New Labour eras, secure, middle-income, skilled jobs were stripped away, like the docks or the Ford factory, which closed last year.

"This massive industrial base meant that working-class people could get apprenticeships," says Rowenna Davis, 29, a former journalist who grew up in Hampshire and London and is standing as Labour's candidate in the highly marginal Southampton Itchen seat. "They were never millionaires, but they could own their own home. People are worried this could be slipping away."

Because of a failure to replace council housing stock that has been sold off, the city's social housing waiting list stands at about 15,000 applicants. It fuels a sense that local people are competing with immigrants for scarce resources.

The great political beneficiaries are Nigel Farage's "people's army". In the recent local elections, Ukip came second in Bitterne, fewer than 200 votes behind Labour. All the indications in Bitterne's shopping precinct are that it could do even better.

Annie Strange, 36, is a chef, ending her maternity leave prematurely "because of money" after the birth of her fourth child. She lives on the nearby Thornhill council estate, where rents are being hiked up. "It's not just that they're cutting things for unemployed people - they're not helping working people like us either," she says. Her partner, Mike Lyne, 45, chips in with a narrative that sounds as Miliband-esque as it gets.

"The cost of living keeps going up, but our wage just stays the same," he says. "Laws get passed that make the rich richer and the poor poorer."

Neither votes but if they did, neither has any doubt who they would choose. "What Farage is saying is right. Being English, we're often made to feel like a second-class citizen," Lyne says. "If we did vote that's where we'd go - Ukip."

Tina Macmanus, 35 and a mother of four, tells a familiar tale of insecurity. Her husband works for Balfour Beatty, but has only just been awarded a 1% pay rise. "Things are getting harder - we're struggling," she says, aggrieved that they are just over the threshold for benefits such as free school meals.

But again, her anger is directed at immigration. "I'm very lucky to have a council property big enough for my kids - immigrants are taking up properties."

As for Labour, Macmanus has "no idea what Ed Miliband stands for".

Shaun McHale, 19, who is studying technical theatre in the sixth form, offers Miliband some comfort: he will vote Labour because its leader "wants to help middle-class people". He believes Labour will deal with youth unemployment too. But even he finds Ukip's message seductive. "In some ways, I was glad about their European election result," he says, "because they're looking to get more jobs for British citizens."

The potential pool of support for Ukip in Southampton is clearly uncomfortably large for Labour. John Denham, Southampton Itchen's MP and one of Miliband's closest allies, is stepping down at the next election. Even though Labour has just 10 MPs in the south of England outside London, Denham is optimistic about the party's potential. "Labour's central message about insecurity among middle-class people as well as the poor is getting stronger in the south, not weaker," he says.

He wants a message tailored for southern voters, focusing on addressing insecurity and aspiration. He believes only a firm line on immigration can stop Labour's vote haemorrhaging in the face of Farage's purple tide. "Our biggest danger is to be perceived as not talking about immigration," he says.

But he agrees that social and economic insecurities are giving anti-immigration sentiment its intensity. "It's economic fears, concerns about fairness around public services and voice and identity," he says.

In Bitterne, it is clearly grievances over housing, secure jobs and living standards fuelling anti-immigration sentiment. Whether Labour can come up with answers on these issues that convince local people is another matter, but is surely the party's only hope to keep Ukip at bay. But there are glimmers of dissent. Carol Miadowicz, 71, a former doctor's receptionist - and Kasia Miadowicz, 42, a training manager at a local hospital - tell me their burning concern is animal welfare. "My dad came from Poland after the second world war - if we'd stopped immigrants coming in, I wouldn't be alive," says Kasia Miadowicz. "All these people want to talk about immigration because they're selfish."


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Source: Guardian (UK)


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