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Wednesday 11 December 2019

Thinkin Election Tour

A dead dog in the bathtub

Our tour of six UK constituencies revealed a widening gulf between politics in Westminster and the stuff of people’s real lives

By David Taylor

Visible signs of neglect are not hard to spot when you arrive in Grimsby.

Turn right out of the station and a forest of “To Let” signs marks the way towards the skeleton of a burned-out, smashed-up municipal building bearing the warning: “KEEP OUT Dangerous Structure” in urgent white-on-red lettering.

Around the corner on Freeman Street, even the pawn shops have closed down.

Keep going and you are soon in East Marsh, where the workers once employed at the busiest fishing port in the world lived. It is now one of the most deprived wards in Europe, let alone Grimsby.

When the UK’s general election was called last month, there was a dead dog in the bath of an abandoned house in Rutland Street. It had been lying there for weeks after the drug dealers and their cannabis farm were shut down, and only became obvious when bluebottle flies started coming through into next door.

When Billy Dasein took me on a tour of the East Marsh, the dog had been lying inside for more than a month. Police had gone in to make sure there was not a human body inside, then left again, boarding up the door behind them and leaving the dog for someone else.

East Marsh is marked, Billy says, by the impact of absentee landlords, awful conditions and anti-social behaviour. “Nothing happens, and all the time people’s lives are deteriorating,” he said.

Bleak stuff indeed.

And yet, something is stirring here. “It is almost an awakening,” one woman told us in our first session on the road in Grimsby. “Help isn’t coming – we have to do it ourselves.” In East Marsh, they’re starting to take control of their own destiny and it feels like they are on to something good.


When the election was called, Boris Johnson reduced the great battle of ideas to those three pulverising words, Get Brexit Done.

At Tortoise, we felt sure there must be more than that. So we did a radical thing and conducted an experiment in listening, took our ThinkIn editorial discussions on the road and asked people across six constituencies: “What’s on your mind?”

A Tortoise ThinkIn – an open editorial conference – at the Rupert Brooke pub in Grantchester, near Cambridge

We knew this would be a strange time for the UK to hold an election, with winter closing in and daylight down to barely measurable levels. But by polling day we had staged 20 events: in pubs and hotels; campuses and schools; in community centres and in church halls – a cold one in Birmingham, a warmer one in Cambridgeshire.

You can’t be everywhere. It has been an election where very specific sites – London Bridge, flooded South Yorkshire, Leeds Royal Infirmary – took on unexpected significance. We chose Grimsby, a Labour stronghold since 1935 that voted forcefully for Leave in 2016, where the fishing industry hangs on and the town feels it constantly misses out to its near-neighbour Hull.

We were in the North Devon constituency, centred on Barnstaple, as November winds whipped off the Atlantic coast and again as the office Christmas parties got into gear. It’s a Tory/Lib Dem marginal which voted Leave, but where Liberal Democrats harbour hopes of winning back a seat they held for five straight elections until 2015.

And we selected South Cambridgeshire, the constituency of Tory rebel Heidi Allen, who quit the party in protest over Brexit before leaving politics altogether, tired of facing abuse and threats.

In Birmingham Yardley, we were in the multicultural inner-city that elected Jess Phillips, the Labour MP who stands out for being almost unbelievably like a normal person.

We went to marginal Glasgow South West, where the SNP is trying to hold on with a majority of just 60 votes against Labour.

And at the end of the Metropolitan line in Uxbridge and South Ruislip – London, but not quite London – we chose a Labour target, the constituency where prime minister Boris Johnson found a safe seat in 2015 and now defends a majority of just over 5,000 votes.

So what did we find out?

Wherever we sat down, in groups of a dozen, rooms with 30 or more people, certain words kept popping up – broken, overlooked, isolated. Some people were fearful for the future, others fiercely determined to build local change for themselves.

At the Grimsby Telegraph offices

It was not a knee-jerk, anti-Metropolitan-elite sentiment that persisted; much more, a feeling that the social contract had broken down.

From health and education to housing and inequality, people recounted stories of doing more with less, while at home, they often felt time-poor, stressed and working longer for less.

In Barnstaple and in Grimsby, both coastal towns separated by about 300 miles, the sense of being at the end of the line was a recurring theme. We heard about poor roads and rail connections, local bus services hanging on by a thread, leaving older people isolated.

When it came to health, we heard about hospitals struggling to recruit doctors in Devon and a mental health ward that had cut half of its beds. Ann in Birmingham, a Conservative voter, told us about visiting a physiotherapy ward that had been repurposed for dementia patients.

Radical ideas popped up – one night in Birmingham, the group began to warm to the idea of a windfall tax on big tech companies to fund our healthcare as we all live longer.

Funding cuts impacting on children’s mental health were brought up again and again – a Devon mother of two autistic children struggling to access services; a GP talked about many young people who were “not bad enough” to get support; Rohit, another GP, talked about doctors’ surgeries having ever more responsibilities transferred to them from hospitals.

