England’s Tightest Marginal

In 2017, Labour lost out in Southampton Itchen by just 31 votes. Now the party is determined to win back a working-class constituency that exemplifies the challenges facing the postindustrial south.

Southampton Itchen, a key Tory marginal, has long been seen as the poor relation to its neighbouring constituency, Southampton Test. I don’t live in Itchen, but my son does, and during a recent journey from my parents’ home back to where he lives, the stark differences between Itchen and Test are hard to ignore. Southampton Itchen includes the city centre, but is mostly made up of the suburbs on the eastern side of the titular river. As long as I can remember, Sotonians — including those from Itchen — have referred to it as ‘the wrong side of the river’- but this is probably more to do with it being the ‘Pompey side’ than anything else. Southampton’s rivalry with Portsmouth remains as intense as it is petty.

Close to the divide between Test and Itchen in the city centre is Oxford Street, which seems to exist largely to provide nightlife for the affluent middle-aged and places for Southampton footballers to get their hair cut. Many of the players live round at the bottom of the road in the yuppie enclave of Ocean Village, passing the time in luxury flats or the Pitcher & Piano until dreamt-of moves to Liverpool. The flats were built pre-recession in the 2000s, and I suspect there are still some that have never been lived in. This is largely due to being completely unaffordable to the vast majority of people in Southampton after the Global Financial Crisis, but also perhaps partly because people who could afford to live in them probably wouldn’t want to gaze out of their penthouse windows at the abomination of contemporary Southampton, which has never had any sort of overarching aesthetic since being bombed into near-oblivion during the Second World War. In spite of that war’s enduring legacy, Southampton takes a macabre pride in the first Spitfires having been designed and manufactured in the Supermarine factory just east of the river.

The Kingsland Estate

This area, the Bargate ward, is an anomaly in Itchen in that it lies west of the water. It’s a key battleground for Labour in the election as it houses a number of students and young people who rent and typically vote left. Just north of Bernard Street lies another vital demographic — BAME people in Southampton’s most multicultural districts, Holyrood, St. Mary’s, Kingsland and Northam. I first came to know these areas as a child, accompanying my dad to the West Indian Club in St. Mary’s, where he played dominoes with his Caribbean colleagues. Later, I would become acquainted with Holyrood through its proximity to the Jobcentre, where I had to go to sign on after graduating. It was an area of vibrancy and creativity in those days. 

Southampton was, very briefly, vaguely cool around the turn of the millennium due to its UK Garage scene, with garage heads driving down from London to DJ and MC at the now-defunct Rhino Club, where I pulled pints as a student; Craig David grew up in the Holyrood estate. Southampton City Council didn’t care much for that scene, and repeatedly sanctioned the club over infractions in and around the premises that were, mysteriously, tolerated if they occurred at establishments frequented by fewer black people. There was more to Southampton’s music scene than garage though. There was House, Big Beat, and an indie scene that featured Delays and one of the Klaxons. Now, almost all of the venues that offered space to any of these subcultures are gone. No Rhino, no Nexus, no Lennon’s, no Thursdays, no Dorchester. All have been either converted into flats or shops, or replaced by identikit chains as the tragic foreclosure of possibility in the cultural sphere mirrors that in the economic sphere.

Becoming Marginal

Southampton Itchen became marginal after the dense, multicultural housing estates and terraces of Northam were shifted into Test by the Boundary Commission, which made that seat much safer, but made life more difficult for Labour in Itchen. This did, however, allow me to witness an example of actually-existing Corbynmania while helping to get the vote out on polling day in 2017. Labour had opted to run a defensive campaign centred on protecting Test, so I careered around the estates trying to corral Labour voters towards polling stations to re-elect Alan Whitehead. An RMT member who’d come from London courtesy of Momentum’s ‘Find My Nearest Marginal’ app pointed out a group of Asian kids of no more than about ten years old across the road from a Halal meat shop. Having spotted our Labour badges, they had interrupted their game of head tennis to jump up and down singing ‘Oh Jeremy Corbyn’.

