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Angus Parsad-Wyatt: Campaign notebook, week three. Middling in the Midlands. | Conservative Home


Angus Parsad-Wyatt is Chief Executive of ConservativeHome.

Welcome to the third instalment of ConservativeHome’s Campaign Notebook – our weekly insider snapshot from Conservative campaigns across the UK in the lead up to the general election on 4 July.

If you missed them, you can read back on our first two Campaign Notebook reports, where we caught up with Sir Iain Duncan Smith’s campaign in Chingford & Woodford Green and Grant Shapps’ fight in Welwyn Hatfield.

This week we’ve driven over 600 miles to cover six constituencies: across the industrial Midlands, where some key battles with Labour are taking place (plus a threat from Reform) and down in leafy Surrey, where the Liberal Democrats fancy their chances.

Redditch

We start in Redditch, a manufacturing town in Worcestershire, located about 15 miles south of Birmingham. Once the producer of 90 per cent of the world’s needles, Redditch is perhaps better known nowadays as the birthplace of singer Harry Styles, and the former constituency of Home Secretary turned-podcaster and Strictly Come Dancing star Jacqui Smith (although if you are into the history of needles, you can visit the Forge Mill Needle Museum).

Smith held this seat for Labour from 1997 until 2010, when the late Karen Lumley turned it blue with a majority of nearly 6,000. That majority increased slightly in 2015, and again under current MP Rachel Maclean in 2017, before shooting up to 16,000 in 2019.

However, like all other seats, Redditch is not immune from the national swing away from the Tories – or the electorate’s desire to give the party a kicking – and at the local elections here in May, the Conservatives lost 11 seats and the control of Redditch Borough Council.

ConservativeHome joins Maclean, Deputy Chair of the Conservative Party (and former Housing Minister), and her team in central Redditch. They are busy delivering a targeted letter to Conservative-leaning voters who are at risk of voting for Reform. She tells us:

“There are a lot of Conservative voters around here who may well be unhappy with what’s been going on in Westminster, but they certainly don’t want a Labour government. So this is about squeezing them and reminding them that a vote for any other party will deliver a Labour MP, a Starmer majority, and all the nonsense that will bring.”

The letter hammers home two of the key Conservative messages: “Do you really want to give Labour a blank cheque to do anything they want for the next five years?” and “A vote for Reform will make it more likely Labour will win big – bringing with them all the policies and programs hardworking taxpayers don’t want and can’t afford.”

Given the audience for this particular piece of literature, it leans heavily on the second point, featuring a large, highlighted quote from Reform’s Richard Tice: “We stopped Andy Street from winning in the West Midlands. We’re delighted by that.” Maclean says that Tice interview in May went down very badly with residents in Redditch:

“Andy was well-liked across the political spectrum, and people here would have preferred to see him returned as Mayor of the West Midlands; but Reform helped Labour to win, and we’re hoping that voters will see that and see the same risk here at the GE.”

So what of those Redditch voters, what do they think? ConservativeHome heads over to the Kingfisher Shopping Centre in the centre of the town to find out.

Things don’t start too well, with a run of responses along the lines of “The election? Oh no, I’m not interested in all that”. But we soon find a few more conversational shoppers. An older woman says “I haven’t the foggiest who I’ll vote for. I will vote because it is important. I always do. It will be either Labour or Conservative, but I just don’t know.”

Two young mums out for coffee tell us that they will be voting Labour, and an older man who was trying to be coy says he’ll be backing Reform – “I won’t tell you my name or anything, but I’ll tell you this – I’ll vote for Farage’s lot. The rest are all the same, he’s the only one saying something different.”

On our way out of the shopping centre, we chat to a lady who is walking to the bus station. Her view is “better the devil you know” – she’ll be voting Conservative.

Normally, Maclean or Sunak would probably not appreciate the ‘devil’ moniker; but if it wins them votes in this tightly-fought contest in Redditch, I suspect they won’t mind too much.

North East Derbyshire

For our next stop we drive 90 miles north to the town of Dronfield, situated just outside Sheffield, in the constituency of North East Derbyshire.

Having just discovered Redditch’s needle history, and with ConservativeHome’s commitment to bringing you unbeatable facts and analysis, we were keen to find an interesting fact about Dronfield, and we happened upon one on the outskirts of the town as we passed a large hoarding that read ‘The Home of Football’.

It turns out this small stadium next to the Coach & Horses pub is the home of Sheffield FC (not to be confused with Wednesday or United) – officially recognised by FIFA as the oldest existing, active football club in the world. But enough sport, on to the politics…

North East Derbyshire elected a Labour MP at every election from 1935 until 2017, when Lee Rowley beat Deputy Speaker of the House of Commons, Natascha Engel by nearly 3,000 votes. At the 2019 general election Rowley increased his majority to 12,876, which he is seeking to defend on 4 July against a resurgent Labour Party (and the threat from Reform UK, in an area which voted 63 per cent Leave in 2016).

