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

Can Preet Gill fill the shoes of Labour Brexiteer Gisela Stuart? 

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.

George Eaton is political editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 01 June 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The Labour reckoning

Photo: Getty
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Michael Carrick is the “Geordie Pirlo” that England misunderstood

The Manchester United legend’s retirement announcement should leave Three Lions fans wondering what if?

That it came in the months leading up to a World Cup arguably added an exclamation point to the announcement of Michael Carrick’s impending retirement. The Manchester United midfielder, who is expected to take up a coaching role with the club afterwards, will hang up his boots at the end of the season. And United boss Jose Mourinho’s keenness to keep Carrick at Old Trafford in some capacity only serves to emphasise how highly he rates the 36-year-old.

But Carrick’s curtain call in May will be caveated by one striking anomaly on an otherwise imperious CV: his international career. Although at club level Carrick has excelled – winning every top tier honour a player based in England possibly can – he looks set to retire with just 34 caps for his country, and just one of those was earned at a major tournament.

This, in part, is down to the quality of competition he has faced. Indeed, much of the conversation around England’s midfield in the early to mid-noughties centred on finding a system that could accommodate both box-to-box dynamos Steven Gerrard and Frank Lampard.

As time went on, however, focus shifted towards trequartistas, advanced playmakers and those with more mobile, harrying playing styles. And the likes of Jack Wilshere, Ross Barkley, Jordan Henderson and Dele Alli were brought into the frame more frequently than Carrick, whose deep-lying capabilities were not utilised to their full potential. That nearly 65 per cent of Carrick’s England caps have come in friendlies shows how undervalued he was. 

In fairness, Carrick does not embody similar characteristics to many of his England midfield contemporaries, including a laudable lack of ego. He is not blessed with lung-busting pace, nor is he enough of a ball-winner to shield a back four solo. Yet his passing and distribution satisfy world-class criteria, with a range only matched, as far as England internationals go, by his former United team-mate Paul Scholes, who was also misused when playing for his country.

Rather, the player Carrick resembles most isn’t English at all; it’s Andrea Pirlo, minus the free-kicks. When comparisons between the mild-mannered Geordie and Italian football’s coolest customer first emerged, they were dismissed in some quarters as hyperbole. Yet watching Carrick confirm his retirement plans this week, perfectly bearded and reflecting on a trophy-laden 12-year spell at one of world football’s grandest institutions, the parallels have become harder to deny.

Michael Carrick at a press event ahead of Manchester United's Champions League game this week. Photo: Getty.

Where other players would have been shown the door much sooner, both Pirlo and Carrick’s efficient style of play – built on patience, possession and precision – gifted them twilights as impressive as many others’ peaks. That at 36, Carrick is still playing for a team in the top two of the top division in English football, rather than in lower-league or moneyed foreign obscurity, speaks volumes. At the same age, Pirlo started for Juventus in the Champions League final of 2015.

It is ill health, not a decline in ability, which is finally bringing Carrick’s career to a close. After saying he “felt strange” during the second-half of United’s 4-1 win over Burton Albion earlier this season, he had a cardiac ablation procedure to treat an irregular heart rhythm. He has since been limited to just three more appearances this term, of which United won two. 

And just how key to United’s success Carrick has been since his £18m signing from Tottenham in 2006 cannot be overstated. He was United’s sole signing that summer, yielding only modest excitement, and there were some Red Devils fans displeased with then manager Sir Alex Ferguson’s decision to assign Carrick the number 16 jersey previously worn by departed captain Roy Keane. Less than a year later, though, United won their first league title in four years. The following season, United won the league and Champions League double, with Carrick playing 49 times across all competitions.

Failing to regularly deploy Carrick in his favoured role – one that is nominally defensive in its position at the base of midfield, but also creative in providing through-balls to the players ahead – must be considered one of the most criminal oversights of successive England managers’ tenures. Unfortunately, Carrick’s heart condition means that current boss Gareth Southgate is unlikely to be able to make amends this summer.

By pressing space, rather than players, Carrick compensates for his lack of speed by marking passing channels and intercepting. He is forever watching the game around him and his unwillingness to commit passes prematurely and lose possession is as valuable an asset as when he does spot an opening.

Ultimately, while Carrick can have few regrets about his illustrious career, England fans and management alike can have plenty. Via West Ham, Spurs and United, the Wallsend-born émigré has earned his billing as one of the most gifted midfielders of his generation, but he’d never let on.

Rohan Banerjee is a Special Projects Writer at the New Statesman. He co-hosts the No Country For Brown Men podcast.