‘Everyone is fed up’: Reform sets sights on Labour stronghold Barnsley – but Farage still divides opinion

Patricia Francis loves her view over Barnsley, draped across the Pennine hills. It sparkles in the July sunshine the day after the general election. The 72-year-old has been here for decades and she can tell by people’s accents which village they are from.

“Barnsley people don’t like a lot of change,” she says, “but they know we’ve got to have it.”

Plenty has changed here since the mines shut in places like nearby Grimethorpe, best known for its ­colliery and the brass band immortalised in Brassed Off. The park beneath Francis’s home used to be a colliery slag heap. One thing that has not changed is Labour’s grip on Barnsley. Constituency boundaries have moved, but Dan Jarvis has been an MP here since 2011, and Stephanie Peacock since 2017, and many before them.

But Reform is on their heels – of the 103 constituencies where it came second, its best share was in Barnsley South, with 33.2% of the vote. Reform’s leader and ­majority shareholder, Nigel Farage, made Barnsley a key target during the election.

After celebrating his party’s victory in five seats, Farage said that he suspected Keir Starmer’s government “could be in trouble pretty quickly”, and that he will be targeting Labour.To make inroads, Reform would need to win in Barnsley. Can it?

Patricia Francis, who has lived in Barnsley for decades, says: ‘Barnsley people don’t like a lot of change but they know we’ve got to have it.’ Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

The town has had its share of problems. During the miners’ strike, the hairdressers were first to shut, says Francis. “Wives started to buy razors to cut their kids’ hair, so the barbers shut down.” People couldn’t afford birthday cards, or a fry-up, or new clothes.

Now the biggest employer locally is Asos, the fashion retailer. People who have moved away say Barnsley is still struggling to regain a sense of purpose, but there are attempts to find one. A major regeneration project in the town centre has yielded The Glass Works, a polished new ­public square flanked by a library, a 13-screen cinema and plenty of up-to-date shop fronts, and more people are visiting Barnsley since it opened in 2022.

Retired postal worker James Taylor voted Labour and does not like Nigel Farage. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Barnsley’s facelift only goes so far though. “There’s a lot of poverty, a lot of ­deprivation,” says James Taylor, on his way up Cheapside past the Friday ­market stalls. “In the mornings you see a lot of rough sleepers, people in shop doorways.”

The retired postal worker and cricket fan voted Labour and, like many Labour voters here, he doesn’t like Farage.

Many of those who do are atypically shy for Barnsley folk. “Oh, I’m not allowed to talk to you,” says one woman running a stall in Cheapside. She says she did vote Reform, but won’t say why. “We don’t have freedom of speech any more.” What does she mean? She shakes her head. “We’re in England, aren’t we?”

A young man stops for a few moments. “I voted Reform,” he says. He seems to be in his 20s, but doesn’t give his name. Labour and Conservatives “aren’t working”. Why Reform? “I like how they carry themselves,” he says. “I like Farage.” Why does he like them? “Immigration.” What are the problems with immigration? “It’s got too much,” he says, walking along. “Everything’s getting scruffy.”

Not every Reform voter here was motivated by immigration. George Vetters, who used to run a pool hall but now works in the town centre, is cynical about the two main parties, calling Labour “more conservative than the Conservatives”.

Reform voter George Vetters says Labour is ‘more conservative than the Conservatives’. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

He likes Farage because he seems to be a straight-talker. “He gives answers that are in the real world, whether or not you agree with him. And I don’t agree with any of the parties about immigration.”

In fact Vetters would like to bring his foreign partner to live in the UK, but she remains overseas because he doesn’t earn a £29,000 salary, the minimum income requirement for her to qualify for a spousal visa. But since neither the Conservatives nor Labour will help him, Reform makes just as much sense.

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Another pro-immigration Reform voter is Adam Metwally, an 18-year-old aiming to become a car mechanic. “I think they have a lot to offer,” he says. “The country and the state it’s in, the cost of living crisis. I thought apart from that one issue, Nigel had a lot of good points. My personal opinion is everyone should be treated equally – we just need to get the country back on track.”

Adam Metwally, 18, voted for Reform as he believes the party ‘has a lot to offer’. Photograph: Richard Saker/The Observer

Patricia Francis doesn’t say how she voted. “Everybody I’ve spoken to has said, ‘I’m fed up of Labour, I’m fed up of Conservative – I’m voting for Nigel Farage’.”

“Most of us are concerned about the amount of immigration – not the people who want to come and want to work and do work.”

Francis is friends with a Ukrainian family who arrived 10 years ago – she is fond of their daughter and admires the couple’s work ethic. But she believes there are other people arriving in the UK and not working, “not putting into the system but taking out”.

Anyone who arrives in the UK seeking asylum is not allowed to work, and in March 86,719 people were waiting for a decision. The Refugee Council says that those granted refugee status find it difficult to get jobs because most only have permission to stay in the UK for five years.

Tim Bale, professor of politics at Queen Mary University, is sceptical that Reform will get much further with Labour.

“Having looked at the post-election polling, it doesn’t strike me that those voting Labour have much in common with [Reform], with regard to the issues they think are important.”

About 60% of Reform voters have concerns about immigration, compared with just 2% of Labour voters, Bale said. “I’m not sure there’s much room to grab votes.”

The Guardian

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