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12 March 2015updated 24 Jul 2021 3:02pm

“Why sanction children?” – On the road in Wigan

We visit the town made famous by George Orwell for its deprivation in the 1930s and find parts of it standing tall – and others beaten down by the cuts.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Mentioning George Orwell’s name in Wigan is controversial. For many here, his 1937 study of working-class plight in the industrial north has turned their town into a byword for deprivation – and they don’t thank him for it. Frowns and awkward pauses are common reactions to the constituency’s unofficial biographer so celebrated beyond the precincts of this old mill town.

Even today, The Road to Wigan Pier is used to describe bleak conditions too many communities in England continue to endure. The Office of Budget Responsibility warned at the end of last year, following George Osborne’s Autumn Statement, that his plan for further cuts would take Britain back to the spending levels of Thirties depression time. The BBC’s Norman Smith angered the cabinet by in turn reporting that the country is on the way to the “land of The Road to Wigan Pier”.

And although the people of Wigan are dubious about how their home has been immortalised in Orwell’s book, the precarious employment conditions, poverty, and corresponding union presence I come across here are symptoms of a place that has still somewhat been left behind.

Pier review

Ironically, the town’s suffering is least evident in the area surrounding its pier. Weathered wharfs and warehouses perch along a now serene stretch of the Leeds and Liverpool Canal, once a scene bustling daily with horse-drawn barges and canal boat workers.

The towering redbrick Trencherfield Mill dominates the landscape, a reminder of the town’s former industrial might – and now home to luxury flats. It is reflected by other such factories in the distance, old cathedrals of commerce with their distinctive chimney towers peppering the horizon.

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Pop over a bridge opposite the double arches of the Terminus warehouse, which once stored grain, sugar, spices and dried fruit, and you find a cotton warehouse converted into a pub called The Orwell. From its black-and-white sign, the author’s face gazes out over the canal.

The pier now is a far cry from Orwell’s recollection. (Photo: Getty)

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“England’s bread hangs by Lancashire’s thread!”

During the Industrial Revolution, this area was the watery backbone of the northwest’s textile industry. Wigan would echo with the sound of Trencherfield’s steam whistle summoning cotton workers to the mill every day. Even following the Second World War, the motto “England’s bread hangs by Lancashire’s thread” appeared throughout the northwest.

The metamorphosis of Britain’s economy had a devastating effect on many of these former industrial powerhouses, and Wigan has suffered. Its mining heritage means there are many here with chronic health conditions (7 per cent of the constituency’s population are sick or disabled), and underemployment has led to uncertainty and a loss of identity among residents.

In what was traditionally a market town, the stall-owners have been displaced by a shopping centre, the Grand Arcade, which emerged glistening at some point during the New Labour era. They still run a market, but it is no longer the buzzing centre of the town’s commerce.

And the coalition’s policies following 2008’s financial crash haven’t helped matters. “The government created conditions for a town like this to fold in,” the local MP, Lisa Nandy, tells me. We are walking around Standishgate, the main artery running through Wigan town centre.

Nandy, elected MP for this ultra-safe Labour seat in 2010, is concerned that under such economic conditions, “the sharks move in”. And sure enough, squatting up and down the high street are a Money Shop, Cash Store, and a Cash Converters. Nandy points out that these places and the McDonald’s are positioned – like highwaymen of the high street – on the walk from the benefits office to the pharmacy, a well-worn path for recovering heroin addicts.

Over in Marsh Green, west of the town centre and one of Wigan’s most deprived parts, a foodbank has been opened by the local vicar. It is a satellite of the main foodbank run in the town centre by a homeless charity called The Brick.

Without being able to afford the bus fare into town, vulnerable Marsh Green residents were walking miles to and from the central foodbank with heavy bags of mainly tinned food for their families, so the church is now providing an outpost for easier access. As well as stacks of canned soup and beans, the church provides pastoral support for those who come in.

One desperate young mother, who looks pale and close to tears, comes rushing in for some food. She has three children and has recently had her benefits sanctioned. I am unable to speak to her, as she is taken into a back room where she has a chat with the vicar and the headmistress of the local primary school who also helps out here.

“People have pride,” the latter tells me. “It takes a lot to screw up your courage and admit you need help.”

She finds “more and more children are hungry” in her school, and “come from a house where there is no food and no heating”. She recently went round to the house of a family whose children had suddenly stopped attending nursery and discovered that the parents had been sanctioned by the Job Centre and there was consequently no heating in their home.

