The Fight for Barrow

Barrow-in-Furness is the kind of place that will decide this election - a postindustrial Labour heartland that gradually became a marginal. To win it, the party has to convince the community their town can be revitalised.

In 2017, Labour held Barrow-in-Furness by just 209 votes. The hapless (and now departed) John Woodcock had taken over from grandee John Hutton, and Barrow gradually began to slip away.

Despite Woodcock’s failings, things can’t all be pinned on him. This trend is evident across large portions of once safe Labour seats and battlegrounds; post-industrial towns where services are underfunded and social decay has set in. 

Four in ten children in Barrow are born into poverty. New national records for heroin deaths were set in 2019. Barrow is the most deprived town in Cumbria. 

But whenever Barrow features in the news, it is centred around one issue: Trident. It’s often the only thing journalists know about our town. The angle is that Barrow relies on Trident; that it would collapse without it. 

There’s some truth in it, of course. But walk up and down the high street, browse the shop windows on Portland Walk, or stick your head in the indoor market, and you see something else. Marks and Spencer’s is closing in March after 100 years of business in the town. Barrow is collapsing in on itself even with Trident and the yard getting funding. 

The town is experiencing the largest population decline in the country. We need to think above and beyond Trident, the yard, the lot. Both main parties have pledges and commitments to keep funding Trident; Labour’s position was decided democratically by its members, so is highly unlikely to change. Trident isn’t going anywhere. 

But it isn’t enough. Like other formerly industrial towns across the country, Barrow has a crisis of identity. People would tell you we’re a shipbuilding town – and they would be right. My grandad came to Barrow to work in the shipyard and he still proudly hangs a picture up in his kitchen of HMS Invincible; the first ship his son – my dad – worked on.  

Shipbuilding might be in the town’s blood, but our folk histories aren’t always the most accurate. During its heyday Barrow was producing steel, bricks, iron, and more. The cute terraces down at Roose were built for Cornish tin miners.

During its peak years, Barrow was not a one industry town. As historian Michael Raymond of Sheffield University notes, “Barrow became Britain’s biggest nineteenth century boomtown.” But the industries Raymond describes are long gone and they haven’t been replaced. The lesson from history is that Barrow’s economy needs to be diversified. We have Kimberly-Clark, Sellafield, and Glaxo in the wider area – but we need to think bigger. 

Barrow was born as a town during the industrial revolution. It was the emergence of new technologies and modes of production which established this town and lay the foundations for the future. 

Labour’s industrial policy is exactly what Barrow needs to develop new sectors and specialisms. The Green Industrial Revolution can mirror its Victorian counterpart – this time trains and coal will be replaced by electric transportation, solar, and wind. Labour’s proposals for regionalised National Investment Banks will help small businesses and innovative startups access the capital they need to get their ventures off the ground all over the country, not just in London. 

Barrow is ready to reap the benefits of these policies. Look out off the coast of Walney, from West Shore Park down to Roa Island off its southern tip, and you’ll see the same thing: offshore wind turbines dotting the horizon. Barrow’s ability to exploit wind and wave energy can be a central part of the energy strategy of the future. We already have the skills and specialisms; we just need to scale it up. That’s why Barrow is mentioned by name in the Labour manifesto; expanding the port of Barrow is one of Labour’s top North West commitments.  

Only the other week Elon Musk announced he’d be launching his new Gigafactory in Germany rather than the UK. This huge factory would create thousands of jobs producing world-leading cutting-edge electric vehicles. Brexit proposals which cut us off economically from Europe make the future of British manufacturing and industry precarious. 

Under a Labour government those economic ties would be retained – either through a Brexit deal which gives us access to the single market, or via remaining in the EU. The choice between two clear and defined outcomes will be with the voters. 

With a Labour government in power, that’s the future we’re choosing. High-tech, economically-connected, innovative, and good for both the people and the planet. Barrow can build the newest solar cells, the most powerful lithium batteries, and wind farms like you wouldn’t believe. 

If Barrow can build nuclear submarines, we can build anything. We could send a pie to the moon if someone puts up the cash. But a vote for the Tories achieves nothing for Barrow – other than business as normal and gradual decline. A vote for Labour is a vote for Barrow’s renewable sector, for funding to Barrow-based innovative businesses, for new affordable housing, and for upgrades to Barrow’s internet infrastructure.

There is a stark difference between the offers of the two parties to post-industrial Northern towns – but that isn’t reflected in the polls. Barrow, as things stand, is predicted to go blue. 

Labour needs to demonstrate to voters that their plans are achievable and makes economic sense – the voters have been told, wrongly, for 10 years that spending, not cutting, has been the ultimate source of their problems. But most of all, Labour needs to show the country that it has a vision; it needs to persuade people of a future where communities are mobilised and re-energised. 

If that message cuts through the noise of the election then those towns may well stay Labour. If people don’t know the nature of the choice in front of them, then they risk falling blue. The Tory idea of appealing to Workington Man was framed around specific minor policies, culture war issues, and short repeated slogans. 

It was a small and individualistic caricature that said a lot about the Tories and how they view ordinary people. Labour should see things differently. This election is about Barrow Folk. It’s about whether you can give communities a vision of the future which is truly better than the past. 

There’s a lot of pride in our post-industrial areas. People want to latch onto a message of hope and a positive vision. As I heard ringing out through the carriage, from adults and children alike, last time I took the beautiful Lancaster to Barrow train: “We are Barrow! Mighty fucking Barrow!” Too right.