Election focus: Barrow-in-Furness

Voters in Barrow-in-Furness don’t bite their fingernails worrying about the ethics of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. For them, maintaining Trident is their way out of economic stagnation.

By Alex Stevenson

This Labour seat in the far north-west of England is dominated by the prosperity – or lack of it – brought by the huge shipyard which builds Britain’s submarines and dominates the local economy.

So it’s no surprise that political attitudes towards the nuclear deterrent have an irresistible weight which they simply don’t elsewhere.

“It is overwhelmingly the most important issue here,” Labour’s candidate Jonathan Woodcock says simply. His challenger, Conservative John Gough, agrees. He needs a 6.25% swing to take the seat from Labour, making Barrow-in-Furness exactly the kind of constituency David Cameron needs to win in order to form a government. Given the state of the polls, this one is close to call.

While national politics has a place, Barrow’s politics are dominated by the shipyard. Over 4,000 people are employed there. Add to those legions of retired workers and the many small business owners in the area who appreciate they’re relying on a thriving shipyard for work. As Woodcock argues, the shipyard’s prosperity will be the foundation on which the local economy will be diversified as different kinds of manufacturing are sought.

Normally you would expect this kind of solid manufacturing seat to be Labour through and through. It certainly was under former defence secretary John Hutton. But go back further and the picture changes. Workers abandoned Labour in 1983 and 1987 when the party backed a policy of unilateral disarmament, making voters sense it was the Tories who had their best interests at heart. The slogan back then was: ‘If Labour win on Thursday, what will the lads do on Monday morning?’

At the moment BAE Submarine Systems’ shipyard is busy building a series of Astute-class submarines. After these are completed Barrow is set to begin constructing the Vanguard subs, which will eventually take over the burden of Britain’s nuclear deterrent. Yet despite the Commons’ decision to back Trident, question-marks continue to hang over this contract. The issue is not as cut-and-dried about whether the deterrent should be scrapped completely or not. It doesn’t need to be for the sensitivities of Barrow voters to be well and truly sparked.

“If Labour win on Thursday, what will the boys do on Monday morning?” Woodcock’s campaign slogan is a reworking of the Tories’ 1983 success. He has seized on quotes from David Cameron to Granada TCV during a visit to the region earlier this year. The Tory leader said he believed in a submarine-based deterrent, but added: “We have got to look at every defence programme and we’ve got to have a proper defence review and make sure we are getting value for money in everything that we do.”

The strategic defence review which will take place after the general election, regardless of who wins the election, will see a fundamental reassessment of the role and duties of Britain’s armed forces. Service chiefs are engaged in a frantic debate to win over policymakers as to why their juniors should be the ones to benefit from the coming shifts. In a political climate where the expectation of sweeping cuts is paramount, the nuclear deterrent will never quite be off the table. How many submarines, for example, are really required? Could Britain’s minimum credible deterrent operate with three, rather than four?

Labour has pledged to make its commitment to Trident “non-negotiable” by banning the forthcoming defence review from reconsidering the decision. But after Cameron’s comments, have the Tories really made the same commitment?

Woodcock has put out press releases stating that the Tories are “disarray”. “We are left with the appalling sight of their election candidate trying to convince people that David Cameron himself isn’t telling the truth about the Tory Trident policy,” he says.

Gough claims both Labour and the Tories want a submarine-based system excluded from the strategic defence review. Woodcock’s argument is dismissed as being “completely unfounded”.

“David Cameron just wants to make sure it’s cost-effective , that we’re not going to waste a huge amount of taxpayers’ money,” he insists. “I assume the Labour party would do the same thing.”

This is not the only Labour line of attack, however. The recent government white paper named 2024 as the date set for the new successor class of submarines to come into service. They have to be completed by 2029, in any case, as the missiles will be past their sell-by date by then.

It’s a tight period, but Woodcock claims the Tories would make it even tighter by backing a five-year delay. “It’s questionable on operational capacity whether you could do that,” he says. There’s a fear that the engineering skills base in Barrow would disperse if there is a gap in submarine construction. Naval submarine engineers will flock to areas where there is great demand for their services – in Australia and the United States, as well as to the civil nuclear programme. Woodcock presses: “You need to maintain a skills base.”

Gough gets even more frustrated when this point is put to him. “He’s not being honest,” he protests. A recent report by the National Audit Office suggests that each of the Astute class submarines currently underway will take an average of nine months longer than scheduled to be completed. Together this adds up to four-and-a-half years, making Woodcock’s talk of a Tory delay “utter rubbish”. There’s a delay already happening. “There’s a mess there, we’ll have to sort it out,” he says. “This is a mess the next government will have to sort out.”

The Tory candidate, while admitting the importance of the shipyard, says part of its prominence in the campaign is because Woodcock wants it to be. He says Labour are looking for a “classic dividing line” despite there being very few real differences between the two parties. Fortunately – or so Gough believes, at least – Barrow voters are more “canny” than Woodcock gives them credit for. “What I would say is don’t trust this lot with a bargepole,” he says forcefully, pointing out that in the last 13 years of Labour government, just one order has been put in for Barrow. From 1979 to 1997, 18 new orders were placed.

Perhaps part of the reason for Labour’s Trident offensive is a real concern that incessant leafleting from the Tories will have a big impact. Never has the word “glossy” been said with such distaste. Conservative leaflets are being poured through voters’ letterboxes as the Tories outspend their rivals. Posters are appearing all over Barrow. But Woodcock remains defiant. “My sense so far is they are not getting over people’s memories of what the Tories are really like,” he says.

“I am sensing that people are moving towards us. I’m genuinely finding very few Labour to Tory switchers and I’ve actually found more Tory to Labour switchers because of the shipyard, which I was surprised about.”

This is a race which may come down to the length of voters’ memories. According to Gough levels of “disillusionment” with the Labour government are high. While Tony Blair and Gordon Brown have had the best of intentions, he suggests the money simply hasn’t made a difference in Barrow. “Why haven’t we seen types of improvements we’d expect to see for money we’ve spent?” he asks.

With two months to go until polling day the contest in Barrow seems on a knife-edge, with turnout likely to be the decisive factor. “The danger will be if our people stay at home rather than coming out against them,” Woodcock says, not a little grimly. His attacks on the fate of the local shipyard are only likely to send more voters to the polls – which is exactly what Labour, fighting a monolithic Tory party machine, desperately needs.