I joined Clair Hawkins, Labour candidate for Dover and Deal, on the campaign trail in Tower Hamlets, an area of Dover town with around 2700 households. By strange coincidence, Hawkins’ first role as an elected politician was as a local councillor in Tower Hamlets in London. But she’s a local, Dover born and brought up in Deal from a local and politically active family — I heard from others in her campaign team that she was delivering Labour party leaflets almost as soon as she could walk. While working in the charity sector, Hawkins won the local Labour candidacy contest for 2015. Her campaign is now a full time job, and she’s set a clear vision for the future: “to make Dover a destination, not just a gateway”.
Doorstep campaigning can be tricky when it’s 3 degrees and sleeting heavily. Struggling with umbrellas and decidedly soggy clipboards, the Labour team also had some difficult questions to answer from residents. At first impressions, cynicism towards promises from all politicians runs fairly deep in Dover. This isn’t merely borne of media rhetoric, aimed at a national elite and their scandals. The sentiment stems from a perceived absence of positive change in the community for the last 20 or so years. The first resident we spoke to told us that she’s only voted once before, and probably wouldn’t vote in the next election — but that if she were to vote, she’d vote UKIP. Her husband didn’t believe in voting, which stemmed from a strong feeling of distrust in politics.
“Good luck with that!” was the response of another prospective voter, who opened the door to the Labour campaigners. This resident clearly cared deeply about the local community in which he was born, raised and where he remained to work and raise his own family. When asked how he decides to vote, he answered that he considers events at the time as well as track record; but that it’s predominantly “a matter of who seems to be doing the most work for Dover at the time”. A previous Labour supporter who voted UKIP in the 2010 election for the first time, he said that he’d always considered himself a working man, who had stuck with Labour for a long time. But he didn’t see the change in his community which he felt had been promised.
The plans to redevelop Dover’s town centre have been notoriously delayed, with proposals beginning almost two decades ago still yet to be implemented. Hawkins put forward that Labour could deliver change for Dover, with the party promising £30bn in funds to promote regional development. Our voter’s answer was simple — that promises have been made before, but that the town has continued to suffer. “We’ve lost our A&E, we’ve lost the mines, and we’ve lost a lot of jobs which the port used to provide. What are the white cliffs of Dover? They’re lumps of chalk sticking out of the sea. They don’t employ people. It’s always said that we have the castle — but how many jobs do you think that creates? History isn’t enough.”
In an October 2014 poll of 438 residents by local newspaper Dover Express, 48% expressed the intention to vote UKIP in the next general election. Both Clair Hawkins and Conservative MP Charlie Elphicke felt that the poll results wouldn’t be replicated at the ballot box. But it seems highly likely that this will be the best year yet for UKIP in Dover and Deal, and that at the very least where UKIP absorbs votes will be a strong determinant of the final result.
Hawkins is evidently conscious of the challenge that UKIP presents to the mainstream parties. When we spoke about the recent rise of the party in the local area, she cited residents’ primary reasons for supporting UKIP as immigration and the disaffection with the mainstream that we saw on the doorstep. She took the view that the time it is taking to rebuild trust in politics presents a real challenge and what is needed is a shared vision for Dover that everyone can buy into and work towards. Hawkins thinks the councils, the Harbour Board, local businesses and local people can all be big drivers for change in Dover but people need to believe what is promised will be delivered. Labour held Dover and Deal between 1997 and 2010, when it swung to the Conservatives. Indeed, once we’d got back to Labour HQ and dried off a bit with a warm drink in hand, Hawkins reflected that a failure to bring everyone together to cooperate on plans for regeneration could be an even greater obstacle to progress than a lack of funds.
At present, the MP is Conservative, Dover and Deal town councils are Labour controlled, and the Dover district council is Conservative controlled. Hawkins felt that reconciling the divergent views of different groups on the town’s future was not an easy task. After an election which is shaping up to be one of the most volatile in recent history, whether or not this fragmentation will resolve is unclear.
Maggie Cosin –member of the Labour Party’s National Policy Forum, one time deputy leader of Camden Council and lifetime political activist — joined Hawkins in her campaigning and offered her thoughts on the election back at the constituency offices. Cosin told me that her first general election was in 1945 – and that though there are certainly distinctive elements to the 2015 campaign, many issues have remained prominent in elections since at least the mid 20th century. The most prominent of these enduring issues are, in her eyes, the NHS, wages and housing.
In Dover, Clair Hawkins sees good housing as key to ensuring that residents stay put in the town, and to making Dover a “destination, rather than a gateway”. The quality of the housing stock is poor in many of her wards, with new developments being created without “enough infrastructure around them — many lack adequate drainage, transport, play spaces and health facilities.” The solutions she proposes include a register of landlords, a stricter licensing scheme to bring up the quality of the housing stock, increased emphasis on long term tenancies and being stricter with developers over the provision of affordable housing and community facilities.
Immigration is another significant issue in the constituency, and its one whose prominence has increased over the years. Though aware that Dover and Deal is not particularly diverse, being 93% White British, Hawkins puts Dover’s status as a port town down to its preoccupation with migrant workers. Some policy measures she suggests speak to the idea that illegal immigration is having a problematic impact on the nation as a whole — Labour has pledged 1000 more border staff, also providing increased employment opportunities.
But Hawkins’ concern is not only about the impact on existing residents in the UK — it is at once about national wage levels and the exploitation of migrant workers. She cites agriculture, construction, hospitality and factories as industries which employ migrant workers at inappropriate wage levels, often tied into highly constrictive contracts and depressed living conditions. By raising the minimum wage, encouraging payment of the living wage and cracking down on exploitative agencies, Hawkins believes that the deeply connected problems of undercutting local wage levels and exploitation of migrant workers could be resolved.
At its heart, the problem faced by Dover and Deal is that its residents understandably feel under-served and ignored by the political organisations and institutions which are supposed to serve them. “It is easy to scapegoat immigrants”, Hawkins says — but “the only real solution is to create a system that is fair, and seen as fair for everyone, wherever we’re from”.
Not all Tower Hamlets residents we spoke to were distrustful — one voter was strong in his affiliations to Labour, having voted for the party for his whole life and avowing that he would continue to do so. He had been a miner, beginning in 1945 when he was 15 in Betteshanger, then moving to Tilmanstone in later years. The pits have since closed, and he’s now retired. But support for Labour rooted in the area’s historic industries clearly still exists — and Hawkins told me that, despite historic lows in party membership nationally, Labour party membership in the constituency has actually risen in recent years.
About to head back to the station, I asked Hawkins what she was enjoying most about her first campaign for national election, in a constituency as challenging — and as marginal — as Dover and Deal. She said, and this really seemed to be the case when she was out campaigning that afternoon, that “I really enjoy speaking to people, and finding out what matters to them. It’s lovely when they’re supportive and really rooting for you”. But before I left, she wanted to make sure that we touched on the topic of the port: “it’s really important that it remains a trust port, and that it isn’t privatised. Outsourcing can lead to pay cuts, job losses and zero-hours contracts”. Despite an acute local awareness of its own decline, Dover’s status as a gateway into and out of the UK is inextricably woven into its identity.
The battleground in the Dover wards of this constituency will be over who is trusted to make residents’ expectations for the town a reality. Though they might not be handing out jobs, Dover’s white cliffs and seaside position indicate the town’s potential as a centre for tourism and commerce. Delivering this vision has, in the past, been steeped in setbacks. The challenge for the candidates for 2015 is convincing voters that politics can change sufficiently to change the local area’s prospects. Defeating cynicism — or indeed, capitalising on it — will be the key to winning the seat.