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Fighting on the beaches – the battle for the key seaside marginals

2010 March 8
by Paul Vallely

In the winter darkness a chill wind is blowing over Hastings Pier. Wild waves, like greedy shape-shifting monsters of the deep, lash at its iron struts. Not far away, inside the warm vaulted council chamber of Hastings Town Hall, politicians are bickering over the future of this local icon of the great seaside era.

The pier has had a long heyday. It was designed by the great Victorian seafront architect Eugenius Birch and then given a glorious Art Deco facelift in the 1930s before playing host to musical legends of the Sixties and Seventies like The Rolling Stones, The Who, Jimi Hendrix, Genesis, Tom Jones and Pink Floyd. But those days are over.

Today Hasting Pier is falling into decrepitude, unsafe, closed to the public, and in the hands of a Panama-registered company which so neglects the landmark that it even failed to turn up to a court case recently brought by the borough council.

Inside the Town Hall, beneath the gothic arches and great rose windows ennobled with heraldic shields of lions rampant, the ten leading politicians of the borough are doing what politicians do best – disagreeing with one another.

“We are all agreed on the need to save the pier,” says the leader of the ruling Conservative group, Councillor Peter Pragnell, “but we have to do it in a responsible way”. The Labour and Lib Dem, groups want a Compulsory Purchase Order put swiftly on the pier so that it can be handed over to a trust set up by local people. The Tories want to proceed more slowly and, being the party of free enterprise, give the chance for someone from the private sector to come forward to take over a structure which needs at least £17.5m spent on it – and some say treble that.

The Conservatives are hoping it is the end of the pier show for New Labour all over Britain. As the official launch of the general election campaign looms the party which has been in opposition for 13 years is putting in place a number of strategies to try to bring about the 10 per cent voting swing which pundits predict they will need to bring about a new political epoch for Britain – on a par with the change of ruling party which took Harold Wilson, Margaret Thatcher or Tony Blair into Downing St.


One of the programmes which have been put in place by the Conservatives’ Belize- based Treasurer, the billionaire Michael Ashcroft, is an assault on seaside marginals of which Hastings and Rye is one of the most assailable. The Labour majority there is just 1205 votes. The Tories require a swing of only 1.3 per cent. Last year alone Lord Ashcroft donated more than £1.8m – around £1 for every £10 the party received. Some £51,000 has found its way in the coffers of the Hastings party, compared to the local Labour party’s fund of just £15,000.

Britain’s seaside towns were once the genteel preserve of retired Conservatives but many of them fell to Labour in 1997 and have remained Labour ever since.

But a government study in 2008 showed that 26 of England’s 37 big seaside towns now suffer levels of deprivation greater than the national average. They have more elderly populations, because of the large numbers who retire to the seaside. Many have high levels of benefit claimants and do badly in health statistics. They have poor transport links and low levels of employment in economies still reliant on tourism which have for years struggled due to the decline of the traditional seaside holiday.

The Tories are making seaside towns a particular target, crunching demographic data to identify key wards, and then relentlessly leafleting and canvassing them.

The need to cultivate the local vote has been brought home to the Conservatives who control Hastings Council. They had largely ignored the town’s pier, and the local people who set up the Hastings Pier and White Rock Trust to buy and refurbish it. They believed that the regeneration of the town lay in the building of new offices to attract business.

But then, last October, two thousand disgruntled residents marched with home-made placards along the promenade to the Town Hall in protest at the council’s lack of action. Next, in December, the activists launched a Save the Pier campaign during a council by-election in a part of the town which is classic Tory heartland – all bungalows and PVC windows where paper boys still deliver the Daily Express. It forced a pledge of action from all parties and, even so, saw a 10.5 per cent swing to Labour which gave the local Tories a nasty turn. The structure which the National Piers Society had deemed the most at risk in the UK has suddenly become the most rescueable, provided action is taken in time.

After the meeting down at the surprisingly stylish 1920s White Rock Hotel on the seafront opposite the shut-down pier Trust stalwarts gather to pick over outcome of the council meeting. “Things are moving in the right direction,” says the chair, Felix Robinson, an NHS contracts manager.

They have had a long way to go, says the secretary Chris Dodwell, a local builder. The Hastings seafront had become quite run down. “It was a place that was associated with the cash economy through all the arcades – a place for money-laundering where in the Sixties the Kray Brothers’ [the notorious East End gangsters] mother Queenie was once involved,” he says. Then in the Seventies lots of London boroughs sent their homeless there because it was cheaper to house them in Hastings than in the capital. “One in three children here now grow up in a house where no-one has ever worked,” says another trustee, Angela Davis, who used to run the IT for Selfridges before moving to the seaside; she now works as a volunteer with low-income families.

“Over the past decade there has been a huge focus on regeneration,” says Felix Robinson, with some £400m of investment coming into the town from the government’s regional development agency and others. “When Labour controlled the council they had a Grot-Busters unit which leaned on the owners of badly-maintained seafront properties to smarten them up. But basically the authorities saw tourism as low-value and a thing of the past. They focused on building new colleges and office blocks.”

But others saw things differently. “It became quite fashionable to move from London to the coast,” says another trustee, Alison Cooper. “Now it’s the really chic thing to do.”

