“Ed Miliband has had a bacon sandwich here,” Joy Squires volunteers, as we sit down for tea in Charlie’s Café, a few hundred yards from Worcester Cathedral. As Labour’s candidate in an eminently winnable marginal constituency, she has been love-bombed by the party’s grandees throughout the last parliament and the short campaign.
Miliband has visited three times since 2012, Tristram Hunt came on 12 March this year and the shadow health secretary, Andy Burnham, on 21 April. Most excitingly – at least for the local paper, which devoted a breathless live blog to the event – the comedian Eddie Izzard swung by on 3 April.
“It was selfies all down the high street,” says Squires, “then he dived into Boots and gathered up a whole range of eyeshadows and lipsticks. They had never seen anything like it.”
Worcester, where I was born and grew up, is a bellwether seat and a true Labour/Tory marginal. “Whoever wins the general election is likely to win the Worcester constituency,” intones the eighth edition of The Almanac of British Politics. Its nickname, gained during the civil war, is “the faithful city”, but recently it has changed political allegiances several times. After seven decades of Conservative dominance – including 31 years under the same MP, Peter Walker – it was won by Labour in 1997, helped by a boundary change that removed the rural parts of the seat. Then in 2010 the Conservatives took it back with a majority of 2,982. Their candidate, Robin Walker, was Peter’s son, and his resemblance to his father comes up again and again. It helps solidify the image of a local boy: very few voters I speak to know that 37-year-old Robin was educated at St Paul’s School in London and Balliol College, Oxford.
His Labour rival, Joy Squires, was born in Shrewsbury and worked as a lecturer in politics in Aberystwyth and Wolverhampton. The 60-year-old moved to Worcester in 1987 and became a city councillor in 1991 to ensure that the playgroup used by her two sons “didn’t have to struggle to survive”.
The contest between them takes in everything currently altering the political landscape – the rise of Ukip, the SNP surge, the Lib Dem collapse – but it is most interesting as an insight into an issue that has received relatively little coverage: in a straight fight between Tories and Labour, which one do English swing voters fancy more?
I meet Robin Walker at Coomber Electronic Equipment in Warndon, just off the M5, where he gives a short speech before asking to meet the firm’s three apprentices and tour the factory floor. (Ed Balls came here on 16 April; another hit for Big Beast Bingo.) Walker has the easy grace of minor royalty and the advantage that most of the office staff remember his father.
“Judging by the number of people who say, ‘He got me my council house,’ he must have had magic powers,” he tells one staffer. “People in Warndon say, ‘We always voted Labour – except for your dad.’”
He is confident of re-election because he believes Worcester’s economy is recovering well from the recession. “It comes up much less on the doorstep because it’s not a problem,” he tells me. “People generally will say: Yes, things are getting better, I’ve got a job, which I didn’t have a year ago. The contrast between that and five years ago is enormous. I was going round in 2009 knocking on doors in streets where there were repossession notices in the windows.”
The city’s high street bears this out: there are a few empty shops in Sidbury, near the cathedral, but the main thoroughfares are bustling with coffee chains and mid-range clothes shops. No one here seems angry – a huge contrast to the mood in Scotland, which I visited just before Easter.
Joy Squires sums up the mood of resignation: “As I’ve knocked doors across the city, I meet women who are working on zero-hours contracts or short-term contracts because that’s all they can find, and low pay is something they just accept. We haven’t seen the real crisis that other parts of the country have experienced.”
I ask Celia Gardner, from the Worcester Rotary Club, what the biggest election issue is and she surprises me by choosing the influx of students to the university, and the changes to the night-time economy and housing: “We had huge problems with houses being bought up by developers and turned into six rooms.” Tony Bennett, the director of Coomber, says what he wants from the next government is “stability”. “The economy is still quite fragile,” he adds.
There is one subject that reliably gets people going, though, and it signals the difficulty any government propped up by the SNP will have after 7 May. The local hospital, the Worcestershire Royal, is struggling. On 10 April, its A&E had to call in a “disaster doctor” – usually reserved for major incidents – and stop taking 999 calls for a short period. The high demand caused delays in the treatment of several patients, including a 55-year-old epileptic man called John Flaherty, who died four days later. The case made the front page of the local paper Berrow’s Worcester Journal, and both Squires and Walker are aware this is an issue that has “cut through” with voters.
