Why is The West Midlands so much bluer than England’s other metropolitan counties?

Newly elected Midlands mayor Andy Street, with unsuccessful Labour opponent Sion Simon trailing in his wake. Image: Getty.

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.

 
 
 
 

In search of the UK’s great “city films”: the South, East Anglia and the Midlands

Beachy Head, East Sussex. Image: Wikipedia via Creative Commons.

Earlier this year, in the first blog in this series, I looked at the best city films set in London. Here the search extends outwards – to the urban metropolites of the South, East Anglia and the Midlands. The focus is on films with some combination of local stories, connections and shooting locations.

That first blog outlines the selection method in detail. If you haven’t time to read it, the key things to know are that films must have received a total IMDb score of at least 6.5 from at least 100 votes – if a film is missing from the list it is probably because it does not meet those criteria.

South East

Described by the Guardian as “one of the finest post-war British crime movies and possibly the best depiction of the seaside town on film”, Jigsaw (1962) is about a murder investigation set in and around Brighton. The producers made the film in partnership with the local police and there is extensive footage of Brighton and its surrounds. Despite similarities with the real-life Brighton Trunk Murders of the 1930s, the plot was based on a 1959 American novel.

Brighton is again the location for Smokescreen (1964), yet this time insurance fraud is the crime. In addition to scenes at locations around the city and neighbouring Hove, the rest of the filming was at Brighton Film Studios, which operated between 1949 and 1966 and was the the last of four main film studios in the area. Its closure marked the end of an era, since as early as “1912, when Hollywood was just beginning, film companies in Brighton had already produced hundreds of comedies, dramas and documentaries”.

The Chalk Garden (1964) is based on a play of the same name by Enid Bagnold and, although not a period piece, inspired by Bagnold's own inter-war life at North End House in the village of Rottingdean that borders Brighton immediately to the east. Bagnold (a remarkable woman) lived a well-healed existence and the servants – notably the governess – figure prominently in the tale. Brighton features in the film – including a scene in Preston Park that recruited background players from the Preston Lawn Tennis Club.

The storylines of a couple of 1960s Oxford films centre on that city’s ancient university. The Mind Benders (1963) is a spy thriller involving brainwashing science, while Accident (1967) is about professorial-student relationships. Accident is based on a novel of the same title by Oxford-educated Nicholas Mosley (the eldest son of Sir Oswald). Both films have numerous shots of the university; we’re talking “The Full Morse” here.

A good deal of Quadrophenia (1979) is set either in London or between London and Brighton, but it does also feature the latter’s famous seafront and beach. The film, which is about a young working-class Mod in the mid-1960s, recreates the fights between gangs of Mods and Rockers that marred Brighton and other south-coast towns over holiday weekends during the Sixties.

Fast-forward two decades and Down Terrace (2009), a “Sopranos on Sea”-type dark comedy, is Brighton to its fingertips. It has a handful of local scenes but is more a house-based play than movie. Directed and co-written by Brighton resident Ben Wheatley, it is named after the street in which it was filmed. The other co-writer, who also has a lead role, is Rob Hill, who met Wheatley at the University of Brighton. The house in which most of the filming took place was Hill’s own home in Down Terrace and Hill’s character’s father is played by his real-life father – also a Brighton resident. Wheatley and Hill self-funded the film and did interviews with “local drug dealers and ne’er-do-wells” for the initial script. Several tracks come from local folk singers, The Copper Family. I loved it (as did the British Independent Film awards).


Emulsion (2014), a slick and clever film about a man’s search for his “missing wife”, is a Bournemouth film. Writer-director Suki Singh is a graduate of Bournemouth University’s Film School and still based locally. Despite the town council’s car park featuring heavily a good number of locations in Bournemouth and Poole are shown, including cafes, a local country house, department store, major hotel, police station, converted art deco cinema and Alum Chine suspension bridge. The film’s premiere came through a local Indie Screen scheme whereby Poole’s Lighthouse cinema guaranteed to screen good local indie films. The production company is locally based and, in addition to film-making (e.g. Bournemouth-shot feature, K-Shop), plays a key educational and networking role in the city’s film community. Even the score was by a (London-based) Bournemouth University graduate.

20,000 Days on Earth (2014) charts 24 hours in the life of Australian- born, Brighton-based singer Nick Cave. It is a curio in that, while the person is real, the day is artificial – made up of arranged but unscripted encounters with famous faces from 20,000 days-old Cave’s life. Many of the encounters take place in a car as Cave drives around the city, mostly away from the town centre and seafront. The film has been called “a great Brighton film, giving a neon noir sheen to Cave’s adopted hometown” and “as much of a love letter to the seaside city as it is to the man that inhabits it”. So, let’s include it.

South West

The film world owes a debt to the city of Bristol in that it gave the world one Archibald Alec Leach – better known by his screen name: Cary Grant. The Bristolian usually vies with the likes of Brando and Bogart for the mantle of greatest male lead in movie history. His upbringing in (and later ties with) Bristol is well captured in last year’s excellent documentary, Becoming Cary Grant.