“We bought this run down hotel five years ago and turned it round,” adds Laurence Bell the owner of the White Rock which has been transformed from a staid old-fashioned seafront hotel to a chi-chi temple to cool modernism.

“The town is on a gradual upward spiral,” says his wife, Catherine Parr, “which can only improve when the Jerwood opens in 2012”. A new gallery is to be built on the edge of the pebbly beach to house the collection of modern British art owned by the Jerwood Foundation which has invested nearly £80m into the arts including the Royal Court and Young Vic theatres, RADA and Glyndebourne since 1991.

“The Trust is non-party political,” says Felix Robinson. “But it has to be said that Labour have done a lot for Hastings over the past decade whereas the Tories have been pretty useless locally.”

Maybe a Cameron government would come down and kick them into shape? “I’d like to think so but I’ll believe it when I see it.”

But would the rest of the nation agree?


The Royal Dorset Yacht Club in Weymouth Harbour is not so grand as you might imagine. Once it occupied the whole of the round-arched building which, in the middle of the 19th century, was a sailors’ bethel on Custom House Quay. Today the ground floor has been given over to a chandler’s store. But the first floor, where the drinking goes on, is still replete with photographs of the long-dead dukes and princes who gave the place its regal prefix. It too has seen better days.

The drinkers are all bluff no-nonsense coves who refer to one another as flag officers, masters-in-sail, or in the case of the chap in charge, Gareth Peaston, a tall burly man with a full-set naval beard, the club’s Commodore.

Before I had set out on this tour of seaside towns I had taken the advice of political gurus in Westminster as to what I should be watching out for:

  • Who would best handle the business of nursing the present fragile recovery from Brown, who wants to keep spending for a while longer, or Cameron, whose instincts seem to cut sooner and harder?
  • Both main parties are promising to protect the NHS and international aid but Labour were also including education in the ring-fenced budgets. Would that make a difference?
  • The Conservatives want public sector pay frozen from next year for workers over £18,000. Will this harder tone play well for them?
  • Labour will raise tax from 40 to 50p for people earning over £150,000 in April. The Tories are not pledged to repeal that, but they have said they will reverse Labour’s plan to increase national insurance by 1 per cent from 2011, though they have given no indication of how they’ll make up the shortfall. Would the tax favour the Tories?
  • Do people believe government figures that crime is down, or the Tory insistence that crime is soaring?
  • Would the MPs expenses scandal harm Labour more than Conservatives? Is Cameron seen as an out-of-touch toff? Is Brown regarded as commanding or floundering? Does the Lib Dem leader Nick Clegg look too much like David Cameron’s little brother?

Yet from the moment I step into the bar at the Royal Dorset I discover that the carefully-nuanced issues of the Westminster insiders are some distance from what will influence voting decisions out here in the real world. In part, of course, much voting is tribal. Even in marginal constituencies the outcome is decided by a minority of voters. Most of the yacht club members have always voted Tory and, despite the occasional yen for UKIP, will continue to do so.

Moving from table to table brings home the extent to which politics is about semaphore as much as policy or philosophy. The complaints flow as freely as the lunchtime wine: speed cameras, parking restrictions, bus lanes, the drink-driving rules for boats introduced by the Labour party. Targets, the box-ticking brigade, health & safety. “Schools closed because kids might fall over in the playground,” explodes Commodore Peaston.

“I took a pair of crutches back to the hospital and was told to throw them in a skip,” says rear-commodore and retired hotelier, Graham Castell. “They said they couldn’t take them back because of health and safety, cross-contamination. Haven’t they heard of Dettol?”

Pretty universally they agree with the founder of English utilitarianism, Jeremy Bentham, that human rights are “nonsense on stilts”. And although there is barely a black face to be seen anywhere in Weymouth they inveigh against immigration.

“We’re a Christian country even if we’re not churchgoers,” announces the owner of a little ketch named Rhiannon moored just along the quay. “I’m no racist but these people want to impose their culture on us, infiltrating themselves into the civil service and then demanding that their languages are taught in our schools and forming themselves a Muslim parliament. What is all that about? If they want a Muslim Association, fine, but not a parliament. We have one parliament here and that’s for everyone.”

“And another thing,” booms a retired car dealer from Salford named David Shrewsbury-Addy, with a bombast that borders on self-caricature, “what about ruddy non-elected quangoes.” He and the other chap at his table overlooking the harbour are complaining about “all the local government jobs advertised in The Guardian”. He looks like an unlikely Guardian-reader but I let that pass.

“We saw one the other day for an AOB Manager,” he roars. “What the hell is an AOB?”

“Another Overpaid Bastard,” quips his companion with an alacrity which is too ready to be unrehearsed.

Even the current economic crisis is the subject for semiotics rather than serious scrutiny. Most of the lunchtime drinkers are retired, and living off interest rates and investment incomes that have plummeted. They are all living off savings and eating into their capital.

“I blame Gordon Brown for the whole global financial crisis,” fulminates Shrewsbury-Addy. “He created the problem with the banks by taking the regulations off lending and then lending to the Americans who put all that money into bad housing loans. He destroyed British manufacturing and became too reliant on services in the City. There has been a complete lack of regulation of banks, just as with the privatised utilities where the regulators are toothless.”

