A Political Shift in Northern England Ground Zero of the Brexit Class War

Northern England will decide the most important election in the United Kingdom's recent history. It was once a Labour Party heartland, but Brexit has changed everything. A visit to the battlefield.
British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson on the campaign trail

Foto: I-Images/ Zuma Press/ Action Press

"It is a kind of duty to see and smell such places now and again, especially smell them, lest you should forget that they exist."
George Orwell, "The Road to Wigan Pier"

On a recent Monday morning in November, a central figure in the 2019 British election is sitting huddled on a scuffed, tartan-upholstered wing chair in the northern-English city of Wigan. "No matter who you vote for, it won't change anything," he says.

The man, who will go by Daryl here, doesn't want his real name published. He pulls an Adidas hat over his face. Outside, it's raining sideways, while inside, Daryl smokes an anise-flavored e-cigarette and watches over a small room filled with bar stools and leather armchairs, its walls decorated with antlers.

Daryl opened the used furniture shop in March, calling it Bulldog Forge in honor of the legendary Bulldog Tools manufacturer that occupied this space for over 200 years. Today, its former headquarters is piled with furniture from pubs and hotels. "It won't make me rich," says Daryl. But compared to what he left behind, his new life is almost luxurious.

Daryl is 54 years old and lives in one of the poorest regions of the United Kingdom. He was once a nurse, once homeless, and once a victim of domestic violence. He used to vote for the Labour Party, but he's not so sure he will this time around.

On December 12, the UK will be voting on its future. And the north of England, where many people have stories similar to Daryl's, has become this election's battlefield. Indeed, pollsters believe that people like Daryl will largely decide what will likely become the most important election in the country's recent history. As a result, even if many politicians might struggle to find places like Wigan, Warrington or Workington on a map, they are showing an interest in them -- at least for a few more days.

This election, brought about by Boris Johnson, will be the third to take place in four-and-a-half years. The prime minister has said he is sick of the paralysis that still-incomplete Brexit has brought upon the country and is counting on his leadership skills to win him and his Conservatives a clear majority. If he succeeds, he will implement Brexit by the end of January, and then finally "unleash" the UK from Brussels. At least, that's what he says.

Playing Into Johnson's Hands

Even for a gambler like Johnson, these are high stakes . Because even if the Tories' lead in the polls seems comfortable, it is a risky move. Johnson has moved his party to the right at a breathtaking speed, alienating moderate conservatives and liberal voters alike, and it seems a given that the Tories, who currently have a minority government, will lose seats in London and Scotland. If they want a parliamentary majority , they will need to gain dozens of seats from Labour, the biggest opposition party.

As a result, poor cities like Wigan -- and used-furniture salesmen like Daryl -- have become more important to the Tories than ever before. Johnson now has a chance to speckle the traditionally Labour red-colored north of England with spots of Tory blue.

It's a daunting task. Since the 1980s, when the north rose up against Margaret Thatcher, the Tories have largely been considered unelectable in the region. But Brexit has muddled the situation. After decades of deindustrialization and globalization, residents of the former coal-mining region voted by a large majority to exit the EU and many are angry that it hasn't yet happened. According to Onward, a center-right British think tank, this could play into Johnson's hands.

It claims the Tories need to work hard to attract northern, middle-aged white men without college degrees who live in the countryside or in so-called "rugby league" towns, struggle financially and are disappointed by Labour's undecided position on Brexit. Onward has named this type of voter "Workington Man," after a former coal-mining city. "Wigan Woman" would be just as apt.

Once it became clear these voters would be decisive, the Tories began performing strange political contortions. Johnson and his allies are flattering and seducing the very people whose lives they have made miserable over the past decade, with promises of millions in spending. And in a crazy turn of events, even for these crazy times, the strategy could work.

In late November, a train ride through northern England was like a journey through a sinking country. In some areas near Manchester and Sheffield, as much rain recently fell in one hour as normally falls in an entire month. Well over a thousand homes were evacuated and, in some places, the water was neck high. Boris Johnson even showed up for look around in rubber boots -- after having spent days telling journalists that the situation wasn't all that drastic. In Stainforth, a woman pushing a wheelbarrow halfway politely declined a conversation with the prime minister. She had better things to do.

