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Lisa Nandy: “I disliked the cults around Blair and Corbyn: one man doesn’t change things”

On the road in Wigan, the shadow minister talks levelling up, the Tory leadership – and how Labour can define a new political era

By Kate Mossman

On a Thursday afternoon in June, Lisa Nandy headed to Knowsley Safari Park, half an hour’s drive from Wigan. She had been advised not to drive through the monkey enclosure in her silver Mini but she thought, you can’t go to a safari park and not go through the monkey enclosure. They had chewed through the little nozzles that squirt water at the windscreen; when she arrived at the Premier Inn in Wigan the next morning to pick me up, she was fresh from the garage, via a breakfast meeting with striking workers from Royal Mail.

As we drove down Wallgate towards Wigan Athletic Football Club, the shadow secretary of state for levelling up, housing and communities admitted that she was writing a book. “I thought it was a great idea,” she said. “I had an image of myself in an oak-panelled room on a green leather chair. Turns out it was the worst idea I’d had since running for Labour leader.” In June 2016 Nandy was part of the mass walkout of the soft left from Jeremy Corbyn’s shadow cabinet before contesting the leadership in 2020, coming third after Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long Bailey.

She started writing the book during her time as shadow foreign secretary, whittling away at chapters on her phone at Crewe Station, while commuting between her constituency in Wigan and London. She began with Britain’s role after Brexit – Wigan voted Leave – but changed tack when she realised “that all depends on what kind of country we want to be”.

Nandy is now addressing issues she has been talking about for years as a co-founder of the think tank Centre For Towns, set up following the EU referendum to analyse levels of prosperity in towns across the UK. Yet she remains a mystery to many within her own party: a former rebel, immaculately on-message when the cameras roll; an intellectual so rooted in her community that she spends as little time in Westminster as possible.

“I had time on the back benches to think,” Nandy said. She has an above-average ability to negotiate ring roads and sustain detailed conversation at the same time. “Founding Centre for Towns had a lot to do with being fed up with hearing that people in towns were thick and racist. I knew there was a reason that my constituents in Wigan came to a different conclusion about the EU from those in David Lammy’s in Tottenham. Towns haven’t been winners for the last 20 years and we have to sort it out – this is what became ‘levelling up’.” She wrote to focus her thoughts. “I wanted to get out of reacting constantly to Westminster gossip and who’s up, who’s down. I wanted to think bigger, deeper and harder about the solutions.”

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[See also: Angela Rayner: “The Tories fear me because I say it how I see it”]

Is the book about Wigan? “No, it’s about the world!” she laughed. “It’s about how to fix the world!” There is a Refreshers chew bar in the car’s coin compartment.

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“About the world” it may be, but Nandy’s book starts with the story of Wigan Athletic FC, which two years ago was sold to a Hong Kong-based consortium for £41m, but then – to everyone’s great confusion – was put into administration a month later. For a while, said Nandy, it looked as if she and Jonathan Jackson, the club’s former chief executive, were going to have to run it themselves. Might she have been Wigan’s Delia Smith? “I have never pretended to have the first clue what is happening on the pitch,” she said. “People forgive a lot in politics, but not complete inauthenticity.”

Meanwhile, buyers for the club were circling. “Some absolute wrong ’uns, and a lot of Tory donors on the phone, telling me they would do right by it.” At the last moment it was bought by Abdulrahman Al-Jasmi, a Bahrain-based businessman “who has no interest in football, but whose son-in-law fancied running a club”. Talal Al Hammad is often seen at games with a Wigan hat on, though he, too, lives in Bahrain. “Al-Jasmi is treating it as a long-term investment that belongs to the people of Wigan,” Nandy said as she pulled into a car park. “A lot of people say global is bad, foreign is bad. But it was the opposite for us.”

We walked through the smell of fresh paint to the offices of Wigan Athletic Community Trust, an outreach programme run under the direction of Tom Flower.

