It’s the end of the school day in Bushbury, a suburb to the north of Wolverhampton city centre. Quiet closes of pebble-dashed semis encircle the grassy slope of Northwood Park down the road from the primary school.
Parents waiting at the gates as their children hurtle out hesitate over which way they’ll vote in the local elections on 5 May.
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“I’m not going to vote this time. They don’t do enough for people like me, that’s my main issue,” one mother, 28, says, gesturing to her wheelchair. “Boris Johnson should be thrown out for what he’s done. People were dying alone; it shows no respect for people like us.”
However, she wouldn’t vote Labour to try to keep Johnson’s party from gaining this council seat. “I don’t trust any of them.”
Another parent, a 39-year-old teaching assistant, had a baby during lockdown. She had to go to scans and tests alone, with her husband only briefly attending the birth. “And all that time, they were partying? We’ve become more political in our household over the past two years,” she says. Pro-Brexit, she’s voted Labour and Conservative in the past but now dislikes both, and is considering the former Brexit Party, Reform UK.
Bushbury North ward voted Tory in the May 2021 local elections, when one of its seats was contested, having voted Labour in 2018. There is one Labour councillor here left, and local Conservatives are targeting his seat this time. The ward is in the Red Wall constituency of Wolverhampton North East, Labour since its creation more than 70 years ago aside from a 1987 swing to the Tories, who won again in 2019. According to analysis of demographic trends by Onward, the centre-right think tank, Wolverhampton should be turning bluer.
The city council is still Labour-run, and the party needs to hold seats in places like Bushbury North if it’s to make a true comeback in the next general election.
“Boris Johnson’s betrayed the country,” says Sue Davis, 63, a retired shop worker and former care assistant, walking her black cocker spaniel, Arlo. She couldn’t visit her new-born grandson during lockdown, and spent Christmas alone. She liked Boris Johnson and had always voted Conservative. Now, for the first time, she’ll vote Labour.
“But I don’t know if anyone else will be any better,” she shrugs. Life is harder now than when she was growing up, she says. With inflation at 7 per cent and energy bills rocketing she can’t afford to put her heating on. She faces a choice between heating her house and eating. For the first time last week, she went to a food bank.
“I’ve worked all my life, it broke my heart. It will take a miracle to turn this country round. Why won’t Boris stop these energy companies getting richer while we’re getting poorer? I’ve lost all my respect for him, I won’t be voting for him or the Conservatives again.”
Worryingly for Labour, however, the overriding feeling here is “they’re all as bad as each other” — something that Lisa Nandy, the shadow communities secretary, warned Keir Starmer about in a recent meeting, according to the Daily Mail.
“I won’t vote,” says Parminder Mann, 40, a sales executive, picking up milk from a cornershop. “I’m fed up with the endless cycle of arguing, corruption and greed — putting their own agendas above feeding the poor and putting roofs over people’s heads.
“They let the country down, when they had those parties. People really care about it, and I care. But I think Labour would’ve done the same.”
Buying meat at John McGinty Family Butchers, Darren Goodwin, 52, a fire extinguisher fitter, is still giving Johnson a chance. “He might be a fool, he makes mistakes, but so do I — he’s like us.” He also praises furlough and self-isolation grants. “You can’t forget that help.”
Conservatives campaigning in Wolverhampton find voters “bring up the national agenda Labour is pushing”, one Tory councillor admits euphemistically about partygate. Their overwhelming challenge is apathy in the urban West Midlands, I’m told. Canvassers try to turn doorstep conversations around to local matters.
Wendy Thompson, the Wolverhampton Tory council group leader, insists, however, that “not one person has mentioned the national issue to me”. Listing people’s concerns about the state of the city centre, council tax, road and housing repairs, she’s buoyant about Tory inroads in Wolverhampton.
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“We’d like to win every ward, and Bushbury North would certainly be a ward we’d like to win,” she says. “You have to be quite resilient, but it’s always exciting in Wolverhampton as a Conservative!”
As in Wolverhampton, Labour must hold seats in places such as Dudley, Nuneaton and Newcastle-under-Lyme in the Midlands, and Hartlepool, Sunderland, Wakefield and areas surrounding Greater Manchester in the north of England to halt the crumbling of the Red Wall. The Conservatives, in turn, hope to buck the national polls (which have Labour six points ahead) in these areas to balance out potentially poor results in London.
More than 100 miles away, in a very different slice of suburbia, two prospective Labour councillors knock confidently on the rather smart front doors of houses in High Barnet. The market town, also known as Chipping Barnet, clings to the outer edge of north London, beside the heaths and hills of Hertfordshire.
Labour aims to win Barnet Council for the first time in history. Since it was created over half a century ago it has been run by the Conservative Party (aside from a couple of terms of no overall control in 1994 and 1998).
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Known as Thatcher’s town hall — she was MP for the north London seat of Finchley — Barnet would also be a symbolic win for Labour because of its high proportion of Jewish voters. Starmer launched Labour’s local election campaign here. Anti-Semitism in the Labour party under Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership lost the trust of many locals, as Emma Whysall, who was the parliamentary candidate in 2019, experienced bitterly.
“Keir Starmer sees this as a litmus test,” Whysall says, campaigning now to represent the ward of High Barnet on the council. Labour missed out on a seat in the ward by one vote in 2018. “He knows from personal experience there’s a community here who felt disenfranchised.”
Now, wounds are healing and anti-Semitism comes up less. While Labour is managing expectations — “it’s looking good, but there are quite a few seats we’d need to take”, cautions Barry Rawlings, Labour’s council group leader — its candidates are already sizing up cabinet roles.
Rows of mock Tudor houses, the bowls club and the parish church feel sleepy beneath the coo of wood pigeons and hum of Volvo estates. Yet the quiet suburban Conservatism of High Barnet has been shaken up in recent years. Since 2010 the Conservative vote has been declining, and Onward’s analysis finds that it should demographically be turning less Tory.
Traffic snarl-ups and the poor state of roads and pavements are key concerns, plus frustration at public services outsourced to contractors like Capita. “They run it like a business, not a council,” says one resident, who says he’ll vote Labour.
Brexit alienated pro-Remain Conservatives, while younger liberals have been moving here from pricey inner-city areas like Islington and “bringing their values with them”, says Paul Edwards, a Barnet Labour councillor also campaigning for a seat in this ward. Knocking on doors at teatime, Labour activists find these new families — putting their young children to bed — promising their support. “We’ve just moved from Islington,” smiles a young woman in sports gear whose house is so new it still has cardboard underfoot. “We’ll be voting Labour.”
The Tories are having to work hard in affluent pockets across the capital. “The three Chiswick wards are the only bastion of blue in an otherwise entirely red borough,” says Salman Shaheen, a Hounslow Labour councillor. “Chiswick Conservative voters are affluent, middle-class, liberal Conservatives, and Boris Johnson is proving toxic for them on the doorstep.”
Such voters are socially conscious in the face of rising living costs. “We’re ok, we’ve got money, but you need to do everything you can to help people who don’t,” implores one Barnet resident of 15 years, standing in his drive. Strongly Remain, he praises the Lib Dems in coalition and supports the Greens, but will now vote Labour. “I’m sick of it, I want the Tories out. I’ll vote Labour, anything to get rid of that lot.”
In London, Labour is also targeting the totemic Thatcherite borough of Wandsworth, a bastion of Conservatism with a history of social housing sell-offs, privatised street cleaning and the lowest council tax in the country that has been Tory since 1978. There are also Tory jitters in the borough of Westminster, another true-blue stronghold.
The most revealing results will be far away from London, however, in Red Wall councils: a signal of whether Labour’s traditional vote is in terminal decline. Yet major symbolic upsets in the capital could create a fresh wave of angst among Tory MPs. After all, many only support Johnson because of his pedigree as a winner, including two victories to become Mayor of London with support from the very boroughs that may declare him a loser come 5 May.