General election 2015: A Birmingham seat where the Tories come up against their race problem
The unwillingness of ethnic minorities to vote Conservative will colour the party’s campaign next year
If you were a Conservative strategist looking down a list of marginal seats to target at the next election, it should be hard to ignore Birmingham Edgbaston.
Labour’s Gisela Stuart has a majority of just 1,274 in one of the most affluent areas of the city, where the unemployment rate is lower than the city’s average... and falling.
Household income in the constituency is above the city’s average, while it contains significant numbers of what marketing men describe as “prosperous professionals, educated urbanites and aspiring singles”.
But so far the Conservatives have yet to select a candidate for Edgbaston, are not putting resources into the seat and are concentrating their energies on a far less likely target a few miles away.
That seat is Birmingham Northfield, best known as the former home of Rover, which dominated the constituency with its vast car plant at Longbridge. It has a higher unemployment rate than Edgbaston, a lower household income and larger numbers of so-called “hard pressed households”.
It doesn’t seem like natural Tory territory. But three factors make it a more credible alternative. Firstly, Northfield has a lower proportion of ethnic-minority voters than Edgbaston. At the 2010 election, only 16 per cent of ethnic-minority voters supported the Conservatives and more than two-thirds voted Labour – even if they actually held Tory views. Not being white was the single best predictor that somebody would not vote Conservative.
The second factor is the candidate. The Conservatives have selected Rachel Maclean, a mother-of-four with a slight local accent. She ran her own business and is as far from being a career politician as you’re likely to get.
The Tories hope to contrast Ms Maclean with Richard Burden, the Labour MP who has held the seat since 1992 and, in Westminster at least, has never had a particularly high profile. Finally, the Tories believe that the demographics of Northfield are moving in their favour. The area has undergone a dramatic transformation since the Longbridge plant finally stopped mass production in 2005. Many new houses have been built and the area is attracting a new type of resident who works in central Birmingham but has moved to Northfield for more space to bring up a family. These people, the Conservatives hope, will be more inclined to vote for them and help to overturn Mr Burden’s 2,782 majority.
“I think this area is improving,” says Ms Maclean, when we meet for a coffee in the spanking new and rather “plonked” shopping centre on the site of the former plant.
“Job prospects around here are much better than they used to be,” she says. “After Rover shut down, the area was desperate, but now it feels like it’s up and coming.
“For me, the message is that people want a local person who makes a difference in the local area. The sense I get is that they are prepared to give a new person a chance, which is really why I’m working hard to demonstrate I can be that person. I think I can make a difference.”
But you can’t help but feel – as plausible a candidate as Ms Maclean is – she could just as easily stood in Edgbaston and it is the party’s weakness there, rather than its strength in Northfield, that is leading it to target the seat.
That is certainly the view of Mr Burden, but he also admits he has a fight on his hands. “In terms of demographics it is the sort of place the Conservatives would go for,” he says. “But they tried and failed in 2005 at the height of the problems with MG Rover and, while no MP has his or her seat by right, things are going in the correct direction for us.
“We are winning council seats that were previously held by the Tories – even in traditional Tory areas. No doubt this is still a marginal, but it is hard to see how they will be able to win on their record in Government.”
And on a new estate near the centre of Longbridge, it was certainly hard to find Conservative voters. Sophia Von Anrep, who works in human resources and moved in two years ago from Herefordshire, says she’ll be voting Labour.
“I should vote Tory, I guess, because I’m middle class and that’s who their policies are aimed at,” she says. “But Labour made so much more effort on things like child poverty than the Tories. I also don’t like all this emphasis on volunteers. There should be services that the state provides.”
Matthew Georgiou, another resident, agreed. Asked about the Tories’ prospects, he said: “No chance. It’s a working-class area.”
Speaking to people in the shopping centre, most said the area had improved but tended to not credit any politician or political party. Most were disillusioned with party politics and said they wouldn’t vote at all. “I think this area is improving,” said Alison McGann. “Job prospects around here are much better than they used to be. After Rover shut down the area was desperate, but now it feels like it’s up and coming.”
And who gets the credit?
“You know, I just don’t know,” she admits. “But certainly not politicians.”
After a day in Northfield, you are left with the impression that, while the seat is not an impossible challenge for the Conservatives – especially with a strong and active candidate – it is still a big ask.
Much will depend which party can get its voters motivated to come out on the day. And that will be a struggle for them all.
Northfield 2010 results
Richard Burden (Lab): 16,841
Keely Huxtable (Con): 14,059
Mike Dixon (Lib Dem): 6,550
Les Orton (BNP): 2,290
John Borthwick (Ukip): 1,363
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