The bus station, the McDonald’s, the benches in front of the council offices – these are the places where the spice addicts congregate in Wrexham. When I arrive, at 11 o’clock on a Tuesday morning, a man is keeled over in the driving sleet.
“Drug addiction and homelessness has got worse,” says Mary Wimbury, the Labour PPC for Wrexham. “It is a by-product of austerity and it puts people off coming into the town centre. We have had significant police cuts across North Wales.”
It was only ten days ago that Wimbury found out that she would be standing in the upcoming general election. The previous Labour MP Ian Lucas announced he was stepping down last month. Lucas bequeaths Wimbury a slender majority of 1,800 and a sizeable task. Wrexham has never gone Tory, but it voted by 59 per cent to leave the EU.
Wrexham forms part of the “red wall” on which Johnson’s snap election will live or die. If the Conservatives are to form a majority government, they will have to pick up votes in unexpected places like Caia Park – an undulating Wrexham estate of semi-detached houses that consistently ranks among the most deprived areas in Wales. Broken prams litter the back gardens. Even the Chinese takeaway has closed.
“I will never vote Conservative ever,” says John Bostock, a retired factory worker who voted to leave. “I’d vote Plaid Cymru first.”
Bostock considers the petty vandalism in the area to be more important than Brexit. But his main concern is the state of the NHS.
“I twisted my knee five weeks ago and ended up waiting in A&E for eight hours,” he says. “The hospital put a message out on Facebook saying they were inundated.”
Bostock’s experience confirms the recent judgement of Healthcare Inspectorate Wales. In August officials turned up at Maelor Hospital to find patients “waiting on trolleys for hours”. Wimbury, who is the CEO of a social care charity, believes part of the problem in North Wales is the approach of central government (Sarah Atherton, the Conservative candidate for Wrexham, refused to be interviewed for this piece).
“The boundary between social care and healthcare is too rigid at the moment,” says Wimbury. “We need to integrate things. That means taking services out of acute hospitals and providing them in the community.”
There are pockets of good news in Wrexham. The centre of town has a thriving Hwb Menter (Enterprise Hub) that opened last year to provide advice on financial, legal and technological matters to locals who want to start their own businesses. One recent success has been Toddle – a company that makes natural skincare for children. BioPaxium is another that produces eco-packaging for ready meals.
“Everyone in here is starting up their own business,” says Lizzie Stone, the young and jovial receptionist. “We’re funded by the Welsh government.”
“Oh no, we’re 70:30,” chips in a colleague. “We are 70 per cent funded by the EU.”
Outside the Enterprise Hub, a blue plaque betrays the presence of Brussels. North Wales has received investment from Europe. And yet, undeniably, there is anger that Brexit still has not been enacted. A small but not insignificant number of lifelong Labour supporters seem poised to vote Conservative – those on the Caia Park estate included. And a larger and perhaps more significant number seem to have given up on politics altogether, most frequently citing Brexit fatigue and Jeremy Corbyn.
Take Andy Williams. He lives in Llay, a traditional mining village about four miles from Wrexham. He is the Unite representative for a frozen food company. But up until 1986, Williams worked at the Bersham Colliery.
“When the pits shut we didn’t have jobs for a long time,” he says, allowing his pointer to push past him and gallop out into the pebble-dashed street.
About five years ago, Williams stopped voting in general elections, and he does not seem to care anymore if the Conservatives get in.
“At one time I would have said that a Tory would never take Wrexham. Not in a million years. But now… who knows?”
The last time Williams voted was in the EU referendum. “I voted to leave the EU because of the country’s policy on immigration.”
Of the 140 people working in the factory with Williams, he claims that nearly 100 are foreign nationals – mostly Bulgarian and Polish, but also Serbian and Bangladeshi.
“The Leave vote represented frustration with declining town centres, jobs going overseas, a perception that the jobs here are being undercut,” says Wimbury. “A lot of that comes down to the Tory government not imposing minimum wage legislation.”
That may be the case. But it has not been communicated to voters. The Tories can win in Wrexham. Not because the town is awash with free marketeers. But because people like Williams and Bostock have given up voting Labour.