As our journey progresses, we pass through the city centre’s incongruous patchwork of old city walls, housing estates and shopping malls interspersed with facades of quasi-fashionable bars and restaurants offering various exotic cuisines. There are also, much to my son’s delight, always plenty of diggers around the centre of town, working to pedestrianise roads and create cycle lanes. The criticism from people in the outskirts of town is that this is purely in the interests either of business or of ‘bloody students’. Soon we arrive at the huge concrete mass that is the Itchen Bridge. As we cross it I always point out St. Mary’s Stadium to my boy in the hope that he’ll develop an interest and he can one day attend games there with his grandfather and I, but these days I’m less and less sure whether this is the right strategy, given that the modern experience of football fandom for any supporter of any team outside the Premier League’s top tier is increasingly of immiseration and despair.

Ocean Village

Supporters of Southampton Football Club once sang a song advocating that the Itchen Bridge be used to lynch then-chairman Rupert Lowe, who until recently was intending to stand as a Brexit Party candidate somewhere in the Black Country. Lowe was almost universally despised by Saints fans, so they would have been highly unlikely to vote for him had he stood locally. Yet the MP for Itchen, Sir Royston Smith — a landlord and £600-an-hour consultant for various property developers (who predictably voted against making rented accommodation fit for human habitation) — is no less right-wing than Lowe. Smith has the smallest Tory majority in England, having won in 2017 — after a recount — by just 31 votes. The man he defeated, Simon Letts, was at one point informed that he had won.

Letts, at that point the leader of Southampton’s Labour Council, subsequently suffered further disappointment in 2018 when he lost his Council seat. Having perhaps been punished by voters for implementing the Tory government’s austerity programme at local level, Letts was selected again as PPC for Itchen and is now running something of an insurgent campaign, adopting radical positions — supporting sex workers’ rights, trans rights and climate strikes that would put him on the left of the Parliamentary Labour Party if he is able to win this time. Whether any of this will be popular with voters remains to be seen, but it certainly seems to have energised younger Labour activists.

Wrong Side of the River

East of the river, the city steadily changes. The first council ward we pass through is Woolston. It’s nicely laid out — a triumph of Fordist period planning in many ways — yet diminished. Olaf’s Tun, a small, friendly pub I would often drink in when trying to relieve the neurosis of early fatherhood, is a homely community space, and the area’s green spaces are numerous but unkempt. Travel through the wards, though, and it gets steadily bleaker and — while canvassing — more right-wing. In Peartree, addresses east of Butts Road listed on the board as Labour households are still Labour, but there aren’t many of them, and haven’t been for decades.

A walk along the coast towards Netley in the east is to walk between, to our left, the five tower blocks overlooking the beach at Weston Shore, recently renovated. The architecture seems like a lament to a cancelled future, the names — Rotterdam, Oslo, Havre, Hampton and Copenhagen — an ode to a lost internationalism. To our right, the terrible, coruscating beauty of Fawley Power Station is often lit by flame, glittering and mad like a crumbling Autobot City across Southampton Water.

Further from the coast is Bitterne Park, which boasts a municipal riverside park where joggers breathe in the heady aroma of horse linament rubbed into amateur footballers’ thighs, and the sound of screw-in studs clip-clopping across the car park mixes with the squawking of seagulls perched on house boats and barges in the nearby marina. It always reminds me of a dear friend who is from there but left many years ago — so I message to ask him why he didn’t stick around. “There’s nothing there mate,” he replies. “I always felt like I was close enough to the centre once we started going out drinking properly, but there’s a lot of depressing areas around my way. Bitterne is awful. All of those bits are just utterly devoid of any culture whatsoever.” Harsh, but I can’t fault his aim. The other side of the river has several cinemas, an enormous shopping centre, music venues and a host of bars, pubs and clubs. It even has an Ikea, if you’re into that sort of thing. The east side has none of these. 

I ask if that’s why it feels somehow older east of the river, both the people and the place itself, and whether that might be why Itchen is blue when Test has a Labour majority of 11,000. “Maybe. It’s pretty working-class around Bitterne Park, but more recently there’s the feeling that everyone around has kids and is trying to protect their family rather than sharing anything. Lot of small business owners who can often go Tory.”