“Find us OK?” asked Tom, middle-aged, homely.

“I’ve been here before, Tom. I live in Wigan! You’re supposed to be helping with my PR – you’ve f***ed up with that one!”

In the presence of Flower, Nandy morphed into someone comically merciless, a precocious teenage daughter ribbing her dad. She pulled him up on a new sign.

“It needs to be lower,” she said. “It’s not in the eyeline. It looks like a bin exit.”

The trust is financially independent, Flower told me, employing 60 staff across 13 programmes that range from four-year-olds with school-readiness issues to a football team for the children of Afghan refugees.

“You haven’t mentioned girls yet,” Nandy cut in. “And,” said Flower, taking a deep breath, “50 per cent of our workforce is ­female; 46 per cent of participants are female, 50 per cent of our management team are female.”

“Not on the board, though,” said Nandy.

“A third of our trustees are female…”

“You know half the population is female?”

“Why don’t you just call my mother and tell her how much I’m failing?” said Flower, beaten down.

The NS Summer Special, out 29 July. Illustration by Cold War Steve

Nandy’s involvement with the club has deepened her appreciation of what football is, she told me: a direct line to a town’s industrial past and a multiplicity of social issues. In the club’s toilets there were posters advertising a support group for survivors of sexual assault, and another for women affected by other people’s alcoholism. “Men were the breadwinners in Wigan,” Nandy said. “Every MP and every councillor was a man. We had one of the highest domestic violence rates in the country – it is a ­generational problem, and it’s changing.”

Outside in a vast hangar, amid a heavy fug of AstroTurf and plimsolls, 30 local primary schools were playing a football tournament. Wigan Athletic’s mascot is Crusty the Pie; unfortunately they couldn’t reject the idea because it was chosen by the children. “They’re not going to have me run around kicking a football in heels, are they?” said Nandy on the way to the pitch. “They had me kicking a ball at eight months pregnant.” Like the Duchess of Cambridge? “No, like an old MP in a suit,” she said. “And the problem is, I’m competitive.”

Nandy has dimples; she is generally laughing. In front of a camera, she loses her natural ease. Appearances matter, she said – but by that she seemed to mean looking smart. “You have to be well turned-out as an MP. Corbyn didn’t go down well round here – they said he couldn’t even cut his hedge. Do you remember that picture of him in front of his hedge?

“I go quite shy when my picture is taken,” she admitted. “When I started out, someone told me, you’ve got a really fun personality and it’s not coming through in your clothes. But I thought people wouldn’t listen. There’s a whole generation of women I’ve come up alongside, Stella Creasy and Jess Phillips, who have made it OK for you to express more of your personality through your clothes.”

After a nose around the football tournament, I returned to Flower’s office to find that Nandy had called his mother. They have never met, but she follows Nandy’s career. “She remembers Harold Macmillan and Tony Blair and she thinks I’m the one to do it,” Nandy said – meaning lead Labour to victory. It is hard to say how much Nandy is teasing when she slips into this mode of mock pride; there is something almost nostalgically laddish about it. She hasn’t ruled out another crack at leadership, but won’t be drawn into saying so.

A Tannoy sounded. “Would Lisa Nandy please leave the building,” Flower told her. “Go and give someone else a hard time.”

Six days later Nandy sat at the back of a bus in Berlin with Anneliese Dodds, the chair of the Labour Party, and John Ashworth, the shadow work and pensions secretary, and watched the collapse of the Tory government on someone’s iPhone. She and her colleagues were there to learn about successful examples of national reconstruction and how these might be applied to “levelling up” in the UK. Now, the policy’s chief architect Michael Gove had been summarily fired and the Johnson government’s flagship plan cut free like a balloon.

“Here I am, with responsibility for everything and no one to shadow,” Nandy told me when we spoke days after Boris Johnson’s fall. “Wandering around, Armageddon-style, surveying the wreckage that the Tories have left, rebuilding brick by brick, alone.”