But hang on, I point out, wasn’t it Margaret Thatcher who started all of that? “Maybe,” the former car dealer concedes, “but I just don’t like that bastard Brown.”

The human capacity to live with a raft of views which are often mutually self-contradictory is not the only complicating factor for those seeking to take the electoral pulse of the nation. A good many of us live in small towns where local issues can significantly influence outcomes, as the Hastings Pier by-election showed.


Leaving the yacht club I head for Labour territory to assess the chances of the sitting MP, Jim Knight, who at the last election defended Labour’s smallest majority in England – just 153 votes – and emerged one of the few Labour MPs in the country to increase their majority. Could he do it again?

The MP’s campaign co-ordinator is a earnest young man not long out of a Bournemouth University MA course, called Scott Langdon. He drives me around Weymouth, the biggest town in the Dorset South constituency which is 35th on the Conservative hit-list with a Labour majority of just 1812 votes. A swing of only 1.85 per cent will take it Tory.

“The key question is whether people will vote nationally, in which case we’ll be in trouble, or locally, in which case we could have a good chance,” says the young Labour activist.

Weymouth is where the seaside was invented – by George III, who came to the town to bathe in the sea in 1784, and whose statue stands by the seafront – and it has been given a shot in the estuary by the 2010 Olympics all of whose sailing events will take place there. A new sailing academy has been built on Portland and the sitting MP has worked hard to ensure that the legacy of the Olympics – like the temporary fast-speed broadband – stays on after the Games end. He has also finally secured a long-demanded relief road for the peninsula which is not only on time but is currently £2 million under budget. “There are some minor gripes about him but generally Jim Knight is very well received,” his campaign manger says.

And localism matters. At a recent council by-election in Wyke, down towards the Portland isthmus, a Tory majority of 500 was overturned because Labour fielded a local candidate and the Conservatives put up someone from the other side of town. Jim Knight will clearly get some votes because of his high local standing.

Then the young Labour activist says something which I hear all over the country – in Weymouth, Hastings and Blackpool, as well as in Manchester and London – but which few like to put their name to: “Recession? What Recession? It’s real enough for the unlucky people who have lost their jobs but there aren’t the house repossessions and companies closing down on the scale there was in previous recessions. In many places people wouldn’t know there was a recession if they hadn’t read it in the papers or seen it on the telly.” It was a proposition seconded throughout the town. Sales of boats had boomed all through 2009, the businessmen at the yacht club had conceded. Local hoteliers report they are full at weekends, even over January.

Time after time I discovered that votes will be cast – or cast aside – in the coming election on single issues which touched the self-interest, or fuelled the indignation, of individuals in very different ways.

For Jim Peters, the secretary at the Wyke Regis working men’s club, the key determinant is Iraq. “Jim Knight used to be an ordinary bloke you could have a good debate with but when he became a minister he swallowed the party line and voted for the war,” says the stocky Celt who turns out to be well-versed in the business of Iraqi politics from the place of the Marsh Arabs to the role of the Kurds. “I voted for him first time, because he was a breath of fresh air. But then last time I went Lib Dem because of Iraq. This time I’ll go Conservative.”

For one gnarled maritime veteran by the bar the issue is law and order. After 20 years in the navy he had become a prison officer at Verne jail on Portland. “Labour have really bollocksed the prison service, letting people out early who should be kept in. If Jim Knight was an independent he’d get in but the vote will be on national issues. I voted Labour last time because the Conservative candidate was a total tosser, but the Tory this time seems alright. Even my wife who is a dyed-in-the-wool Labour supporter won’t vote for them this time. Four voters in my house were all Labour last time; this time it will be two Tories and two abstentions.

Down the road at the Wellworthy Sports & Social Club the defining issue for Sheila Dyer, a woman in her early sixties, is Europe. “I’m with the Conservatives on law and order and immigration. But they are very anti-Europe and I’m very pro. Europe has brought us peace after centuries of war and we’d have come out of recession earlier, like France and Germany, if we’d been in the Euro.”

Across town on the bleak Littlemore council estate the focus of the woman outside the small parade of shops is exclusively the two-year-old she was wheeling in his buggy. “They need to clean the place up and get rid of all the drunks, smackheads and paedophiles. I’ll vote for anyone who brings in Sarah’s Law,” she says, despite the fact that crime is down in Littlemore year on year.

So who will she vote for? “I probably won’t bother. There’s no park this side of the estate for the kids to play in.” At the last election there was no park on the estate at all but the provision of one has made no impact on her. “It’s a long way to walk.”

Up at Bovington army camp, to the north of the constituency, there is a similar contempt for politicians among the wives of soldiers from the Royal Tank Regiment taking their small children for burger and chips in a local pub. Some speak out of anger, some out of sheer lack of engagement. But what fires them are not the big picture issues about Afghanistan or Iraq – or even whether the men there have the right equipment – so much as the way the political class treats soldiers and their families.

“No government looks after soldier’s families properly, which is why I won’t vote for any of them,” says one woman who has been 22 years an army wife, but who, like the others asked not to be named for fear their comments might blowback on their husbands. “I’d like to see Gordon Brown come down here and look at the state of our houses.”