Once we get to the top of Mousehole Lane things get steadily starker. I get a text from my partner, who’s been delivering a load of Labour leaflets around here — we are going canvassing after I’ve dropped off my kid and she is waiting for me at a pub on Bursledon Road, where she has overheard a local pining for the return of the BNP. The constituency’s last Labour MP, John Denham, was and is famously preoccupied with the idea of nation. I volunteered in Denham’s office immediately after leaving university, and he really was that semi-mythical breed of politician, the Very Good Constituency MP — dynamic, generous of spirit and popular. He had, to his great credit, recently resigned from a junior ministerial post over the Iraq war. 

Display at Southampton’s Sea City Museum

New Socialist editor Tom Gann once said to me that he always suspected that Denham thought he was actually the MP for Portsmouth, such were his authentocrat appeals to an imagined working class that will only coalesce around nationalism — well suited to the neighbouring city, whose politics have traditionally revolved around the Navy. Southampton usually considers itself a Labour city compared with Portsmouth, and it has mostly had a Labour council since the early 1980s. Yet Portsmouth South, unlike Southampton Itchen, went red in 2017, likely thanks in part to young, socially liberal, skint professionals in the pleasant, Bohemian area of Southsea, which has no Southampton equivalent. Itchen didn’t always have such ‘Blue Labour’ leanings — Horace King MP, a former teacher at Tauntons College of Further Education, was chair of the Aid Spain Committee in Southampton during the Spanish Civil War. In Bargate ward there is both a memorial to Southampton’s members of the International Brigades, and a plaque outside the Central Library to the Basque refugees the city took in during the Civil War.

Abandonment

Outside Bargate ward, Itchen is significantly whiter than Test — 90% of residents identify as white, up 7% on Test, and Itchen has a much lower number of non UK-born residents. I talk to Alan Lloyd, a solidly left-wing, slightly wistful former Labour councillor for Itchen’s Harefield ward, about why the constituency seems to have lurched to the right. The key for him is that people have “simply given up in Itchen as a result of losing the walk-in centre, the police station, Thornycrofts (Vosper Thornycroft shipbuilders, which moved to Portsmouth in 2003), bus services. It may be a feeling of abandonment.”

This recalls the ‘left behind towns’ of northern England so often talked about in the media, and in terms of loss of traditional industry there’s a comparison to be made — first Vospers, then the Ford plant in Swaythling closed down. The Ford plant (in the suburban Tory seat of Romsey and Southampton North, but with a workforce across the city) employed over 4,000 people by the mid-1980s, and closed in 2017. Where Vospers once was, there is now a complex of flats — some of which come under the umbrella of ’affordable’ housing (80% of market rate), with a plaza of cafes and bars. Two of the shops seem to have already changed hands since opening in 2017, perhaps suggesting there simply isn’t the disposable income amongst the target demographic to sustain posh coffee shops and craft beer outlets.

Lloyd, in the increasingly rare ‘Hampshire Southampton’ or ‘Mush’ accent (as opposed to the ‘Estuary Southampton’ accent more common in younger Sotonians), argues that “the [local Labour] right simply ignored or abandoned seats that were difficult, such as Bitterne Park and Harefield. Even seats like Bitterne have not been properly worked in terms of people engagement, and have been taken for granted.” Lloyd’s old ward has been almost literally left behind. Labour’s Community Organising Unit have recently been campaigning about the absence of a bus service entirely for Harefield residents on a Sunday. The chronic underfunding of services certainly seems to have hit the east side harder than the west, where the presence of the city centre and Southampton University means that bus services are relatively fast and frequent.

Yet perhaps significantly, house prices are an average of £20,000 higher in Itchen. Perhaps the Tory vote has been driven up by the presence of homeowners insulated from the effects of the global financial crisis by low interest rates. This might also have driven Itchen’s higher Leave vote — many older, homeowning voters simply don’t believe Brexit can hurt them materially. Many of the ‘white working class’ Leave voters are actually wealthier than Test’s ‘middle class’ graduate Remainers in rented accommodation, but they don’t feel it. 

