The stall owners in Dudley’s market have a single concern on their minds: customers. One month after reopening following the UK’s lockdown, the smallest businesses in this corner of England’s West Midlands have scarcely given a thought to politics since coronavirus arrived.
“Our punters are thinking about their health and jobs, they’re not engaged with politics right now,” said 25-year-old Jake, who sells bread and cakes for Mr Tom’s Bakery. “It’s really quiet. People are fearful and they’re not shopping.”
On a sun-kissed weekday morning, Dudley does not show any obvious signs of being the epicentre of England’s recent political earthquake. Eight months ago, this traditional Labour seat returned its first ever Conservative MP — one of the bricks in the “red wall” of heartland constituencies that crumbled overnight to hand Boris Johnson’s party its first large parliamentary majority in 30 years.
Since then, Covid-19 has suspended normal politics. Mr Johnson and his chancellor, Rishi Sunak, have doled out billions to prop up livelihoods while fending off accusations they have mismanaged the crisis. Meanwhile Labour has elected Keir Starmer as its new leader who is erasing all traces of his predecessor Jeremy Corbyn. Against this shifting backdrop, has Mr Johnson still captured the hearts and minds of Labour’s lost England?
Kelly Moses, the landlady of The Old Priory pub, is “not massive” on politics but voted Tory for the first time in December purely because of Mr Corbyn’s leadership. “I was never gonna vote for Corbyn. He changed the goalposts. At first, he was all for Brexit and then suddenly he became anti-Brexit.”
Since the election Ms Moses admits coronavirus has been “horrendous” for her pub and “there’s always extra help” that the government could offer. But she is pleased with Mr Sunak’s support measures and Mr Johnson’s handling of the crisis. “Boris did a great job . . . like I have said in the past, I really feel sorry for the man. It was unprecedented times.”
The seat of Dudley North is typical of the “red wall”. It has a heavy industrial heritage that forged deep cultural links to the Labour movement and party. It backed Brexit with 71 per cent supporting leaving the EU in the 2016 referendum. And finally it is a constituency that has seen support for Labour gradually ebbing away over the years.
In the 2017 general election, Labour clung on with a mere 22 votes after a six point swing towards the Tories. Two years later, a further 16-point shift returned Marco Longhi, a local businessman, as its Conservative MP.
The constituency is so symbolic of Mr Johnson’s agenda to level up Britain that he chose Dudley to deliver his “build build build” speech in June, setting out how he intends to remake the economy after coronavirus.
“The fact that he came to Dudley for me signifies: I’m on your side, I know what we need to do to change things,” said Mr Longhi.
However, while he remains upbeat about Dudley’s aspirations to “be a lot better than where we were before the pandemic”, he admits it is “gonna get ugly before it gets better” with unemployment set to rise in the coming months. “The majority of people are very realistic, the majority of people can see that everybody is doing in government the maximum they possibly can.”
For now, opinion polls suggest Mr Johnson and his government remain popular in areas such as Dudley. Mr Johnson won 42 per cent of the vote on December 12 and while the Tory party’s vote share has fluctuated during the crisis it is now back to where it started. According to a survey conducted by ComRes last week, the party remains on 42 per cent.
Conservative party insiders are relaxed about the turbulence in the polls, pointing out that “so much could change” by the time of the next election in 2024. “Returning to delivering on the core agenda — as voters still expect — while navigating the acute economic downturn coming is the big challenge,” said one well-placed Tory.
One notable positive change for the Tories is the arrival of Mr Sunak as a national figure. Prior to the election, he was a little-known minister in Mr Johnson’s government. Now as chancellor during the coronavirus crisis, he has become one of the country’s most popular figures. According to YouGov, he has a net favourability of +40.
While Mr Sunak is popular in the red wall, his potency may go further. “Rishi is an electoral phenomenon. He’s come out of nowhere to reassure all the pro-Remain Tories who still aren’t keen on the PM,” said one minister. “It’s a perfect combination: Boris can speak to the red wall and Rishi will speak to Surrey.”
Those who know Dudley well think it will take more than coronavirus and new leadership for Labour to win back the “red wall”. Ian Austin, who was Dudley North’s Labour MP from 2005 to 2019, argued that the challenges facing former industrial towns like this one are deep and the election result was “a reflection of longer term problems”.
“Up until 1976, Black Country manufacturing made the West Midlands the richest place in Britain on per capita output — higher than London and South East,” he said. “People here are really proud of their community and their country, but traditional industrial areas have struggled — and there’s a sense of resentment about that; a feeling of . . . the place isn’t like it used to be.”
Mr Austin had a spectacular falling out with Mr Corbyn over anti-Semitism, in the party, leaving Labour and urging the country to vote for the Tories. Since the election, he doesn’t “detect a big swing away from the Tories . . . in places like Dudley”.
Could Sir Keir make a difference? While Mr Austin said the new Labour leader “looks more credible” than Mr Corbyn, the damage caused by his predecessor will be long lasting. “People in places like Dudley are deeply patriotic, they support the armed forces, believe in working hard and paying your way . . . so the damage to Labour’s reputation over the past few years has been terrible.”
Next year, the West Midlands will also provide the first insight into whether Labour can rebuild the “red wall”. The region has one of England’s most powerful directly elected mayoralties that is due for election in May, a vote delayed a year due to coronavirus.
Andy Street, a former managing director of retailer John Lewis and the incumbent Conservative mayor, was likely to have been comfortably re-elected had the vote been held as planned two months ago. But his core message of boosting jobs, investment and prosperity has been disrupted by the pandemic.
“Enormous as Covid is, we’re really trying not to be knocked off course,” Mr Street said. “Nine months is a long, long time with the uncertainty that we’ve got . . . we will definitely face an economic downturn. And the question will be who is capable of leading the region through the recovery?”
Although Mr Corbyn has moved on as Labour leader, Mr Street believes that the disconnect between the party and its traditional heartlands is unchanged since the last election. “It’s about whether the party as a whole had moved from sharing the value set of residents, workers across the Black Country. I see no evidence at all of that just changing.”
Facing Mr Street is Liam Byrne, the Labour MP for Birmingham Hodge Hill and a former minister in the New Labour government. A decade on he argues that the party did not do enough to help places such as Dudley while in office.
“As we globalised there were gains of trade, but we didn’t share those gains of trade with places like Dudley,” said Mr Byrne. “And what happened is that retail parks began to replace old industry and, OK, people didn’t want to send their kids down the pit but they didn’t want to send them to work in Costa Coffee either,” he said.
In next year’s election, Mr Byrne hopes to win back voters who feel “let down by successive governments”.
“Keir is a game changer in the West Midlands, and you know what we are trying to do for Team Labour is create and test a political strategy for how we rebuild the red wall,” he said. “If we can do it here, we can do it anywhere.”
This article has been amended to reflect that the 2019 election gave the Conservative party its first large parliamentary majority in 30 years
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