In Devon, Darunee, a local GP, spoke about the costs of a relentless focus on targets. “Continuity of care has gone, because we have to hit time targets. The things which have been lost are trust and relationships – which are actually healing, which are part of the process and you can’t measure that. That is invaluable. You’ll have better outcomes if you have one point of contact that knows you really, really well.”

The problems with the system were most strikingly demonstrated in discussions about child mental health services. People working in education and the NHS are running to keep up with the needs of the young people they serve but find themselves blocked at every turn by decrepit systems which never join up.

Dr Rohit Sharma speaking in Birmingham Yardley

We heard one bleak story of a doctor’s struggle to help a young boy with an eating disorder get the care he needed. Neither child and adolescent mental health services nor community safeguarding measures considered his case severe enough. A referral back to his school was hardly more promising. As a final year student, any support they could offer would soon be cut off.

At a Holiday Inn Express on the Coventry Road in Birmingham, we learned about schools closing on Fridays – and more than once heard an absolute disdain for politicians who dealt in one-upmanship determined to insist that “school funding was at record levels” or the other lot were to blame for terror attacks.

There was fury in Devon over the Route 39 Academy, a pet project of Michael Gove as education secretary, which was put into special measures as an inadequate school, but people felt could simply not be allowed to fail. It may have been renamed as the Atlantic Academy, but people left us in no doubt they still considered it to be hoovering up funds to the detriment of other local schools.

One teacher in Devon told us he was retiring early because he was “sick of implementing government cuts” as class numbers grew and teachers felt over-worked and under-trained.

More than once, in Birmingham and in Grimsby, the financial crash of 2008, not the Brexit vote, was identified as the event which came to symbolise social decline.

At the Rupert Brookes pub in Grantchester, near Cambridge

What most united the places was a simple preoccupation with making their lives work. Wealth, tax, inequality and property – and the role of government in nurturing or destroying national prosperity.

There was a general exasperation at the short-termism, the sheer lack of any long-range planning, which was seen as a deep failing of our democracy. One woman asked what our health service and our working weeks would look like if they were not shaped by politicians who can only see as far as the next election.

Housing shortages, and the generational unfairness of the property market popped up everywhere. Older voters were sometimes defensive – young people didn’t know how hard it had been living with inflation, strikes and terrible nationalised industries in the 1970s, said one person in Birmingham. In Uxbridge, it was pointed out that it had been hard to get on the property ladder when interest rates were at 11 per cent.

And yet, there was also considerable admiration for the way young people were adapting to uncertainties, instability and insecurity, and, especially in Uxbridge on the edge of London, concerns for the way children in their late-20s had to be still living at home with their parents.

In Grimsby, Chris Stanland, 39, and his partner Nikki Gibson, 32, told us about their constant financial hardships.

“We’re running through treacle, really,” Chris said. He had been made redundant three times in three years. He was working 48 hours-a-week for £1,200-a-month at the Young’s frozen fish plant, Grimsby’s biggest employer. Nikki does 30 hours a week as a carer and makes £700-a-month. We asked if they managed to afford a holiday and they described going to Leeds for a couple of days for a gig the year before.

Nikki said: “I would like to start planning a family, but at the moment even with us both working and not getting anywhere, we don’t feel we can – how are we going to live with a baby as well as us?”

We met with a group of 40 teenagers, 16 to 19 year-olds at the Ark St Alban’s Academy in Birmingham. That conversation in the school library was so uplifting – talk of jobs and ambition and no fear of the coming challenge of AI and automation. They worried, though, about their parents working hours and less family time.

And there was a righteous generational anger – about property and the “hoarding” of wealth in bricks and mortar by previous generations, the failure of governments to replenish housing supply.

Inequality, too. How could Britain have seen a rise in the numbers of billionaires and food banks at the same time? And talk about a generation-defining moment – these teenagers in Birmingham were crystal clear in their view that the Grenfell disaster, two years earlier in London, was a symbol of indifference to the poor.

Clive and Genevieve, a father and daughter, came to all three of our Barnstaple ThinkIns. At each, Clive looked on proudly while Genevieve, still in her teens, held the room.

Clive, 52, and his daughter Genevieve, 17, in Barnstaple, North Devon

Clive works at the local Petroc College teaching English GCSE to young people who failed the exam while at secondary school. He used to run a business selling antiquarian books (“second-hand books really, but antiquarian sounds better”), but he had to give that up – North Devon’s remoteness and the lack of ready money in the region didn’t make it easy to keep a small business afloat. He spoke about an area that “feels depressed” by cuts and austerity. “It’s just a sense of utter stagnation. There’s no sense of growth or drive or anything in this area, there’s not the money around.”

Genevieve, 17, worries about North Devon’s isolation; young people like her simply can’t access the same opportunities as children in other parts of the country. “You feel like you lack opportunities, or you have to work harder for those opportunities, just because you are further away.”

