The Road to Wigan Pier, redux

In a series of posts, Uncut writers look at the constituencies featured in Labour’s Identity Crisis, England and the Politics of Patriotism. Here, Rob Marchant gives his perspective on Wigan.

As someone who is half-Indian, Lisa Nandy MP – author of the book’s piece on Wigan – is pretty well-placed to comment on modern, multi-ethnic, multicultural Britain. And as “a Wiganer by choice”, in her own words, she clearly has a grasp of the problems facing Labour in our northern industrial towns. For example, in Wigan as in many other such towns in 2015, UKIP was close to beating the Tories to second place.

Orwell’s The Road to Wigan Pier spoke about the conflict between the need for Labour to be able to help and transform such communities and, often, resistance to Labour from within those very towns and villages themselves. Eighty years on, a comparable conflict is starting to return and those communities are no longer the heartlands that Labour can take for granted.

When I spent time around Wigan around the millennium, what struck me was the tightly-knit nature of the communities – often keenly competitive – in each separate town within the borough. Whilst their solidarity was their strength, there was always the danger that solidarity could tip over into insularity: a fear of the outside. It is easy to see how they could come to feel threatened by, say, immigration, or any other laws imperiously imposed from the other end of the country. And let alone the EU, also the current source of much of that immigration.

Such voters, while most likely instinctively leaning towards Labour, are not natural Corbyn supporters: they were already alienated by the soft-left Ed Miliband, who at least had a first-hand view of northern industrialism from his Doncaster constituency. But that is nothing as to how they will fail to connect with the London-centric, hard-left politics of Jeremy Corbyn in 2020, assuming he is allowed to remain leader until then.

Now, such politics did not put off Londoners from voting Labour in the recent local elections, but it surely did with voters outside the capital.

How then to reconnect to provincial England?

Part of the problem is perhaps that, as Labour activists and politicians, we often have very little sense of what Englishness actually means, because we naturally gravitate towards the international, the bigger picture. At minimum, we tend to see things through a British rather than an English prism, surely because our historic support is much more evenly balanced between mainland Britain’s three constituent parts. In contrast, habitually the Tories will keep a relentless focus on England.

While she is somewhat light on detail about what might constitute an English identity (as opposed to a British identity), Nandy’s point is correct that we need a narrative, aligned with our values, which people understand and which is yet untainted by the negative connotations some nationalist symbols can have.

Interestingly, for some of the ethnic communities which we want to include in that narrative – like the Indian one – an English nationalism might just be repositioned as a more attractive proposition than a British one. England, after all, was not the colonial power, but Britain. A modern English identity, therefore, might just be easier to forge in a multi-cultural context.

Whether or not Scotland finally decides to secede – and I believe it most likely will not – we in Labour really have to start to worry about connecting at a visceral level with England’s provincial towns and villages, if only because of the scale of our Scottish meltdown. We do not want to be the party who fails to understand the English, the country to which our fortunes have become increasingly tied.

In particular, our current failure to understand Middle England, compared with, say, when we were in power fifteen years ago, is clearly an even bigger problem now than it was in the Miliband years.

For her part, Nandy essentially argues that we should argue our culture in the manner of Danny Boyle who, in his Olympic opening ceremony, celebrated the achievements of the British people within the context of community and shared values. It’s a good starting point, but we should also note that while the Boyle vision may play well in an industrial town, we need to think about how also to draw in those crucial areas of the South East and for whom a solidarity-based narrative might need to be tempered with a more aspirational one.

We also need to note the damage that identity politics, if left to its own devices, can wreak. Embrace and tolerance of other cultures need not blind us to their faults, as exemplified by the unequal treatment of women in many ethnic communities connected with Islam, or the Orthodox Jewish community. Any English identity needs to be unapologetically liberal and all-embracing: a real and progressive alternative to the often narrow and illiberal cultural identities which can persist in the cases where integration fails.

Conclusion: making this delicate balance work is difficult, but it is difficult to see a party that fails to reconnect with provincial England on an emotional level – as some of our opponents are clearly doing with some success, whether we like it or not – ever being in power again.

Rob Marchant is an activist and former Labour party manager who blogs at The Centre Left

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13 Responses to “The Road to Wigan Pier, redux”

  1. Mike Homfray says:

    Given that we can’t hope or frankly. should not wish to compete with Ukip, we will have to make sure we deliver on the basics – housing, jobs and so on.

  2. Mike says:

    Why not compete with UKIP. If that is taken to mean being patriotic, for strong defence and for being tough on crime.
    Labour has two strands – the meyrosexual, metropolitan London of Corbyn and then the rest. The rest are in the Midlands, North and South Wales. Those people want pride, an acceptance that unlimited immigration is not good for pay or culture.
    Mandy is a token – female and part minority. She is if the Corbyn left so British people will not take to unpatriotic ways.

  3. John p Reid says:

    Mike Homfray. why do you feel that Ukip don’t suggest housing or jobs, as policies,as Less EU immigration would see more of both of those,for people who live here,
    Your assumption, that we are better than Ukip, implies contempt for those who vote for them, unless Theresa mythical left wing vote out there, who abstain, and we can’t rely on every current SNP green libdem vote you must feel,that we need Tory votes
    As holding Ukup voters with a feeling that we don’t want their supporters as we are better than us, they’re going to feel they made the right decision in not voting for us last time,

  4. james says:

    The problem for Labour is that they say things like `deliver on jobs, homes and so on` yet don’t understand that unlimited immigration is part of the problem. How can you keep up with the demand on jobs and housing when you don’t have planned migration?

    This is really a reflection of the new eurocentrism based on the sentiment that `being in Europe` always trumps any other model economically, socially and culturally. It’s disincentivising the EU and the UK from tackling fundamental issues.

