General election 2015: Crawley - a town where immigrants get the blame for everything

In the first in a week-long series about next year’s election, Oliver Wright reports from the sort of marginal seat Labour has to win

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Indy Politics

It is always dangerous forming conclusions on the basis of a small snapshot of opinion.

But when you speak to around two dozen people in three different locations and the vast majority – unprompted and vehemently – say that immigration is the political issue they feel most strongly about, it is hard not to form some certainties.

And when those people live in one of the more marginal constituencies in the country you begin to understand why politicians of all parties are, in different ways, struggling to address the problem.

Most of these voters in Crawley – a new town built in the shadow of Gatwick Airport – are reluctant to give their full names. But they’re not racist. They just feel successive governments have got it wrong.

Take Joan – a woman in her early 60s.

“People round here can’t get jobs; can’t get housing and they’re living on benefits because they can’t do anything but,” she says. “Then you’ve got loads of people coming over here because they think the streets are paved with gold.”

Then there is Patsy whose son left for Australia because, she says, London was too expensive for him to get on the property ladder.

“Those people coming from the EU get houses. My children have never been able to get houses. I don’t mind so much a few refugees because I hate to think of people really suffering in the world. But it’s not right as it is.”

Or Heather Kington, whose daughter cannot return to the UK with her Australian husband because, ironically, of laws designed to stop foreign immigrants going abroad to marry and automatically bringing their spouses back to the UK.

“He can’t come in unless she has come over first and worked for something like £20,000 a year. That’s my number one real big bugbear because they let all and sundry in from the EU.”

But she won’t be voting for Ukip because her son is gay and Ukip are “against gays”. Such are the vagaries of the ballot box.

If Ed Miliband is to walk into Downing Street next May he will almost certainly have to win in Crawley.

It is a key swing constituency – Tory throughout the Eighties to 1997, Labour until 2010 and now again Conservative with a majority for the sitting MP Henry Smith of 5,928. Last time round Ukip only got around 1,400 votes.

Where the Liberal Democrat vote goes next year is likely to be crucial. Last time they got 14 per cent of the vote – but it is hard to find anyone in Crawley who will vote for Nick Clegg’s party in 2015.

The party has no presence on the local council and Liberal Democrat headquarters could find nobody in the area to talk about their campaign.

Labour’s candidate is Chris Oxlade, an engaging former local radio DJ who stood and lost in 2010 after the sitting MP, Laura Moffatt, stood down.

Joining him and several local councillors canvassing in the mainly Labour-supporting Broadfield part of Crawley it is clear that the party has re-energised its base from  four years ago.

The party has made steady gains in the local borough council elections and could take control when voters go to the polls later this month.

If fact, if the swings of last year’s council elections were reproduced in 2015, then that would result in the Conservatives winning just 31.1 per cent of the vote and Labour taking the seat with 40.7 per cent. And that is before factoring in Ukip.

Mr Smith should be looking over his shoulder.

Mr Oxley says that the key to a Labour victory is getting the party’s core vote out.

“If we get in it won’t be on the back of Lib Dem votes – it will be on the back of voters returning to Labour.”

As for immigration,  Mr Oxley says: “There is a concern from people we speak to on the doorstep. It’s in the top five worries for people definitely. But Crawley has always had immigration.

“It was the Irish who came over and built the town and we’ve got people who are still there today. We’ve got the highest BME (black and minority ethnic) population of any new town.

“It is a political problem – I’m sure it is. But is it the only problem? No. The No. 1 issue is when will our quality of life improve.”

He may have a point. But outside a school in Langley Green, which is a poorer part of town that should be a Labour stronghold, immigration was also the dominant issue.

Those parents meeting children were mainly first-generation immigrants both from eastern Europe and further afield, many of whom spoke little English.

Those white parents outside the school gates were angry and resentful.

“I don’t want to sound racist, that’s the thing,” said Nikayla before admitting that immigration is the one thing that really riles her.

“I’m white English but really this should be a Muslim school because of all the Muslims here. It’s not really an English school.”

Her friend Chelsea had her six-year-old daughter with her who had been unable to get a place at the school because it was already full.

“She was first on the waiting list and then September comes and all these others come and she’s third on the list. They seem to get priority if they come from abroad.”

So how does Mr Smith address these concerns and prevent the Tory vote haemorrhaging to Ukip?

“It would be wrong for any candidate to say immigration is not an issue on the doorstep because it is,” he says. “But I do think the overwhelming concern among voters is the economy. And here things are really improving.

“I believe these elections will be the high watermark for Ukip and we are also seeing evidence of Labour also losing votes to them as well so I am cautiously optimistic.”

He may well be right. But it is hard not to think that even from the high watermark, Ukip’s current support will have to collapse pretty spectacularly not to increase a lot on their 2010 vote. And when there are only a few thousand votes in the contest it is really too close to call.

Crawley man (and Crawley woman) could easily replace their Essex counterparts as the “face” of 2015.

2010 election results

Henry Smith (Con) 21,264

Chris Oxlade (Lab) 15,336

John Vincent (Lib Dem) 6,844

Richard Trower (BNP) 1,672

Chris French (Ukip) 1,382

Phil Smith (Green) 598