“Our husbands are provided with an MOD dentist but even though he’s on the base wives and kids are not allowed to use him.  It’s ludicrous,”  says another wife. “The Tories introduced that, forcing us to pay for prescriptions, which used to be free, and dentists, who you can never find. But Labour didn’t reverse that. I won’t vote for any of them. They are all full of false promises; politics is a crock of shit.”

The younger wives are less embittered but have no more belief that voting is anything other than a waste of time. “In five years married to a soldier I’ve lived in four houses,” one says. “We move all the time so it’s impossible for me to go to university and virtually impossible to get a job apart from a bit of bar work. I won’t vote.”

“I might,” says another, “if there was a party that promised to help us find a house when my husband leaves the army in 18 months. I’d like to stay round here where the kids are settled in school and I have a little job in a shop. But the cheapest house here costs £200,000 which is way beyond us.” Her friend nods in agreement: “I probably won’t bother [to vote] because we hope to emigrate to Australia or Canada when my husband leaves the army.”

Even a pair of elderly hikers in the corner of the bar with their trousers tucked in their socks announce that it will be a single issue that will finally determine where they put their cross on the ballot box. “My family were always Conservative,” muses Anne Philips discursively, “but I don’t think Labour have done too badly; we’ve got free bus passes. I don’t like the Conservatives line on marriage, but on immigration, we’re a small country and we should let fewer people in. It’s not an issue round here but when I go up north to see my family you see women in burkhas which is intimidating…”

“But what will sway us,” interrupts her husband, “is that the Conservatives want to reverse the law on fox-hunting. We live in the country and we have the hunt all round us, breaking the law, and hunting foxes. They are all Tories and are so arrogant driving their 4x4s over our land without asking permission. That totally rules them out as far as we are concerned.”

It will be a master party tactician who can pick a path through such a thicket of thorny single issues.


But there is something else, as I discovered in Hastings.

Labour’s strategy there – as in 30 or so other constituencies where the Green Party won more than 2 per cent of the vote at the last election – will be, the Conservatives believe, to try to stop Green voters from switching to the Tories. Jeremy Birch, the leader of the Labour party on Hastings council gives some succour to the idea, though he denies it is merely a vote-grabbing strategy.

“Labour’s approach in both the constituency and the council is based on green issues because we think that climate change is the biggest single issue facing the planet,” he says. “It’s not about winning votes from local Tories, who have in the past been little short of climate change deniers, but about doing what we think is right.”

So locally Labour is pushing for planning rules which would require all new developments of 10 properties or more to be fitted with green electricity-generating systems, as well as retro-fitting existing buildings and emphasizing what individuals can do to inhibit global warming. But this über-greeness greenness does not extend to abandoning its support for a new link road from Hastings to Bexhill which is widely perceived locally as a vote-winner.

They may be doing enough. “There’s a lot of interest in green issues but it’s split among different single-issue groups. There’s not a cohesive body of Green support,” says Sally Phillips of the Hastings Green party, which has been struggling even to find a candidate for the forthcoming election. “But despite wanting to build a new road across a swathe of beautiful countryside it has to be admitted that Labour has slightly greener credentials locally than the Tories.” Whether that will be enough to counter the anticipated national swing to the Conservatives is far from clear.

The news will probably shock all right-thinking educated liberals but in talking to dozens of people on my progress about Britain’s seaside marginals I met only three individuals for whom global warming was a serious issue. Two of them were professional politicians. The third was the former geography teacher, Nigel Lacey, in whose eco-friendly comfortable guest house I stayed in Weymouth.

Not one single person I had met that day – from the members of the Royal Dorset Yacht Club to the working men’s club and beyond – had expressed any view other than that global warming was a huge scam dreamt up by politicians as a tax-raising con.

“I’m fed up with hearing about it,” Commodore Peaston had said at the Royal Dorset. “David Cameron will lose votes if he keeps banging on about that, along with all that Harriet Harman stuff about women-only shortlists. CO2 levels now are the same as they were 50 or 60 years ago. Look at all that fuss about the ozone layer and now the hole in the ozone has gone. There’s an enormous global warming industry out there now; it’s the quickest shortcut to a research grant. It’s crippling industry.”

The world has been warming for 20,000 years, Master-in-Sail Compton had said. “Here on the Jurassic Coast we have all the evidence. I don’t think global warming is anything to do with us.” Down at the working men’s club everyone took the same view. “Green issues are a load of rot,” said Geoff Dyer. “The world changes over centuries, look at the ice age and all that. We’re just keeping better records now. Global warming is the biggest con going; it’s just an excuse for more taxes.”

When I recount all this at Lacey’s Guest House the owner is flabbergasted. Nigel Lacey began life as a banker in the City before switching to use his physical geography degree as a teacher. He worked in state secondary schools for more than two decades, before switching again to running his B&B which he has just spent £45,000 magnificently greening. “Why do these people think that a metre-high wall has just been built round Weymouth Harbour?” he begins, before launching into an evaluation of which the science on anthropogenic global warming is compelling.

The short-sighted self-interest of the rest of his townsfolk reminds him why he quit teaching. “I just couldn’t stand the change in the kids – the ‘everyone-out-for- themselves’ materialism that came in with Thatcher’s children.”

