Cllr Gary Ridley is Leader of the Conservative Group on Coventry City Council. He contested Coventry North West in 2010 and Coventry South in 2015.
Picture cloth caps, racing pigeons and working men’s clubs and that’s how some people think of Lady Godiva’s fair city – yet it just doesn’t ring true.
There’s a sense of optimism abound in our city, Wasps (our recently-acquired Rugby team) topped the Premier League table this season, our city of culture bid is taking shape and there continues to be optimism about our strong and stable economy – we’ll glaze over the relegation of the local football club for now…
In the local Conservative Party, that optimism runs strong and deep. Having lost control of the council in 2010, we’ve been making solid progress in recent years gaining four seats in just two years.
People are sick of a Labour council that simply doesn’t listen, and spends nearly £1 million a year on a ‘trade union facility time’ while cutting local services. People are starting to realise that Labour would rather blame the government for austerity than tackle vested interests.
They have also steamrolled through plans to build over huge swathes of the greenbelt land in the Meriden Gap (which separates us from Birmingham), refusing to prioritise the development of brownfield sites first.
There was also widespread opposition to our involvement in a combined authority with Birmingham. Dubbed ‘Greater Birmingham’ by critics many would have preferred a union with Warwickshire – our traditional economic and historic county.
These two issues have become intertwined for some people and eaten into Labour’s base. Evidence, they say, that Labour has lost touch with its supporters in this feisty, independently minded city.
However, the selection of Andy Street as the Conservative candidate to become the new West Midlands Mayor was an inspirational choice. In an election fought on jobs and investment it was clear that his skills set and business acumen made him the best person for the job. He convinced people he that can bring investment into the city, and help Coventry to make the most of the devolution deal.
The result was a political earthquake which included some big swings in Coventry – in my ward we estimate a swing of around nine per cent from Labour to the Conservatives.
What a blow it was to Labour who fully expected the election of Sion Simon, a career politician. He’s the candidate who wanted to ‘take back control’ from London at the same time as opposing a ‘hard Tory Brexit’ – anyone spot anything wrong with that sentence?
If Street’s election was an earthquake the election of two, yes, two parliamentary candidates would be a nuclear meltdown for Labour. In Coventry North West, Resham Kotecha is chasing down a Labour majority of 4,500 and in Coventry South, Michelle Lowe is fighting to overturn the smaller majority of just over 3,000.
On the doorstep, Brexit is an issue, but there’s also a sense that people are coming together to back our vision for a strong, independent and prosperous Britain. There’s a recognition that the economy will be safer with Theresa May than Jeremy Corbyn.
In this Leave-voting city, Conservatives could win big just by attracting the UKIP vote. However, there’s evidence that we’re bringing Labour voters along too.
On the doorstep some say they are ‘loaning’ us their vote to see us through Brexit others are worried about Jeremy Corby and his fitness to lead the country. The PM’s pitch to the ‘just about managing’ is gaining traction. They are worried about the cost of living and the very real threat of a £58 billion tax bombshell scares them.
They are also worried about social care and the NHS with an acceptance that difficult decisions need to be made to secure the future of this much treasured institution. At this election it’s only the Conservatives who are offering any solutions to these problems.
Spooked by half-baked ideas of nationalisation, Labour members know there’s a real danger that voters will turn to May in the month of June. They lack confidence and talk about the challenge of rebuilding that lies ahead. In a sign of just how worried they are ‘big hitters’ like Gordon Brown and leftist comedian Eddie Izzard have both been drafted in – he’s the only one of them that doesn’t make me laugh.
So with the election lines drawn, Coventry is very much on the front line of this battleground. We’ve been joined by the Home Secretary, Brexit Secretary and many other MPs have come canvassing. One can only speculate who will be sent to Coventry this week.
We’re not being complacent we know it’s going to be tough to turn Coventry blue. Nevertheless, we have a highly motivated team and belief and optimism has never been higher. As Montgomery said at El Alamein, it can be done and it will be done.
So the next time you think of Coventry, picture it as a thriving and successful city where anything is possible. Andy Street got it right when he described his victory as the ‘rebirth of a new urban Conservative agenda’ and Coventry is right at the heart of it.