“Levelling up was killed off a long time ago,” she added; it was only ever an attempt to keep Red Wall voters within the Conservatives’ electoral coalition. “There was never an enthusiasm for it within the Conservative Party as a whole. It was an agenda that was driven by Johnson and, to some extent, Gove, because they knew it was the key to holding that coalition, and nothing deeper. When the levelling up white paper came out [in February], it looked as if Gove might win the battle with the Treasury. But No 10 came down comprehensively on the Treasury’s side and that was the end.” Rishi Sunak did not want to stump up the cash.

In interviews during the pandemic, while Grant Shapps’ Zoom background featured a Union flag and a red ministerial box, Nandy appeared in a white attic with, if memory serves, a single light bulb: the room gave nothing away. When we spoke in early July, I spotted an LS Lowry print in the background, but little else. She wore a stripy vest and shorts in the 30°C heat, and held a wind-up fan in the shape of a dog, given to her by her young son.

Was she afraid levelling up would now be entirely abandoned by the Conservatives? “I’m not remotely worried about the agenda disappearing,” she said. “If anything, the problem has become more acute. It’s widely accepted now that the only way to solve the problems we have is through creating growth in the economy. You can’t do that by writing off most people in most places.”

[See also: Fran Lebowitz: “A dumb woman is the preferred woman in the USA”]

Nandy pointed out that Theresa May had addressed this before Johnson did – starting with her first speech at the Conservative Party Conference as prime minister, in which she drew a comparison between those rooted in their communities and the globalised elite. “There was that awful line about people who were ‘citizens of nowhere’. May could see that this was the Conservative Party’s new electoral coalition, if they could build it. I found it profoundly depressing that a Conservative prime minister had got there first. But I also found it exciting, because it looked as if there could be a consensus that we couldn’t go on like this. The question now is: what replaces levelling up and who does it? And it’s clear: it’s going to be Labour.”

Johnson, she said, had “trashed politics”. As for his successors, Nandy thought neither Liz Truss nor Sunak constituted bad news for the Labour Party. “Truss will drop the more bonkers tax cuts to the rich and focus relentlessly on trying to win the general election. She will reinvent herself again – which she is very good at – and I don’t think she is interested in levelling up. The issue is whether she can convince the public that she’s likeable, human and trustworthy.”

Come September the shadow secretary of state for communities and local government of the United Kingdom might need a new title. What should it be? “I’ll endorse any Tory leadership candidate who gives me a shadow job title that fits on the ticker.”

The day before we met in Wigan, the Daily Mail had published a grim photo story, a sort of exercise in town-shaming, suggesting the place was dying on its feet. There were shots of deserted shopping centres, and an interview with a woman who said you could no longer buy a bra on the high street. The people we met were reeling. Howard Gallimore, a former miner who, in the Eighties, used his redundancy pay to set up a fish and chip shop, now owns one of the last restaurants in town. He elbowed Nandy in pantomime horror. “I threw the paper out!” he rasped. “Yes, it is a ghost town for a second. But we have to be positive!”

No one denied that Wigan was in trouble. “We had a cost-of-living crisis before it was fashionable,” said Nandy. Over fish and chips, Gary Ingram, the union representative from the sorting office, admitted: “The centre wasn’t great – there were no supermarkets…” A state-owned Chinese construction firm has moved in to redevelop the Galleries Shopping Centre, one of two malls that were opened in 1991 but now lie empty. This, for Nandy, is the good kind of globalisation,  because the money is staying in Wigan. She has campaigned to open Britain’s land registry to public view.

Many of Greater Manchester’s historic buildings are owned by offshore investors, who, Nandy said, allow them to decay in the knowledge that eventually the council will buy them back at a premium. In July Nandy proposed a “right to buy” policy, giving locals first refusal when assets of community value come up for sale.

