Fleetwood Discomfort – turning the tide in a northern coastal town

By Naomi Fearon

Fleetwood, a once thriving coastal town known for its bustling fishing industry and nautical roots, is now a former husk of itself. Gone has the busy high street with a range of shops, cafes and facilities and now instead stands a high street full of boarded up buildings, gambling shops, charity shops and take-aways. The P&O ferry offices lay abandoned along with the former site of the pier which was destroyed by a fire over a decade ago. Like so many other towns in the North, de-industrialisation, high levels of unemployment, lack of regeneration investment and sustained austerity have taken a heavy toll.

Somewhat surprisingly, during that fateful night last December, as the “red wall” collapsed across the North, Lancaster and Fleetwood was one of the few parliamentary constituencies to hold onto a majority-albeit a diminished one. However, fitting in with the general trend across the North, it saw a swing to the Tories amongst other parties including the recently formed Brexit Party. Meaning that the Labour majority was less than half of what it was in the 2017 general election. Fleetwood and Lancaster is a marginal constituency so swings are to be expected but not usually in such a short space of time. It is worth noting that up until recently, Fleetwood often returned all Labour councillors in local elections and was predominantly known as a ‘Labour town’.

Lancaster and Fleetwood is an unusual pairing of areas for a constituency to say the least, one being an historic city with many amenities including rail, universities a hospital and theatres and the other, being a small seaside town on a peninsular with heavily diminished local amenities. With the two areas also being separated by sea and having  no direct transport links to one other, it comes as no great surprise that the two area skip to their own beats politically speaking. Like the rest of the North, the Labour vote share in Fleetwood was down with a swing to the Tories and a lower voter turnout than the previous general election-less than half of those registered to vote actually turned out to. Not to mention that in the local elections 2019, three Labour councillors lost their seats to UKIP*. A party that had pretty much become a non-entity elsewhere. Fleetwood may well still have a Labour MP but its Labour support is rapidly diminishing.

“They have nowhere else to go” said Peter Mandelson in reference to the working class vote and the New Labour electoral strategy of appealing to more middle class Southern voters. Well, as years have gone by, quite clearly this isn’t the case as demonstrated in lower voter turnouts, Labour’s ‘missing millions’ ‘ and the large swathes traditional Labour votes who voted Conservative in the last election. When Labour is referred to as the ‘party of the working class’  this no longer rings true to many and can be seen as quite a laughable statement in many cases. None more so in areas like Fleetwood, where the aforementioned de-industrialisation and austerity have set leaving the town feeling neglected and abandoned and rightly so.  Falling very much into the type of town Ian Lavery and Jon Trickett discuss in their paper ‘Northern Discomfort’.

Looking at the cause of the withering away of Labour support, dwindling voter turnout and political engagement in addition to the town’s general decline, one does not have to look very far.  Fleetwood’s nautical identify runs deep. ‘Cod Head’ is a term sometimes assigned to those from the town and supporters of the local football club, Fleetwood Town FC are known as ‘The Cod Army’. In its heyday, the fishing industry employed around a third of the town’s population. A far cry from how things stand today. Issues arising from Britain’s distant-water fishing, the infamous ‘cod-wars’ with Iceland and EU fishing laws have all but led to the industry’s decimation. As it stands, there are only a few small fishing boats left and not a single active trawler. Fleetwood still processes fish but most of that is brought in by road. The local chemical plant ICI which also employed a large number from the town, closed in the late 90’s furthering adding to the town’s woes. Without a decent and viable replacement for the industry, the town’s economy has headed into a steep and steady decline.

The feeling of what can only be described as ‘bereavement’ for its loss of its industry has not only had an negative impact economically but also on the health of its residents. So much so, that in 2016 a local leading GP felt compelled to launch a ‘Healthier Fleetwood’ initiative after mental and physical health problems started to soar in addition to the town’s constant lowering life expectancy.

Fleetwood, like many other de-industrialised towns in the North, has needed investment, modernisation and radical change for many years-something it hasn’t seen. As the decades have rumbled on there has been no new industry, a stagnation of wages, crippling council cuts, a withering away of public services, a lack of redevelopment of its seafront, closure of its local hospital, a railway line prime for reopening still very much closed, further withdrawal of transport links and an almost abandoned high street.  This has taken place under both Labour and Tory MPs. It is it any wonder there is both falling Labour support and a disillusionment with politics in general.

The promise  of a ‘green industrial revolution’, reinstatement of rail and key investment may have been in the last two sets of manifestos but quite frankly these promises have  come too little for a town like Fleetwood who essentially needed all of the these back in the 80s and 90s.

This disengagement, has only been furthered by Labour’s disastrous decision in 2019 to seemingly back a second referendum –a stark contrast to the previous commitment in the 2017 general election to ‘respect the result of the referendum’. Fleetwood, like the rest of the towns on the Fylde Coast, overwhelming voted to leave with many citing the EU’s fishing laws as one of the main reasons for the fishing industry’s decline,   The level of hostility on the doorstep towards the EU was as such that around the time of the EU referendum, the local Labour group found it near impossible to campaign for Labour’s ‘remain and reform’ stance and concentrated their efforts elsewhere.

The town isn’t a town without positives though, with its pretty sandy beach,  stunning views overlooking the bay, dedicated Town Council, strong community spirit, a well-supported local football team and not forgetting the world famous Fisherman’s Friend- the town and its people deserve better.

I write this partially fuelled by frustration, anger and care as someone who was brought up in the town and is who is also a former town councillor and experienced Labour activist. The town needs radical change and sooner rather than later. The usual writing of letters from key Labour local politicians, the standard door knocking, usual criticism of local Conservative councillors and attendance at small local events whilst not without their purpose are all too timid given what the town needs. Bold, creative and outside the box thinking is what Fleetwood requires before it becomes another Northern town that Labour loses for a long time to come.

*Now sitting as ‘Wyre Alliance’ councillors