Case study: Sandwell
Numbers: Labour 58, Conservatives 9, Independents 4
Change since last local elections: Conservatives +9, Labour -9.
All out or thirds: Thirds
Background: Sandwell is a metropolitan borough of the West Midlands. It was formed in 1974 and covers the towns of Oldbury, Rowley Regis, Smethwick, Tipton, Wednesbury, and West Bromwich – as well as several smaller settlements. This area became known as the “black country” with all the coal and soot that was around during the industrial revolution. Sandwell is named after Sandwell Priory which was a medieval monastery, near West Bromwich – which was beset with infighting and mismanagement. A prior called Richard Dudley was accused of being soft on crime – harbouring murderers and thieves. It all went so badly that the place was closed down in 1525 by Cardinal Wolsey – more than a decade before the main Dissolution of the Monasteries under Henry VIII.
The Council has been dominated by the Labour Party – though was run by the Conservatives for a year in 1978. In recent years Labour has held every single seat. Yet at the last General Election, the Conservatives won three of the four constituencies that include parts of Sandwell. James Morris doubled his majority in Halesowen and Rowley Regis (a constituency that also covers part of Dudley.) Then we had Nicola Richards gaining West Bromwich East for the Conservatives. This was a seat that had been Labour since its creation in 1974 – even during the Thatcher landslides. It had previously been represented by Tom Watson, the Labour Deputy Leader. West Bromwich West was another Conservative gain. This seat had once been held by Betty Boothroyd, the Commons Speaker. Again, it had never been Conservative before. Though Labour did hold Warley with a big majority.
Why did the Conservatives do so well in Sandwell in the General Election? The EU referendum result may give a clue to the mystery. Two thirds of the voters of Sandwell voted for Brexit. A challenge for the Conservatives is that the borough is very multi-racial – Warley has a large Asian population which may explain why the Labour vote has held up there.
Results: Was the fall of the Red Wall in 2019 just a temporary protest about Brexit or something more fundamental? These results from May offer an important piece of evidence that it is the latter. Some wards showed a spectacular breakthrough. In Friar Park Ward a Conservative was elected with 51.6 per cent of the vote – up by 36 per cent. Great Barr with Yew Tree saw a Conservative easily gain the seat after more than doubling the vote share on last time. In Cradley Heath and Old Hill, Labour narrowly hung on, but the Conservative share of the vote tripled. Since the council elections, the Conservatives have gained a by-election from Labour and so are now up to ten – that was in Tividale Ward which Labour had held on to in May.
During the election campaign there was frustration with the Labour-run council over poor services. CCTV was not functioning effectively enough to combat flytipping and other anti-social behaviour. Potholes would deepen and street lights be left broken. Reporting the assorted problems to a complacent bureaucracy seemed to make no difference. The Conservative councillors are already getting stuck in challenging the waste and mismanagement. They are helping to get Neighbourhood Watch schemes established. But the difficulty will be finding new people to come forward to join them. Only a couple of years ago, the Conservative Party organisation across much of the borough was scarcely operational. Further Conservative progress will rely on the Conservative councillors and MPs scouting around for keen recruits willing to stand as candidates. That won’t be easy. But Labour’s task looks even more daunting. Their red wall has fallen. Yet far from putting back the bricks, they are being turned into dust.