Melanie Onn is one of the Prospective Parliamentary Candidates (PPCs) profiled in the new Young Fabians pamphlet 'Fifteen for 2015'. You can read the pamphlet here.
Grimsby is coming back. At its peak in the 1950s it was the biggest and busiest fishing port in the world. In the decades since it has experienced a slow decline as the forces of globalisation and economic change conspired to gut traditional industries. In April 2014, the town was named a youth unemployment blackspot by The Work Foundation with a jobless rate for 16-24 year olds of 25%.
Melanie Onn is determined to stem the decline and spark a renaissance in Grimsby that will put the town back on the map. “It’s important for Grimsby to have a voice to champion the town and the people. The town didn’t experience the huge benefits from the good economic times that the rest of the country felt, something true of many post-industrial towns, so there needs to be a renewed sense of hope, and Grimsby needs something concrete to build that hope on.
“We have a fledgling renewables industry that looks very exciting. Getting young people interested in that and making it attractive for them is really important. Too often young people go to university elsewhere and don’t come back because the perception is that you can’t get a good job here. Now we have the emergence of high skilled jobs, so linking young people to those is really important.”
This is a personal mission for Melanie. A Grimsby woman through and through, she grew up in council housing on the Nunsthorpe and Grange Estates and was educated at the local comprehensive and college. Unlike many of Grimsby’s young people, Melanie did come back after studying at the University of Middlesex and a stint working for the Labour party in London. Today she works with Unison in Yorkshire and Humberside helping to organise working people to campaign for better pay and stronger rights. Grimsby means a lot to her. So does the Labour party.
“Everything I’ve ever had has been the result of Labour policies. Whether that is housing, free education for as long as I wanted it, that has always been supported by initiatives Labour governments introduced. I didn’t understand this so much when I was younger, but for opportunities to be available to everyone they need to be accessible to everyone. I believe limiting that access is wrong.”
Growing up in the nineties politicised Melanie. It was a turbulent time for Britain and the world, a time which sharpened her political beliefs and gave her a hunger to get stuck in. “I was interested in politics from a young age, watching the Poll Tax riots in the 1990s, following the 1992 election. The early nineties were very unsettled internationally, and at home there was a lot on the news about high unemployment, which hit three million at one point and directly affected my family. That struck me as not being right.”
The urge to fight against this injustice has now landed her a frontline role in the struggle for a Labour government. Yet Grimsby is not the seat it once was. What used to be a Labour stronghold is now on the edge of the UKIP badlands. Incumbent Austin Mitchell barely held onto the seat in 2010 against the Conservative candidate Victoria Ayling- who is running this time under the UKIP banner. The Eurosceptic party is poised to replace the Conservatives in second place this time around, if not win the seat outright.
With UKIP as the main challenger, Melanie’s campaign has taken on a different flavour from those of her comrades in the south.
“We realised there was a significant issue with a rising UKIP three years ago when they started to pick off council seats, and last year at the European Elections they won eight seats in North East Lincolnshire. We tried to fight them in the early days with facts. If people’s concerns were immigration, we’d say that only 4% of the population is non-British born and that the vast majority of those were working here and paying taxes, but people didn’t care because the perception is that people are coming here to take advantage of what Britain has to offer and are being treated more fairly than those who are born here.”
So Melanie and the local party changed tack out of the realisation that UKIP’s messaging is more emotionally charged than intellectually grounded. “That sense of fairness is enormously important when trying to build a sense of community. In my campaign, I know reciting headline figures on the NHS is not going to cut it. There are so many people pissed off with politics and politicians, and I’ve had people say to my face that we’re all in it for ourselves and we’re all liars. So we’ve run a very personal campaign to re-establish trust.”
This is especially important in a constituency that has had the same MP for 40 years. Melanie lacks the name recognition of Mitchell and the incumbency bonus that comes with it, despite being from the same party. “The fact that I’m local does mean a lot to people here, they like that I’m just round the corner,” she says.
The local touch extends to her policy programme for Grimsby. “I’ve been strong on introducing the idea of an employment charter for Grimsby. Signatories would be committed to paying the living wage where possible, not using exploitative zero hours contracts, using local supply chains and amenities, and championing Grimsby outwardly to encourage other companies to come here and live work and play.”
Louie Woodall is a member of the Young Fabians Executive Committee