Phoebe Mumby in Grimsby turns 18 on Friday – one day too late to vote. It stuck with us how irate she was about trite coverage of the election in the media, like the moment they all obsessed about how Boris Johnson chooses to eat scones.

In Uxbridge, our oldest voter, Kay, 99, told us to make the most of what we’ve got left. “Politicians always were rude but now they bawl at each other. They’ve lost all wit.” Kay has voted in all but one election since her first in 1945, when she voted for Clement Attlee. She remained a Labour member for most of her life, “until Blair took us into Iraq”.

 Asked about today’s leaders, she said of Corbyn “sitting on the fence is a political mistake”, while “you just can’t trust Boris”. We asked if she would mind not being able to vote after reaching a certain age. “I’d be a bit piqued, but I’d understand – for matters like Brexit, the voting age should be 17 to 70. I don’t worry about it, because I won’t be here.”

For some, Brexit was front of mind. Upstairs at the Rupert Brooke pub in Grantchester, South Cambridgeshire voters were strongly in the Remain camp. In Glasgow, people were still struggling to contain their anger that the EU Referendum had ever been called at all, and in Devon, by our third session, people were openly discussing their plans for tactical voting on the Brexit issue. One person memorably worried about the onset of “an era of self-inflicted irrelevance”, although not quite as memorably as the Glaswegian who said Brexit was like being sold a Range Rover and ending up with a “shite Peugeot”.

Shifting allegiances seemed most in play in Scotland with anecdotal accounts of Labour people turning Tory, Green party voters going SNP. It was also clear that Scottish independence is not a single mass movement – some want an independent Scotland open and facing the world, others want a more closed Scotland.

Indeed, the Scottish conversation was reliably and distinctly different: praise for proportional representation over first past the post; and, it being Glasgow, sectarianism was discussed and deplored, especially the way arguments about football slipped quickly into religion, Ireland and even the Israeli/Palestinian question.

Participants at the Rupert Brookes pub in Grantchester near Cambridge

Who talked about immigration? Almost no-one. Only in Glasgow, where retired maths teacher Brian was for more arrivals. “Scotland needs more people,” he said.

If we have just lived through the UK’s first climate change election, it was a pretty dispiriting debut.

The positives? When prompted, people were certainly ready to engage – with knowledge and in detail – on the science and the global politics. And there was perhaps evidence that it is no longer merely, that dread pejorative, a ‘middle class’ issue.

But there was a sense of a collective shrug – we are already separating our rubbish and cutting down on plastic bags. And a dispiriting sense that Britain is too small to make a difference without global leadership. People were cynical about the party manifesto pitches on cutting carbon emissions, and generally unimpressed by both the emergence of Extinction Rebellion and teenage activist Greta Thunberg. Boris Johnson, however, failing to join a televised debate on the climate emergency was, as one put it, “a kick in the teeth for millennials”.


So what about that dead dog in the bath in Grimsby? Billy Dasein is chairman of East Marsh United, a community group in that overlooked corner of that overlooked town. North East Lincolnshire Council and the Humberside Police were well-meaning, but ineffective, he said. Eventually, after almost two months of inaction, one day a skip turned up in Rutland Street and a local guy who had been contacted by the owner went in and cleaned it out. By the end of November, the dog had finally been dealt with. Billy said his neighbour Shirley, who had endured the infestation next door, was a lot better now. “It was a bruising experience for her, really. People shouldn’t have to suffer like that,” he said.

Back in 2010, David Cameron’s “Big Society” went rapidly from soundbite to embarrassment with only a policy vacuum in between. Yet, his grand vision of an army of community volunteers seems to have taken hold at last, after a decade of Cameron’s own austerity cuts to local services.

East Marsh United has been getting grants and making plans. It has organised Saturday clean-ups, decorated the doorways of dozens of boarded up houses along Rutland Street, and is starting out to become a social landlord, securing grants to buy homes for as little as £9,000. Just this week, EMU began to take on apprentices to learn a trade in doing them up. In four years it hopes to have restored and rented 40 homes. EMU is planning to produce its own newspaper, the Proud East Marshian, and has begun an arts programme building up to plans for its own festival. Drug dealers that plagued the area in 2017 have moved on for now. “As we always say, no one is coming to help, we’ve got to do it on our own,” Billy said.

Boris Johnson with a cod at Grimsby fish market, December 2019

On Monday, with three days to go to the election, Boris Johnson became the latest politician to swing through Grimsby – the seat everyone wants to win, but few seem to know how to help.

A full hour before dawn, he showed up in Grimsby fish market wearing white wellington boots, a matching overcoat and trilby hat. Posing for a photographer, he tried to generate some enthusiasm from a glassy-eyed cod. Then, he left town before first light.

Photographs by Tom Pilston for Tortoise