Outside the fish and chip shop, Nandy was approached by TalkTV, which had come to Wigan to respond to the Mail’s hatchet job. “I think they stitched you up,” a slightly sweaty presenter told her. “I’m from South Shields – you should see the high street there. Or Corby, where my missus is from.”

Nandy agreed to film with them, but returned looking disarranged: the crew wanted her to stand in front of the one boarded-up shop they could find. She refused until they re-angled the camera.

Wiganers are now poised between fighting off a national press intent on painting them as in crisis, and acknowledging that the crisis is true. “They call it levelling up – we are levelling ourselves up, thanks,” said Nandy’s friend from the Royal Mail. “We just don’t need a government that pulls the rug out from under us.” He predicted that the Red Wall will turn again: James Grundy, who in 2019 became the first Conservative MP to win the seat of nearby Leigh, was a “loan” vote. In June Grundy blocked the Golborne Spur – a 13-mile section of the HS2 network that would link Wigan to the West Coast mainline – because, his critics said, it went through his father’s village. “They won’t be voting Tory again.”

When we spoke a few days after Johnson’s fall, Nandy said that levelling up should be an effort on the scale of Labour’s rebuilding of Britain after the Second World War. “It’s a moment like the post-1945 moment, where there was a recognition that rights and opportunities hadn’t kept pace with the expectations of the population. National reconstruction, national renewal, whatever you want to call it. New Labour would probably have called it ‘A Fresh Start for Britain’.”

Nandy’s mission, she said, was not to bring Westminster to the north but “to make the national work like the local”. She introduced me to the redoubtable Phyllis Cullen, a councillor who had observed a local pub being developed into flats (literally: she watched with binoculars as the kitchen units were ferried in) and presented Nandy with an obscure piece of Cameroonian legislation to prevent the sale. As for the joyriders on Cullen’s estate? “Bootcamp.” She looks at Nandy with dark eyes. “Why can’t we have bootcamp?”

“I can’t give her bootcamp,” Nandy said, back in the Mini. “But people like Phyl could run this town if they had the chance.”

Leading Labour: Lisa Nandy with Keir Starmer and Rebecca Long Bailey in 2020. Photo by Robert Perry/Getty Images

Lisa Nandy became MP for Wigan, a safe Labour seat, in 2010, winning on an all-female shortlist. She stood against the Conservative MP Michael Winstanley: they got on well, though they “shared no politics”. Votes are often counted late into the night. At 4am on 7 May 2010, only Winstanley and Nandy were left, with her partner Andy Collis, a public relations consultant, and her mother in the audience. They gave speeches to an empty hall, congratulating each other. She was given an envelope with “MP” written on it; the letter inside advised her to turn up to Westminster the following week with a gas bill as proof of address.

Nandy talks in comic vignettes. When she began at Westminster, she had training with Chuka Umunna and other new recruits on “how not to embarrass the Labour Party”. She and Umunna, then a member of the Treasury Select Committee, shared an office. “Chuka came in and clapped his hands together one day saying, ‘I’ve cracked Nigeria!’ I was still looking for the plug socket.”

Does she get more done when she’s working in Wigan? “No. The combination of spending enough time in Wigan, then taking those issues to Westminster, is the right one. The fact that Westminster doesn’t work doesn’t mean it doesn’t matter.

“But politicians live quite odd lives,” she added. “You spend most of the time in a 16th-century palace away from your friends and family, and that’s how you get groupthink. There is a lot that is like being a student. The number of MPs who will tell you they’re rooting through their washing basket to find something to wear, because they’re in at midnight and have to be out again at seven. I had a friend text me saying she’s been wearing the same knickers for two days.”

Nandy, who was born in Bury and raised in Manchester, stays with a university friend when she’s in London. “If I can get away with it, I go down first thing on a Tuesday and come back on a Wednesday. I get incredibly grumpy if I have to do weekends in London.” In the era of late-night Brexit votes, she often said yes to the Peston show because then she’d get a car all the way home.