Squires has made the NHS a cornerstone of her campaign and Walker declares that fighting for more funding for the Royal will be one of his priorities if re-elected. “The first thing I’ll be doing is going to parliament and making the case for it very, very strongly,” he says. While he doesn’t want to echo Tory grandees in attacking the SNP for holding the country to ransom – “I don’t like negative campaigning, so I don’t use it as an attack line” – he worries that there will be huge resentment in places like Worcester if Scottish public services are seen to benefit unfairly in exchange for SNP support for a Labour government. “There is a real concern if [voters] are saying: ‘The proceeds of the mansion tax are all going to go on nurses in Scotland. That doesn’t help us.’”
One issue that provokes less comment than you might expect is immigration. Worcester has long-standing Pakistani and Bangladeshi communities – on the day I visit, both Squires and Walker planned to visit the city’s mosque before Friday prayers – but people born outside Britain account for just 3.2 per cent of the 100,000 residents. Eastern European migrants usually come over for the fruit-picking season but their numbers are not soaring.
As a result, Ukip has struggled to gain traction here. Its vote share swelled from 3 per cent in the 2010 election, pushing it into second place in the European elections last summer, but Michael Ashcroft’s polls show its support is slipping. In October 2014, Ukip was at 17 per cent; now it is 13 per cent.
“I think they have shot their bolt largely and we are increasingly meeting Ukip voters who were Conservatives and are coming back to us,” Walker says. “And we’re meeting Labour voters going to Ukip… [they] don’t have the organisation here that they have on the east coast or the south coast. They’re not blitzing the place.”
Squires agrees that Ukip poses a danger to Labour in Worcester in the medium term. “Go back three or four years and you would say it was more in Conservative areas that they were making their mark,” she says. “But that has changed over time and Labour areas as well are now in their sights. We nearly lost a city council seat last year in Warndon but we held on. What was interesting about last year was that it came – not quite out of the blue, but people weren’t telling us that they were voting Ukip.” She says that Labour is now reiterating its core messages on “work, jobs, levels of pay, cost of living, the NHS” to counter the threat.
While Ukip might be squeezed, the Liberal Democrats have collapsed completely, dropping from 19 per cent in the 2010 election to just 4 per cent now. The Greens have replaced them as the biggest left-of-centre minor party, moving from a 2010 poll rating so low it was just an asterisk to a healthy 7 per cent in the most recent Ashcroft poll. “The Greens are very much campaigning on the left,” says Walker. “They target our areas; they’ve won a seat off a Conservative councillor. They are trying to shift politics in Worcester to the left but in the general election, that could actually be helpful to me. A lot of traditional Labour voters might look at them and say, ‘Actually you’re offering socialism and that’s what we want.’”
And this is the heart of Labour’s dilemma in English marginals such as Worcester: its core vote is fragmenting and it is hard to appeal to any one section of it without alienating another. Unlike the Tories, it is unwilling to indulge in “Nicola Sturgeon will eat your babies” rhetoric to get out the English patriot vote; unlike the Lib Dems, it cannot settle for clinging on in a few strongholds. If Labour inches closer to blaming Britain’s economic woes on immigration, in order to pick up working-class supporters drifting over to Ukip, it drives away middle-class recyclers flirting with the Greens.
The spiritual home of “Worcester Woman”, that beloved 1990s political metaphor – a working-class mother in her thirties who worries about the cost of living – is in the city’s council estates. But it is exactly these places that Walker thinks delivered his majority in 2010 thanks to a widespread disillusionment with Labour. “Some of the council estates in Worcester split a third, a third, a third: Conservative, Liberal, Labour,” he says. “No one’s going to vote Liberal on the council estates this time round. But I think that chunk will go to Ukip.”
In other words, not back to Labour.
Joy Squires sighs when I ask her if Worcester is naturally Tory. “I think the fact we had a Labour MP for 13 years shows that it’s a city that’s got a diversity of political opinion… No, I don’t think there’s an in-built Tory leaning.” In which case, it will be even more worrying to Labour if the party does not win here in a week’s time.