Brutal Budget Cuts

Further west in Wigan, it has also rained almost continuously for the past several weeks. In Wigan's stately city hall, Steve Dawber -- a friendly, bald-headed 63-year-old -- seems like a lost visitor. The Labour politician is mayor of the city of 80,000 and has had an impressive career for a man who began stacking cans at the local Heinz factory 40 years ago. Back then, 14,000 people still worked at Heinz. Today there are only 1,200, the rest having been replaced by machines, which now spit out more baked beans than ever before, about a billion cans per year.

Because the textile factories in Wigan, a former mining town, closed at the same time as the last coal mines, it underwent a similar decline as the region's other mid-sized cities. But before the rising frustrations came to the attention of the government in London, the country was rocked by the banking and financial crisis. After spending billions to rescue the banks, David Cameron's Conservative government inaugurated a new era of austerity in 2010.

The English flag flying outside of a home in Wigan

The English flag flying outside of a home in Wigan

Foto: Anderew Testa/ The New York Times/ Redux/ laif

The government's brutal budget cuts hit the Labour strongholds in the north especially hard. Countless libraries, swimming pools, youth clubs and other municipal facilities were closed. As wages stagnated, the number of people in precarious financial situations grew. Because the Tories concurrently axed social programs, poverty also skyrocketed.

When the Brexit referendum was held six years later, the conservative Brexiteers  successfully convinced people that that foreign workers from mainland Europe and heartless Brussels bureaucrats were responsible for their decline . While 52 percent of voters across the UK voted for Brexit, the number was far higher in the money-starved north: 69 percent in Doncaster, 68.3 percent in Barnsley, 66.4 percent in Wakefield.

In Wigan, one of the regions most affected by austerity, 64 percent voted in favor of Brexit. There was nothing Steve Dawber and his pro-EU campaign could do against it. "Europe is for someone else," says the mayor, adding that although northwestern England receives more money from Brussels than it pays, big cities like Liverpool and Manchester profit more. Wigan was instructed by London to cut its 280-million-pound ($360 million) budget to 120 million in 10 years.

'We Run the Town with Volunteers'

The Labour-dominated municipal council tried its best to prevent Wigan's collapse. It offered individuals and groups subsidies if they were willing to continue operating libraries, swimming pools and nursing wards privately, and Wigan consequently experienced a boom in charity groups. "We run the town with volunteers," says Dawber.

But it wasn't enough to stop the deterioration. Although Wigan's city center, with its imposing Victorian buildings, is surprisingly well-groomed, a second glance reveals how many of the small stores are being run by the Samaritans of Wigan, the YMCA or the British Heart Foundation. These are interspersed with discount stores like Poundland, Poundstretcher and Pound Bakery, as well as nail studios, gambling shops and credit providers. Otherwise, the city's urban landscape is dominated by "to let" signs.

Although the Wigan of 2019 has little in common with the soot-darkened city George Orwell described in 1937 as being "a place like hell," with hopelessly poor residents living like "black beetles" in labyrinthine slums, the poverty has not disappeared. It has simply become better hidden.

It is visible in places like Sunshine House. The flat, functional, red-brick building is about 15 minutes by foot east of the city center and was founded 20 years ago as a neighborhood meeting spot. Today, it is a lively social-welfare center offering childcare and adult educational courses, and it is a place where elderly residents can go for a few hours to escape their loneliness. Its central room is a brightly lit café that smells of fried food. Every Friday, visitors can get fish and chips for 3 pounds. The three-course menu on Sundays costs 5.

Three years ago, the Sunshine House opened a small grocery store called the "pantry." Everything on its shelves is donated by supermarkets, and a loaf of bread costs just 10 pence. Lisa, who works here, says that it's important for its 2,000 customers that the goods have a symbolic price, unlike at the food banks, which are becoming increasingly popular in Wigan. "Food banks put people off. They are humiliating," she says.

Speaking to the residents of Wigan, one often hears similar stories -- of people whose social benefits were cut because they supposedly had one room too many in their apartments; of people who signed "zero hour" contracts, meaning they officially have jobs, but sit at home from early in the morning until late at night hoping for something to do; of families who have to choose between "heating or eating" on a daily basis.

Journalist Claire Donnellly started telling many of these stories two years ago. And on the anniversary of Orwell's "The Road to Wigan Pier," Donnelly and her colleagues from the Daily Mirror launched a project aimed at describing life in northern England in vignettes. The "Wigan Pier Project" was meant to run for one year, but it has continued to this day. "There are too many stories," Donnelly says. "We are going back to Victorian times," when there was no welfare system, she argues. "If you are born poor, you stay poor."