A source inside Labour joked that such short stints in Westminster are often viewed as lazy. “What people say about Lisa is they’re not sure what she actually wants to do,” he added. “She is very brilliant but a bit of a loner. Very talented and driven by ideas, but is she going to play ball with Keir? She needs to demonstrate that she has relationships around the shadow cabinet table. Would I want to do karaoke with her? Absolutely. What would she be like if she was your boss? There is a question mark over her.”

He thought she might not win a second run at the leadership. “Could she win in a members’ ballot? On day one, she would be favourite. But the will to win among party members is so great they might vote for someone who turned the page on the past.”

The former Labour minister Margaret Hodge told me Nandy was “one of the great assets of the shadow front bench. With Yvette Cooper, Wes Streeting and Rachel Reeves, we finally have real depth and capability”. She praised Nandy’s “sensitive political judgement. When she was doing the foreign office job, she navigated the very difficult issue of Israel-Palestine. She managed, in a fringe meeting at Conference for the Labour Friends of Israel, to get tumultuous applause when she talked about the rights of Palestinians. That’s quite a feat.”

Nandy never intended to become a politician. She wanted to study English literature at university, but her sister – a superior academic, she said – got a place to study English at Oxford. “And I thought, that is not a comparison I’m going to win.” Instead, she studied politics at Newcastle. Her years at university were, bar none, the best of her life, she said.

Unlike many students, she never had a Marxist phase – possibly because her father was one. Dipak Nandy moved from Calcutta to England in 1956, becoming a lecturer at Leicester University and later helping to draft the 1976 Race Relations Act. “I didn’t really know anyone who was a Marxist apart from my dad,” Nandy said. “It was only when I went to India, aged 17, that I realised that, although there are a lot of different strands of political thought in Britain, only a handful are seen as legitimate. They elect Communists in many parts of India. When you see Communists getting it in the neck about refuse collection, in the same way that Manchester City Council is, it’s quite eye-opening.”

Nandy’s father was, she said, “primarily an academic”. “He became an activist only because he had no choice. If he wanted to go and have a drink with his wife in the pub, it took a sit-in to achieve it.” Her childhood was animated by examples of his direct action – such as the time he was chased through the house and garden by police during the 1981 Moss Side riots. He had happened on some officers sitting in the back of a van reading porn and thought it was a photo opportunity “too good to miss”. A perfectionist, he spent too long trying to get the filters right on his lens, and they heard him. Her father liked to photograph the police arresting young people, Nandy said. “It was very clear to most community leaders in Manchester that we had an openly racist police force and a government that was backing them.”

Nandy’s parents divorced when she was seven. In 1989 her father was one of several figures who supported Salman Rushdie against the fatwa issued by the Ayatollah Khomeini. His house was firebombed, and he, too, was issued with a fatwa. “We didn’t see him for several months because it wasn’t safe, and that’s a big deal when you’re nine.”

She was resistant to talking about the influence of her father on her political career. Though she credits him with developing her sense of injustice, she insisted her mother had played a bigger part. The daughter of the Liberal MP Frank Byers, who later became a life peer, Luise Byers was a social worker who retrained and ended up in the current affairs department of Granada Television, working on shows such as World In Action.

“Manchester in the 1980s – politics was everywhere,” Nandy said. “It was in the classroom, it was in my home, because they were attacking single mums. It was on the streets, because there were riots and people being put out of work. My mum was very good at explaining why it mattered that you would stand up and be counted. I’ve always been a socialist – in the sense that I do believe that when you put power into the hands of most people, you get better outcomes.”

Does Nandy avoid media-friendly identity politics? With the Conservative leadership race now a two-way contest between a woman and a person of colour, her background could be a political asset for an opposition party that has only ever been led by a white man. She doesn’t see it that way.