Grant has long held a fascination for playwright Peter Nichols who, like the film star, grew up in north Bristol. Nichols converted one of his early plays into a challenging and amusing film of the same name, A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (1972). Nichols was rooted in the city, having been born there, educated at Bristol Grammar School, studied acting at the Bristol Old Vic Theatre School and had his first play staged at the Little Theatre (now part of Colston Hall). The play/film, based on Nichols' own experiences, is about how the burden of raising a very handicapped child can damage a marriage. The male lead is a teacher – just as Nichols had been. Funds to write the play came when legendary director-to-be John Boorman, then working at BBC Bristol, persuaded Nichols to write a screenplay for him – one that went on to make money. There are at least a handful of external shots filmed in the city although it remains more play than movie and you only hear a Bristol accent once – a funny department store scene.

Truly, Madly, Deeply (1990), which was also shot in London, and Paper Mask (1990) both show Bristol locations albeit without any great local rootedness. Starter for 10 (2006) is about student life and a University Challenge quiz team at the University of Bristol yet, despite a few good Bristol shots, most of the university scenes were filmed at UCL and the University of Greenwich.

East Anglia

Ipswich has The Angry Silence (1960), a film about strike-breaking and, seen more broadly, an individual opposing a group. It was shot mainly in and around a big local factory (operational as recently as 2005), neighbouring streets and a local primary school. Extras comprised of both local amateurs and many factory staff, one of whom lent their battered (ie realistic) overalls to one of the film’s stars. The lead actor, Richard Attenborough, even visited the factory beforehand to learn to use the machine he worked on in the film, and later hosted a private showing for local extras at the old Ritz Cinema in the Buttermarket. The film still holds up almost sixty years on, yet not everyone took civic pride in it – Ipswich Trades Council voted to boycott it. 

Following a successful online campaign named “Anglia Square not Leicester Square”, the world premiere of Alan Partridge: Alpha Papa (2013) was held in Norwich’s Hollywood Cinema, with Steve Coogan appearing in character as North Norfolk Digital radio station’s own Alan Partridge. Coogan/Partridge greeted fans before being helicoptered to the London premier in Leicester Square! The film has some good shots of Norwich, although many scenes were also filmed on the Norfolk coast, at Sheringham and Cromer beaches, and around London.


Originally created as the master’s project of Norwich-born, -raised and -based director, Kris Smith, who was at the time studying film at Norwich University College of the Arts, I’m Still Here (2013) focuses on a young guy diagnosed with a terminal illness and draws on Smith’s own experience of a loved one in this situation. Smith, who both wrote and directed the film, worked with three locally based actor-filmmakers, and the soundtrack includes local band National Image and locally-based rap artist C.O.L.L. The main shots of the city are at the beginning – including a trip to the Norfolk and Norwich Hospital (yet when a neighbour later drops him at “the hospital” the entrance shown is St George's in south London’s Tooting!). The premier took place at The Curve Auditorium, in Norwich’s Forum complex.

The short story that inspired the multi-award winning 45 Years (2015), which tells the tale of a retired couple, may have been set in north Wales, but the resultant film was indeed set in Norfolk. It includes a handful of scenes featuring popular Norwich locations and the nearby Norfolk Broads receive a nice profile too. The director, Andrew Haigh, has revealed that a lot of the scenes in Norwich featured genuine passers-by – lead actress Charlotte Rampling “would walk around the city and nobody even looked at her. We had the camera hidden in a van to film some of the scenes, so people wouldn’t see us”. Haigh knew the city well as he was living there at the time of filming while his partner was doing an MA in creative writing at University of East Anglia.

Blinded by the Light, at a cinema near you from 2019, is Gurinder Chadha’s film about the true story of a Bruce Springsteen-mad British Muslim growing up in Luton during the 1980s. The film is based on journalist Sarfraz Manzoor’s 2007 memoir, Greetings from Bury Park. Exact shooting locations are unclear although Manzoor, who is a co-producer and co-wrote the script, has said that “there have been moments on set when I could not stop smiling at the sight of a feature film crew in the middle of Luton”.

East Midlands

Nottingham is the focus of Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (1960), of which the screenplay, about a womanising hard-drinking young factory worker, was adapted by Alan Sillitoe, who was born and raised in the city, from his novel of the same name. The film’s anti-hero works in Raleigh bicycle factory – as Sillitoe himself had when it had been a wartime munition factory. The author’s family home was a main location for the film and his brother had a bit part. Numerous other city locations appear – from the castle to cinemas and pubs (including The White Horse – the setting for the short story that later became the novel). Although the closing scene was shot overlooking a Wembley housebuilding site, a Nottingham firm supplied one of its signs to bring “authenticity”. Not all locals welcomed the film: the then-Tory MP for Nottingham Central denounced it as a “foul libel on the respectful, clean living people of Nottingham”. The work was however deemed the 14th greatest British film in a 1999 BFI survey.