Fawley Oil Refinery

Why? Because in terms of investment, in terms of public services, in terms of fun, Itchen (Bargate aside) really does feel like ‘the wrong side of the river’. After Letts lost his seat, a new council leader had to be chosen, and a hustings with party members was convened. The debate was ultimately meaningless — only Labour councillors could vote on who became leader and their choice didn’t match that of members, but I was able to ask a question; “What do the candidates think we need to do to win back working class voters?” 

One told me that “they just want to know how we’re spending their money.” Another that “we need to get better at communicating with them and letting them know about all the things we do for them.” This the problem for Labour here. It’s not just that over the course of the neoliberal era, people in eastern Southampton and places like it have had so much taken away from them; it’s that no one has ever really said that it was wrong for these things to be taken away from them. 

Hope

I drop my boy home and drive out to collect my partner from the aforementioned BNP-nostalgic pub. It’s raining hard but we’re heading out to knock on doors. Labour’s manifesto was launched earlier today and the response to it is encouraging. 

We knock on the door of a very nice middle-aged lady in a very nice, quite large house. She’s listed as undecided but after a chat says she’ll probably vote Labour as she thinks “it might be time for a change, and anyway, Labour supporters just seem friendlier.” As we leave, we apologise for interrupting her evening. “No, no, it’s nice to feel like there’s a community out there!” 

The policies which resonate most are those that the commentariat might typically warn will take us ‘back to the 70s,’ like taking utilities back into public ownership. One guy who walks with a cane due to an injury suffered in the Falklands tells me he’ll never vote for Corbyn because “he sat down with my enemies.” He means the IRA. I point out that Margaret Thatcher negotiated with the IRA, but he disputes this, telling me that he has a signed photo of Thatcher and that she would never have done this, so I get my phone out to Google it to show him. During the conversation I mention that I work for a trade union. He says that he is ‘a union man’ too, so I tell him about the possible ramifications of a Tory Brexit for workers’ rights. He is is horrified. The chat ends with a handshake, and my new friend telling me he still hates Corbyn but he’ll ‘think about’ voting for Letts. The clincher was Labour’s promises about collective bargaining. 

I think, after living in Southampton my whole life, but on the ‘right’ side of the river, I’ve started to understand the other side. Over the last 40 years, this area has had everything taken away from it, and no one, red or blue, has ever had the guts to say that this was bad. Ford’s has gone, the shipyard was allowed to slowly die. Public services have rotted away. 18 years of Tory rule saw working-class communities systematically dismantled in much the way associated with the attack on traditional industry in the north of England. New Labour did nothing to reverse this, and the Labour council — hamstrung by economic orthodoxy — has failed to win back voters lost over the last four decades. There has been no major investment east of the river Itchen. No expensive art gallery, no shopping centre, no nothing. And all the while, there’s been the press of Murdoch and Dacre pointing the finger at migrant workers. 

Campaigning in Itchen

It may seem ridiculous that this would motivate people in an area with so few migrants. Why not instead blame the banks? But people in Southampton Itchen never see bankers lighting cigars with £50 notes. They do see the headlines in the Sun and the Mail, then they see the single mum in the people mover and hear the occasional Polish accent (Southampton has the largest Polish population in Britain outside of London, going right back to a large community of émigrés in the 1940s, though they tend to live in Test), and many think those headlines must be true. But amid the misinformed resentment and prejudice, there is a desperation to reclaim what’s been lost.

For every “never Corbyn”, there is a voter — often a union member, often someone who used to work at Ford’s — who likes the sound of a Green Industrial Revolution and more rights for unions but still hates Labour, not because of Corbynism but because of Blairism. It is difficult for Labour to wholly condemn its own last government, and difficult for the former leader of the council to condemn austerity when he implemented it, even if he had little choice. But it’s frustrating that a party that finally has solutions to post-industrial anger isn’t quite prepared to embrace class struggle. 

The Labour policies that are most popular with the residents I’ve spoken to in Southampton Itchen may seem revanchist to some — maybe they don’t have the newness of ideas like the Green Industrial Revolution or a four-day working week —  but they seem to be offering these voters a route back to something they’ve lost. As I drive back past the house my little boy lives in, I hope that by the time he goes to school, old enough to come with me to St. Mary’s, by the time he enters the labour market, some of what his older neighbours miss about the past might have been restored.