There is a protest in the centre of Wigan. Activists from Extinction Rebellion have occupied Market Place bearing placards, piercings, dreadlocks and rational arguments.
“How can we make sure that sufficient climate action is taken in a way that is just for Northern towns?” asks Bethan Nowell, a 31-year-old student who has been left disappointed by the recent Labour manifesto. High command has shelved a commitment to net-zero emissions by 2030.
It is an honest question that opens up an honest debate. Lisa Nandy, Wigan’s MP since 2010, relishes the thrust of Bethan’s inquiry.
“When I think back over the last nine years I’ve had more letters about protecting the environment than any other issue in Wigan,” says Nandy, cupping a white coffee. “There’s an assumption that in towns like this people aren’t interested in climate change and clean air and green spaces. Actually it’s been a very core part of the working-class tradition.”
Nandy advocates a different chronology — investing in public transport before ordering people out of their cars. In this scenario, 2030 as a target date is just not credible.
“Most people commute to either Bolton or Manchester for work. You can’t ask people to walk a round trip of 48 miles a day.”
At first, this wrangling seems tangential to the outcome of the election. But the speed at which Labour wants to transition to a green economy is an important question. It is a question that goes right to the heart of the party’s current travails. Surprisingly, it is also a question of identity — one that leads an inquisitive local to ask why Extinction Rebellion have come to protest in this particular part of the country.
“We haven’t come from anywhere — we’re from Wigan! We know all about pies and peas! ” choruses the response.
“We’ve got this schism in the Labour Party between the grassroots and the traditional heartlands like Wigan,” says Nowell, with an analytical nod.
It is self-evident, but worth repeating, that Lisa Nandy’s constituency is very different from those represented by Jeremy Corbyn, Emily Thornberry, Diane Abbott and Keir Starmer. Wigan will not go blue at this election, but neighbouring seats might. In a 64 per cent leave town, there are no prizes for guessing which issue has exposed the fault-lines between the party and its electorate.
“I think Lisa Nandy is a waste of time. She has always gone against what the people of Wigan voted,” says Pam Horridge, a retiree waiting for her friend outside a bakery. “I usually vote Labour but not this time.”
Horridge wants to leave the EU as soon as possible, but her criticism of Nandy could be considered a little unfair. Despite extreme pressure from her own party, Nandy voted Johnson’s deal through at second reading in the hope that committee stage might yield an amended Brexit. It is a nuanced position that can easily be drowned out. “The silent majority is often not heard — no offence — in the media,” says Nandy of her belief that a Brexit compromise is possible. Her preference is for a customs union and single market alignment.
“I’ve tried very hard to represent people who voted both leave and remain. The mandate was for compromise. Leaving and respecting the result of the referendum is the only right answer to represent both of those groups of people.”
Horridge, like some other shoppers in Wigan’s sloping arcades, will not be voting Labour. But she is in the minority. The Labour identity here runs deep — Wigan has been Labour for 101 years. In any case, from sweet-sellers to mechanics, many people in Wigan recognise Nandy’s courage and appreciate her heterodox stance.
“Our MP voted against her own party and with the government,” says one happy Labour supporter, ballot paper already posted.
Nevertheless, as Nandy is the first to admit, the slow bleed away from Labour is no fiction. On the doorsteps, Jeremy Corbyn is denounced as an IRA-sympathiser, an anti-Semite, a Remainer, or, worst of all, a politician. Does Nandy think his unpopularity is turning people away from the party?
“If I sound a bit frustrated forgive me,” begins Nandy. “I accept what you’re saying and we’re hearing it too. But I don’t think this is just as simple as saying Jeremy Corbyn is a problem therefore you change your leader and you go back to a time when 80 per cent of Wigan voted Labour. The idea that you change the faces and suddenly everything is fixed is a fantasy.”
Nandy’s template for reconnecting Labour with its core vote involves respecting the referendum and devolving more powers to local government.
“If you can’t make decisions close to home then of course people will feel completely alienated rather than empowered by politics. At the moment, people feel politicians come and do things to them, not with them.”
Politicians have certainly come and done things to Wigan over the past ten years. In 2010 the council received the third-worst budget cut of any local authority in the country. Drug addiction and homelessness are rife. Schools use their pupil premium to hire carers who visit children in their homes to ensure that food is in the cupboards and gas is in the meter.
“There is a sense that the social fabric is crumbling,” says Nandy, shivering with both cold and indignation as the day lengthens. “None of these issues feature in the national campaign. It’s a visible symbol of the disconnect between national politics and what’s actually happening to people in their daily lives.”
Even the briefest visit to Wigan will corroborate Nandy’s assessment. The first thing I saw after arriving on a mid-morning train was an ambulance. A man, intoxicated, had fallen onto the pavement and cracked his head open. Blood was matting in his hair. The man staggered away from three paramedics in a doomed attempt to avoid a hospital visit.
“It’s a bit early in the morning for this, lad,” said the ambulance driver, who watched the scene from the stretcher, “but this happens all the time.” His colleagues pursued the patient. “We’re constantly being called out to elderly people who have fallen on the floor, addicts who have passed out. It’s busy all the time.”
The paramedic looked weary. There seemed little point in bothering him with the election. You could almost feel the irrelevance of Westminster politics.
“There isn’t much more we can take of it,” says Nandy. “There isn’t much more they can strip out of this town.”