Shane Meadows, who moved to Nottingham from the eastern-most part of the West Midlands when he was 20, has shot several good films in and around his adopted home city. His first feature, TwentyFourSeven (1997), about a youth boxing club, was filmed in Nottingham suburbs and exurbs. A Room for Romeo Brass (1999), about two 12-year-old friends, was shot in Calverton – just outside the city. The relationship between the two boys is semi-autobiographical and based on the childhood relationship between Meadows and co-writer Paul Fraser. Much of Meadows’s This is England (2006), about skinhead youth in the early 1980s, was shot in residential areas of Nottingham. Meadows has used professional actors but has also drawn on local talent – notably from the Television Workshop in Nottingham – for key roles. The Workshop, now a charity, was originally set up by Central Independent Television in 1983 to act as a casting pool for young talent in their Midlands broadcasting region.

Leicester gets a look in with The Girl with Brains in Her Feet (1997), a coming-of-age tale, set in 1972, about a talented, mixed-race 13-year-old athlete at a school on the outskirts of Leicester. The screenplay was written by the late Jo Hodges who, back in 1972, had been a sporty, mixed-race 13-year-old at a school on the outskirts of …. you guessed it, Leicester.

Although it didn’t include lots of Northampton scenes, Kinky Boots (2005) is based on the true story of one of the area’s shoe-making companies managing to stave off closure through switching to producing women’s boots that were large and strong enough for drag queens and male fetish footwear lovers. The company was based a few miles outside Northampton although most of the internal factory scenes were shot at the Tricker’s shoe factory in Northampton itself.

The Unloved (2009) gives a child's eye view of the UK’s government-run care system for orphans and children in danger. Filmed entirely in Nottingham, it offers a handful of shots of the city and is a semi-autobiographical account of the upbringing of the film’s director, Nottingham-born-and-raised Samantha Morton (who has twice been nominated for acting Oscars). The film also gave leading roles to two actresses – Lauren Socha and Molly Windsor – who had attended the Television Workshop.

Oranges and Sunshine (2011) depicts the true story of Margaret Humphreys, a social worker from Nottingham who, in the 1980s, uncovered the horrifying and thankfully discontinued practice of Home Children; the forcible relocation, by misguided charities, of children in care from the United Kingdom to Australia and other parts of the Commonwealth. Humphreys reunited some of the children involved – now adults living mostly in Australia – with their parents in Britain and was awarded a CBE in 2011 for her work. Several Nottingham locations were used in the film although shooting also took place in Australia. The two main young actresses were Television Workshop alumni.

Nottingham was also the location for the Weekend (2011), which was named in 2016 by a BFI survey as the second best LGBT film of all time (Carol took first place, since you ask). The plot centres upon a casual encounter that shows signs of developing. The only real connection to the area, aside from locations including the Goose Fair, is that funding came from EM Media and the region’s now-closed development agency (EMDA).

Given that we are including villages just a mile or so outside Nottingham, A Boy Called Dad (2009), about a teenage father, also merits inclusion. An East Midlands production company raised the £1m needed to start shooting – obtaining funds from the former Regional Screen Agency, EM Media. North Wales and Merseyside locations also feature however.

West Midlands

Nativity! (2009), a film about a nativity play competition, is the stand-out Coventry (and West Midlands) film. Spon Street, various city landmarks and, in particular, the bombed-out St. Michael’s Cathedral can be seen in the film, which was written, directed and produced by Coventry-based Debbie Isitt, herself a product of a two-year Coventry Performing Arts Service course, and premiered at the city’s SkyDome Arena. The multi-talented Isitt even does the music along with her long-term partner Nicky Ager. Nativity! drew on Isitt’s memories of her primary school in Birmingham, which resurfaced when her own daughter (who appears in the film) reached the same age. The other children in the film, almost none of whom had agents, were recruited from schools around Birmingham and Coventry. In 2008, BBC Coventry and Warwickshire followed the filming and, to complete the local angle, Coventry’s Belgrade Theatre even played a part in production. It’s an enjoyable feel-good Christmas film suitable for all ages.

The absence of a film from Birmingham is the elephant (not) in the room; the world is surely due a great Brum film? That said, there have certainly been good films from the city and these are outlined in the spreadsheet referred to below.

Scoring

Overall the films from the South, East Anglia and the Midlands offer some additional perspectives on England to those in the films featured last blog. Through watching them we see a nation with vibrant seaside towns, attractive provincial cities, ancient and redbrick universities, factories, and the post-industrial landscape left behind when these closed.

Anyway, once again I have used my “highly scientific” method to score those films. The full list of scores, complete with further details on all films, is available here. The top-scorers, for each region, are:

  • East – I’m Still Here (Norwich): 10.5 points
  • East Midlands – This is England and Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (both Nottingham): 9 points each
  • South East – Down Terrace (Brighton): 12 points
  • South West - A Day in the Death of Joe Egg (Bristol): 7 points
  • West Midlands – Nativity! (Coventry) 11.5 points

The next installment will look at the best city films from the three regions that make up the North of England.

The author, a Brit based in Washington DC, is founder of The New Barn-Raising a project to promote international exchange on ways to sustain parks, libraries, museums and other community and civic assets. You can find him on Twitter at @newbarnraising.