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Nuneaton, on the front line of politics, the town Labour couldn’t win

Nuneaton, on the front line of politics, the town Labour couldn’t win

🕔26.May 2015

Most people, if they know anything at all about Nuneaton, probably have a hazy recollection that the camp comic Larry Grayson was born here and lived in the town, writes Paul Dale.

Also, Terry Wogan once satirised Nuneaton for the ‘ring road’ that runs through the town centre.

Oh, and it is a place I have been happy to call home for 29 years.

And that’s about it.

But Nuneaton has enjoyed fifteen minutes of fame because it is now on the front line of politics. It is the parliamentary constituency that stayed Tory at the 2015 General Election, signalling the precise moment when Labour leader Ed Miliband knew for certain that the game was well and truly over.

The swing required for Labour to take Nuneaton, about 2.5 per cent, would if repeated across the country have sent Mr Miliband to Downing Street.

As things turned out, the town’s Tory MP Marcus Jones was returned for a second term with an increased majority. His share of the vote was 45.5 per cent, up four per cent on 2010. Labour candidate Vicky Fowler managed 34.8 per cent, down by two per cent on 2010.

UKIP, contesting Nuneaton for the first time, picked up 14.4 per cent of votes cast.

We can argue about what might have happened if UKIP had not stood. Would Jones’ majority have been even greater? Would Labour have picked up more votes and won the seat?

But we are where we are, and the swing from Labour to Tory in Nuneaton at the 2015 General Election was an impressive three per cent.

Actually, Ed Miliband was in Nuneaton during the election campaign. But as seems to be the way with political leaders these days, he didn’t meet any ordinary people, choosing instead to unveil posters on a sports ground away from the town centre in front of invited Labour party members.

It was quite possibly this insular approach, making fleeting contact only with people who wanted to wish him well, that fed Mr Miliband’s delusion that Britain had moved to the left since 2010 and that voters would be happy to accept what became seen as a high-tax anti-business agenda.

If his battle bus had toured the leafier parts of Nuneaton in the week before polling day he could have seen for himself an explosion of ‘vote Conservative’ posters, which while hardly a scientific way of predicting the result would have given him food for thought. Personally, I’d not seen such an effort by the Tories since 1992.

Candidates battling to succeed Mr Miliband will roll into town on 17 June when the BBC’s Newsnight programme hosts a live hustings event.

Labour’s failure to win in Nuneaton, a gritty former mining town where unemployment and the number of benefit claimants are higher than the Warwickshire average, begs the question where on earth can the party that likes to think it represents the working classes win?

A stroll through Nuneaton makes this an even tougher question to answer since it is obvious that recent years have not been that kind to the centre. There is a newish shopping mall, it is true, but at least 27 shops are shut in the two main streets. Even the charity stores are going out of business.

A community café, offering the internet for families not online at home as well as competitively priced meals and drinks, is closing at the end of this month. The café is routinely packed with customers but the rent is too high to survive, according to the owners.

Bostocks, family butchers and a fixture in the town since the 1880s, shut for good a couple of weeks ago. The owner said she could no longer compete with the likes of Asda down the road.

Marks and Spencer has long since disappeared from Nuneaton. Debenhams remains, for now, but is housed in an ancient building in obvious need of modernisation and you would not put your life savings on betting that the store will still be here in ten years’ time.

The local council keeps talking about building splendid new shops with offices and a hotel, but nothing ever happens. The most significant development in recent years apart from the Rope Walk shopping centre was the Orwellian-named Justice Centre, or in plain English a police station and magistrates’ courts. Now, that is a busy building.

The people that flock to the twice weekly street market are mostly those without the transport to travel to the vast out of town shopping centres, Junction 21 off the M1 and the Ricoh to the north of Coventry, where parking is free and hypermarkets offer everything you might need under one roof.

The town centre during the week is the sad domain of unemployed people with nothing much to do. Mobility scooters are everywhere and it is obvious that many of the less able Nuneaton folk are relatively young, most likely suffering the effects of smoking, alcohol and poor diet over many years.

In many ways Nuneaton is typical of the former mining and manufacturing Midland towns that are in the process of reinventing themselves, and are communities which Labour must reconnect with to stand any chance of winning a majority at the 2020 General Election.

The rather shabby town centre surrounded by row after row of Victorian and Edwardian terraced housing gives way to the smarter middle class areas of Whitestone and Weddington, a mixture of new detached houses and the old mansions built at the end of the 19th century by factory owners..

Hundreds of new detached homes have been built in recent years and more estates are planned. Commuters travelling to work in Birmingham, Leicester, Coventry and even London are snapping up these properties almost as soon as they come on to the market. In other words, the demographic of Nuneaton is shifting, and not necessarily to Labour’s advantage.

We have been here before. Nuneaton unexpectedly went Conservative at the 1983 General Election when local businessman Lew Stevens took the seat from Labour. Then as now the Conservatives benefited from Labour’s failure to get the C1 skilled working class vote on board. Stevens held on at the 1987 election, finally losing to Labour’s Bill Olner in 1992. Marcus Jones won in 2010 and again this year.

So for 14 of the past 32 years, Nuneaton has had a Conservative MP.

It is by no means just the newcomers, the commuters to well paid jobs, who Labour has to get on board. Whoever succeeds Mr Miliband must convince inherently conservative working people that Labour is on their side and is the party that backs rather than threatens the wealth creators.

I’d like Andy Burnham and Yvette Cooper to meet some real people for once, without advisers, press officers and hangers-on in tow. A good place to start their voyage of discovery would be Nuneaton Golf Club, where I am a member.

Those wishing to lead the Labour party would quickly be disabused of any prejudices they may have about golf clubs being bastions of privilege and only for the wealthy.

Yes, members are prepared to pay almost £1,000 a year to play golf, but the membership is dominated by the type of people the Marxist historian Eric Hobsbawm categorised as the ‘working class aristocracy’ – plumbers, electricians, carpenters, builders, panel beaters, shop fitters, (and political journos turned bloggers, Ed.) skilled workers often running their own small businesses, taking risks, employing people and, yes, creating wealth.

Such people are to be found in large numbers across the Midlands, and as Hobsbawm pointed out in 1964 they tend to be more “politically moderate” than the mass of workers.

Labour cannot win the next general election by appealing solely to those who work in the public sector or who are unemployed and struggling to get by on benefits. The mass of votes required for victory, in England at any rate, simply isn’t there.

The party that supports golf clubs is a bit outlandish for a slogan, but it could be a starting point.

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