Before the pandemic hit the UK, the Guardian’s North of England editor, Helen Pidd, and photographer Chris Thomond spent time in Leigh, a “red wall” constituency in Wigan, Greater Manchester, which had just gone Conservative for the first time in more than 100 years. They returned on Wednesday to ask what residents thought of Rishi Sunak’s summer statement.
It was early March when we first met Jamie-Lea Dooley at her youth club in Tyldesley, in the north of the Leigh constituency. About to turn 16, she had just received her National Insurance card and hoped to soon have a weekend job. “It is my greatest fear to not have money, to be struggling,” she said. She’d heard it was getting increasingly hard to get a mortgage, and wondered if she would ever own her own home, with average house prices already almost £190,000 where she lives.
Listening to Rishi Sunak’s summer statement on Wednesday, she asked who was going to pay for the spending bonanza. “All this money he’s putting in to get young people jobs is good. But at some point surely he is going to have to get that money back and he will put taxes up. My generation will be the ones to pay for it eventually. That’s what I’m scared of.”
She thought the government had probably done the best it could: her grandparents, who empty sanitiser bins for a hygiene company, had both been furloughed. Hopefully they would both keep their jobs with Sunak’s £1,000-a-head incentive for firms who do not make staff redundant. She’d voted Labour in mock elections at school in December, she said, but might now be more inclined to vote Tory when she goes to the ballot box for real.
In Leigh town centre on Wednesday afternoon, Andrew Twentyman was on the phone, sourcing nduja sausage for his artisanal pizza parlour, recently reopened at under 50% capacity. A first-time Tory voter in December’s general election, Sunak’s hospitality package made him feel “massively vindicated” for switching his vote from Labour. “Can you imagine what state we’d be in if Jeremy Corbyn had been in charge of all this?” he asked.
Twentyman’s Pizza doesn’t normally open on Monday and Tuesdays, but that will change in August, when Sunak’s “Eat out to help out” scheme begins, offering households a 50% reduction, of up to £10 per head, on dine-in meals and non-alcoholic drinks. “Our average spend per head is £17, so that’s perfect for us,” said Twentyman. Better still was the VAT cut: “For anyone who is on a knife-edge, that will make a real difference.”
For the first two months of lockdown, Twentyman furloughed himself, his wife and their seven employees, opening up on 20 May as a takeaway business. Without the furlough scheme, a £25,000 government grant and the offer of a no-questions-asked loan, Twentyman’s would undoubtedly have gone under, he said. “The government has basically invested in us. Half the businesses in the UK are effectively now part-government owned.”
Wigan council has given out over £64m in Covid grants to 5,850 local businesses, but local unemployment has still rocketed. Between March and May, Universal Credit claimants in the Leigh constituency rose by 65%, from 6,188 to 10,252.
Around half of the businesses on Bradshawgate, Leigh’s main shopping street, appeared open on Monday, with a queue of masked punters lining up outside the pawnbrokers. On one sidestreet, an odd new business had opened, billing itself as Covid-19 Buster, selling masks and hand sanitisers as well as curious t-shirts saying “2 metre rule/Social distancing/Self Isolate/ Funny Old World!”. The shop was manned by the tenant of the flat upstairs, a 35-year-old nursery nurse currently on furlough who said he was “desperate to get back to work”.
In an immaculate house a 15-minute walk from Leigh town centre live NHS nurses Keith and Jacqueline Park – though not for long. They are soon to downsize to a nearby bungalow, and the stamp duty cut has come at just the right time.
“Before this, we were thinking of changing the kitchen in the bungalow, but weren’t sure, as it’s quite nice already. But now we know we will be saving a few thousand pounds we will go ahead,” said Keith, 68.
He recently retired from the NHS, where he worked for years as an infectious diseases nurse. He felt able to vote Tory only after burying his dad – “He’d kill me!” – and said he was primarily motivated by a desire to cut immigration in a borough that is 97% white. “Whole sections of Leigh that are colonised with new entrants,” he said in March, claiming that when he used to do contact tracing for TB, almost all the new infections came from asylum seekers from Africa and the Middle East.
He was disappointed that Sunak had not announced anything to try to recruit the 43,000 nurses the NHS needs.
“Think of all the excess deaths we’ve had from Covid-19; more than 44,000 of them have been in my age group, the over-65s,” he said. “Surely the government has saved money as a result? That’s 44,000 fewer pensions the government is paying each week, plus they have probably saved a fortune in care home fees, too. I’d like to see that money going into the NHS, not just hospitality.”