COVENTRY — The struggle Labour faces in the UK general election can be seen clearly in the city of Coventry, where activists fear the election of Conservative Andy Street as the West Midlands mayor last week could be a sign of worse things to come.
Street defeated Labour’s Siôn Simon to win the mayoralty in last week’s local elections. It was a major victory for the Conservatives, who overturned the 9.4% lead the Centre for Cities estimates Labour had over the Tories in 2015.
On June 8 it’ll be parliamentary seats up for grabs and the Tories have their eyes fixed on a swathe of seats in the West Midlands battlegrounds where general elections are often won and lost. Those targeted by the Tories include Coventry South and Coventry North West, both of which voted in favour of leaving the EU.
Labour has held the former since 1964 and latter since its creation in 1976 but fears Jeremy Corbyn’s unpopularity combined with a potential UKIP collapse could hand the Tories two seats in a city it once had no hope of success.
“I’ve voted Labour all my life. I’m the daughter of a trade unionist, working class girl but I won’t be voting for them this time,” nurse Theresa told me when I spent a day in the city on Thursday.
“It’s Corbyn. He just isn’t a leader. He doesn’t represent the working-class.
“We want someone who is strong and with charisma, who’s gonna stand up for working-class people with working-class views. Jeremy Corbyn could cause a war.”
The phenomenon of voters in formerly safe Labour seats turning to the Conservatives is very real — and it isn’t going away.
“Labour has taken its vote for granted for years”
Labour’s last prime minister Gordon Brown was in the city on Friday to give a speech at the University.
He urged local party members to show “courage” in difficult times and campaign for Labour candidates who will “hold the government to account” — but, strikingly, not candidates who will contribute to a successful government.
Brown’s speech closer resembled a pick-me-up for a party awaiting disaster than a pre-election battle cry for a Labour party on the brink of victory. Its tone was defiant, but the language defeatist. Why?
Coventry, 100 miles north of London and 20 miles east of neighbouring Birmingham, is a target city for May. In 2015 Labour’s lead over the Tories in Coventry South was 7.3% and in North West slightly larger at 10%. But these margins could well be overturned with large numbers of former Labour voters set to switch to the Conservatives.
There are eight West Midlands seats in the Tories’ top 50 target seats, including both Coventry South and Coventry North West. Coventry South is most vulnerable of the pair with just a 3.65% swing needed for it to change hands.
Coventry South’s current MP Jim Cunningham wasn’t available to speak to me about his party’s troubles in the region, but I was able to sit down with Tory candidate Michelle Lowe in a cafe nestled behind St Michael’s Cathedral.
Like other Tory candidates I’ve interviewed during the campaign so far, Lowe was doggedly on-message, repeatedly stressing the importance of “strong and stable leadership” and the dangers of a Corbyn-led “coalition of chaos”.
Keen to get beyond campaign slogans, I quizzed Lowe on what she had been hearing on doorsteps and, crucially, why people in Coventry, who had for generations been brought up to vote Labour, were going to the Conservatives.
“I think Labour has taken its vote for granted for years,” she explained.
“This is something that’s been on the cards for a long time. The EU referendum crystallised that as voters just felt that the Labour Party was not listening to them. People can’t get on the housing market in this country; people feel that their concerns about immigration have been ignored by the Labour Party. Labour has forgotten its roots.
“People started to kick back by voting UKIP but now they are switching to the Conservatives.
“I’ve met a lot of lifelong Labour voters who have said they’re going to back the Conservatives and Theresa May this time around and it’s about Brexit and it’s about immigration.”
Lowe, originally from Kent, added: “They don’t like Corbyn.
“They don’t see him as the man to lead Britain and deliver for Britain. Theresa May is very, very popular. If you’ve got a leaflet with Theresa’s face on it, they point at it and say they’re voting for her.
“There is no doubt how popular she is.”
“It’s not necessarily the end”
A key factor in determining who wins the contests in Coventry will be how 2015 UKIP voters behave on polling day.
ICM data shows the number of people who voted UKIP at the last election who intend to do so this time is just 35%, while 37% intend to vote Conservatives. UKIP picked up 13.1% of the vote in Coventry South in 2015 and 15.7% in North West. It’s clear that a UKIP collapse in Coventry would likely boost the Tories and damage’s Labour hopes.
UKIP’s candidate in Coventry South is 28-year-old Ian Rogers, who is standing in his first parliamentary election.
I put to Rogers the theory that the general election will be breaking point for the party. Paul Nuttall-led UKIP lost 145 council seats in last week’s local elections, winning one, and are standing aside in hundreds of seats nationwide.
His response wasn’t exactly oozing with confidence.”It’s not necessarily the end,” he explained.
“Obviously it is a Brexit election and the Tories are rolling out this rhetoric about strong and stable governance and people seem to be listening to that. Traditionally the choice is tribal isn’t it: Labour or Conservative.
“We are aware of that. But it is a democracy and there needs to be a UKIP candidate there to stand.”
UKIP activists who I met on Friday were confident that 2015 voters would stay loyal to the party — and Labour will quietly be hoping for the same thing.
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