In focus: West Midlands
The electoral fortune of the West Midlands has been a tale of two parties and two heartlands. Labour and the Conservatives have each held sway over starkly different communities across the region, with rural constituencies voting blue and metropolitan areas red. This was still the case at the 2015 election, where only four seats changed hands at all, two of which completely wiped the Lib Dems out of the region. Yet despite this traditional divide the Conservatives head into the election full of confidence at their ability to make real inroads into metropolitan seats for the first time.
The West Midlands voted to leave the EU by 59.3%, but the sea change currently predicted in the polls can be attributed to more than just enthusiasm for Brexit. Since Theresa May became Prime Minister the West Midlands has received more political focus than at any time in the previous 10 years. This is a deliberate strategy from the Prime Minister and her team to target working class families in areas such as Birmingham, who they believe are ideologically conservative. The election of Andy Street as the Conservative Metro Mayor for the West Midlands is a sign that this strategy is about to pay off.
West Midlands in numbers
The West Midlands Engine, a slogan for success?
Delivering her speech to the Conservative conference in Birmingham in October, the Prime Minister made clear her pitch to the region – the Midlands Engine will provide jobs. A phrase first launched by the Government in 2015, the Midlands Engine has been firmly adopted by Theresa May as the vehicle through which to show her commitment to driving economic growth in the region. Much has been made of previous comments by Nick Timothy, one of May’s influential chiefs of staff, around what the Conservatives can offer working class voters in Birmingham. It does seem that May’s policy priorities (ensuring stability post referendum, delivering Brexit, revitalising grammar schools) have all been devised to woo the sort of voters who live in Timothy’s backyard of Birmingham Erdington.
But beyond the slogan, the Conservatives have made the Midlands Engine a commitment to driving growth and supporting businesses, seeking to tap into the feeling of being left behind demonstrated by the 59% leave vote in the region. Andy Street fought his mayoral campaign on a platform of creating investment, jobs and opportunities. Street was endorsed by the Prime Minister at every opportunity and she kicked off her election canvassing in Dudley and Wolverhampton, areas which delivered vital votes for Street securing his 3,766 margin of victory over Labour’s Sion Simon. Street’s success will only increase the Tories’ belief that they can take several metropolitan seats from Labour, with no fear of losing their own marginals.
The Tories’ renewed confidence will be further buoyed by the collapse of the UKIP vote across the country. In seats across the West Midlands this will be the key to the Conservatives chances of making gains from Labour, particularly in Stoke on Trent, ‘the Brexit capital of the UK.’ Labour’s victory in the Stoke Central by-election in February seems a long time ago, and new MP Gareth Snell along with Rob Flello and Ruth Smeeth in Stoke South and North will be fortunate to hold on if UKIP’s vote collapses on June 8th. None of these seats has ever returned anything other than a Labour MP.
Analysis by the Birmingham Mail of the swing from Labour to Conservatives in each local authority area in the Metro Mayor election shows the Tories set to take six seats in the Birmingham area. Labour face losing seats with majorities of around 4,000 such as Dudley North, and long standing members of Parliament such as David Winnick who has represented Walsall North since 1979. However the Conservatives have even higher ambitions and are targeting seats such as Jack Dromey’s 5,129 majority in Birmingham Erdington and Emma Reynolds’ 5,495 majority in Wolverhampton North East.
The Tories will continue to target their campaigning on Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership across the region. Corbyn’s approach to campaigning in this region has already come under fire for his focus on Tory-held rural seats such as Warwick and Leamington, which Conservative Chris White took in 2010. Labour is unlikely to regain this or similar seats that it won in 1997 and the local election results highlight this. In Warwickshire the party lost 10 council seats to the Tories, who took full control of the council. Chair of the Warwickshire Labour group Philip Johnson laid the blame for this collapse firmly at Corbyn’s door, commenting, ‘while Jeremy Corbyn’s policies can be popular and quite well-received by the public, his leadership style isn’t. People have been saying to us that Jeremy Corbyn’s style has been putting them off voting Labour.’
It is clear that this year Labour can neither rely on its heartlands nor expect to pick up former seats; the balance of power is shifting in the West Midlands.
Seats in focus
Gisela Stuart, Lab (stepping down)
EU Referendum Result
Preet Gill, Labour
Caroline Squire, Conservative
A constituency of contradictions and a safe Tory seat until 1997, Gisela Stuart was the very popular local MP who vocally campaigned to leave the EU in a remain voting area. Stuart’s decision to stand down at this election has widened the window of opportunity for the Conservatives. They have selected Caroline Squire to fight the seat, a public affairs consultant who has previously worked for the party, she brings with her local connections as the great great granddaughter of the Birmingham statesman Joseph Chamberlain. Labour’s candidate Preet Gill, a local councillor, will have to work to prevent voters succumbing to the nostalgia of the Chamberlain-inspired social reforming Conservatism being put forward by Theresa May. Whatever the outcome, the seat will maintain its record of electing a female MP, which it has done since 1953.
Wolverhampton South West
Rob Marris, Lab (standing down)
EU Referendum Result
Paul Uppal Conservative, Eleanor Smith Labour
Having lost in 2010 to Conservative Paul Uppal, Labour took back Wolverhampton South West with former MP Rob Marris in 2015 as one of only two gains for the party in the region, securing the seat by a mere 801 votes. Such a slim majority would be a Tory target at any time, but the party will be confident of taking it back this year thanks to them fielding former MP Paul Uppal, and the decisive leave vote from the whole of Wolverhampton. However Uppal will have to fight a strong local campaign as his Labour challenger Eleanor Smith is determined to make the future of the NHS central to her pitch. Smith is a nurse at the Birmingham Women’s and Children’s NHS Foundation Trust and a popular member of the local party, but it is unlikely she will hold out against the national swing.
Ones to Watch
|If Conservative James Bird takes Walsall South from Valerie Vaz, overturning her 6,007 majority, then the Conservatives are set for a huge majority. Similarly if they succeed in taking Birmingham Erdington and Wolverhampton North East it will signal an even greater swing than the mayoral election predicted.||If Labour veterans Jim Cunningham and Geoffrey Robinson hold on to their Coventry South and Coventry North West seats respectively then the party will be doing better than expected. The Tories firmly expect to take their first seats in Coventry for over 20 years.||If Deputy Labour Leader Tom Watson’s majority of 9,470 comes under threat in West Bromwich West, then the party is truly headed for disaster.|