Labour's Nuclear Submarine Plan Wins Over Historic Shipbuilding Town

(Bloomberg) -- The fortunes of the port town of Barrow-in-Furness have long been tied to the British defense industry. Generations of its families have spent their entire working life at “the yard,” where the UK’s nuclear submarines are built.

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Today, two-thirds of the town’s working population is employed by BAE Systems Plc, which operates the shipyard, its vast Devonshire Dock Hall dominating the local skyline.

When it comes to elections, “Barrow is one of the the very few seats in the country that can be decisively swayed by a single national issue,” said John Woodcock, who was Labour MP for Barrow-in-Furness until 2015. “It’s always jobs in the shipyard.”

The political fight to control Barrow, in the northwest of England, has long been tied to defense. In 2019, a lack of trust in Labour over the issue helped put a Conservative MP in Westminster for the first time in 27 years, one of several bricks in the so-called red wall to be dismantled. If polls are accurate, Keir Starmer’s long battle to convince voters he is committed to the UK’s nuclear deterrent — and willing to spend — is poised to bring the Cumbrian town back into Labour’s fold.

Nearly 52% of voters in Barrow favor Labour in the UK election set for July 4, according to the latest YouGov poll, almost double the support for the governing Tories. In April, Starmer became the first Labour leader in three decades to visit Barrow’s shipyard. His hard-won progress in this relatively small, geographically isolated community speaks volumes about Labour’s chances to win back the trust of voters across the UK when it comes to defense. “We’re committed to the shipyard and always have been,” said Michelle Scrogham, the Labour candidate for Barrow-in-Furness, as she walked between houses on a door-knock this month.

The arrival of the railways in the mid-1800s helped transform Barrow into an industrial powerhouse. Submarines have been built in the town’s shipyard since 1886. But the downturn in defense spending after the Cold War in the early 1990s led to the loss of 9,000 jobs, leaving deep scars on the town of 67,000 people.

Today, the government is spending billions on defense. With political pressure focused on security in the wake of Russia’s war in Ukraine, Starmer has joined Prime Minister Rishi Sunak in committing to spending 2.5% of GDP on defense. He also said the nuclear deterrent was essential, and that shipyard workers would have Labour’s “full support.”

“With my changed Labour Party, national security will always come first,” Starmer said in a speech in Manchester on June 3.

The comment was a not-so-veiled reference to former Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, a long-time campaigner for nuclear disarmament who had voted against renewing the UK’s Trident nuclear weapons system. This position was used as a battering ram in 2019 to suggest voters couldn’t trust Labour to keep the country safe.

Starmer, by contrast, has taken pains to show his support for Dreadnought-class submarines built in Barrow, which will replace the Royal Navy’s Vanguard ballistic-missile submersibles and will be the UK’s main nuclear deterrent, as well as for SSN-Aukus, a program to build a fleet of nuclear-powered attack submarines in partnership with Australia and the US. This project will provide jobs in Barrow for decades.

His backing of the project, along with Labour’s broader commitment to nuclear submarines, has been a crucial tool in Starmer’s election campaign. According to a separate YouGov poll, his plan is working. About the same number of voters trust Labour when it comes to security and defense as the Conservatives. The proportion rises when it comes to younger voters.

Critics point out that Labour said it will meet its defense-spending target only when resources allow. Conservative Simon Fell, the current MP who’s running for re-election, insists that voters he speaks to on the doorstep have yet to be convinced. “Starmer is being strategically clever,” Fell said in an interview at his office in a Barrow shopfront. “He came up here before the election, and made all the right noises. But that skepticism remains.”

Fell is hoping that voters won’t be swayed by the national mood against the Conservatives. He’s also had some help from Sunak, who has announced £200 million ($253 million) in funding over the next decade to revitalize the town.

Those funds could make a difference: despite recent investments in defense, Barrow remains one of the most economically deprived areas in the UK. For a town still reeling from the defense downturn caused by the end of the Trident submarine-building program in the 1990s, there is more at stake than whether the Devonshire Dock Hall is full. The production shutdown led Barrow to the largest decline in in population from 2001 to 2002, as the jobless left to hunt for work elsewhere.

“It was a terrible mistake,” said Fell. “Some of our largest social problems are from that.”

Today, the rampant thirst for talent is causing an entirely different workforce issue. Teachers, doctors and tradespeople are quitting to take jobs at the shipyard as BAE hires rapidly. Residents say it can be hard to find a plumber or mechanic.There’s also a shortage of affordable housing to accommodate the new workers and their families. At the same time, those economically inactive — people who aren’t employed or looking for work — is almost a quarter, above the national average.

For its part, BAE is trying to improve the town center, transforming derelict shops — including turning a former Debenhams department store into a skills center. The idea is for hundreds of trainees to spill out into the high street, spending money in local cafes and shops.

So far, locals have yet to see a difference. “They’re earning good money there, but it’s not translating into the town center at the moment,” said Gerry McDonald, 81, a former shipyard worker who votes Conservative and doesn’t plan to switch.

Frank Cassidy, a member of the local Westmorland and Furness Council, has been knocking on doors to scare up more Labour votes as he campaigns to oust the current MP. “Because of special conditions in 2019, Simon Fell borrowed this seat from Labour,” said Cassidy. “We are working very hard to make sure that on July 4 he returns it.”

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