Nor does education look likely to be the decisive local issue some had expected. Hastings has been riven in recent months over plans to close down three failing secondary schools and replace them with two brand new academies. The controversy was heightened when a new head Peter Midwinter arrived at one of the schools, Filsham Valley, and turned it round.

“A lot of people in the town are against the academies idea,” says David Hancox, who has been a secondary school teacher in the town for 30 years and was also a governor at a couple of schools. “And opposition has grown as Filsham has improved considerably under an inspirational head. But though it is a controversial issue it is difficult to see how it could be a decisive factor in the election as both main parties are in favour of the academies.”

Hancox is a longtime Liberal Democrat. So where does the looming poll leave him, since his party registered only 15pc of the vote in Hastings at the last general election? “The Labour candidate is a good local man,” he says, “whereas the Tory, Amber Rudd, [a venture capitalist] is parachuted in from outside. More than that she is the former wife of AA Gill which will be enough for many Lib Dem voters like me to vote Labour. I think lots of people will be voting tactically.”

And not just in Hastings. Nigel Lacey was voting tactically in Dorset South where the phenomenon was a big factor in the last two elections after the leftist musician and local resident Billy Bragg organised an anti-Tory vote-swap in constituencies across the county. Large numbers of people can be expected to vote tactically in all the seaside marginals which the Conservatives are targeting.

The real lesson Hastings teaches is a very different one.


On the sixth floor of a barely furnished office block overlooking the seafront a group of a dozen young people are gathered in a lose semi-circle of desks. They are excitedly calling out words and giggling.

In front of them a stocky young man in his late twenties is scribbling down the words they shout. He is Anthony Hilder, the co-ordinator of a project called Creating Futures. Under the aegis of the Prince’s Trust it is running a 12-week full-time course for a group of 16 to 25 year-olds who are not in employment education or training – NEETs as the acronym ineptly describes individuals whose lives are far from that.

The group has just come back from a week’s residential in Devon, a bonding exercise which takes place at the end of the first fortnight. There are paroxysms of laughter about burned sausages, sex, early morning roosters, sex, rock-climbing, sex, drugs, sex and a dildo. At the end of it Hilder sets them a game in which they have to role-play making and answering phone calls ahead of the real thing the following week when they will call local firms to try to set up work experience for themselves.

Hastings is the youth unemployment capital for the south of England. In the town one in 10 young people are out of work, a figure you have to travel north of Birmingham to match. Most of the young people in this room are old enough to vote. Most of them will not do so.

Carley Hale is bright and personable. She is emerging as the natural leader of the group. At 23, despite her purple hair, she has never been unemployed. She has always managed to find work – in a card shop, in a mortgage-brokers, as a bingo caller – but has never found a job which is fulfilling. She is finding the Prince’s Trust course “amazing”.

“I know I ought to vote but I never have,” she says. What turns her off politics is how relentlessly negative it is. “All they ever seem to talk about is how wrong the other parties are. I shut off.” There are issues aplenty which concern her – like how to balance not being racist with ensuring that people who were born in Hastings do not get pushed to the back of the housing queue by arrivals from abroad.  Even at her age she is concerned about declining standards of discipline in schools. “It was far worse when I left school than when I started.”

Louis Campbell, 20, is another sharp and likeable youngster who announces that the Creating Futures course is “wicked”. “I know I ought to vote,” he says. “I have watched the BBC Parliament channel a few times to try to get to grips with it but it all seems foreign to me. And the stuff on the main news isn’t much different from The X Factor.”

“I just have other things to worry about,” says another member of the group, Abby White, 22. “Gordon Brown is better than Tony Blair, that’s all I can say. As for David Cameron, I think nothing.”

More alarming is a 22-year-old young woman whose brother is standing as a Labour candidate elsewhere. “We’re a Labour family,” she says. “I know everything is affected by politics from the biggest to the smallest thing but I can’t engage.” She lost her job with the ambulance service and has been unemployed for the past nine months after being convicted of assaulting the police who repeatedly stopped her because she was a cannabis user. “I have a big trust issue” she says.

Political pundits usually categorise such responses as apathy. But as you talk to these young people you realise that something more than lack of interest or indifference is in play. There is a profound disengagement and even alienation between our political class and an entire generation which is most disturbing. And it feels like the politicians’ problem rather than that of the generation who are lost to them.


I travel north to that most quintessential of British seaside towns, Blackpool. Here the Conservatives have, on paper, a slightly harder task. In Blackpool North where Labour has a majority of 3540, they need a 4.65 per cent swing to take the seat. In  Blackpool South, where the Labour incumbent has a 5882 majority, they require a swing of 8.85 per cent – and without a shift of that magnitude David Cameron will find no automatic entry to 10 Downing St.

But Blackpool fits the classic Tory template of higher-than-average social deprivation coupled with high crime, poor health and education indicators and a struggling economy still reliant on a dying tourist trade. The townwas three years ago famously denied the licence for the nation’s first Las Vegas-style super-casino with hundreds of millions of pounds worth of investment and thousands of direct and indirect jobs. It has also just lost all the big party political conferences to more modern conference venues.

