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“I sometimes think: if you put an unemployed person into power, maybe they would do a better job than the government is doing now,” says Susan Boardman. The volunteer “sunshine lady” at Tranmere Methodist Church (she is Catholic, but nobody minds) is helping a group of local mums and children make jewellery one morning during the school holidays. It is a free treat, much needed in Birkenhead.
In and around this town just west of the Mersey river from Liverpool are “some of the most deprived neighbourhoods in England”, says Public Health England.
The UK will hold its referendum on membership of the EU on June 23 and the role of working-class Labour supporters has become increasingly important in the final days ahead of the vote. But there is little sign of that in Birkenhead after days in which divisions in the ruling Conservative party have dominated the debate. Several hours tramping around town reveal just one campaign poster, for “Remain”, in a house window.
Ms Boardman points to the reason: in a town where many feel abandoned by all politicians, and some people go hungry, the European question seems distant.
She herself favours Remain, while cautioning: “I don’t discuss it with people; it is just my personal view. Politics and religion cause arguments, so we don’t really talk about it.”
By contrast, most working-class Britons favour leaving the EU, according to polls. The challenge for the “Leave” campaign is to persuade this group to turn out.
UK’s EU Referendum: How people would vote
For a more detailed summary of opinion polling visit the FT’s Brexit poll tracker page
Birkenhead is an exceptionally unequal constituency. At one end are the mansions of wealthy Oxton, “which makes Hampstead look downmarket”, says Frank Field, Birkenhead’s Labour MP since 1979. Some working-class people in the area have disposable income too, such as the large group of local men who are preparing to fly to Amsterdam for a stag weekend.
But, says Mr Field: “The bottom has fallen out of the labour market.” Most of the old factory and docking jobs have gone. Many locals now have “zero-hours contracts” — which offer no guaranteed work — as carers, supermarket workers or security guards. Some have to dip in and out of the benefits system, which can be hard to navigate. It also now punishes claimants for missing appointments.
About 11 per cent of Birkenhead’s working-age population is classified as “long-term sick”, often with mental illness. Men in poor neighbourhoods here can expect 20 fewer years of disability-free life than men in the richest, rural parts of the same Wirral borough.
Last year about 10,000 people in Birkenhead used the Wirral Foodbank, mostly operating from local churches, according to Richard Roberts, the food bank’s manager. Ms Boardman remarks: “It’s degrading. Men think they are the main earner in the house, and then their wife has to go to the food bank to get food for the children because they can’t provide.”
Ema Wilkes, of the Neo Community Café, sees parents skipping meals for two or three days before payday so that their children can eat. Some children come to school hungry.
Few locals facing such daily struggles believe that either a “Remain” or “Leave” vote on June 23 will change their situations. Reverend Steve Carpenter of the Methodist Church, says: “The [referendum] argument is too far removed from local circumstances, as is the case with most national issues.” Mr Field, asked to describe the politics of his poorer constituents, replies: “Nothing.”
Labour is the town’s longstanding ruling party: Mr Field’s majority in the 2015 general election was 20,652. “There is no Tory vote in Birkenhead,” says Moira McLaughlin, a Labour councillor. Instead, Labour’s biggest local opponent is apathy. Outside Oxton ward, fewer than one in three eligible local voters in the constituency turned out in May’s council elections. Ms McLaughlin expects an even smaller turnout for the European referendum.
Eve Barrett, a senior community organiser for the North Birkenhead Development Trust, encourages people to register to vote, sometimes helping them do it on her smartphone on the doorstep, but she says many find the thought of a registration form intimidating. A few fear that appearing on the electoral roll could set their creditors after them.
Neither the “Leave” nor the “Remain” campaign is very active here. Birkenhead’s Labour party is split over Europe, with Mr Field favouring Brexit — “reluctantly, because there are always risks”, he says — while his Labour colleagues follow the party line and back Remain.
Mr Field says that in his decades campaigning in Birkenhead, Europe has never been a big issue on the doorstep. Few locals get worked up about distant Westminster losing powers to distant Brussels. Nor are many enthused by the EU, despite the European funds earmarked for deprived areas that Birkenhead has received since the 1990s.
European money helped fund an award-winning bus station and renovate the town centre. Birkenhead boasts a Europa Boulevard, Europa Square and Europa Pools. But, says Ms McLaughlin, few locals feel personal benefit from the EU: “They don’t see it, because they have very little money.”
The most emotive EU-related issue here is migration.
“White British” made up 94 per cent of Birkenhead’s population in the 2011 census. However, some locals fear an influx of asylum-seekers, who they believe would compete for housing and jobs. Mr Field says that if there is a large televised stampede of migrants trying to enter the EU, “then it’s all over” — the Brexit vote would win. Ms McLaughlin agrees that immigration is a big local issue, and says: “I’m almost afraid to go out and stimulate the votes in my ward, because I think that if they do come out, they will vote to leave.”
Her theory is supported by a YouGov poll from March, which found that over 60 per cent of the lower social classes C2, D and E back Brexit. However, as YouGov points out, while the “Remain” campaign may struggle to get young pro-Europeans to turn out, the “Leave” campaign faces the same struggle with working-class Eurosceptics. Ms McLaughlin says: “I do think the biggest vote in Birkenhead will be stay at home.”
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