Johnson says he wants to go to the polls. On Monday, he’ll seek Parliament’s approval for a Dec. 12 general election. The prime minister might not get his wish immediately — but his Conservative Party lacks a governing majority and can’t hold on for long.
Johnson would no doubt love to sell himself as the man who got Brexit done. But if Brexit is delayed, again, he is planning to campaign against the establishment — against the devious lawmakers, overreaching jurists and other elites who conspired to deny the country its freedom from the European Union. Never mind that Johnson is a scion of privilege — a diplomat’s son, schooled at Eton and Oxford, who went on to become a celebrity journalist and politician with a country home.
Johnson and his Conservative Party are hoping they can tap into the well of populist anger stirred up by Brexit. And if they are going to win, they’re going to need to win over people who live in places like Wigan.
Wigan’s voters have gone for Labour ever since the center-left party was born. The city has sent a Labour lawmaker to Parliament in every general election since 1918. Its city council has been dominated by Labour for generations; today, the party holds 57 of 75 seats.
But Wigan ignored Labour’s London-based leaders in June 2016 and voted enthusiastically — 64 percent — to leave the E.U.
Wigan wanted — and more important, still wants — Brexit, according to opinion surveys.
So the question in a general election will be: Can Johnson get “Labour Leavers” to stray from the comfort of their traditional political home?
Somewhere between 3 million and 4 million British Labour voters supported “leave” in the 2016 referendum. That’s a lot of potential swing voters.
In the May elections for the European Parliament, a resounding 41 percent of voters in Wigan backed political gadfly Nigel Farage’s upstart, single-issue Brexit Party, pushing Labour into second place, as it shed a fifth of its votes from 2014.
“It was so bad, I try not to think about it,” said Gareth Flynn, a local Labour organizer.
Local volunteers are the foot soldiers in British general elections. They pass out leaflets and make their case door-to-door, urging their neighbors to show up at the polls.
And what these volunteers see and hear in the Midlands and northern England is that Johnson is a decent salesman. They detect that Brexit is as popular as ever, maybe even more so, especially among voters who feel like they’ve been ignored — or slandered as gullible, xenophobic, closet racists too ignorant to see all the upsides of continued membership in the world’s largest trade bloc.
“We were told, ‘You’ve never had it so good,’ but Wigan never really felt the benefit of the European Union,” Flynn said. “We know we sent more money to Europe than we’ve got back. We’re not fools.”
Flynn recalls distributing Labour leaflets in 2016 that highlighted how remaining in the E.U. would mean cheaper cellphone bills when people traveled in Europe.
“Son, I haven’t been on proper holiday in four years,” passersby told him. “Roaming charges in the south of France wasn’t cutting it,” he said.
“There is a very, very strong sense of anger in towns like mine,” Wigan’s member of Parliament, Lisa Nandy, said on a Guardian podcast last month.
“We asked people to come out, we asked them what they thought, we asked them to choose. And now we’re saying, actually, I’m afraid we’ve decided differently,” she said. “And it feeds that sense of being alienated from the political system, and a political system that just simply doesn’t care what people think.”
Nandy has tried to bridge conflicting positions on Brexit. In a challenge to her party’s leadership in recent days, she supported moving Johnson’s Brexit deal forward in the approval process “to see if we can improve this deal and keep people’s trust in our democracy.”
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn assured Nandy that he understood concerns in constituencies like hers, adding, “I know that she joins me in being pretty alarmed at the way in which manufacturing industry is under stress at the moment” and could leave Britain as the result of a sharp break with the E.U.
The message to Labour Leavers: We’re still fighting for you.
On the facade of Wigan’s Victorian, red-brick City Hall, there’s a plaque that reads: “By the end of the 19th century Wigan was one of the most important mining centers in the country, upwards of a thousand pit shafts having been sunk within five miles of the town.”
Author George Orwell reported on the living conditions of the miners here in a 1937 social history, “The Road to Wigan Pier.” He described the coal pits as “a place like hell,” the work crushing, death-dealing. He wrote about a “monstrous scenery of slag heaps, chimneys, piled scrap iron, foul canals,” where the boardinghouses served “vile food” to day-wage slaves living in slums, filled with “sickly aging people creeping round and round them like black beetles.”
Wigan still has some aging miners, although the coal pits have been closed for decades. Heinz is the largest employer now.
The mayor of Wigan, Steve Dawber, is old-school Labour, a retired union rep who spent three decades at the Heinz processing plant on the edge of town. The plant employed 14,000 workers when Dawber started there in 1979, loading boxes of beans onto pallets. It employs 1,200 today, while churning out more product than ever before, an amazing billion cans of baked beans a year.
“Automation and artificial intelligence,” said Dawber, that’s what is changing the British worker’s life.
On top of those changes, the mayor said, Wigan was hit hard by the “austerity budgets” pushed through by the Conservative Party governments of David Cameron and Theresa May. The city council had to find $175 million in cuts. It struggled to provide basic services. Charities had to step in to keep swimming pools and libraries open.
Dawber is proud they didn’t raise local taxes.
“We’re a poor town,” he said. “We go up a fiver a month on the council tax, a lot of people would suffer. You don’t believe it? They don’t have the extra fiver. They’d have less than nothing.”
The mayor said that in Wigan, “Europe is for somebody else.”
As a political candidate, Dawber said, “if you tell people here you want to remain, you might as well shoot yourself.”
“If we had a second referendum, Wigan would vote for no deal,” he said. “Doesn’t matter if we were missing our European medicines, if no European foods came. We’d make do. That’s the thinking.”
William Malloy is the candidate the new Brexit Party has selected to stand in Wigan in the next general election. He works as a contractor in the civil service, an accountant, and travels three days a week to London.
“We haven’t stopped believing, haven’t changed our minds about Brexit,” he said. “We don’t know all details of a deal versus no-deal. We just want out.”
In a general election, with Brexit still undone, he doubted that his Labour Leaver neighbors would pivot to Johnson’s Conservatives.
“They just can’t,” Malloy said. There’s too much baggage. “Their fathers, their fathers’ fathers and on and on, they voted Labour.” It’s in their DNA.
“The Tories can’t represent people here,” he said. “They are the establishment, no matter what Boris says. They are the owners, not the workers. This is a working-class city. There’s not many millionaires in Wigan. There’s no lords and ladies here.”
Michael Winstanley, leader of the group of eight Conservatives on the Wigan council, assessed that at least some of the local voters seem willing to back Johnson.
“When I go out and give leaflets, a lot of people say to me, ‘Boris is going to get us out,’ ” Winstanley said. “That message that Boris Johnson is constantly playing? It seems to be going down well. People say, ‘At least I know what he’s all about.’ ”
Winstanley said that Labour’s muddled position — or nuanced, take your pick — has made locals “feel like the Labour Party isn’t theirs anymore.”
At Labour’s annual conference last month, Corbyn beat back a grass-roots push by his members to declare themselves a pro-
Instead, the party’s position is: Let Johnson fail at delivering Brexit by Oct. 31; then stage a general election; beat the Conservatives; negotiate a Labour Brexit deal with Brussels; then decide as a party whether to take that deal; then put it before the voters in a second referendum.
Flynn, the Labour door-knocker, said that was the best position — the most ethical one. But he was a little worried.
“Now the idea — the fear you might call it — is that the next election will be all about Brexit,” he said. “And in that case, we’ve got some explaining to do.”