There is something big, brassy and blowsy about Blackpool but there is undoubtedly a market for it. “We increased visitors by two million last year,” says Helen Mansell, the proprietor of the Bamford House Hotel and president of Stay Blackpool, as the old Blackpool Hotel and Guest House Association now calls itself. We are sitting in the little bar of her neat and cosy backstreet terraced 13-bedroom hotel five minutes walk from the seafront. “Some of that was ‘staycation’ – people holidaying at home rather than going abroad because of the recession. But some of it reflects the big improvements there have been in Blackpool over the past few years.”

Since the resort failed to get the super-casino the north-west’s Regional Development Agency (RDA) has been pumping other government funds into the town by way of compensation.

A massive refurbishment of the Promenade is half-finished and parts of the town centre, around St John’s Square and Birley Street, have been paved with patterned cobbles and illuminated by rather alarming gantries which look like pods from a Seventies sci-fi film. The fact that the buildings along Birley St are an unchanged series of travel agents and building societies, rather than groovy bars and eateries, slightly detracts from the impact. But the effect is nonetheless rather arresting.

“Sgreat this,” a solitary Scottish drunk shouts out to me, gesticulating wildly at the twirling and flashing kaleidoscope of lights as I pass beneath them. But then it is a Monday night in January.

“There is a lot left to do,” admits Helen Mansell. Not least – and this is a delicate matter for the president of the association which represents 400 of Blackpool’s hoteliers – that “we probably have between 500 to 1,000 too many beds in the town, and some of them are not of a sufficiently high standard”. A programme is under way to improve and shutdown those who fail to make the grade. “You can get a bed for as little as £15 a night in Blackpool, but you probably wouldn’t want to stay in them.”

The decision by the main political parties not to hold their conferences in Blackpool was “devastating”, she says. But “we’re not going to give up without a fight – the task is to upgrade to the kind of single-venue conference facilities that the modern world requires.” The next phase of the regeneration, the Gateway project, includes a number of four and five star hotels.

So which political party will most assist with that? David Cameron recently told the CBI conference in London that “most of the RDAs will be going” with their funds switched to local councils and “local enterprise partnerships”, whatever that means. .How people like Helen Mansell vote will almost entirely depend on scrutinising exactly what that means. “The RDA has been great for the town. I would want to be sure that a change of government wouldn’t scuttle any of that. I lean towards Labour on that. They are, after all, the party for the North where the Tories are essentially the party for the South,” she says.

The local Conservative website gives few clues about the fate of such regional funding, confining itself to a raft of scare stories – many of which seem very out-of-date – about Labour considering the introduction of a hotel bed tax, placing snooping microchips in bins and axing jobs and beds at the Blackpool Victoria Hospital. Soaring crime figures also feature prominently.

According to figures released by the party nationally violent crime has increased since 1999 by an average of 78 per cent in many of the largest seaside towns – and it has doubled in Blackpool. This is not quite how the police in the town see it. Their stats show that crime was down by 3.7 per cent overall, with a 1.9 per cent drop in violence against the person, a 10 per cent drop in robbery and a 10.8 per cent fall in incidents of criminal damage.


So how is all this playing politically? To find out I venture out to Grange Park, one of the largest council estates in Lancashire which has a reputation for crime, drugs and serious social disorder. I team up with the local postmaster Peter Collins who is also a Conservative councillor and ask him to show me the reality on the ground.

He takes me for lunch at the estate’s new City Learning Centre, where a jacket potato with turkey and sage and a cheese and ham panini, plus drinks, costs £6.65. The bold modern building houses a library, IT centre, tv studio and small conference centre.

“Over the years the estate attracted dysfunctional families,” he says. He has run the post office there for more than two decades. “The bright lights of the seaside seem to attract people who are down on their luck. We had a lot of problems, over the years.”

From behind his post office counter Peter Collins became an informal adviser to the community. In 2008 he decided to stand for the council to formalise the role. Since then he has been at the heart of a series of initiatives put in place under the Labour government’s urban renewal programme. The estate got a brand new primary school to replace the much-vandalised old one. On the site was opened a Springboard office, which brought together a range of agencies – housing, social work, drug abuse services and more – under one roof.

“A key factor has been that the police have made the place their base rather than opening a police station,” he says. “We have a sergeant, two constables and four community support officers. They engage with youngsters in sports grounds, youth clubs and at schools before they get into trouble. Crime has diminished rapidly, in all categories: burglary, drug related issues, vandalism. They are all nowhere near as bad as they were five or ten years ago. There hasn’t been a single incident of vandalism at the new school that has required an insurance claim,”

We talk as we tour the estate. He takes me to an Open Door community project run by the local Methodist church, with card games for the elderly and a club for young people. He shows me how they fenced off Argosy Court to stop youngsters tearing past the bedroom windows of old folks on bikes and skateboards and filled the newly created central courtyard with all-weather keep fit equipment.

“The youngsters were dead envious,” he smiles. “So we told them: ‘You can come in and use it provided you’re invited by an elderly person who you’ve helped use it first’. The young and the old are communicating again. The old people are thrilled. They like being listened to.”

