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View from Birmingham Edgbaston: will Chamberlain’s old seat turn blue once again?

By George Eaton

Birmingham Edgbaston is a seat where even self-described “conservatives” have long voted Labour. In conversations, the explanation soon becomes clear: “Gisela [Stuart]”. For 20 years, this constituency was represented by the German-born politician, but in April, having achieved ­national renown as the chair of the EU Leave campaign, Stuart decided to “pass on the baton”.

The woman tasked with following her is Preet Gill, a 44-year-old Sandwell councillor who, if elected, will become the first female Sikh MP. In Labour circles this seat has acquired legendary status as one that the party has held against an incoming Tory tide. In 2010, when the Conservatives needed a swing of just 2.75 per cent to win here, Stuart held on with a majority of 1,274. In 2015, as the Tories triumphed elsewhere, her majority increased to 2,706.

But never has the party faced tougher odds than now. A local Labour campaigner told me that while Gordon Brown and Ed Miliband prompted scepticism among ­voters, Jeremy Corbyn inspires “visceral hatred”. In this city, which endured the 1974 IRA pub bombings, the leader’s past associations are raised on the doorstep.

When I met Gill at a Costa Coffee near the Five Ways roundabout, she did not deny that Corbyn was repelling some voters. “I do hear that. It’s reminding people, regardless of what their views are, that he has been very principled on what he believes.” She argued: “What’s important is that people are choosing their local member of parliament, so when they go to the ballot box, it is ‘Preet Gill’: it isn’t Jeremy, it isn’t Theresa May.”

Gill emphasises her local roots: she was born and raised in the constituency (later becoming a social worker) and her father drove the number 11 bus for 25 years. But besides her party’s problems, Gill must contend with the resurgent Conservatives. The Tory candidate Andy Street won last month’s West Midlands mayoral election and Theresa May’s brand of interventionist conservatism is aimed at securing seats across the region. Her influential co-chief of staff Nick Timothy coined the term “Erdington modernisation”, after the working-class suburb of Birmingham where he grew up, to encapsulate this approach. The Conservatives’ candidate in Edgbaston, Caroline Squire (who was unavailable for interview), is a great-great-granddaughter of the city’s famed Liberal mayor Joseph Chamberlain – one of Timothy’s political heroes – and a great-great-niece of the seat’s best-known son, Neville Chamberlain. If current polling is right, she will win comfortably on 8 June.

Although Birmingham narrowly voted Leave (by 3,800 votes), the affluent, ethnically diverse and student-heavy Edgbaston chose Remain by 53 per cent to 47. Gill campaigned for continued EU membership but believes the priority now is “to get the best deal”. Here as elsewhere, the pro-Remain Liberal Democrats are struggling to turn the race in their favour.

On a busy high street in the south-western Harborne area, many voters cited Brexit in May’s favour. “She’s the strongest person out of all of them,” Ian Rule, a retired 51-year-old, told me. “I like some of Corbyn’s policies but I don’t think he’s strong enough to go through Brexit. And his shadow cabinet – I don’t know any of them. There’s only one I know and that’s Diane Abbott, and she can’t even count.” James, a 27-year-old defence engineer, told me he usually voted Labour but feared for the future of Trident if the unilateralist Corbyn won office (though Labour’s manifesto commits to full renewal). “If we’re coming out of Europe, Theresa May seems to be the one who knows what she’s doing,” he said.

Yet there were also signs of hope for Labour. Lucy, a 21-year-old trainee accountant, favourably cited the party’s pledge to abolish tuition fees. “They have redeemed themselves after Gordon Brown,” she said, but added: “I am sceptical about voting Labour because I think Jeremy Corbyn is a bit soft.” Pensioners spoke of their anxiety over the Conservatives’ plan to means-test the winter fuel payment and offer less generous increases in the state pension.

I later joined Gill for door-knocking in the streets by the Edgbaston cricket ground. “You’re all the same,” a non-voter told her, wishing Gill well (“You’ve got a tough act to follow in Gisela”). Rather than Corbyn, it was Tony Blair and the Iraq War that a woman of Pakistani origin said had prompted her defection to the Tories. “I’m not for war,” Gill said hastily, encouraging her to send a fellow Asian woman to parliament.

Loyal Labour voters anxiously asked whether she would win. “We’re going to win this seat – forget the polls,” Gill replied. As a candidate, she is undeniably impressive. But when there is a sea change in the nation’s politics, even the best men and women are not spared.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.

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This article appears in the 31 May 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning