“This is the first and last election at which the British people will be given the opportunity to decide whether their country is to remain a democratic nation, governed by the will of its own electorate, or whether it will become a province in a new European superstate.”
These are the words of a politician not in 2019, but in 1974. Enoch Powell, then MP for Wolverhampton South West, was the first Conservative to preach the gospel of Euroscepticism. Infamous for his “Rivers of Blood” six years earlier, he was arguably also the first politician to elide the issues of European trade and immigration.
His message just about continues to resonate, with 63 per cent of the constituents having voted for Brexit. Mike Brookes has run a guitar shop in the centre of Wolverhampton for 37 years. A committed Leaver, he still remembers and admires Powell. At the upcoming election he will vote Tory, as he always does because, despite holding Nigel Farage in high esteem, he feels that “Boris Johnson is the best hope we’ve got”.
But Wolverhampton today is a world away from the city that Powell represented. You can pick up okra and cassava at the market in the centre of town. It is pleasingly a place that would have appalled Powell. So, too, would the Conservative candidate Stuart Anderson, who fasted with the local Muslim community during Ramadan, and tells the New Statesman of his campaign trips to “churches, gurdwaras and mosques”.
The Conservative hope is that a hard enough message on Brexit will secure this seat along with the many others that encircle Birmingham. But the truth on the ground is much more tangled than the fact that 62.6 per cent of Wolverhampton’s voters opted to leave might suggest
The fundamental problem with the Conservative strategy on Brexit, in Wolverhampton at least, is that the Tories do not seem to be converting new voters with their message on Brexit. Their angry core is pleased with Johnson’s stance. But even if all the Ukip voters from the 2017 election switched to the Conservatives in 2019, Anderson still would not make up the incumbent Labour MP Eleanor Smith’s slim majority of 2,185. Meanwhile Labour Leavers, where they are to be found, seem to care more about the nationalisation of the utilities than Brexit.
There is, however, one thing that will stop Smith from retaining Wolverhampton South West: voter turnout. Tories vote Tory. But time and time again, naturally Labour-leaning second and third-generation immigrants expressed apathy about politics.
“They feel disengaged,” says Smith who is herself of African-Caribbean heritage. “When my parents came over to this country in the Fifties, they put on a strong emphasis on education. At the time the only party for them was Labour.”
But take, for example, Marc Wilson, a window cleaner who finds that his work only just about covers his bills. He is politically engaged. He watches Newsnight. He is critical of Jeremy Corbyn’s approach to anti-Semitism. But the process of actually going out to vote is far from automatic.
“No I don’t think I will vote this time,” he says, not pausing for a second from his mopping of the glass.
Overall, Wolverhampton feels browbeaten. In the daytime, there are prams throughout the city centre as well as mobility scooters. But on a Friday night the place becomes desolate. The 1960s ring-road has asphyxiated the life out of the city.
“When I came in 1982 there were shops on both sides of the ring-road,” says Brookes. He complains of pedestrianisation leading to the closure of shops. “That’s been done by our Labour councils.”
No doubt strange planning configurations have played their role in emptying the centre. Anderson is keen to blame the council for Wolverhampton’s decline. And on the day of my visit, the government published a Towns Fund Prospectus, promising £3.6bn to reinvigorate 100 city centres across the country. Wolverhampton is to be one beneficiary.
“This town is crying out for money,” says Smith. “The council has done an amazing job with the cuts they have had to make. We wanted this money years ago. Why did Boris Johnson announce it now?”
Despite a supposed end to austerity, the council needs to make £27.3m of savings in the next financial year. Most Wulfrunians complain about knife crime, school places, hospital parking charges and NHS waiting times. It is only Conservative voters who seem to profoundly care about Brexit in Wolverhampton. And they already vote Conservative. That may not be enough to win the seat for Johnson.