Everyone we pass on foot greets him warmly. He is a remarkably unpartisan figure considering that many of the initiatives have been put in place under New Labour’s Sustainable Communities Plan. He smiles when I say so. “I’m for the community,” he says simply. “Whatever works I’m behind. The election here will be a close run thing.”


I go on to Blackpool Victoria Hospital where I meet another extraordinary man who runs counter to perceived stereotypes. Steve Holmes is the Unison branch secretary and full-time union convenor for the hospital’s nurses and ancillary staff. He served his Labour movement apprenticeship in the tough politics of Glasgow and retains the accent of those parts.

“Four years ago we had a potentially devastating overspend here,” he says over a latte in the Costa Coffee franchise in the hospital foyer, “but we had a remarkable chief executive who clawed back £21m and reconfigured the jobs of 500 nurses with absolutely minimal disruption to our members. Now we’re faced with finding another £55m savings over 3 years but we’re optimistic that it can be done in a way which benefits everyone because although that chief exec has left, the HR director here is a very smart a guy whose heart is in the right place.”

This is not the kind of talk you expect from a union man who was once a sympathiser with the Militant Tendency. But times have changed and Steve Holmes has changed with them. He continues in his warm Scottish burr talking about a pilot project to make this a paper-lite hospital which has a commitment to no compulsory redundancies and is exploring a clearing house system to swap staff with other services like local government, the fire brigade and others.

What does all that mean for the coming election? “For me that boils down to which party will be the best of a bad lot. The Tory agenda will be privatisation, extensions of PFI, making more use of charities and the private sector.” That sounds pretty much like the New Labour agenda too. “Yes but Labour’s reforms were tempered by pressure from unions, royal colleges, the BMA, MPs with union links and backbench rebels. We were able to influence the outcome in a way which we couldn’t with a Tory government.”

Holmes’s fear is that there isn’t the political consciousness among his 2,000 members here at the hospital to understand that. “Despite the fact that Labour has doubled spending on the NHS a lot of people are now saying: it won’t make any difference who gets in, we’re all doomed. There’s a deep-rooted Armageddon scenario,” he says.

The MPs’ expenses scandal has provided an intellectual justification for apathy. “A large number of people are saying they are not going to vote. I’d be stunned if there isn’t a really low turnout, which will favour the Tories and harm Labour,” he adds.

What alarms him most is the number of people saying, amid all the fairly shallow “time for a change” sentiment, that they might vote for the BNP which he fears is rapidly becoming to Labour what UKIP is for the Tories – the refugee for the radical knee-jerk protest vote. “I have heard quite reasonable people saying things like: ‘I’m fed up with politics, so I’m going to vote BNP’ as if that isn’t politics, and of the worst kind. Or ‘the BNP can’t do any worse than the other lot’.”

The development frightens him. “A thought-process has changed. Since the Thatcher years the old community ethos has died away to be replaced by a more individualistic one,” he reflects. “The vicarious virtue – the idea of asking ‘What’s best for Britain’ rather than ‘What’s best for me’ – has vanished. It’s now quite respectable not to give a bugger about anything other than your own self-interest.”


For groups whose interests are routinely neglected by the rest of society that impulse may be understandable. I leave the hospital and head across town to have afternoon tea with a group of elderly people who are volunteers with Age Concern or its Senior Voice Forum.

The De Vere hotel offers neat little egg and cheese sandwiches with scones, jam, thick clotted cream and fresh strawberries. “This is very nice,” says John McCarten, 68, a former tram driver who chairs the senior citizen’s forum. “But I’ll give the cucumber a miss because I like it, but it doesn’t like me….Ooh look, a little cream horn; I haven’t seen one of those for years.”

The half dozen pensioners who have assembled speak with passion about subjects about which the rest of us know little – how the cobblestones in the new pedestrianised areas are bad for people with arthritis in their feet, how inaccessible the main post office is now that it has been moved to the basement of W H Smith, how home care allowances and pension credits need rationalising. “The way they work it makes you feel penalised for having lived a life that was thrifty,” says Ann Leather, 71, who used to run a sheltered housing project in Egham.

“People should be allowed to work to any age they want,” says Gwyneth Mugonyi, 75, a teacher from Wales who married a Uganadan and turned hotelier..

“You shouldn’t have to sell your house when you go into care,” says John McCarten. “You should be able to pass it on to your children.”

But when it comes to asking how all this will affect the way they vote the group falls back on voting patterns they established decades before. There are clearly no grey lobby issues which transcend the political habits of a lifetime. But there is also about them an ineluctable weariness.  It is as though they have grown used to not being listened to, even if they are determined to continue to speak up.


The question that lingers with me is how those political habits can be formed in those sectors of the population which the political process routinely fails to access. I make my way to the Blackpool Barnados Project set up to improve the parenting and other skills of the town’s young mothers.

Until quite recently Blackpool had the highest number of teenage mothers in Britain. Many are themselves the children of teenage mothers. The cycle of intergenerational young motherhood throws up the problem that many of them start at a very low base. Barnados runs courses on subjects as basic as how to play with your children and how to cook.

Ask what they expect from politicians and the answer is shockingly limited. “Why can’t they put a different kind of bus on the No 6 route?,” says Rachel Calvert, 19, who has a two-year-old son, McKenzie and a six month-old daughter, Elliemay. “You can only get one non-folding pram on the No 6, unlike the other routes.”

