Wirral confounds media snobs

Anthony Bevins looks at a constituency where the well-heeled live cheek by jowel with abject poverty
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Indy Politics
Parts of the Wirral South constituency are so well heeled that Conservative cabinet ministers have tended to campaign there to lessen the culture shock of a visit to one of the country's most deprived regions.

There is an awful southern snobbery in some of the media coverage of the Wirral South by-election, with reporters who should know better showing surprise that there is affluence, as well as industrial effluent, on Merseyside.

Unemployment in Heswall, one of the five wards which make up the constituency and which overlooks the delightful Dee estuary and the mountains of North Wales, was only 4.7 per cent in December. In another ward, Clatterbridge, it was just nudging over 5 per cent. But they sit uncomfortably cheek by jowl with places that are steeped in the most abject poverty.

Unemployment in Bidston, at the northern end of the peninsula, was 25.9 per cent in December, with more than four out of 10 men out of work. In the Bromborough ward, 17 per cent of men were out of work, and in the other two wards of the constituency, Bebington and Eastham, male unemployment topped 10 per cent.

It is against that background that the European Union has included the Wirral in the Objective One status - the highest rating for regional aid and assistance. According to the local council: "Wirral is the only metropolitan borough in the UK to have its own office in Brussels" - it knows where its bread is buttered.

The local Labour briefing notes say: "Wirral South is a predominantly prosperous seat containing some of Merseyside's most desirable commuter suburbs: 53 per cent of housing is detached whilst 60 per cent of its working population are A or B grades; 45 per cent of households have two or more cars."

The perception of Wirral South wealth is also highlighted by the strong local presence of the Unilever Group, and the delightful industrial village of Port Sunlight, built for Lever's soap workers in 1888. Vauxhall and Shell also have large-scale local investment. But the politics of the people of Merseyside has been swinging left for many years. Before he died last year, Wirral South's Conservative MP, Barry Porter, told friends of his concern that Labour-voting commuters were moving into his patch and threatening his majority.

The area that once returned Selwyn Lloyd, Geoffrey Howe and Linda Chalker to the House of Commons seems to be slipping fast.

The Labour vote in the 1983 general election was 23.7 per cent of votes cast in Wirral South; in 1987, it was 28 per cent; and in 1992, it moved up to 34.6 per cent. In last year's local elections, Labour polled 37.5 per cent in Wirral South wards - just 0.8 percentage points ahead of the Tories.

Nevertheless, it is highly likely that if Labour wins the seat in a 27 February by-election, it will return to the Tories in a general election. In the meantime, however, the one issue that the Conservatives are clutching at in the hope of saving themselves in the by-election is education. Visiting the constituency yesterday, Brian Mawhinney, the Tory chairman, again warned of the threat to local grammar schools from a party led by people who wanted choice and selection for their own children while wanting to deny it to the children of others. There are seven secondary schools in Wirral South, and only two of them are grammar. It is entirely possible that the parental ballot promised by a Labour government would get rid of them.

Contrasting face of a key constituency

Unemployment (December '96): male 10.3 per cent; female, 3.2 per cent; average 6.8 per cent

Owner occupation: 81.2 per cent (national average 66.3 per cent)

Council housing: 11.3 per cent (national average 24.3 per cent)

Car ownership: 74.4 per cent (national average 66.6 per cent)

Over-40s: 49.8 per cent (national average 45.3 per cent)

Five or more GCSE passes (A-C) in 1996: Wirral Grammar School for

Girls 97 per cent; Wirral Grammar School for Boys 94 per cent; Wirral

Local Education Authority 44 per cent; England 45 per cent

Job Centre offers (Bebington): part-time nursing/care assistance pounds 2.50

per hour; part-time cleaners/cooks/shop assistants pounds 3.50 per hour;

professional/managerial jobs 46.1 per cent (national average 37 per cent)

Ethnic-minority population: 0.9 per cent