Rotherham: Post-industrial, ‘declining’ and still Labour

Rotherham is a quintessential Labour heartland. Post-industrial and deprived, with 68% of people wanting to leave the European Union. As Labour have increasingly become a ‘Metropolitan Elite’ party, as with many towns around the county, the Corbyn-led party is struggling to create a new identity that well-off Londoners and the traditional working class both agree with.

“I’ve been a Labour voter all my life,” said 66-year-old Michael Carnell: “But I’m no big fan of Jeremy Corbyn, I don’t think he’s prime minister material. He doesn’t think like the general public”

Rushing off to his bus he criticised Corbyn’s attitude to Brexit, but told me that he would be voting Labour this time regardless.

Memories of Thatcherism still run deep. In the looming shadow of a 24-hour Tesco, one woman at the town’s market said voting Conservative would risk “going back to the bad times”. 

Thatcher in Rotherham, 1976

The hundreds who went out to wish Thatcher well in 1976 as she visited the town would have never expected Orgreave, the complete loss of the area’s mining industry, and the malaise that followed. Wrong or right, despite it being over thirty years ago, many in the town still blame her and her government for destroying a ‘booming town’.

It’s this loss of identity in northern towns, and the shift in manufacturing to high-skilled, low-employment that has left people confused about where they stand.

On her 1976 Rotherham visit Thatcher told them: “The country could stand on its own feet if there was a policy which could give proper rewards for those prepared to work hard.”

But this is a town that hasn’t recovered. And it’s very hard for people who are “prepared to work hard” if there’s little stable, long-term employment.

One man, taking refuge in a pub, looked surprisingly cheerful. “I’ve been laid off,” he told the barmaid, telling her that he wasn’t the only one. Doing the sensible thing, he ordered a pint. His story has become the story of the town.

Unemployment is 6.5 per cent, nationally it’s just below five. Workless households, where at least one adult is unemployed, is 19.3 per cent in the town, nationally it’s 15.3 per cent. Pay is below average, more people are in receipt of out-of-work benefits than you would expect, and warehouse and call centre work have become the biggest sectors in the town.

Politics is local

This, and the decline of the town centre, hasn’t been missed by people in the town.

“You should be asking about why Rotherham’s shops are closing,” said 93-year-old Fred Park.

“I remember the good days when it had the Marks & Spencer’s and Woolworths … now the local area is declining.”

The cliche proves true, all politics is local.

When he relaxed, realising I wasn’t about to shove some electoral literature down his throat as the Labour canvassers were doing to passersby behind us, I started asking him about Theresa May’s social care hand-break turn.

“The money has to come from somewhere,” he told me. “The Conservatives will do best for the country as a whole,” the healthy-looking nonagenarian followed up with.  

As if he was designed to confuse pollsters, quick to fit people into brackets, he revealed that he was a Remain voter and wanted a “reasonable deal” as part of leaving the bloc. The next person I spoke with, however, was what I expected to see more of.

“Immigration … overwhelming in every aspect”

“Immigration. I feel it’s overwhelming in every aspect,” the 53-year-old housewife told me when I asked her what her main concern this election was.  

Sheepish about how she voted last time, Barbara Hutchinson said that she put her cross next to UKIP. “I only voted them because my son voted them,” she said, mentioning that she probably won’t even vote this time.

Bringing up concerns about an overstretched NHS and national security she said: “The government isn’t doing anything to protect the people.” A prime UKIP voter but probably not turning out to vote – the story of UKIP’s decline in one person.

But this is the story of the town. Apathy. People say that politics has failed them, from Orgreave to the town’s sex abuse scandal to the Blair government.  

Labour are confident of returning Sarah Champion for another term, but not because of Jeremy Corbyn’s appeal. People describe him as “weak” and unfit for office. They say that she will win again because of her high profile in the seat.

But, will the town returning an MP from a party that is increasingly ‘metropolitan elite’ help the working classes or will it give Labour another excuse to ignore the disparity between their heartlands and their membership?

And with it, you could say, the cycle of decline continues.