by Jonathan Todd
I voted for Gerry Steinberg in the City of Durham in 2001, Keith Hill in Streatham in 2005, and stood in Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010. I’ll vote on 7 May for Gisela Stuart to retain the Birmingham Edgbaston seat that she’s held since 1997. Then David Hill, a veteran of Labour communications, reacted to this Labour gain by repeatedly saying “fucking unbelievable” at the Labour celebration party at the Royal Festival Hall.
Dr Luke Evans, Stuart’s Tory opponent, is pictured with a stethoscope on his literature. The word Conservative is an afterthought. It bemoans the record of NHS Wales that is Labour controlled, while being silent on Stuart. No attempt to critique her record or change how we should think of her is made.
A “re-elect Gisela Stuart” poster looks out from our kitchen window. Our next door neighbour has one up too. Labour appears to be winning this street. But the constituency has not been blanketed as Tim Farron posters covered Westmorland and Lonsdale during 2010. These declared, “the local choice v the London banker”, which summed up the Liberal Democrat framing of the election as a contest between Farron and Gareth McKeever, a former banker and the Tory candidate.
In contrast to the Liberal Democrats in Westmorland and Lonsdale in 2010, communications from both the Conservatives and Labour in Edgbaston have made minimal attempts to frame the election. And as Evans downplays his Conservative status, Stuart also stands somewhat removed from her party, as her letter heading describes her as, “your independent thinking Labour candidate”.
Reflecting on his comprehensive defeat to Farron, McKeever has written, “the main reason we lost was the sheer size and scope of the local Lib Dem machine and extremely popular local MP”. Edgbaston has no such machine. To the extent that any Lib Dem activists are local, they have relocated to Birmingham Yardley and Solihull, where John Hemming and Lorely Burt seek to hold the only Lib Dem seats in the West Midlands.
Solihull recently hosted Nick Clegg watching a hedgehog walk in circles, a Lib Dem attempt to hold back what the local paper describes as “Boris mania” following a constituency visit by London’s Mayor. It is not just in the south west of England that the Conservatives are seeking to make gains at the expense of their coalition partners. That’s also their aim to the south east of Birmingham.
If Solihull goes blue, Labour would hope to cancel this Tory gain out by taking Yardley. At the first hustings that Yardley has organised since 2001, Jess Phillips, the Labour candidate, noted that it took a long time to get an NHS operation for her son but that “Labour are committed to putting billions in”. Both the Conservatives in Edgbaston and Labour in Yardley see the NHS as key to regaining these seats. As do the Conservatives in Westmorland and Lonsdale, where another doctor, Dr Ann Myatt, has picked up McKeever’s baton.
Two candidates, Evans and Myatt, do not make a strategy but it is striking that the Conservatives have doctors contesting two seats that they traditionally held. It was obvious in 2010 that the Lib Dem machine in Westmorland and Lonsdale was numerically much stronger than the Tory one and I am doubtful that the Tories can recover the seat until they achieve equivalence in this regard, which may be the job of more than one parliament.
Hemming may not have a machine of Farron proportions. Nonetheless, as much as he is displaying signs of complacency, it is not to be underestimated. Notwithstanding the collapse in Lib Dem support since 2010, Phillips should be richly congratulated if she recovers the seat. As Iain Dale notes, ” if Labour is to form a government it’s this kind of seat they need to take back”.
Dale also speculates on UKIP undercutting Labour’s support in Edgbaston to let the Tories back in and Stuart’s literature does warn that a vote for UKIP will help the Tories. However, “if any seat provided a Basildon-style symbol of how the Conservatives fell short in 2010,” Conservative Home laments, “the failure to overturn Gisela Stuart’s slender 2,349 majority must be in contention.” The seat fails to feature in the Tory “40-40 strategy“, which involves them building a majority by defending their 40 most vulnerable seats and winning 40 carefully chosen targets.
Birmingham Northfield, held by Labour since 1992, is, though, part of this strategy. It would be Tory on a 3.3 per cent swing and Johnson visited it on the same trip that took in Solihull. Julian Knight, the Tory candidate in Solihull, isn’t a doctor but he wants us to know that his wife used to be a nurse. The Tory candidate in Northfield, Rachel Maclean, isn’t a doctor either but stresses her voluntary work and fundraising for the National Childbirth Trust.
Public service, particularly to the NHS, is being highlighted by Conservatives, while Lib Dem machines have been deployed in Solihull and Yardley, but Dale anticipates Labour holding Edgbaston and Northfield, as well as gaining Yardley, which would be a series of important steps toward Prime Minister Miliband.
Jonathan Todd is Deputy Editor of Labour Uncut