By the Rich, For the Rich

More than any party leader in recent memory, Jeremy Corbyn, the controversial head of the Labour Party, has made this problem the crux of his policies. Ever since the socialist was unexpectedly chosen to head Labour, he has repeatedly reproached the Tories for the grim consequences of their budget cuts. In this election, the 70-year-old has rigorously tried to brand Boris Johnson's Tories as an elite clique pursuing policies by the rich for the rich.

Labor is promising 83 billion pounds in investments and Corbyn intends to raise that money from large companies and wealthy citizens and place it in a "social transformation fund," the likes of which the country has never seen. The north, in particular, would profit from the fund. The policy is popular among large swathes of the population, but it doesn't seem like Corbyn will ever be able to implement it. No matter what he promises, Corbyn's promises are overshadowed by Labour's stance on Brexit.

Following the election, Corbyn wants to negotiate a soft Brexit with the EU and then put it to a new referendum, with the option of calling off Brexit altogether. Many voters in London and southern England were thrilled when Corbyn finally announced his position, but in Labour's northern heartland, many feel betrayed. Here, people don't want Corbyn's billions. They want to leave the EU, even if it will presumably make their lives even worse.

Labour politician Lisa Nandy, a determined 40-year-old who represents Wigan in Westminster, says the region has too often been ignored by politicians. That Brexit has become a touchstone for voters on whether they can believe anything politicians say. "Now, talking about a People's Vote suggests to those people, in towns like mine, that they're not people and their votes don't count," Nandy says, and she can't imagine what would happen if Brexit were simply called off. When she knocks on doors to campaign, she is often simply told to "go away," she explains. "But they don't mean Labour, they mean politics."


The article you are reading originally appeared in German in issue 49/2019 (November 30th, 2019) of DER SPIEGEL.

The first warning signs came with the European election in May. In Wigan, anti-EU populist Nigel Farage's Brexit Party triumphed in Wigan with 41 percent of the vote. Labour, meanwhile, which had won every parliamentary election here for a century, ended up in second place.

'Ready for a Civil War'

Boris Johnson now wants to take advantage of this political shift. He has also promised money to the north, with a "towns fund" meant to bring millions into the coffers of the poorest cities - though a surprising number of the cities in question are not all that poor, but they are governed by Conservatives. Above all else, though, Johnson is enticing people with the promise of pushing his Brexit deal through parliament before Christmas. He has described it as an "early Christmas present."

It is a bizarre reversal of circumstances. While Corbyn's traditional class-war rhetoric is no longer resonating with core Labour voters, Eton-alumnus Johnson is selling himself as a friend to northern workers.

But will that be enough? In Wigan at least, it's hard to find people who will admit to supporting Johnson. Most of them are more like Maggie, who visits the Sunshine House almost every day with her cane. She says, "I voted Labour my whole life, but now I'd rather not." Why not? "In a word: Corbyn." So she's planning on voting for Johnson? "No, definitely not." It is an echo of Daryl and many of the other people one meets these days on Wigan's streets. For almost all of them, this election is an ordeal.

The decisive factor on December 12 will be whether the Brexit Party will once again be able to fill this vacuum - and whether they will do more damage to Corbyn or Johnson.

For Jordan Gaskell, there is no question: "We must get rid of the Labour traitors!" Gaskell, a scrawny 16-year-old student who speaks like he is plugged into an electrical socket, has attained a kind of fame in the region. In a neighboring city, he founded the "Leavers of Leigh," and now walks through the region every week with his supporters. Sometimes, in the heat of the moment, they burn an EU flag. People have nicknamed him the "caped crusader" because he likes to wear a UK flag.

Over a hot chocolate, Gaskell talks himself into a rage in minutes. "You must accept the will of the people." He believes the country needs to leave the EU by January 31 at the latest. Recently, he says, a beggar had returned a 50- and a 20-pence coin that Gaskell had dropped in his hat during a protest. "He wanted to spend it for our cause."

He argues that after three-and-a-half years of Brexit frustration, nobody should be mistaken: "The people up here are ready for a civil war." He says they are simple, honest people who have become sick of it all. "People aren't born radical, they become radical when you ignore them."

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