A Tory Marginal but a Leave Constituency – What Does Corbyn Do?
Jake Lynch visits the Warwickshire constituency with a slim Conservative majority of 4,000 high on Labour’s list of targets.
Betty Rossi was preparing to visit her husband in an NHS recuperation centre in Coventry, 10 miles away. Standing on her doorstep on a chilly morning in Nuneaton, the 81-year-old could spare a few minutes to chat with Labour canvassers. Shouldn’t they go inside to keep warm? “That don’t bother me! We women are strong”.
Betty was equally dismissive of Brexit as an election issue. She “couldn’t care one way or the other”. Her husband had come to Britain from Italy aged 18 in 1951 – the year the European Coal and Steel Community, the forerunner of the EU, was set up. The couple both voted to Remain.
Now 86, Altero Rossi had suffered “a couple of falls,” Betty reported. “He keeps saying he wants to come home, but if he has a fall here, I can’t lift him.” There are too few health visitors to give the necessary support. How come he’s not in the town’s own hospital? “There’s never any beds. It’s such a trek, going over there [to the Coventry centre]. It’s a good job I’ve still got a car, and can drive.”
Research by the charity Age UK suggests that the couple are far from alone in their predicament, estimating that up to a thousand people aged over 65 are admitted to hospital every month because of chronic under-funding in local social care services.
Labour’s prospective parliamentary candidate for Nuneaton, Zoe Mayou, is a Unite union official and a former NHS speech therapist. Sheltering from an icy wind in her car outside the Weddington Social Club – which doubles as a temporary campaign HQ – she told me about the party’s plans to integrate health and social care. “We want to get people out of hospital, but then you need more community services.”
Conventional wisdom suggests that a general election fought on the NHS is good for Labour, although Boris Johnson’s vaunted hospital spending plans signal an intention to make inroads on an issue the Tories generally try, at best, to neutralise.
Mayou has witnessed a downward spiral through the age of austerity. “What’s happened in the last nine years has just strangled it,” she told me. Decisions are always “based on a cost envelope, not on the needs of patient care”, with local managers having to cut spending by up to five percent annually.
Stroke services were being “consolidated in Coventry”, she said, thus lengthening response times – while Nuneaton itself had been left with “just one ambulance”.
For Eric Stead, such matters are comfortably eclipsed at this election by one overriding priority. At 65, he was “old enough to remember before the EU. As a worker, we’ve lost out”. Along with all his workmates – and nearly two-thirds of fellow Nuneaton voters – he supported Leave.
Having spent his entire career in the automotive industry, he fits the profile of a traditional Labour voter. Not this time. “Conservative. We’ve got to see [Brexit] through now”.
Marcus Jones, the town’s Conservative MP during the last Parliament, campaigned to Remain in 2016, but voted for Boris Johnson’s withdrawal agreement at its second reading, just before Parliament was dissolved. A former council leader, he has remained largely confined to the backbenches since snatching the seat from Labour in 2010.
But, the borough itself is still controlled – just – by Labour. Municipal signage around the perimeter of Nuneaton and Bedworth reminds visitors that this is George Eliot country. The novelist was born and brought up nearby in the early 19th Century. Wards at the George Eliot Hospital are named after characters in her most celebrated work, Middlemarch.
Subtitled A Study of Provincial Life, the book has often been read as a depiction of progress – political, economic and scientific – and its effects at different levels of society. One well-known scene sees some of the main characters meet a group of farm labourers who have lived through the so-called ‘agrarian revolution’, only to conclude that “things ‘as got wusser” (worse) for the working man.
Was there an echo of that sentiment in the Brexit vote? “Name one thing the EU has ever done for me”, Eric Stead demanded. “I went from having a £10 an hour job to the minimum wage due to the EU. They wanted to bring people in, and I had to take a pay cut.”
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Such memories inevitably fade with time, however, and – with the electorate now replenished with younger voters – opinion on Brexit, along with other issues, may be shifting.
College student Chloe Martin was rolling herself a quick ciggie outside the town centre branch of Asda. At 18, this will be her first vote – “probably Labour”, though she admitted, with a giggle, “I’m honestly not very educated on it”. She has to concentrate on science A Levels to help towards her planned career as a neuro-physiologist. Her top priority for the election? “Brexit – I think we need another referendum. A lot of people have changed their minds, or seen a different side to it.”
Across the car park, 23-year-old Luke Ellis was loading bags of groceries into the back of a small Nissan hatchback. He recently moved to the constituency when his girlfriend found work as an assistant psychologist and also planned to support the insurgent candidate. The current Conservative leadership had done nothing to endear him to the party. “The fact that Boris Johnson and his team are quite proven liars” was on par, he said, as the biggest single issue likely to sway his vote, with “helping areas of poverty” in Britain, and “effective action on climate change”.
Challenged over Labour’s offer on Brexit, Zoe Mayou likened it to a trade union negotiating team obtaining a pay offer from management, then putting it to the workers in another vote. “It’s not a new referendum, it’s about getting a deal and taking that back” for approval – or otherwise.
Nuneaton is known as a bellwether seat – it generally goes the same way as the country as a whole. Nigel Farage’s decision not to stand Brexit Party candidates against sitting Tory MPs should point to just one destination for Leave-minded voters.
But if Labour can get a hearing for its case over public services, then it can reassure those intent on Britain leaving the EU that they will at least get another chance to have their say on the Brexit withdrawal agreement. And that might just tilt enough of them against the lacklustre Marcus Jones to pull off an upset.