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18 October 2023

Will “shy Labour” voters decide the Tamworth by-election?

Keir Starmer’s party overturning a Tory majority of nearly 20,000 would upset a major political trend in the Midlands.

By Anoosh Chakelian

Tamworth, a market town in Staffordshire, north-east of Birmingham, is written into the history of the Conservative Party. In 1834, the then prime minister, Robert Peel, used his manifesto to the people of Tamworth – who he’d represented as a Tory MP since 1830 – to establish the principles of modern Conservatism. The public was promised a party that would “reform to survive”.

Today, survival seems optimistic. Despite their near-20,000 majority here, the Tories are fighting to prevent Labour gaining the seat. A by-election was triggered by the resignation of the Conservative MP Chris Pincher after his appeal against a House of Commons suspension for alleged groping was rejected. The scandal surrounding Boris Johnson’s deputy chief whip eventually toppled the former prime minister last July. Now, it could topple a constituency that has been blue since 2010.

Britain Predicts, the New Statesman’s polling model, has the Conservatives and Labour locked together on 40 per cent of the vote each.

At Conservative campaign HQ, set back from a residential street in a flat-roofed, biscuit-brick building somehow named the “White House”, I met the local candidate and councillor, Andrew Cooper. When I asked how it was going, I watched his eyes widen and jaw clench beneath his ginger beard. Saying nothing, the ex-soldier – who undertook deployments to Kosovo and Iraq – beat a retreat down the corridor into a private meeting room.

Later, a Tory campaign source told me the race was “going to be tight” and admitted that the outgoing Tory MP had “hardly been a visible presence here for a while”. Cooper’s tactic is to differentiate himself from Pincher, and – judging by leaflets that barely mention his party – from the Conservative brand as a whole.

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As he was raised on a council estate in the constituency, he’s promoting himself as a local champion, focusing particularly on protecting green spaces (HS2 tracks have chewed up nearby countryside). But it’s a tough sell for a councillor who sits on the planning committee that greenlights developments.

This chunk of the West Midlands – which stretches across Domesday villages, farmland and the suburban sprawl from Tamworth town centre – evolved into a bellwether constituency in 1997, swinging behind Labour. In what Labour hopes is a parallel, the Conservatives lost Tamworth the year before in a by-election, and couldn’t claw it back during Tony Blair’s landslide.

[See also: “Nadine Dorries is as much use as a chocolate fireplace”: on the Mid Bedfordshire doorstep]

In Tamworth town centre, a red-brick Victorian former department store topped with a cupola overlooks the vital signs of high-street decay: discount chains, bookies and vape shops. One craft brewery boasts tinier, cloudier draughts than the generic pubco staples around the town. A couple of neighbouring Cantonese takeaways look unchanged since their arrival in the Seventies, limp red lanterns faded in the windows.

There is one aromatherapy and crystal shop, as there always is. I see advertisements for military medal valuations, market days and Pride nights. St Editha, Tamworth’s 14th-century parish church, sits on a hill above a construction site destined to be a new college. It hosts food-bank donations, a jumble sale and knife amnesty bin.

Here is an English everytown. Middle England in the middle of England; its gut feeling quietly changing whenever UK politics does. In the past decade, however, Tamworth has become less of a marginal seat – delivering 10,000-plus Tory majorities since 2015. It voted strongly for Brexit (66 per cent backed Leave), is 95 per cent white British, and Electoral Calculus (which profiles UK constituencies) categorises it as “strong right” on the ideological scale.

Yet voters seemed sceptical. “It’s time for a change,” said Alex, an ambulance worker who had switched from voting Labour to Conservative in 2010. “The NHS can’t carry on like this, the way this lot are running it. And there’s been so much corruption among the Tories. But I don’t know what Labour would do differently.”

“I can’t vote Tory again,” said Mary, who is bringing up young children. “I’m really angry about what the water companies get away with – taking big bonuses when they can’t run the service properly, and our bills are going up. It’s disgusting.”

Julia, who lost her job as a property paralegal after Liz Truss’s mini-Budget last year, said the Conservatives had crashed the economy and that she couldn’t trust them again. Since her mortgage payments rose, she has been trying unsuccessfully to sell her house. Yet she felt unsure about Keir Starmer: “He’s not one of us, is he?”

Others complained about long waits for GP appointments and the whittling away of services at the local Sir Robert Peel Hospital. A group of six men, huddled over ales in the front booth of a pub at the end of the working day, complained about their lack of pay rises. They spoke openly about their issues but visibly cringed at the prospect of voting Labour: a couple told me they would, but the others stared sheepishly into their pints.

This could be the “shy Labour” effect. In places such as this enclave of Brexit Britain, where the Labour brand has been perceived as negative for more than a decade, voters ready for change are still reluctant to voice their support. “We’re trying to show them that Labour is a different party now, and they’re safe with us,” said a Labour campaign source.

[See also: Labour’s two by-election victories could signal a landslide general election win]

Despite this reticence, in May’s local elections the Conservatives lost overall control of Tamworth Borough Council as Labour won eight out of ten seats.

Hammered by rain, Labour canvassers in sodden anoraks knocked on the doors of smart, semi-detached starter homes of young families and public-sector workers around Wilnecote, a suburb south-east of Tamworth. They said the election was “tight”, but were “pleasantly surprised” by how open voters were to them.

“Normally, we wouldn’t be looking at Tamworth, we shouldn’t really be in with a chance,” said Sarah Edwards, Labour’s candidate – a trade union organiser and former NHS governor. “The kind of conversations we’re having are suggesting that people are really frustrated and very fed up. That’s coming from Conservative voters.”

Labour is campaigning to reopen Tamworth police station’s public-facing front desk, which was closed in 2019. “People are saying: ‘Look at the state of our roads, our high street, why don’t we even have a police station?’” said Edwards. “Everything seems to pass them by and I think they’re just fed up.”

What would it mean for Labour to win Tamworth? “We don’t need to win it to win a general election. It’s just that these are the kind of seats that send a positive message to other places: that people who have voted Tory for many years are wanting to come to us, and want to see that we’re the party with a plan.”

It would also upset the deeper trend of an increasingly pro-Tory Midlands. “Seats like Tamworth, and Staffordshire in general, have been trending towards the Conservatives for some time, and they’ve been getting Conservative faster than the national average,” said James Blagden, head of politics and polling at Onward, a centre-right think tank.

“The East and West Midlands have become much more Tory over time,” Blagden added. “Almost a quarter of Tory MPs have a seat in the Midlands, almost double their share there in the Fifties.” Lincolnshire is the most Conservative county in England by vote share, and Staffordshire – Tamworth’s county – is in the top five. All 12 of Staffordshire’s MPs are Conservative.

Whether that balance of power begins to tip depends on undecided voters making up their minds. As one Labour campaign source put it to me: “If Don’t Know was a candidate, it would win.”

[See also: Keir Starmer has shown he is no Blairite]

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