“It only comes every 20 minutes so if there’s a pram on already you have to wait for the next one,” says Natasha Wright-Pope, 17, bouncing her three-month-old son Lucas on her knee in a Tigger-ific suit. “Sometimes you are there for an hour while three buses go by.”

They chat in a desultory way with two other mums – one of whom is 17 and already has a three year old an a new baby – about the various courses they have heard Barnados can offer. The Barnados’ social worker Sarah Rowbotham listens, and offers the odd suggestion.  But there are no politicians here to connect in that way.

They are old enough to be mothers but only two of them are old enough to vote. Will they? And who for?

“Dunno,” says Rachel, the most articulate of the quartet. “I suppose when the time comes I’ll find out about it on the news.”

Where does she get her news, I ask, from the telly, radio, internet or papers?

“All of those. But I don’t see the news much because I tend to record the telly – EastEnders and Coronation Street” and then watch it when the kids are in bed.”

So what news has she learned of recently? Jade Goody died, she replied. Swine flu, said one of her friends. That paedo nurse in Portsmouth, said a third.

Anything more recent? What about the earthquake in Haiti?

“I haven’t heard about that,” Rachel says. Nor had any of the others.

The 2010 election, Professor Anthony King of Essex University has adjudged, will be “the most unpredictable since 1974”. He may well be more right than he realises.

But there are too many people that no election campaign will ever reach. If politicians are concerned about the health of democracy – rather than merely the question of winning –  they would do well to reflect on why that is so.  And what they’re going to do about it.



One Response
  1. April 1, 2011

    The State Of Jobs In West Sussex

    ‘Recession Proof’ Jobs in West Sussex

    Finally the phrase we all believed was coming has arrived, ‘Recession’. For the previous few months the word has been deliberately prevented but leading economists and even the Bank of England have finally admitted that recession is on its way. Not an enormous surprise with many of the normal public seeming to imagine we’re already in one.

    So it’s all doom and gloom now and nobody’s job is safe right? Not so. A few of West Sussex’s residents need worry less. Traditionally some jobs have proven to be ‘Recession Resistant’ but which jobs are they? Essentially they’re jobs in organisations that provide goods and services that remain a necessity whilst we tighten our belts. The areas thought of to be reasonably safe include:

    o Education – Kids do not cease growing as the market shrinks and don’t stop requiring an education. West Sussex’s numerous faculties, schools and Universities including Chichester College and The college of Chichester are still keenly recruiting. Educational institutions also require administrative, catering and other assist staff. Instructional jobs in West Sussex ought to remain secure.

    o Public Sector – Government is a definite constant during a recession. Our cities, cities and country should continue to go on providing providers and making sure things carries on heedless. The Chichester District Council and The West Sussex County Council nonetheless need a large array of workers so public sector jobs in West Sussex ought to beat the recession.

    o Security – Sadly, crime does not cease during a recession (in reality, though I am unable to claim to know the statistics, there are clearly related financial factors which might increase it!) We are fortunate in West Sussex to have a relatively low crime charge however we still want our protecting services such The West Sussex Police. Additionally they require their support workers so these with security jobs in West Sussex have a lesser must worry.

    o Healthcare and Prescribed drugs – Illness and injury still happen during a recession. In Chichester it is fair to say that we have now an ageing population due perhaps to the standard of life we are lucky sufficient to obtain here. (So long as St Richards Hospital stays open!) hospital staff, GPs, ambulance workers, nursing and care workers are still in demand so Healthcare jobs in West Sussex needs to be quite safe.

    o Vitality Corporations – We could all change into just a little more aware of our energy outgoings as part of our belt tightening but we continue to have a massive for fuel and electrical energy and that is unlikely diminish. Chichester businesses and houses will nonetheless require Southern Electric, British Gasoline and the like to keep us running so these working for power companies corresponding to engineers and customer providers in West Sussex ought to contemplate their jobs secure.

    o Environmental Sector – In West Sussex, as with every different metropolis, our council seems devoted to improving our ‘Greeness’. This might be a sentiment also taken up by businesses and it is unlikely to be halted during the coming recession. There’ll still be a need for ‘Green’ consultants and engineers in West Sussex in the coming months.

    o Gross sales and Marketing – This is not an space you would possibly anticipate to be safe however historically and logically anything which makes or saves an organization cash is likely to be safe. It is slightly dependant on the technique and outlook of the business in particular but sales jobs and marketing jobs in West Sussex could also be safe.

    o Funeral Administrators – Sorry to finish on a morbid be aware but to use the outdated saying ‘the one certainties in life are death and taxes’!

    Worried that your employment could additionally be at risk? Unfortunately there are some struggling industries including development, housing and finance and the strongest advice I may give you is to make sure your CV is as much as scratch should you find yourself in the unfortunate state of affairs and it’s a should to enter the competitive job market. Additionally ensure you find an excellent job board such as chichester jobs to maintain you updated with the latest jobs in West Sussex.

    Richard Blackburn is a recruitment professional having spent the last 7 years working as a Recruitment Marketing consultant, hi is Content Editor for jobs in west sussex

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