My adopted hometown of Folkestone was once considered the most fashionable resort in England, attracting the upper classes to take the sea air and to be seen strolling along the promenade in the latest fashions. But the rise of foreign package holidays, the loss of its ferry service to France, a global recession, and a complete lack of government investment in infrastructure have all taken their toll.
Like many towns it is divided into a wealthier west side, and a more impoverished east side. I live on the east side in Harbour, a council ward that is the third most deprived in Kent, and in the top ten percent of most deprived council wards across the country. Good quality jobs with guaranteed regular hours on a liveable wage are rare, as is decent housing, and it is almost impossible to get a doctor’s appointment or register with an NHS dentist. Resources are scare and people are rightfully angry.
This was fertile ground for the far right, and indeed Nigel Farage considered standing here in 2015 before settling on South Thanet. He saw divisions here that could be exploited and turned to his advantage. Those divisions have likewise been exploited by the government who try to pit the local population against migrants in order to distract from their own failings. In neighbouring Dover and Deal, Tory MP Natalie Elphicke has leapt on this approach with gusto: with Farage-style videos where she stands angrily by dinghies and hisses that people are ‘breaking into Britain’.
Recognition of a common humanity
When I arrived here nine years ago, I had absorbed the popular characterisation of this Kent border town as a place that was narrow-minded and somewhat xenophobic. I was proved wrong, but it took me a while to unpick the various threads that run through the complex fabric of the town. There are some extremely loud voices locally which are implacably opposed to immigration of any kind and at first, I thought they were representative of mainstream local views. I can now tell you clearly, however, that they are not.
It was working for a local refugee charity that really opened my eyes. Whenever there was a galvanising moment, such as the tiny body of Alan Kurdi being washed up on a beach in Turkey, or the abandonment of Afghanistan to the Taliban, the level of support offered from local people was so great that it became difficult to respond to all the offers. What became clear above everything else was that the people offering support simply wanted to help other people having a difficult time. Despite all the differences they were told they had with the refugees, they recognised a common humanity.
Heartened by what I was seeing at work, I started organising solidarity events in response to an increasingly toxic series of anti-refugee initiatives by the government. At first, they were sparsely attended but as we went on, and as people gained confidence, attendance grew.
A turning point came when in September 2020 the government started housing asylum seekers at Napier Barracks. It soon became clear that the far right in Kent were going to try and use the issue to recruit to their ‘cause’. I kept seeing variations on the phrase ‘no one wants them here’ being repeated by anonymous accounts with names like @Enoch01234 on social media.
People here understand that they have more in common with a tailor who has arrived in a dinghy than they do with the people at the top who have left them high and dry
Now to be clear I didn’t want anyone housed at Napier – it just wasn’t an appropriate site for a variety of reasons, not least among them that the semi-derelict site had been empty for a number of years, and was earmarked for demolition – but the idea that the local community didn’t want refugees housed in the area was ludicrous given that, as soon as the news had broken, the charity I worked for was again overwhelmed with offers of help from local people.
The only way to halt the narrative that ‘no one wants them here’ was to organise a welcome event at the barracks, but it was a fight to make it happen. A sergeant from the local police station rang me shortly after the Facebook event page went up. ‘Couldn’t you make it an online event?’ he said. ‘No’ I replied ‘We have to physically manifest the level of support locally. It’s the only way to deal with this.’ ‘Ah, but it will attract the far right.’ ‘That’ I said, ‘is your problem. We cannot be frightened off holding an event because of the threat of the far right. If they cause a problem, then you need to deal with it, not expect people who only want to offer a warm welcome to stop. That’s the wrong way round.’
That wasn’t the response they wanted. I was called twice further by Kent Police, each time by someone more senior, all asking me to call off the event. Then local council wrote to my boss to get me to call off the event. But I’d worked hard to make sure every possible local community group was involved (local political parties, churches, and the mosque for example). This gave us the impetus to keep going.
On a cold drizzly mid-October afternoon around 300 people found their way to the site on the outskirts of the town. They held up messages of welcome and those inside responded with messages of thanks written on bedsheets and hung out of windows. We had a sound system and people danced on either side of the fence, waving and smiling at each other. After an hour the crowd dispersed but I stayed behind and witnessed the police marshal the far-right counter-protest past the barracks. I was easily able to count the number attending – there were 27 of them. That was all they had been able scrape together, despite their claims ‘no one wants them here’.
The Napier Barracks welcome event was decisive refutation of the prevailing narrative. It showed clearly that the community – when asked – would show solidarity with those in need.
I’m now standing as a councillor in the local elections here in Harbour Ward. I’ve been out on the doorstep a lot and talking to the local community about their concerns. The issue of small boat arrivals does come up. Not as often as potholes, refuse collection, and parking, but it does come up. I’ve had a number of respectful conversations about it, and they haven’t all been resolved, but in most cases – when you dig down – the issue has been a belief that resources are scarce and that there simply isn’t enough to go around. Usually, we’ve managed to agree that if you can find millions to give your mates for PPE that is of such poor quality it ends up needing to be burnt, then we can find the funds for those in need.
Moreover, people are often surprised at the huge amounts of public money that the government are wasting in their failed attempts to stop the boats. When you tell them that Clearsprings, who run Napier Barracks, signed a contract with the Home Office worth £1 billion over ten years, we end up agreeing that money would have been much better used building the housing that we so desperately need locally.
In the end, people here understand that they have more in common with a tailor who has arrived in a dinghy than they do with the people at the top who have left them high and dry. I don’t believe that things are dissimilar in other communities that have been or are at risk of being divided over immigration. There are lessons here for Labour at a national level: Have the conversations with people that you need to have; don’t shy away from them and offer a positive lead and hope for a better future. I’m certain it’s a winning combination.