For a long time, the Tories have had a strong base of support across the metropolitan parts of the West Midlands. Up until the 2018 Birmingham City Council election, they held wards throughout the city, from inner city Edgbaston, to Bournville, which sits about halfway between the centre and the southern edge of the city, as well total dominance in the northern suburb of Sutton Coldfield
These particular areas, for long time, have had a concentration of demographics that favoured Conservatives: middle class, wealthy, predominantly-white British. Birmingham is, in truth, a very diverse city, but not an integrated one. As a result, neighbouring wards sometimes had staggering support for opposing parties – something which often correlated with high concentration of one class or ethnic group or an intersection of the two.
However, many of the seats in these wards were lost to the Tories this year. At the same time, they gained others, mostly in the poorer parts in the south of the city and in the Black Country. This was no real surprise considering last year’s general election results; the West Midlands was the one region in the UK where the Conservatives had a net gain of seats against Labour in 2017.
The West Midlands also had one of the widest overall margin of support for Brexit in the country: almost 60 per cent. That is one of the main reasons the Tories lost in places like Edgbaston (where you’ll find a major university and hospital, as well as concentrated support for Remain), while gaining in the Black Country, where support for Brexit was close to 70 per cent.
The Brexit referendum result in the West Midlands region: only Warwick District Council, in yellow, had a clear majority for Remain. Image: Wikipedia.
So was this just a simple case of voters switching support between parties based on where they stand on the defining issue of our time? Or does this speak to something deeper?
The region’s post-industrial economic decline was most acutely felt in majority-working class areas, like those found in Birmingham, Coventry, Stoke, and the Black Country where support for Brexit was staggering. The fall of living standards, even before the economic crash, certainly contributed to voter – many of whom had supported Labour for generations – going on to vote for Brexit because they wanted change. The Conservatives were smart to target this group: huge numbers of these voters had become disillusioned with a Remain-supporting Labour party which they felt hadn’t done enough to address their concerns while in office.
While plenty of urban areas in England had a majority vote for Brexit, none were as consistently high in their support as the West Midlands, particularly in the Black Country and Stoke. The metro areas in the West Midlands, much like those in the North of England are often labelled as Labour heartlands – usually by those who subscribe to a belief in “traditional Labour voters", a coded way of saying “white and working class”, or simply those who defaulted to Labour because they trended poorer and less educated.
While this is a gross oversimplification and misunderstanding of social and economic class in this country, the biggest electoral problem here is entitlement. Assuming that Labour, or former Labour, voters who opted for Brexit would return after the referendum and collapse of UKIP was as foolish as the Conservatives thinking the same for themselves about Tories who voted Remain. As the last election showed, class is no longer a reliable indicator of voting intention – but support for Brexit is, and the Tories are gaining in towns where support for Brexit was at its highest.
Brexit can’t be the only factor in the Tories’ growing foothold in the Midlands, not least because it’s both a cause and effect. But it certainly correlates with a more general realignment that comes with gains for both parties at each other’s expense. And while voters are moving in both directions, the shifts are not always equal. In Birmingham, the current council is almost exactly the same in composition after this year’s election compared to the previous one despite seat changes – but in the more Brexity Black Country, the Conservatives had far more opportunity to gain. And so, they did.
Why is it so different in the Black Country to Birmingham itself? The West Midlands recently has one of the highest shares of its population claiming unemployment benefits of anywhere in England. If anywhere fits into the “left behind” narrative, it’s here.
And although Birmingham’s GPD is second only to London’s, it also has greater inequality than in any other major English city. Birmingham saw mass unemployment even before the financial crash, with factories closing, like the Longbridge Rover plant, predating the recession. Levels of unemployment are currently among the highest in the country; and, in terms of income and employment deprivation, Birmingham is the most deprived local authority in the entire country.
Parliamentary constituencies in the West Midlands Combined Authority area. From west to east, the area contains Wolverhampton, the Black Country, Birmingham, Solihull and Coventry. Image: Wikimedia Commons.
That said, Birmingham is also very diverse. That may well explain why support for Brexit was almost exactly 50-50 (significantly lower than its neighbours), and why the political balance has remained the same for the past two elections.
The Black Country is economically similar, with all the above problems; but it’s far less diverse and has seen even less infrastructure spending. Unemployment is twice the national average across the Black Country; other measures of deprivation are also high. Like Birmingham, this was once the home of the industrial revolution, and when those industries waned, people got poorer and poorer. A vote for change was inevitable.
In the wider West Midlands, the area with the highest level of support for Brexit was the city of Stoke-on-Trent: 69.4 per cent. The Conservatives gained an MP here in 2017 with a 16 per cent increase in their vote. From pottery, to coalmining, to steelworks, Stoke-on-Trent has seen industries that employed huge swathes of its population vanish, mostly in the past few decades. With nothing in place to replace them, Stoke has, unsurprisingly, suffered from levels of unemployment that are hard to comprehend. Recently, in one suburb, fully half of all working-age adults were reliant on Job Seeker’s Allowance.
These are places where Labour once commanded staggering majorities but the Conservatives are now thriving. And while Brexit is a symptom as much as a cause, it has provided a gateway for the Conservatives to re-establish themselves in more urban areas where turnout is lower, more than offsetting their losses elsewhere.
As in the rest of the country, the Conservatives are haemorrhaging support in the more socially liberal built-up areas, particularly ones that trended Remain, like Warwick. But Labour face the opposite problem in socially conservative Leave areas – which, unfortunately for the left, comprise the majority of the West Midlands.
And while Labour dominates in the cities, it struggles in towns. And the metropolitan areas in the West Midlands happen to include a lot of large towns, like Dudley, where the two major parties are neck and neck. In the most recent general election, Labour only held onto Dudley North by only 22 votes.
Through decades of underinvestment and stagnation, appetite for change has grown amongst an electorate which once supported Labour but which voted for Brexit in staggering numbers. And unlike in most Northern metro areas, the Conservatives already had a large base of support and party infrastructure in the West Midlands through which they could target vulnerable seats as others drifted from them.
Of course a Leave-supporting Tory Party promising change is tempting to these Leave voters in the West Midlands. And until the Brexit issue is resolved, it will continue to underpin how we all vote.