“Sanctioning families with young children – that’s child abuse,” says the vicar, shaking her head. “Why sanction them?” She tells me about the variety of people who come to the church for food:

“We get a lot of families, a number of people have some form of mental illness, and people who have been hit by the Bedroom Tax. One lady came in who had brought her family up, and now they’ve moved out and she has to pay the Bedroom Tax, she can’t afford food.”

It appears this pocket of historic Lancashire is no longer seeing the bread its thread once provided.

Ken Loach has gone from acclaimed filmmaker to one of the architects of Left Unity, a party with an increasing presence in Wigan (Photo: Getty)

Unions and unity

Underemployment is also prevalent. Nandy talks about the “insecurity” felt by many workers here, as “those days are gone” when Wigan’s strong industries – “railways, construction, mines, and before that, textiles” – guaranteed a secure job for life.

We sit down for fish and chips (apparently the best in Wigan) at a place called Mr Chips run by an ex-miner who started it up on his redundancy money. We are joined in the bright, sticky comfort of the small lunchroom by members of the CWU (the postal workers union), who give me their perspective on Wigan’s unstable working conditions.

Their workplace, the sorting office, is just around the corner and is a big employer here. They worry about the future of the Royal Mail, which the government recently privatised, particularly in light of Amazon having its own courier service; the ensuing drop in parcel deliveries is losing the sorting office work and money.

Gary, a local union rep wearing his pale blue shirt bearing the Royal Mail insignia, explains, “It’s not secure anymore. It’s gone from being a public service to being a business drive, more and more drive towards profit. This has had a big local impact, a lot of lads who work in the sorting office live locally.”

He adds, “They don’t recruit full-time anymore, it’s all part-time, and we’re losing staff . . . it’s a race to the bottom.”

Ian, a regional union officer, tells me that working at the sorting office has long been seen as “I wish I had that job” because of its stability and good pay, but now “newer staff are absolutely terrified” because of more precarious employment conditions.

Trade unions play an important part in Wigan life to this day, partly due to the town’s industrial heritage, but also as a symptom of the modern-day difficulties workers face.

“There is a history of solidarity here,” Nandy observes. “They don’t like people getting shafted, whoever they are. There is a strong union presence here, and Labour is a culture and way of life. Labour hasn’t changed very much here in the last thirty years in terms of wanting security of work and a decent home. That’s the reason why I talk about the need to protect trade unions.

“Community is really strong,” she continues. “But real community, not when everyone gets along and skips around eating apple pie, but when they fall out and argue and pull together and look out for each other.”

Union power has given rise to an alternative left-wing movement in Wigan. Left Unity, a new national party with traditional socialist values created in 2013, has a strong base here; it ran seven candidates in Wigan during last year’s local elections and received 8.8 per cent of the vote in one ward, beating the Tories. The party’s Wigan branch was apparently bolstered by the active Bakers’ Union, striking against zero-hours agency staff at the Hovis bakery.

Nandy knows many of Wigan’s Left Unity figures, and has even been on the picket line alongside them during local industrial disputes. But while she finds it “frustrating that we’re working against each other”, she says, “in some ways you need that sense of democracy, sense of challenge, in a place that has voted Labour for 100 years now”.

Ken Loach, the veteran socialist film director, is one of the founders of Left Unity, having called for a left-wing alternative party to Labour a couple of years ago. “The Labour party’s consistently moved to the right,” he tells me. “It’s now unashamedly a neoliberal party, pursuing the same austerity programme, just slightly reordering the crumbs on the table.”

Loach praises this region’s union activity, saying, “I think the northwest is a good, militant area”, but does not appear optimistic about Britain taking action against the government and big business:

“Agitation in other countries has been much greater,” he says, referring to the insurgent left in Greece and Spain. “And I think it’s partly to do with the trade union leadership not leading our struggle. And it’s to do with the Labour party telling everybody to go home – every time anybody shows any fight, there’s Miliband saying don’t do it.

“We need to organise better . . . the students fought hard but weren’t supported by the unions in the way they should’ve been. Public servants fight hard, but again there’ll be words of support among the unions but they don’t actually take action. And it’s only taking action that the politicians will take notice of. They can stand any amount of marches and demonstrations.”

