“Can you imagine 50 years ago telling the 2,000 people who worked here that eventually this would be a place where they voted Tory?” asked Trevor Barton, sitting in the cafe at the Lancashire Mining Museum in Leigh, where the pitmen of Astley colliery once received their wages. “They’d put you on a stake and burn you.”
It was early March and Barton, a former chief superintendent of Greater Manchester police and chair of the museum, was explaining why he had voted Conservative for the first time in the general election.
For the first time in almost 100 years, Labour had lost Leigh, a collection of former mining and weaving towns and villages in the borough of Wigan. It was such a surprise victory that no TV network had bothered to send a camera to the count and it was left to a reporter from the local paper to capture the historic moment on their mobile phone.
James Grundy, the local Tory councillor who won a 1,965 majority, was so sure he would lose that he hadn’t written a speech. “I had 30 seconds to come up with one. How my legs didn’t go from under me I have no idea,” he said afterwards.
Until a few years earlier, Barton had been a member of the Labour party. He remains a good friend of Andy Burnham, the local MP before he became the mayor of Greater Manchester. But no way was Barton voting Labour in 2019. Jeremy Corbyn was one reason: “About as patriotic as a box of daffodil bulbs.” The shadow cabinet was another: “I wouldn’t let them push my bloody daughter’s toy pram, never mind bloody run a government.”
He wanted “root and branch reform”, a totally different, united Labour party, and described voting for the Brexit party in last year’s European elections as “the stepping stone” to voting Tory. Labour should have promised to honour the referendum result, he said. “If you deny the working-class man, the coalface, the power of their vote, you really have disenfranchised them, and that, that they will not forgive.”
Nine months later and Barton, now 77, has been watching prime ministers’ questions most weeks during the pandemic. He has not been impressed with Keir Starmer. Boris Johnson’s mastery of the detail had been “bloody shambolic at times”, he conceded. But Starmer “asks the questions like he’s prosecuting a bloody murder case. There’s no soul in the man. There’s no feeling. Whereas Boris, God love him, for all his mistakes, he takes people with him … He’s a human being and he seems to care, and that’s why I think people are going to stick with him.”
Despite his background in law enforcement, Barton was not fussed about Dominic Cummings’ trip to Barnard Castle. Durham police investigated and found no crime had been committed, he noted, preferring instead to blame the media. “You guys are not happy sometimes until you’ve actually nailed a poor sod.”
Almost a year on from what she called “the campaign of doom”, Jo Platt – who took over from Burnham as Leigh’s Labour MP and lost the seat to the Tories – thinks her party is miles away from winning it back.
“It’s a huge mountain to climb and I don’t see any movement,” she lamented from her new job overseeing the renovation of Spinners Mill, one of Leigh’s surviving textile buildings. “People are still focused on the last leader and the state of the party. If I look on social media, people are still bringing up Corbyn or his old frontbench. It’s a big job to get away from that.”
Labour was fighting the wrong battles, she complained. “I hate to use the word, but the ‘culture wars’ side of things, where issues come out that people around here just don’t associate with.”
It suits Grundy perfectly to have Labour concentrate on issues with little cut-through in Leigh. The fact that Labour still hadn’t really made clear its Brexit position was ridiculous, he said last week, and its opposition to flights deporting people with criminal convictions to Jamaica was “at right angles to the voters that the Labour party lost at the last election and have been losing sort of gradually over a period of years now.”
Grundy said Starmer “looks and sounds like the north London remainer he is”. But he said he wasn’t bullish about his re-election chances. “I think that if you ask people to choose between the government and basically a very divided opposition that hasn’t yet restaked a claim to economic credibility, I’d have very good chance of retaining my seat,” he said. “But only time will tell.”
Jess Eastoe is a Labour party activist who knows better than most what exercises Leythers. She runs Absolute Leigh, a hyperlocal Facebook group with more than 40,000 members. She is marginally more optimistic about Labour’s chances, having noticed an uptick of complaints about the Tories as the pandemic has worn on. The argument about free school meals cut through most, she said, “to the point where we had to stop allowing the posts because it just was getting too heated”.
Eastoe wants to see a “campaign culture” emerge in the party – “for far too long Labour has seen Leigh as an easy win.” She also wants an end to factionalism in the constituency Labour party, complaining there is still “too much infighting” between the people who still worship Corbyn and the people who hate him.
Back in March, Grundy described his disbelief on election night when he watched the counting of votes from ballot boxes taken from the Plank Lane estate, one of the poorest parts of the constituency and Labour’s major stronghold. “The idea that Plank Lane would be 60% Tory – you’d be sectioned [for predicting it],” he said.
Plank Lane is where Declan Flannery’s mum runs the Pit Stop cafe, the name a nod to the area’s former mining heritage. Many residents worked at the Bickershaw colliery nearby until its closure in 1992. Flannery, a 25-year-old gas fitter, comes from a Labour-voting family but switched to the Tories in December. “The parties aren’t the same now, are they?” he said in March. “Labour is disconnected from the working class.”
As the anniversary of the election approached, Flanery said he had “switched off” from politics. He was fed up with “all the point-scoring between them – it’s pathetic”. Despite describing Johnson as “bumbling”, he said he sympathised with the prime minister. “I just feel like he’s in a lose-lose situation with anything that can’t get everything right, because I don’t think any country’s got everything, right.” It was too easy for Labour to claim it would have done better, he said, dismissing Starmer as “Captain Hindsight”.
Keith Park, a recently retired infectious diseases nurse, agreed. He is one of the many Leythers to say his father, a miner who never learned to read, would have spun in his grave to hear that his son voted Tory in 2019. But he said he’d do the same again, approving of recent policies including cutting the foreign aid budget. “I know Labour were against that. But if you ask the average person in the street, which I consider myself being, am I unhappy? Not necessarily so because, you know, my interpretation of the foreign aid budget is that a lot of money goes to countries that actually don’t need it.”
He approved of Starmer kicking Corbyn out of the parliamentary party. “That impressed me a lot. It showed his authority a lot more than Boris did with his dithering over Cummings,” he said. “But I still think we are better off with the Tories in power at the moment … I still think I would vote for the Tory party, but I’m less sure than I was right at the beginning [after the election].”