“The reason I don’t talk that much about being a woman in politics, or being a mum, or about my dad, is really simple: I didn’t come into politics to talk about myself. My mum’s from Surrey, my dad’s from Calcutta – he still calls it Calcutta – so I don’t know where I fit in terms of the race spectrum, and the privilege debate. I’m Manchester by birth, I’m a Wiganer by choice – so being northern is an important part of my identity.

“But my mum’s from the south, my dad is Indian. I feel English, I feel British: the labels don’t help me. Most people have overlapping forms of identity and see this in a different way than the zero-sum game it’s often presented as. It’s not that I don’t think identity matters. But the debate has become very unhelpful, and a dead end in many ways.”

I asked Nandy how she felt about the rehabilitation of New Labour; Angela Rayner and Keir Starmer are both unembarrassed to praise Tony Blair. “I’ve always hated cults,” she said, “so I disliked the cult around Blair just as much as I disliked the cult around Corbyn. I think it’s unhelpful for us as a party. One man doesn’t change things: movements do. So I feel very uncomfortable with the resurrection of the cults. I also think that those debates are very little to do with Blair the person and Corbyn the person – they’re much more about the Seventies fighting the Nineties, to see which vision of the past will win the day.”

She argued there was no time to waste prosecuting old arguments. “I think these moments only come around every 30, 40 years, where people feel that the old system has crumbled, it’s gone, and they’re looking for something to put in its place. I think it was Harold Wilson who said that the Labour Party is like a bird – it needs its left and its right wing to fly.” In fact it was the Labour MP Ian Mikardo, though Wilson liked to quote him.

Nandy told me there is a solidarity among working people that did not exist in the Eighties and Nineties. “This is the ‘dignity and respect’ agenda that took the SPD to power in Germany. It’s the sentiment that Anthony Albanese was expressing during his successful campaign in Australia, and it’s what the Biden team put at the heart of their pitch to rust-belt America: there is a ceiling on the amount of division that people can tolerate, and we’re not going to pit people against one another in a race to the bottom.”

When we spoke on Zoom I asked her whether she would run for the leadership again. She flipped her iPad round and showed me a crawl space under her desk – which is leather-topped and once belonged to her grandfather, the life peer. “There is definitely a bit of me that, when I’m asked if I want to run again, really wants to climb into this little hole – and I could get into it, if I thought about it seriously,” she said, meaning the hole and not the question. When pressed, she said that she saw her 2020 bid as a valuable corrective to the pro-Corbyn consensus. “It was a long shot. I’d stood in opposition to the party line on both anti-Semitism – which is why I left the shadow cabinet – and on Brexit. So I could see it was an unlikely prospect.”

Jon Cruddas had urged Nandy to run, saying that if she didn’t, the party would simply “congratulate” itself on Brexit (“Ten out of ten!”) and Corbyn (“Ten out of ten!”). “And we’d lose large swathes of the country forever. So I said to the team, ‘We either show people that we’re still their party and we turn this ship away from the rocks – and we lose. Or we do all of that and we win. I want to do the latter, but if we do the former, I’ll take that as a win.’

“We started off on a stage in Liverpool with lots of people saying, ‘Ten out of ten, haven’t we done well!’ And we ended up with me, Keir and Becky – two people who I came to like a lot – on a stage in the Midlands, everybody acknowledging that things had to change. I think we modelled a different sort of leadership throughout that campaign.”

Nandy and Starmer go back a long way, and she describes theirs as a “collegiate relationship”. When they first met, more than ten years ago, she was working for The Children’s Society and he was the director of public prosecutions. She sought his help in a case involving young people who had been enslaved in a cannabis factory and were being prosecuted along with the owners. Starmer was, she said, “far more responsive to the issue than most people, really easy to work with”.

