If the Tories hope to ‘weaponise’ LGBT+ rights then they don’t understand northern voters
The characterisation of northern working class towns as intolerant could only have been dreamt up by someone who has never been to one. The politics of division has been rejected here over and over again – as Boris Johnson will find out, writes Labour MP Lisa Nandy
With an election imminent, it has been reported that Boris Johnson is considering whether to “weaponise” so-called culture war issues in Northern working class constituencies, whipping up fear, division and hostility against some of the most discriminated groups in the country – in order to divide Labour from its working class base.
He is presumably hoping to capitalise on the stark divisions exposed by Brexit, which revealed more profound differences between people in cities and those in nearby towns. As the academic Will Jennings has shown, on almost every social measure – whether immigration, diversity or human rights – that gulf in attitudes is growing. Forty years ago, there was little difference in how people thought in rural and urban places. Now on many of these issues they are poles apart.
This roots of this go back decades to the demise of industry under the Thatcher Government, and the loss of good jobs in our towns. As young people migrated to the cities to find work or study, our towns aged and cities grew younger. This generational divide has become more stark as older and younger people are concentrated in different places. But as young people, with strong liberal values, debate these issues with their parents and grandparents in our towns, change is happening.
In Wigan, I have been inspired by the LGBT+ young people who have had to battle for fair and equal treatment and have shown huge bravery in standing up to discrimination, hostility and bullying. Their response was to set up a Pride parade in the face of some strong resistance only a few years ago. Now the whole town, and every generation, turn out to support it.
The characterisation of northern working class towns as intolerant could only have been dreamt up by someone who has never been to one.
Towns from Leigh to Luton, that have experienced steep relative decline, have been targeted consistently by far-right groups seeking to capitalise on discontent. This much is well known, but what is forgotten is that those same towns have a long history of fighting back. While national politicians march against fascism in London, our communities have long organised themselves to drive hate out of town.
These values run deep. Until relatively recently, many northern towns were home to the mills, mines, steelworks and factories that powered the world. Being at the centre of a global industry is why internationalism is still well understood in those places. The Tories may well regret mistaking the vote to leave the EU for a Little England style vote to pull up the drawbridge. For many Leave voters back home, it was a rejection of what they perceive to be remote, unaccountable power – not a rejection of our place in the world.
The failure to understand this by politicians of all parties has furthered the sense of dislocation with Westminster. People are understandably angered by the characterisation of all Leave voters as nostalgic, stupid or racist, especially those who have spent their lives fighting off far-right groups who try to divide us.
These are the towns who received Gandhi with warmth, even during the Indian boycott of cotton goods that was destroying the textile mills they relied on, because they recognised the importance of the struggle for independence and felt common cause. Those same sentiments of solidarity, loyalty and love were what drove people to come together to feed starving families during the miners strike, and has driven the emergence of the Asylum Welcome and Hope Not Hate groups that have sprung up across our northern towns to counter the growing menace of the far-right.
This is “the England”, as Orwell describes it, “that lies beneath the surface.”
It is strongly rooted in an instinct to preserve and protect, based on a deep attachment to family, home and community. Those instincts lead people in towns to prioritise security and stability over the fast pace and excitement of city life. But those same instincts also lead us to reject extremism and strife. The sort of strife Johnson is reportedly planning to bring to northern towns has been rejected by voters here over and over again at the ballot box.
We don’t take kindly to people coming to cause trouble. Nor do we appreciate people treating us like we’re stupid. Five years ago, the Tories launched one of their most disastrous Budgets with a crude, stereotypical poster announcing cuts to beer duty and bingo tax to “help hardworking people do more of the things they enjoy”. We didn’t think much of it up north. The Prime Minister would be wise to remember it.
Lisa Nandy is Labour MP for Wigan