Nick Timothy, Theresa May’s chief of staff, called for “Erdington modernisation”, named after the part of Birmingham in which he grew up, in an article written for this site just over a year ago.
According to Timothy, the “most serious weakness the Conservatives have…is the perception that we simply do not give a toss about ordinary people.”
His insight was confirmed yesterday during a visit to Erdington, but deserves to be stated in wider form. People here think that politicians of all parties do not give a toss about ordinary people.
Erdington has long been in Labour hands: in 2015, Jack Dromey held it by a majority of 5,129 over the Conservative candidate, Robert Alden, who is standing again this time. UKIP received 6,040 votes in that election, and if enough of those go to Alden, Dromey could lose.
But the turnout last time was only 53.3 per cent, and the strongest impression left by these conversations is that the people of Erdington would rather not take part in the election at all. “I don’t vote, mate,” as a 22-year-old man said in the tone of one who does not want to talk politics.
On walking into Erdington High Street from the railway station, one finds the Free Library, the gift of Andrew Carnegie in 1906 on the left-hand side at the end of Orphanage Road, and on the right-hand side the Swan pub.
Here three workers aged about 60 poured out their woes. One was a man who used to earn £25,000 a year as a designer, but is now reduced to “pushing a vacuum”, i.e. working as a cleaner, for the minimum wage of £7.50 an hour.
“Sorry,” he said. “I’m not interested in politics. They had cutbacks and I got made redundant – that was the politicians. I’ve worked my f—ing arse off since I was 15, I’ve got to work until I’m 66, and I’m pushing a vacuum.
“These politicians are on £70,000 a year. Let’s see if Dromey wants to work for the minimum wage. We’re expected to go in six weeks’ time to put a cross in a box so he can stay in his job.”
A woman related how after working for almost 40 years as a jewellery polisher, she was sacked by the young man who inherited the firm from his father: “To me, the Government has given these people the leeway to do whatever they want to working-class people. Nobody listens to us.”
A second woman, who lost her job as a pharmacist, said: “At this age, we can’t get jobs. I do cleaning. I do skivvying. I’m also a barmaid.”
The man went on: “You know what, I hope Brexit does change the country. Why not? We couldn’t be worse off than we are now.”
An electrician who was smoking a cigarette outside a shop – a frequent sight in Erdington – and was wearing a waistcoat with a watch chain, said he will vote Tory, and always has done, even when Margaret Thatcher was in power, as did his parents before him.
The electrician looked at the street and remarked: “Erdington’s going down in the world.” He said of the general election: “It’ll be a close call, very close.”
An excitable man who was sitting on a bench smoking cigarette after cigarette said: “Mr Corbyn is a good man. Better than that woman. He’s the lesser of two evils.
“But I won’t be voting for any of them. I will never vote. I will never allow evil to grow and flourish and prosper. They’re thieves and crooks and they’ve put us in this position. They’re charlatans.
“Nothing’s going to happen. It’s going to be more of the same. The rich are going to get richer and the poor are going to get poorer and conditions are going to get worse and it’s going to lead to unrest.
“Emile Durkheim once said people become a product of their values, and I’m inclined to agree with him.”
In the Oikos café across the road from the pub, a retired engineer who supports Labour, and will be knocking on doors for that party, said it was “crazy” of Labour MPs to have voted for an election: “The only explanation I’ve had is they didn’t want to be lily-livered. But that is no reason to vote for a general election, because they must know they’ll get absolutely slaughtered.”
He lamented that food banks are needed in Erdington: “People are in work but they’re not earning enough. That’s terrible. All the churches have a collection every month.”
A retired car worker who used to work for Jaguar said: “I always vote Labour. It’s for the working man, Labour. I used to like Churchill. He was Conservative, wasn’t he? He was for the working man.”
No one mentioned the West Midlands mayoral election which will be held tomorrow between Andy Street for the Conservatives and Sion Simon for Labour. The Birmingham Mail predicts a close fight which could be decided by the second-preference votes cast for the Green, UKIP, Lib Dem and Communist candidates.
In the article mentioned at the start of this piece, Timothy called on the Conservative Party to “adopt a relentless focus on governing in the interests of ordinary, working people”.
But I confess that as I talked to ordinary, working people in Erdington, who were for the most part very friendly, it was not immediately apparent to me how one would set about doing that. Perhaps the forthcoming manifesto will start to make this clear.
The closest the Conservatives have come since the Second World War to winning Erdington was in 1983, when Daniel Moylan fell only 231 votes short. He is now a councillor in Kensington and Chelsea, was Boris Johnson’s transport and aviation adviser, and last night said:
“In 1983 I was the Conservative candidate in Birmingham Erdington, a constituency long neglected by its outgoing and antiquated Labour MP and a defensive target for Labour. They managed to retain it in a difficult year and have held it since.
“Returning to it today, it is remarkable how little it has changed visually and in its built form. Like many of our smaller cities and suburbs outside the south-east, time seems to have stood still.
“But not the political landscape of Birmingham. In 1983, there were numerous Conservative MPs. The thought that Edgbaston, solidly Conservative under the serene Jill Knight, could one day fall to Labour would have seemed ludicrous.
“Yet Conservative MPs are now nowhere to be seen (except in the special case of Sutton Coldfield, a microcosm community stiffened in its identity by a conviction that it is part of Birmingham only in name). Losing its political representation, the Conservative Party also lost its narrative for cities. Indeed it is almost impossible to think of any story Conservatives have had to tell cities for decades (outside London).
“That may change. We have a chance now to take parliamentary seats and mayoral chairs in urban settings we have given up for lost long term. But to hold them we need the narrative and the policies. That will be the test.”