In Britain’s forgotten lands

How Labour lost its northern vote. 

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“Just because someone has had an addiction doesn’t mean they are not intelligent,” said Angela Rigby, gesticulating with a plastic spoon in her hand.

Over recent weeks, I have toured the towns of England and Wales, listening to the everyday voices behind the polling data and punditry, and endeavouring to make sense of what was at stake in the 2019 general election.

When I met Angela Rigby in Wigan on a cold day in November, she was wearing sandals. A low light caught the green in her eyes and, as we spoke, she played with an empty yoghurt pot.

Along with many of her fellow constituents, Rigby was a lifelong Labour voter in a town that had been a party stronghold for 101 years. Her story was sad, but she recounted it with no self-pity. Speaking on a residential street in the town where she grew up, she was candid about her life and struggles.

“I started sniffing cocaine so I could clean the house,” Rigby told me. Her ex-boyfriend was a drug dealer who would leave the surfaces of their home littered with bags of heroin, and would often disappear for days on end. Alone with three children in a tiny flat, with a semblance of family life to maintain, she started experimenting with drugs, and soon became addicted to them.

“Keep off the stuff,” Rigby warned a friend in a padded coat who shuffled by. He gave her a thumbs-up. “Looking good,” Rigby called after him.

“I always worked. I had three children. I worked through all my pregnancies: cleaning and bar work, mainly – cash-in-hand stuff. I know it’s illegal but you’ve got to feed your kids.”

Rigby spoke about her concerns one by one. I have had this conversation many times in many constituencies, on many streets and in many weathers. Yet these encounters become ephemera – scribbled tallies, strings of quotes, far-out predictions, cast-iron polls.

For people like her, Angela Rigby said, there was no sense of victory in taking money from the state. She receives disability benefits for epilepsy, anxiety, depression, back pain and leg pain. She has lost the right to look after her children. The eldest – an 18-year-old called Liam – is autistic, which led to his being bullied at school, but also gifted him great creativity. He studies video-game design in college and now helps run an anti-bullying club.

Is all this detail incidental to Rigby’s politics? I’m not so sure. My job is to steer the conversation towards the election, but Rigby erected no clear boundary between the personal and the political. Far from being dogmatic, she considered each question on its merits.

“Universal Credit works well,” she said of a government policy that many on the left would argue those such as Rigby should hate. “It’s easy as long as you have access to the internet,” she said, in respect of those who are not as adept at using the local library’s computers as she is.

As Rigby recalled a time when neighbours loaned each other milk, it was not a nostalgic statement about how the past was somehow better; she was merely acknowledging the value of local community.

Our nation is wealthier than ever and yet we lack a metric to measure a sense of belonging. Angela Rigby is more hard-headed and less misty-eyed than I am. During our conversation, she came up with a considered piece of policy: build more community centres where Wigan’s young people can get together. In 2010 Wigan endured the third worst budget cuts of any local authority in the UK.

I asked her how she would vote in the election. “I’m undecided. When the candidates debated on ITV, none of them did very well. I’ve always been Labour.”

It was a wavering response, and one of confusion.

If Rigby could ask her MP one question, what would it be?

“What can be done to help the homeless in Wigan? They are drinking cans of ale because they are on the streets. I would get absolutely shitfaced if I was living on the streets. Wouldn’t you as well?”

I asked her why she thought there was homelessness in Wigan, and why the problem had worsened over the past decade. She pointed to at least one contributing factor. She remembered the so-called bedroom tax – a policy introduced by the coalition government in 2012 to charge people with spare rooms who were living in council properties – and her friends who were evicted from their homes because of it.

The bedroom tax – an abstract name for abstract policy. Rigby has seen its results and has come to her conclusion.

“I would be tempted to vote Tory at this election,” she said. “But it will be weird not voting Labour.”

Why vote Conservative?

“Labour doesn’t have a good leader.”

What else?

“I think we would be better off leaving the European Union and trading with the US.”

From Penzance to Port Talbot, Wrexham to Wolverhampton, over the course of the campaign I met traditional Labour voters who were abandoning the party.

Yes, it was because of Jeremy Corbyn. Yes, it was because of Brexit. But these were the most immediate responses to a much deeper set of social, economic and political problems that have been gestating in Labour’s former heartlands for years.

How could Andy Williams – an ex-miner and a Unite representative in a frozen food factory, whom I met one day in the Welsh town of Llay – feel that Labour did not represent his interests? How could Matt Nemeth, a critic of Margaret Thatcher’s right-to-buy scheme, living in the East Sussex ghost town of Newhaven, feel that Labour was not the party for him?

There is no single answer to these questions. When there is a general electoral defeat of this magnitude there can be no single answer. But Labour needs years of frank conversations if it is to find the answers that will make it electable once again.

George Grylls is the winner of the 2019 Anthony Howard Award

George Grylls is the winner of the Anthony Howard Award 2019.

This article appears in the 20 December 2019 issue of the New Statesman, Days of reckoning

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