Lisa Nandy: “There are huge swathes of the country that are now up for grabs”
Growing up on the outskirts of Manchester, Lisa Nandy has seen first-hand the damage decades of industrial decline has done to the UK’s once thriving communities. Now the Labour MP is determined that Britain’s towns are no longer overlooked by the political class. Elizabeth Bates travels to Wigan to hear more about her new initiative
Lisa Nandy has launched a project aimed at getting politicians to take notice of Britain’s forgotten towns, and she has taken drastic steps to make sure it isn’t too Westminster-centric.
“It was important to us that it is not a London think tank, it’s not even a Manchester think tank. We’re running it out of a shed in Bolton,” she tells me, as we drink tea in her constituency office.
Having established that she’s serious, the Labour MP is keen to reassure me that it’s a “nice shed,” although she does admit that, unsurprisingly, “there are real issues around Wi-Fi”.
But despite the initiative’s humble beginnings, it has lofty ambitions.
The Centre For Towns (CFT), launched last year by the Wigan MP alongside data analyst Ian Warren and academic Will Jennings, is seeking to identify what is rotten at the heart of British politics.
In the wake of the 2016 Brexit referendum, many commentators and politicians asked how huge swathes of the electorate had lost faith with the political establishment, and CFT is offering some answers.
The organisation has identified a growing cultural and economic divide between Britain’s towns and cities that has left many disenfranchised and transformed the political landscape.
Nandy explains: “For a long time, there had been warning signs that there were problems in towns. In the early 2000s, we had pretty record low turnout in towns like mine.
“Then we had this very dramatic and sudden rise of Ukip, which was largely a town phenomenon and then we had the vote to leave the EU. If you look at a map of the UK, pretty much across the board, your cities voted overwhelmingly to Remain and the surrounding towns on the outskirts, only a few miles distant, voted overwhelmingly to Leave in similarly large numbers.
“It seems to me that towns have been trying to tell the political establishment something for a really long time and yet still we’re not listening. After the referendum, there was a sense then that suddenly Whitehall and Westminster started to pay attention because the vote was such a seismic shift in expectations, very few people had seen it coming.”
For the Labour backbencher, it is an issue that is close to her heart. Having been brought up on the outskirts of Manchester she has seen first-hand the damage decades of industrial decline has done to Britain’s once thriving communities.
And she is scathing about the subsequent snobbery directed at Brexit voters in the wake of the result, seeing it as more evidence that those in power have yet to grasp the magnitude of the problem.
“Our towns were being caricatured as bleak desolate places with nothing to offer,” she says.
“My friends and neighbours and constituents were being characterised through the Brexit referendum as too stupid to understand the question, as little Englanders and racists.”
But this distorted view could not be further from the reality of places like Nandy’s Wigan constituency. And to prove it we head off to a local cafe - Fur Clemt – which she tells me is Wiganese for being “starving hungry”.
Shirley and Ann who run the centre – which asks customers to pay what they can afford – explain that the people they see are “proud”, but that opportunities are lacking.
The loss of local industry, they say, has led to deprivation, but they are determined not to “keep reminding people of that”. And far from feeling stuck, they are deeply committed to the town.
“Most of us that are born and bred don’t leave, we might go and work in Manchester or elsewhere but we wouldn’t dream of leaving,” Ann says.
The two women are currently providing a whole range of support to residents in an attempt to get the place back on its feet and restore a sense of community.
But they are concerned that their efforts are being hampered by cuts to local services and, clearly frustrated, Nandy agrees, saying local people are “being pushed over into not coping and you can start to see how communities start to go at that point.”
It was this frustration that led to the creation of CFT, and the project has already produced a much more considered explanation of this growing division than has previously been on offer in SW1.
Firstly, it has pointed the finger at a long-standing economic model, pioneered by the Tories in the 1980s, then adopted by New Labour and later George Osborne, that sees cities as the engines of growth.
The consequence is that they become the focus of resources, leaving towns to “somehow magically benefit from the effects of that trickle-down wealth and job creation,” Nandy says.
The resulting opportunities are at the heart of a second crucial issue: young people are flocking to metropolitan hubs in search of work, leaving the surrounding areas with aging populations.
As we make our way back through Wigan in her Mini, Nandy describes the change from her perspective: “When I was born in Manchester in the late 70s, it was older than most of the surrounding towns but over the course of that 30-40 years those towns have aged significantly.
“Manchester has grown younger and that pattern has been replicated in almost every major city and the surrounding towns across the country.”
This dwindling of working-age populations has compounded the decline, as ambitious companies base themselves elsewhere and a lack of demand for services leads to funding being stripped away.
Polling done by CFT has found that in the wake of this cumulative neglect, people in towns are much more likely to feel that those in charge don’t care about them or their area.
And it is this feeling, according to Nandy, that is being expressed at the ballot box.
“Town voters have been taken for granted for a very long time. There was an assumption that in the south of England people in towns would vote Tory and in the north of England they would vote Labour,” she says.
“We concentrate, quite understandably on the marginal seats, but the trouble with that is that, under the electoral system that we have, there is no real way then of those voters making their voices heard.”
But many have made their voices heard in Labour heartlands by moving away from the party, with support waning in many traditional seats.
While some have suggested that the leadership embraces the change and cultivates the youth vote, Nandy warns against the party abandoning its roots.
“If Labour is now the party of the young who live in cities, who are socially liberal in outlook, global in outlook, globally connected and the Tories are the party of older more rural voters, not just in the south but in the north as well, what does that mean for who the political parties are?” she asks.
“We were a party founded to represent working-class voters in towns like mine, post-industrial towns that have consistently come out and supported us and expect us to come out and support them.”
But despite the CFT’s concerning findings, Nandy’s disposition is as sunny as her canal-side office. She sees the battle for towns as a decisive opportunity for whichever party is prepared to take it.
“What I don’t detect is huge enthusiasm for any of the political parties. So, the prospect for Labour is essentially the same as the prospect for the Tories,” she says.
“Now, there are huge swathes of the country that were previously not up for grabs but now are.
“The first political party to really understand that, to get to grips with it and start speaking directly to the concerns and priorities of those voters will win, not just the next general election but the one after that.”