If you’re like me and you’ve grown up in an ex-mining town in the North of England, you’ll feel that there are characteristics that are unique to these towns. A strong sense of community spirit, pride and a fondness for “’arping back” to years long gone.
Towns like Wigan are fiercely set in their ways and hold on tight to their traditions which are passed on through generations. Beside the positive sides to the traditions these towns hold dear, there also are things we must let go of: distrust of ‘outsiders’, scepticism towards new technologies, traditional family values that hold little relevance in today’s society, reliably voting Labour in elections.
In 2016, my town voted to leave the European Union. The result was heart-breaking to come to terms with, especially when I understood that my family and close friends voted to leave, too. The results from these old mining towns are often unfairly written off as being racially motivated or ignorant.
For me personally, this misconception is disheartening to hear. My friends and family aren’t racist but they are fond of tradition. For Wigan as a whole, Brexit was an expression of rebellion against the status quo and – from what I can see – an act of defending those traditions.
Wigan needs change but Brexit isn’t that change
Wigan, like many other mining towns, has been consistently neglected by consecutive governments. Next to no real investment has been seen from our national government to address a void that first appeared after the miners’ strike in the 1980s. All that Wigan has seen is cuts and stagnation, which has only created a tighter grip on those traditions as people feel traditions are all they have left.
Only recently it came forward that since 2014, the Home Office had failed to spend £3.5 million that was sent from the EU to tackle child poverty. In Wigan nearly a quarter of the borough’s children are living in poverty. This is callously neglectful and a clear indication of how Wigan is being let down.
There have been no real opportunities to fill the void left by Thatcher’s government. The town has been given no opportunity to develop a new identity or a sense of purpose. Couple this with a charismatic figure appearing on your TV, in your newspaper and on your phone who offers to take you back to the good old days if you vote to leave the European Union. The promises speak to you on an emotional level. And indeed, Wigan needs change. But Brexit isn’t that change.
A referendum isn’t enough, we need a vision
If the argument for a People’s Vote is to hold any water in towns like Wigan, it requires a change in attitudes. As for Remain activists, we need to challenge the misconceptions about towns like Wigan in our own ranks and understand that the results from areas like this are more nuanced than they appear. As for residents in mining towns, there needs to be an encouragement to embrace change and start looking ahead to the future instead of dwelling on our past.
Finally, as for our political leaders there needs to be a comprehensive plan on how we can start to invest in and revitalise these communities, and listen carefully to why people voted to leave in these areas. Above all of this, we need to be honest with ourselves.
Nothing will instantly fix the divisions and anger that have permeated the UK since the 2016 referendum. It is far easier to break something than it is to fix it – so we must be honest that a referendum in itself won’t fix those divisions, even though it’s a step in the right direction.
We must secure an economic foundation to repair our social divisions, and reform our democracy and political processes to ensure we don’t fall into the same uncertainty again in the future.
Especially for towns like Wigan it isn’t enough to just campaign for a second referendum. We have to offer a credible vision for the town. We have to offer a reassurance that there is nothing to fear when we move away from some of our traditions and embrace the opportunities that come with our EU membership, including immigration.
Brexit is the greatest distraction to our parliament in living memory. While our politicians argue about how to translate the referendum result, more children are left in poverty – suffering from the incompetence of our leaders.