Their relationship cooled through the Corbyn years – “We were on different sides of the question about the leadership, and Brexit” – before warming during the leadership contest. Nandy revealed a slight superiority about Starmer’s late arrival to politics: “Many of us grew up in the Labour tradition – I was delivering party leaflets when I was seven. He’s not steeped in career politics. He’s come in a lot more recently, and he’s very challenging of why people hold the views they do. I think that has helped us – it’s one thing to feel the public mood, but another to turn that into a strategy. When we are together as a team, you can see how the strength of the people he has put around him makes him much more concrete.”

Being in a room with Rayner and Starmer used to feel, she said, “like two different conversations going on at the same time”. Now there is a better rhythm. “The leader of the party needs to look to the country – the deputy needs to look to the party itself.” She admires Rayner. “Ange has a great relationship with the unions.”

How did Nandy feel about Starmer’s order not to picket alongside rail workers in June? “In fairness, what he was saying is no different from what Ed [Miliband] was saying: that we are the government-in-waiting. I don’t think anyone would take kindly to me spending all week on a picket line. They would prefer it if I’m on the Sunday shows telling Grant Shapps he’s got some brass neck.

[See also: “I often spend my time sounding like a Lib Dem”: Rory Stewart on the fractured Tory party]

“But I found it a difficult debate because it became symbolic of whether you would stand up for people. It is depressing that we have enabled this to become a question – if you stand on the picket line, are you on people’s side? I will always stand up for my rail workers. I will always stand up for the sorting office. It is the right thing to do. I don’t think we should ever equivocate about that.”

She criticised David Lammy for condemning strikes by British Airways check-in staff. “I just didn’t understand that at all – did you see he apologised? We have a lot of BA workers at Manchester Airport. They’ve been told they can keep their jobs but they have to move to Luton. When they do layovers, they take Pot Noodles because they’re not being given enough money to buy food.” Later she told me about the time Lammy was offered a traditional northern barm cake in Wigan and didn’t know what to do with the gravy.

At Sunshine House Community Hub in Wigan, locals came to collect parcels for £3 a piece containing washing powder, pens and other household items. The centre doesn’t just host food banks. The hub’s Cocaine Anonymous meeting is well-attended by businessmen from Greater Manchester, who like to come where they won’t be seen.

Barbara, a local matriarch and Sunshine worker, was complaining about a hotel up the road in Standish that in 2021 received 200 refugees overnight. There were Britain First protests outside it, said Nandy. Wigan was 95 per cent white at the last census in 2011; there are now two mosques in the borough. Under the Home Office’s dispersal scheme, which subcontracts accommodation arrangements to Serco, more migrants are arriving in Wigan, but the local council is often kept out of the loop. The Standish refugees were rehoused in local flats where, according to Barbara, they made a lot of noise. Whenever the conversation veered towards complaint, Nandy broadened it with a joke or an inclusive gesture; she pointed out that one of the refugees now volunteers at Sunshine House. The case was another illustration of how the north could run itself better, she said, if only it were allowed to. After the fall of Kabul, the rehousing of Afghan refugees went much more smoothly when the Greater Manchester Combined Authority stepped in – working across its ten councils to sort housing, healthcare, schooling and employment support.

Down the corridor, a group of widows and widowers in their seventies were playing bingo. Nandy couldn’t resist, grabbing a chit and one for me, and taking a seat at the table. The eighty-something lady calling the numbers was a joker. “All alone: number ten.”

“That’s me,” Nandy chuckled, scrubbing out the number with a sparkly pen. “Number ten – that’s where I’m going!” She peered over my arm: “I’ve got more than you.” Then she reconsidered, probably because it sounded a bit competitive. “Actually, we’ve got about the same.” On the table lay her wallet, featuring a picture of Mr Strong, red and square-shaped, “the one who eats 20 eggs for breakfast”.

Board games are banned in Nandy’s house, she said regretfully, because she wants to win too much. At her son’s recent sports day, she went in for the adult sprint and crossed the line with a dad who works as a professional sports trainer. She got a sticker to mark the shared victory – though she was annoyed to see it was a gendered one, for the mums.

This article appears in the 27 Jul 2022 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Special