Sunday, 8 February 2015

The general election in the Heart of England

Wyn Grant, from the University of Warwick, discusses the forthcoming British general election.

Recently I did an interview for the BBC from Coleshill in the North Warwickshire constituency which, like the other Warwickshire constituencies, lies at the heart of England.   The Conservative majority in Coleshill is 54 and it is where the election night coverage for BBC West Midlands will come from.

So far we are seeing very little movement of voters across the country from Conservative to Labour so much will depend on movements to and from the minor parties (as well as the votes of first time voters and those who did not vote in 2010 but choose to do so in 2015).  How many left-leaning Liberal Democrats will switch to Labour or the Greens?   Will the ‘none of the above’ vote switch to UKIP?   How many votes will UKIP take from the Conservatives?   Will the Conservative ploy of talking up the Greens increase the number of votes they take from Labour?   Will the Scottish Nationalist surge continue until polling day and deprive Labour of a majority?

All of the Warwickshire seats are going to return Conservative or Labour MPs but, as elsewhere, much will depend on the votes drawn away from the main parties by the smaller parties.    The Financial Times recently described[1] North Warwickshire as ‘a seat that almost defines Middle England: a muddle of small towns and villages squeezed between Nuneaton ad the suburbs of Coventry and Birmingham – some of it pretty, most of it not.   The biggest place is the old mining town of Bedworth.’   Today a major employer is the BMW engine plant at Coleshill.

The incumbent Conservative MP, Dan Byles, is standing down, having found the life of a backbench MP rather dull compared with his former occupations of transatlantic rower and polar trekker.   The Labour MP for 18 years, Mike O’Brien, who held eight junior ministerial posts, is standing again.  In 2010 the BNP got 4.5 per cent of the vote and UKIP 2.8 per cent with the Lib Dems on 11.6 per cent.   Immigrants are rare, but that does not prevent an effective populist right appeal.   Unemployment is low and, like the West Midlands generally, has been falling rapidly.   Nevertheless, it would be a great surprise if Mike O’Brien, whom many local people think still is the MP, did not win back the seat.   Indeed, failure to do so would signal a bad night for Labour.

Labour would also hope to win the adjacent seat of Nuneaton which is target seat Number 38 with a Conservative majority of 2.069.   Vicky Fowler was adopted as the Labour candidate at the age of 22, shortly after graduating with a politics degree from Warwick University.  She went to school locally, but incumbent MP Marcus Jones has lived in the town all his life and was formerly leader of the local council.    UKIP did not stand here last time and the BNP got 6.3 per cent of the vote.   UKIP may well take away enough Conservative votes to lose them the seat.

In Rugby Mark Pawsey’s father was MP for the seat from 1983 and then for Rugby and Kenilworth which he lost in a shock result in 1997.   His majority of 6,000 should withstand the Labour challenge unless things go very badly for the Conservatives.   The two main parties took over 75 per cent of the vote in 2010 with the Liberal Democrats in third place with under 20 per cent of the vote.   Although containing Rugby School, the town has a strong manufacturing sector.

Warwick and Leamington was once known as the ‘Garden of Eden’ and Sir Anthony Eden used to process in an open topped car along streets dressed with bunting and thronged with cheering crowds when he visited the constituency.   The seat which the Countess of Warwick once attempted to take for Labour was held by them from 1997 to 2010 when former motor industry manager Chris White won it on a 8.8 per cent swing for the Conservatives.   A very moderate Conservative with an interest in overseas development, White has been an assiduous constituency MP and incumbency may be decisive.   His opposition to the HS2 train, which will run through the constituency, cost him any chance of preferment. The UKIP presence is not thought to be a strong one.

In neighbouring Kenilworth and Southam, Jeremy Wright has confined himself to criticising details of the HS2 route and was appointed attorney-general in the 2014 re-shuffle.   He won 53.6 per cent of the vote in 2010 and should have no difficulty in retaining the seat.  In Stratford upon Avon Nadhim Zahawi also has a strong grip on the seat for the Conservatives, despite some controversy over an expenses claim to heat the stables of his horse riding school.  Born in Baghdad, he was former chief executive and co-founder of internet polling firm YouGov.   Across the county as a whole, the two main parties still predominate, but it is in the more industrial north that will attract interest on election night.

Wyn Grant is a political scientist at the University of Warwick, and has published widely on the subject of political studies. He also held the Presidency of the Political Studies Association. 

[1] Matthew Engel, ‘Long and weary battle for a seat that defines Middle England’, Financial Times, 27 January 2015.


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