We meet Rowley and a few local councillors in the Gosforth Valley ward of Dronfield – a sprawling post-war housing estate which the Conservatives held in last year’s District elections. However, as we have already seen elsewhere during this campaign, getting previous Conservative voters to come out and vote is a large part of the challenge.

“There are of course national challenges, but our policy announcements are cutting through – people here are curious to positive about national service, because they feel communities need to be brought together, and supportive of the triple lock plus” Rowley tells us, a sentiment echoed in Lord Ashcroft’s polling of 2019 Conservative voters last week.

One of the issues which has lost the Conservatives support amongst younger voters in particular is housing, so who better to ask about that than the Housing Minister?

“There is a perception that we haven’t been building homes, but we’ve built 2.5 million since 2010. Of course we need to keep building, but the other part of the challenge is demand, and that links to population and immigration, and we need to make that link in this campaign” says Rowley, who goes on to champion the recently passed Leasehold Reform Bill, but says we will have to wait for the manifesto for further housing policy announcements.

The leaflet sets out a clear record of delivery from local boy Lee – who was born in the constituency – versus “Sir Keir Starmer’s Labour candidate parachuted in from Leicestershire”. A look inside at stories about small boats, common sense, “divisive wokeness” and Extinction Rebellion, and it is not difficult to see who this leaflet seeks to appeal to – Conservatives at risk of not voting, or those at risk of voting Reform.

Speaking to residents on the doorstep, it is clear these messages are resonating: “Lee has worked really hard and got a lot done for us round here, so yes we will be voting for him again” one gentleman tells us. That response is echoed by quite a few of his neighbours: “he always comes along to community events, he keeps us updated, he cares, you know?”

Other voters are considering a ‘time for change’ message – even if they have not yet decided which version of change they want to vote for.

At the local elections last year, just 2,896 votes separated Labour and the Conservatives across the whole North East Derbyshire District, and talking to voters in Dronfield you get the feeling it is just as tight now if not more so. Labour believe they will win here, but Rowley has evidently worked hard for the people of North East Derbyshire, and it might just be enough to see him narrowly re-elected.

Mansfield

A short drive down the A617 takes us into Nottinghamshire, and to Mansfield, a large market town which, alongside the likes of Olympic Swimmer Rebecca Adlington and broadcaster Richard Bacon, is the birthplace of Liberal Democrat leader Ed Davey.

But Davey’s politics are not reflected here@ Mansfield elected a Labour MP at every election from 1923 to 2017, with the Liberal Democrats polling below five per cent at each of the last three elections. In 2017, Mansfield was an early brick to fall in the Red Wall, with Ben Bradley narrowly unseating Labour veteran Sir Alan Meale by 1,057 votes.

Two years later, having served as Vice Chairman of the Conservative Party for Youth – a post he resigned from after six months over Theresa May’s Brexit negotiations – Bradley increased his majority to over 16,000 votes.

Bradley is busy campaigning elsewhere in the constituency, so ConservativeHome heads to Market Place in the centre of Mansfield to speak to voters.

Three older men chatting by the market stalls say they will all be voting Labour as “they seem more for people like us”, “they understand and care about working people”, and “it’s been a difficult time, but the Tories have made it worse.”

A young couple pushing a pram say they’re not sure how they will vote. They both voted Conservative at the last election, but she now thinks Labour may get her vote, whilst he says “Nigel talks a lot of sense” and he may back Reform. Further up, outside the Stag & Pheasant Wetherspoons, a woman tells us she may not vote altogether:

“I used to vote Labour, then I voted for Brexit, so I voted for Boris in 2019. He said he was going to make places like this better, but it feels like things have got worse. Half the shops here are closed, and the ones that are open all shut early, and there’s litter along the street – I just feel let down.”

As we head back to the ConservativeHome campaign car, we pass Bradley’s constituency office, adorned with placards which read “Fighting for Mansfield and Worksop”. From the voters we spoke to, Bradley will have to continue fighting for every single vote over the next few weeks. Given the history of this seat and the opinion polls, it is very likely that Labour gain Mansfield on 4 July.

But with nine candidates on the ballot, neighbouring Reform MP Lee Anderson refusing to campaign here against his friend Bradley, and the left vote potentially splitting between Labour, the Liberal Democrats, the Green Party, Socialist Labour, and the Trade Unionist & Socialist Coalition, anything could happen.



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