Case study: Coventry
Numbers: Labour 39, Conservatives 15.
Change since last local elections: Conservatives +1, Labour -1.
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: Coventry City Council has existed in its current form since 1974. During most of that time, it has been run Labour – including from 1979 to 2003 and all the years since 2010. The Conservatives had brief periods in power with victories in 1978 and 2006. There were also a few years before 2010 of no overall control.
For many years, it has proved an important centre of trade and prosperity. Over a thousand years ago, Lady Godiva rode naked through the streets in a Thatcherite protest against high taxation. In the 14th century, with the cloth trade, then in the industrial revolution of the 18th and 19th century, enterprising people of this West Midlands city produced clocks and bicycles, in the 20th century motor cars. It was also a beautiful city – until it was destroyed by the Luftwaffe on November 14th 1940. Then it was rebuilt as an ugly city – under the direction of the planning officer Donald Gibson – who was duly knighted and made President of the Royal Institute of British Architects.
Coventry has three Parliamentary Constituencies: Coventry North East, Coventry North West, and Coventry South. At the last General Election Labour won all three. But while Coventry North East had a large Labour majority, the Party just squeaked home in the other two. Coventry North East was held for many years by Geoffrey Robinson quite easily – his Labour successor has a majority of just 208. Proposed boundary changes may make it harder for Labour in the Coventry South constituency next time.
John Butcher was Conservative MP for Coventry South West during the Thatcher/Major era. The seat was abolished in 1997. Dave Nellist was a Labour MP for Coventry South East and was expelled by the Labour Party in 1991 for being a supporter of the Militant Tendency. In 1983 he shared a House of Commons office with his fellow Labour MP Tony Blair – which showed the Party’s Whips retained a sense of humour at a difficult time for them.
Results: The overall gain of a single seat for the Conservatives was clearly modest in the context of some dramatic gains elsewhere at the same time. There is plenty to criticise the Labour administration for – and Cllr Gary Ridley, the Conservative opposition leader – has done so very powerfully – including for this site. The Conservatives have also put forward a positive alternative with a strong local Manifesto.
There has been a pattern for many years of the Conservatives doing better in Parliamentary elections in this City than in local ones, for some reason. But the underlying challenges are probably due to demography.
The expansion of the university sector has proved problematic for the Conservatives. More of the electorate consists of left wing academics and students from Warwick University and Coventry University. Whoberley Ward and Earlsdon Ward have been particularly hard hit.
Coventry North East has a large ethnic minority population – of Muslims and Sikhs. More generally across the City, the Labour Party has also benefited electorally from Celtic immigration. Working class voters whose families came from Ireland, Wales and Scotland have often retained their past political allegiances.
Manufacturing is still significant. London taxis and Jaguar cars are still made there. Technological advances mean that fewer people are employed. But then there are new light industry opportunities. There is the prospect of a ‘Gigafactory’ manufacturing car batteries with 4,000 jobs locally. So that gives some hope that the innovation and wealth creating private sector that is such a tradition of the City has not been lost.
The people of Coventry backed Brexit by a clear margin The Conservatives have made some electoral progress associated with that. Yet it is hard to see a dramatic breakthrough for the Conservatives in this City without some bold reforms to boost home ownership. Council housing was transferred to Whitefriars housing association, over 20 years ago. (It’s now changed its name to Citizen Housing). That change has just meant less transparency and accountability – without the chance of the right to buy. We need a right to buy, with beefed up discounts, for housing association and council tenants. Also forced sales of empty homes and surplus property (such as empty garages) that could be redeveloped as housing. Also a right to shared ownership for housing association and council tenants including a free ten per cent equity stake for those who agree to take on responsibility for their won minor repairs.
A few feeble voluntary pilot schemes are no use. The Conservatives should give housing association tenants a proper chance of home ownership. That is needed in Coventry more than anywhere else.