Wigan Pier revisited

Happy Hour in Wigan

Happy Hour in Wigan

If you wonder why an old fashioned socialist like Jeremy Corbyn has been re-elected leader of the Labour Party you could pay a visit to the deindustrialised North. George Orwell learned a lot up here in 1936. Eighty years later many in Wigan are waiting for „Socialism of the 21st century“ to arrive.

„The road to Wigan Pier“, which George Orwell visited and described in his bitter and brilliant book of the same name in 1936, is a cheerful place today. A rainbow of colourful balloons greets perspective clients in front of a car dealer. But two young women in high heels pass by without taking notice. You don’t buy a car easily in Wigan. And the Happy Hour in Harry’s Bar is about to start.

Wigan is a sad museum of itself. In the 19th century the city between Manchester and Liverpool was a textbook example of English Industrialisation. Textile mills and coal mines were everywhere and worked full steam. The urban working class grew fast. The exploitation of workers in mines and mills became unbearable. The social misery gave birth to socialism. Conditions did not get much better for a long time as George Orwell observed in the 1930ies. He describes rows of „condemned houses“. Tenants stayed forever although houses were earmarked to be torn down because there was no room, budget and political will to build enough new housing blocks. Today the North of England is still among the poorest area of the British Islands. And one of the most fruitful grounds for the Labour Party.

It is not by accident that the party of the working class held its annual conference in Liverpool. The meeting was a triumph for Jeremy Corbyn who was reelected by members and supporters of Labour. His critics - centrists and moderates now disparagingly called „Blairists“ – had to accept the take-over of the party by the Corbynista, young and old hard-core socialists: „In this party you no longer whisper its name“, said John Mc Donnel, Corbyns closest ally and shadow chancellor of the exchequer: „It’s called socialism.“ Corbyn himself promised a „socialism of the 21st century“.

George Orwell had almost prophetically precise described the typical middle class politician, who leads the Labour-Party today: „A prim little man...teetotaller and with vegetarian leanings, with a history of non-conformity behind him.“ Teetotaller and Vegetarian? Yes. And Corbyn voted more than 500 times in 32 years as Member of Parliament against his own party.

Here in the North he is well liked. „Jeremy truly represents our interests, and he has his heart in the right place“, says Zafar Khan, a taxi driver in Wigan, whose family comes from Pakistan. His wife Hasina was the first Muslim woman to be elected to the council of Chorley in 2006. „You have to be very tough. It took a long time to get accepted“, she says. „I was an exception as a woman, a Muslim, an Asian in politics in North England.“ But since May 2016 there is a second woman like her in the council of Chorley, a city not far from Wigan. Hasina’s 21 year old daughter Zara.

In Corbyn’s Labour Party the Khans feel at home. The former peace activist would rather renationalise British trains before planning new military interventions in the Middle East. He prefers to borrow 500 billion Pounds more to invest into education and infrastructure than to cut down benefits with more harsh austerity programs. In Westminster his ideas are disqualified as naive if not dangerous. They certainly will not attract a majority of British people easily. But here in the North many have the distinct feeling that they have long been left behind by London’s elite and their hypercapitalism.

This became apparent when two thirds of Wigan voted for Brexit. People feel anxious about high immigration in combination with harsh austerity implemented by a conservative government. Hasina Khan did vote for remaining in the European Union. But she does understand why people around her voted to leave: „If our social system is overloaded, we need to restrict free movement of immigration.“

People in Wigan only start to understand that leaving the EU will cost them a lot of money. Margaret Thatcher closed the coal mines in the 80ties. The textile mills followed. Asia produced cheaper. Today Wigans take a train to work in Liverpool or Manchester. As in many other poor regions of England the European Union has invested millions to balance out inequality between the rich and the poor. „Maybe we opted a little to hastily for Brexit“, says Paul, a Tory voter who was sent home in early retirement 30 years ago. He keeps his family name to himself as if he was ashamed that he voted for Brexit.

Lisa Nandy has to deal with the consequences of her constituents’ vote. The Labour MP for Wigan herself campaigned hard for remaining in the EU. „My colleagues and I are now mapping the financial situation, we are trying to find out how much we will actually lose“, she says. „It’s not only about direct money for our College coming from the European Union. There are funds for charities and subsidies coming from different EU pots to very different things.“ The 37 year old energetic, pugnacious and left of centre politician would be happy to take on the Conservative government of Brexiteers.

But Nandy has a problem: Her own leader Jeremy Corbyn was only a lukewarm campaigner for remaining in the European Union. Officially Labour was for Remain, but Jeremy Corbyn was always known as a left wing EU critic. After the EU referendum on June 23rd mutiny erupted in the party. Lisa Nandy was one of many who resigned from his shadow cabinet. „It was a difficult decision“, she says today. Corbyn and his inner circle were ready to accept a split in the party rather than accept a compromise: „The view of the leadership was that this was war. If you think you are in a war, it will not work.“

Nandy likes Corbyn’s politics. But she does not fancy the sectarian methods of the new leadership. Corbyn has been re-elected for a second time. The parliamentary faction of the party is now sidelined by the Momentum movement, which was founded by groups like the „Socialist Workers Party“. The SWP operated for decades outside of parliament on the fringes of the left. The Labour party leader was not only elected by members but also by supporters, a change not Corbyn but his pre-decessor Ed Miliband hat introduced.

The new rules allowed fresh blood to stream into the Labour Party. But it also brought Corbyn to power with his odour of Zombie politics. In the Seventies people were quickly thrown out of leftwing groups, splits happening frequently, in the end there was no movement left. The debate about ideology escalated this summer in ugly ways. A brick was thrown through an office window. Online and verbal abuse has become very frequent and unpleasant for Corbyn’s critics. „I used to ge abused by the extreme right“, Lisa Nandy says, „but recently the insults have been coming from within my own party. We will not get respect, if we do not live by our values.“

The Westminster intrigues are being watched here in the North with a certain distance. „We will follow our leader now“, says Hasina Khan, „we have enough to do“. Not much has changed in Wigan since 1936. George Orwell wrote then: „Socialists have a big job ahead of them here.“

Keep me updated!

© 2018 Tessa Szyszkowitz