Corby Bi-Election: Nowhere is home to me.

Nora Connolly 

Image © knowhimonline

Corby, the Scottish enclave on the M1, is currently the centre of UK political activity after the announcement by Conservative MP, Louise Mensch to resign her seat with a majority of 1,951. A poll commissioned by Lord Ashcroft in August suggests that Labour are currently in a commanding position with 52% of the vote, the Conservatives on 37% and the Lib/Dems flat lining on 7%.

The actual result in 2010 is illuminating, particularly as the BNP collected 2,525 votes. Labour lost on a 69% turnout. Given that the November by-election may depend on the resilience of the BNP vote if it holds then it could be close.

The anticipated decline of the Lib Dem vote alters the framework; disgruntled Lib Dems are hardly about to vote Tory, so at least 7,834 votes are going begging. But there is a racial dynamic to this by-election due to demographic changes in Corby which have been stoked up by the tabloid press.

Corby, the main urban area in the constituency nestles in countryside reminiscent of the Cotswolds. A former centre for steel production which dominated the local landscape, in the 1930s many thousands of Scottish migrants came to the town to work in the steel industry and to set up home – a sleepy hamlet morphed into `Little Scotland`. Corby has profound cultural and emotional links to Scotland such as the local dialect, a testament to this heritage.

Among the Scottish migrants was an immigrant population from the Irish Republic, many laboured in the steel works and in the 1950s they dominated the construction industry building the council houses which now populate the town. Some of those Irish immigrants remained among a strongly identifiably working class Scottish/Irish Celtic community that was often stereotyped and belittled in the locale. Perpetrating myths linked to ethnicity and class, a subtle form of racism. 

In the late 1960s many people relocated to the town as a result of London overspill. Corby guaranteed a home and work. Many of these new arrivals were Irish immigrants struggling to be housed in London, given the experience of discrimination, `No Irish, No Blacks, No Dogs` a common sign that shamefully adorned many a rented accommodation.

Sadly, some of the new arrivals found the town less than friendly confronting a sectarian situation that was both foreign (Southern Irish people had no sectarian hinterland) and frightening. This was especially the case if the family lacked a significant mature male presence and if they lived in close proximity to their Orange assailants. If the vulnerable family was overtly Catholic and regularly attended mass – marching off on a Sunday, then they found themselves subject to sectarian vilification and violence (a sporadic experience but it happened). Through struggle and education the situation altered and provides a template to overcome the climate of racism that currently prevails in the town.

In 1980/81 the Steel Industry became the first victim of the de-industrialisation policy of Mrs Thatcher`s administration, steel making in Corby ended. Corby fought the closure through an organisation called ROSAC. During this time the region became the Ascot of the left as an array of socialist parties attempted to gain a foothold. The best example of this was the campaign that Militant undertook in the early 1980s. There is a left wing culture in the town but it was not of the Trotskyite variety given that many Communist Party Members from the West Coast of Scotland were active and influential.

In 1979 the far right in the guise of the National Front visited the town and attempted to drum up support for their fascist cause on the back of economic turmoil. The Anti-Nazi League combined with local groups (such as the Trades Council) responded with a counter demonstration. This initiated a program of education that established the notion that fascists were not welcome in Corby. This provides another modern template – you do not defeat fascism by wrapping yourself in a Union Jack.

The political orientations of the town are labourist and the constituency was for many years a safe Labour seat especially when combined with the urban area of Kettering. In the mid 1980s the boundary commission altered the make-up of the constituency when Kettering and Corby separated. The town joined the East Northamptonshire rural arcadia and duly elected a Conservative MP, Mr William Powell. Corby itself was solidly Labour evidenced by the total control of the Council.

The 1980s saw Corby become the first Industrial Enterprise Zone attracting employers with grants and inducements. These industries had a profound impact on the collective mentality as trade unionism was discouraged; steel production was replaced by plastic, often with non-union labour.

In the 1997 swing to Labour, Phil Hope became MP. Corby experienced considerable regeneration effectively overhauling it. It also attracted significant immigration with the fastest growing population in England and Wales, it is anticipated that the population will double over the next 15 years.

The majority of newly arrived townspeople are from Eastern and Central Europe (A8 migrants) others emanate from notorious conflict zones in particular Zimbabwe and Somalia. There is a visible black presence in the town. Many of the new arrivals have been subjected to various forms of treatment, suggesting that their presence is not welcome. Or that they are a drain on resources, rather than economic participants who have positively contributed to the economic regeneration of the town. The left must provide answers and confront this racist agenda.

This by-election is an opportunity for Labour but it is also a chance for all the representatives of social democracy to counter racism. If those on the left manage to do this on the door step it will enhance democracy but also see off the far right and make the town safe for all its citizens regardless of their ethnic origins. There is an important ideological debate to be won besides a parliamentary seat.

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