Out there - Birmingham

Election views - Helen Cross finds it's all about Rover and Respect

My street in Birmingham, Yardley Wood Road, is three miles long and stretches from white working-class Warstock and Billesley down to Sparkbrook, an inner-city Asian area with a high ratio of new immigrants.

Ali Yasin, the young owner of Sparkbrook's Stag News, thinks the election in his area is not going to be affected by the city's main talking point, the closure of the Rover car plant. "I don't want to be unsympathetic," he says, "but round here people don't feel it in the same way. If my business gets into trouble I can't ask the government for a loan." For Yasin, the issues are the war and postal-voting fraud. "And, like, why has Sparkbrook got the highest rate of infant mortality in Britain? And why are there no facilities for the youth round here?"

Of the postal-voting scandal for which six Birmingham Labour councillors were barred from standing in an impending by-election, he says: "It's really embarrassed the community. There's too much of the old influence of Pakistan in our local politics. Over there, it's not what you know, it's who you know, and the youth want that to stop. They're telling their so-called community leaders to back off."

Yasin fears the anti-war vote will be split between the Lib Dems and Respect. He thinks he'll vote for Salma Yaqoob, the Respect candidate, but has heard a rumour that is exciting even more debate on the street: Azmat Begg, father of the Guantanamo Bay detainee Moazzam Begg, could be standing in Hodge Hill or Sparkbrook. In Warstock, people are also talking, but only about Rover, and the talk is mournful and personal and conducted entirely in questions.

Sensing the debate needs some teeth, the Evening Mail stirs "Red Robbo", the 1970s British Leyland firebrand, out of retirement. The 78-year-old "lifelong communist" cannot help but temper his heartbreak with a fiery "I told you so", and is pictured beaming an undimmed, militant smile.

Robbo catches a mood: people want action and someone to blame. On the BRMB radio station, a chocolate-maker makes a moving call to say that at Cadbury, the workers "feel the shock waves" affecting their comrades at the car plant. Stirred, the DJ urges direct action and appeals for coach companies to turn up at Gate Q and drive the Rover Mums to Downing Street. But three days later, he's taking musical dedications to the redundant workers. "Things Can Only Get Better" is, as always, the anthem - and the best answer anyone can think of.

Meanwhile, a single glossy flyer appears picturing a grinning Lynne Jones, the current Labour MP for Birmingham Selly Oak, but there is no mention of Rover, the war or election fraud. Jones doesn't even ask the questions. No wonder she has no answers. We've had more relevant pizza leaflets.

Perhaps this is why the popular media treat the forthcoming poll as an irrelevance. For its main election feature, the Birmingham News consults Gray Wolf, Yardley Wood Road's rocker and clairvoyant. She agrees that the postal-voting fraud will do huge damage to Labour locally. Her tarot cards predict an overall Tory win, but she warns: "After a year of being in, people will want them out because a secret will come to light."

Someone with an aerosol has also decided to stop asking and start telling, and a rash of slogans appears on every hoarding on the main route into the city: "U Vote 4 Blair U Get Bush".

"I don't know what's going to happen," Yasin says, "but I think it could get really interesting."

Helen Cross's new novel, The Secrets She Keeps, is published by Bloomsbury (£9.99)

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