    I agree with John Mann, Kate Hoey, Kelvin Hopkins and Denis Skinner. Vote Leave.

  5. Mike Homfray says:

    Both John Reid and Mike have given reasons to vote Ukip. If that’s what you believe in then feel free to do so but I don’t think that’s the sort of policy which Labour should be pursuing.

    And yes – we do have to state that we don’t agree with their policies and explain why. It’s then a question of choice. But no point in winning with policies worthy only of the populist right.

  6. Tafia says:

    should not wish to compete with Ukip,

    That would entail abandoning the voters you’ve lost to them for good then.

    What you need to take on board is people are throughly pissed off with politicians making vague promises and failing to delver on them.

    Make firm, 100% rock solid promises with a gurenteed delivery time, make sure your core vote (low skill/no skill) is not disadvantaged by immigration in the slightest – no pressure on their social housing, no pressure on their local schools, no pressure on their local surgeries, no pressure on their wages – and again guraentee it.

    You would be surprised how little you would have to do to win your support back from UKIP – even a 100% guarentee that any criminal – EU or none EU, that is jailed for any offence involving drugs, violence, weapons and theft/fraud, is automatically deported on the last day of their sentence and not allowed to appeal it for a minimum of 5 years and even then only from outside the UK and with no legal aid.

    Prople do not want more of the same and you are deluding yourselves if you think otherwise.

  7. Anon E Mouse says:

    The sooner there is another SDP type split in the Labour Party the better. The university educated London centric wonks that have never worked in normal jobs need to join Lady Nugee, Chukka, Polly Toynbee and all that arrogant sanctimonious lot and go start their own party.

    To hear Andy Burnham was surprised that the majority of Labour voters he spoke to on the doorstep wanted to leave the EU shows how far out of touch the party currently is.

    Any Labour MP acting like a traitor to the working class they are supposed to be there to represent who votes for Remain should be booted out by their local party and a decent representative like Dennis Skinner or John Mann put in their place.

    To see the devastation being in the EU has caused people in South Wales and not want to stop the problem occurring AND to support the likes of David Cameron is a disgrace.

    If Labour really think wheeling out Gordon “British Jobs For British Workers” Brown will help then they really are as deluded as they seem.

  8. Mr Akira Origami says:

    “Populism is a political position which holds that the virtuous citizens are being mistreated by a small circle of elites, who can be overthrown if the people recognize the danger and work together. The elites are depicted as trampling in illegitimate fashion upon the rights, values, and voice of the legitimate people.

    Populist movements are found in many democratic nations. Cas Mudde says, “Many observers have noted that populism is inherent to representative democracy; after all, do populists not juxtapose ‘the pure people’ against ‘the corrupt elite’

    Academic definitions of populism have varied widely over the centuries, and the term has often been employed in loose and inconsistent ways to denote appeals to “the people”, “demagogy” and “catch-all” politics or as a label for new types of parties whose classifications are unclear. A factor traditionally held to diminish the value of “populism” as a category has been that, as Margaret Canovan notes in her 1981 study Populism, unlike conservatives or socialists, populists rarely call themselves “populists” and usually reject the term when it is applied to them.

    Nonetheless, in recent years academic scholars have produced definitions of populism which enable populist identification and comparison. Daniele Albertazzi and Duncan McDonnell define populism as an ideology that “pits a virtuous and homogeneous people against a set of elites and dangerous ‘others’ who are together depicted as depriving (or attempting to deprive) the sovereign people of their rights, values, prosperity, identity, and voice”.

    Rather than viewing populism in terms of specific social bases, economic programs, issues, or electorates — as discussions of right-wing populism have tended to do — this type of definition is in line with the approaches of scholars such as Ernesto Laclau, Pierre-Andre Taguieff, Yves Meny and Yves Surel, who have all sought to focus on populism per se, rather than treating it simply as an appendage of other ideologies.

    In the US populism has historically been associated with the left. In Europe, Socialism occupies that space and populism is more associated with the right. In both the central tenet of populism that democracy should reflect the pure and undiluted will of the people, means it can sit easily with ideologies of both right and left. However, while leaders of populist movements in recent decades have claimed to be on either the left or the right of the political spectrum, there are also many populists who reject such classifications and claim not to be “left wing”, “centrist” or “right wing.”

  9. Tafia says:

    An unamed Labour MP is quoted in the guardian as saying that Labour voters in his area are breaking 55-45 for Out. “It’s terrible. The proverbial metropolitan elite has not been recognising the impact that rapid population change has had on the public services. And Labour is ducking this issue.”

    The truth is that the referendum is exposing Labour’s breach with its traditional voters in a way that has profound implications for the country as well as the party. In Birmingham, campaigners were told to take all mentions of immigration out of their literature. Although the local MPs begged to be allowed to tackle local concerns head on, they were banned from doing so by party staff following instructions from the leader’s office. As one former minister says: “It gives the impression that we are completely out of touch with the way people live their lives.”

  10. Madasafish says:

    MPs are elected to serve the best interests of their electors and constituents.

    Can someone explain to me how allowing unlimited immigration is in the best interests of existing inhabitants.. who have to pay to house, educate and heal the incomers?

  11. Mike Homfray says:

    I think this discussion just shows that we don’t have enough parties to choose from and that within the major two parties, vastly different attitudes exist between people who vote for them.

    There is undoubtedly a place for a socially conservative, economically left wing party – but its not one I would want to vote for because thats just not where I am politically.

  12. Tafia says:

    There is undoubtedly a place for a socially conservative, economically left wing party

    You mean working class/blue collar Labour. Which is what Labour is supposed to be about.

    Money speaks for money, the devil for his own
    Who comes to speak for the skin and the bone
    What a comfort to the widow, a light to the child
    There is power in a union

  13. john P Reid says:


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