Great Grimsby’s Brexit election battle

Great Grimsby’s Brexit election battle

Welcome to Grimsby, a town which voted around 70 per cent to leave the European Union.

In 2015, UKIP got 25% of the vote, the Conservatives 26% and Labour 40%. This suggests that if voters united around a Brexit candidate they could easily topple the Labour majority of around 4,500.

There is only one candidate with a track record of backing Brexit at the election here: UKIP’s Mike Hookem is the local MEP and the only candidate who voted Leave. A native of nearby Hull, his whole family were involved in the fishing industry and he thinks he has a good chance of success.

To do so, he would need to beat Labour MP, Melanie Onn – or ‘Melanie Gone’, as he calls her. When I tried to contact the elusive Miss Onn, several calls to her office went unanswered until an activist admitted he had “no idea” what was going on with regards to the campaign. “I’m not the right person to ask,” he said. Remain-voting Melanie Onn previously worked for ten years in Labour’s head office and was head of the party’s ‘Compliance Unit’, replacing Brexit-backing Austin Mitchell to become Grimsby’s MP.

Although Labour’s candidate is not wildly popular, by far the biggest problem for UKIP is the idea that they’ve achieved their goal. When UKIP leader, Paul Nuttall, came to Grimsby’s fish market on Friday, he spoke about the devastation the EU had brought to Grimsby’s fishing industry; but when I asked voters what they thought, many were confused as to why UKIP was still there. “They’re a spent force,” said one lady, while another Brexit voter said she was backing “Theresa May” and thought she’d negotiate the best out of the main party leaders.

This brings us onto Mike Hookem’s biggest challenge: the focus on party leaders.

I asked Nuttall what his party could offer fishermen that the Tories couldn’t. “They’re only offering 11 miles of waters for our fishermen, we’d get 200,” he said. When I pointed out that George Eustice, the fisheries minister, had committed (speaking to BrexitCentral no less) to controlling  200 miles, it was news to Nuttall. I then asked him what he thought of the Tory candidate for Grimsby, Jo Gideon, and he had no idea who she was.

This is a real issue because just that morning the UKIP press office had launched an attack on the Remain-voting Gideon after she had reportedly said that the future of Grimsby docks was as a place to process fish caught in Norway and Iceland – as opposed to actually catching anything. All this seemed to have been confirmed to her after meeting Andrea Leadsom, the DEFRA secretary (George Eustice’s boss). The UKIP leader was speaking in the Brexit heartlands in a town where the local Tory candidate seemed to have gone soft on fishing and he completely let her off the hook.

Whilst in the main square I found a Corbynista with not much to do. He had moved to Grimsby to study and happily regaled me with tales of thousands flocking to hear Corbyn’s words. But without any hint of irony, he said that the fishing industry probably wouldn’t be an election issue because there wasn’t much left. Sadly for Hookem, he might be right.