31 October 2019
By Lisa Nandy
In elections past we have met Essex Man and Worcester Woman. Now, journalists are pouring out of London again in search of another stereotypical swing voter, Workington Man – apparently an older white man who voted leave, has no degree and lives in a “rugby league town”. He is the Tories’ new target voter, according to a report by the thinktank, Onward, and much of the national media has gone wild in response. The reaction back home in Wigan could not be more different.
Voters outside London are wearily resigned to suddenly being subjects of much interest during election time, after years of events that loom large in our villages, towns and cities – extreme weather, transport chaos, drug problems and broken government promises – going largely unreported. Since the Brexit referendum in 2016, we’ve also got used to journalists channelling their inner David Attenborough to travel to our towns to interview “leave voters” – that strange species that must apparently be observed in its natural habitat – before hopping on the train back to London. We have become used to being reduced to homogenous stereotypes, and to dismal language about our towns as “left-behind” places and “wastelands” where people have “nothing left to lose” and entire communities have apparently been “slung on the slagheap”.
The truth in our towns is nothing of the sort. Contrary to the stereotypes, we have as much complexity as elsewhere. Our air is cleaner and our public services are stronger than in major cities, but our transport systems are crumbling and our high streets are under strain. Loyalty to Labour runs deep and is felt strongly by many people as part of their identity, but it is not unshakeable. It has to be earned, not inherited and, regardless, rugby league towns have always been home to some working-class people who vote Tory. We have the same generational divisions as in other areas, with younger people likely to hold strongly socially liberal values, while older people tend to be more socially conservative. As the Onward report recognises, we are not desperately nostalgic for a rose-tinted past – it’s hard to meet anyone in Wigan or Castleford who wants to reopen the mines – but we would like some decent jobs and a functioning bus service.
Most of all, we have agency, knowledge, skills and a contribution to make. Within living memory, many of our rugby league towns powered the national economy, from the coal mines of Wigan to the textile mills of Oldham and Halifax. People have not forgotten the 1980s, when Tory politicians collapsed those industries and did little to help us rebuild. Or, in recent years, how virtually every “northern powerhouse” promise has been broken so the economic gap with London is now comparable to east Germany’s with the west after the fall of the Berlin Wall.
Against that backdrop, the idea that people in rugby league towns are waiting for Tory politicians to come and offer us “protection from the accelerating headwinds of globalisation” is almost as patronising as the 2014 Tory ads which promised to cut taxes on beer and bingo “to help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”.
We need power – real power, not just the right to commission bus services, but also tax-raising powers, a fair share of funding, and the right to spend it how we see fit, instead of going cap in hand to Whitehall to repeatedly ask for permission to proceed. We need a devolution settlement that stretches out of our cities and into our towns, where the lack of political power has denied us investment for four decades and frustration often spills over into anger.
One good way to start might be to shift where power lies in the media, not just basing some journalists outside London, but investing in local journalists and moving the commissioning power in the media out of London, too, so those who decide what is reported actually live and work across the country. Perhaps we could even start moving some of those London-based thinktanks whose reports are so influential during election campaigns. Then we might move beyond caricature and establish a relationship based on respect, that essential ingredient whose absence voters can sense a million miles away, and which is worth so much more than the carving up of the electorate for electoral gain.
It’s worth remembering that the seven northern towns who founded the rugby league broke away from the Rugby Football Union after being dictated to, patronised and ignored by public school men in the south who didn’t care and had little understanding about the northern working-class players who could not afford to play without payment for time off work. They thought they could continue to ignore the real concerns that the northern clubs raised and still hang on to power, and it caused a divide in the game that lasts to this day. That is the lesson for the Tories, for whom this could be their last chance with our northern towns, or for anyone who is worried about the growing divisions in Britain and sees the potential for history to repeat itself.
Lisa Nandy is the Labour MP for Wigan a member of the Steering Committee of the Constitution Reform Group.
You can access the full article on The Guardian website here.