Loach’s concern is that the prospect of further cuts – as proposed by both the Tories and Labour – will take the country back to the bleakness of the Thirties, but also back to the distinct lack of active socialism observed by Orwell in The Road to Wigan Pier. “The danger today is a kind of quietism, back to the Thirties passivity, which is actually very quiet,” Loach warns.

Much has changed in Wigan, but the town is still largely white. (David Hodgson/Flickr)

Wigan fear

One aspect of Wigan society that hasn’t changed greatly is its whiteness. Its white British population is 95 per cent, and Nandy describes it as “very homogeneous”. She says the reason “immigration fear is high” here is due to insecure economic conditions – in spite of the almost non-existent migrant population.

In the recent past, around 2004, a BNP and EDL contingent would stir up trouble in the town – one local I speak to labels it “the onslaught of the BNP” – but this has now collapsed and translated into support for Ukip, which came second in a significant number of council wards during the last local elections.

“We’ve got a Ukip issue,” a volunteer at a charitable organisation for asylum seekers in Wigan town centre tells me. “It’s quite fertile ground for the fears people prey on.”

She volunteers at SWAP: the Support for Wigan Arrivals Project. I meet her, and its two founding staff members – all, noticeably, white British women and veteran locals – at the charity’s humble headquarters just off the high street. There are piles of donated food for the asylum seekers ­(“we get so many pickles and Christmas puddings – Wiganers give what Wiganers give!”) and a room dedicated to counselling those dealing with psychological issues from being tortured.

“It’s a weird enclave of white people here,” one of SWAP’s team tells me. “Historically because this was a coalmining place, there was mainly white migration here. And you do stand out here if you’re from an ethnic minority.”

Yet one of its two founders is more positive, saying: “Asylum seekers like to stay once they arrive; they feel welcome. They don’t often come in here and say they’ve experienced racism.”

And although the town’s reputation has suffered under pressure from the far-right movement – and a more recent scandal involving the racist remarks of Dave Whelan, chair of Wigan football club – its natural solidarity has consistently countered such divisive politics.

Having a pint at The Anvil – a cosy enclave described as “more of a working men’s pub than club” – at the end of my trip, I meet a middle-aged man who used to be active in the Wigan United Against Racism movement. He recalls, “when the asylum seekers arrived, the BNP arrived, and that was a shock to the local system. This was about ten years ago. Our main aim was not having BNP councillors.” (They succeeded).

“We’re not all like Dave Whelan,” he sighs. “It comes up all the time, and has brought shame and dishonour on the town . . . Wigan seems to be ripe for Fifties nostalgia, when actually it wasn’t that good back then. There are people out there trying to split people up. Solidarity sounds a bit sentimental, but we don’t want people to split us up.”

Another man who joins us for a drink, whose father was a miner, tells us how tough the past three decades have been for the town: “I lived through the strike, I was born in a miner’s house, and the whole community withered up and died. Watching my dad in tears in the eighth month of the strike,” he pauses. “We had nothing.”

He observes a “bizarre parallel” 30 years on, with “people today being subjected to this horrendous onslaught of welfare reform. At least with benefit cuts to mining families we knew the strike would end . . .

“But I’ve never seen anywhere that’s got so much community spirit as Wigan – when people are on their uppers they come together. It’s not about being left or right, it’s about being a decent human being.”

And, in spite of this town having been overlooked by successive governments, there is the overriding sense here that the majority of Wiganers subscribe to that view.

This article originally appeared on May2015.

Response from Wigan Council:

The Wigan Borough has been at the very heart of the £8bn devolution deal because of our innovative approaches to supporting thousands of people get better care or the Wigan that has invested in 9,000 apprentices. Yes, Wigan, like most northern towns, has suffered the impact of industrial decline and the economic downturn but, like our people, our town has shown its resilience. We have our share of pay day lenders, most long-standing and not a product of the coalition although food banks are a more recent development. But we are fighting back.  

Wigan Council is coping better than most with the impact of cuts in part by a radical approach to rethinking service delivery and, through the Wigan Deal, is working with local communities to cope with the future. We have managed in this period to pay the living wage to all our employees, end zero hour contracts and take on 100 apprentices of our own. We have also secured £135m of investment in employment sites and infrastructure – a clear sign that the private sector has great confidence in Wigan as a place to business. And despite the burden of the cuts, public satisfaction with Wigan Council has increased by over 50 per cent.

Peter Smith, Wigan Council leader