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.

 
 
 
 

Leeds is still haunted by its pledge to be the “Motorway City of the Seventies”

Oh, Leeds. Image: mtaylor848/Wikimedia Commons.

As the local tourist board will no doubt tell you, Leeds has much to be proud of: grandiose industrial architecture in the form of faux-Egyptian temples and Italian bell-towers; an enduring cultural legacy as the birthplace of Goth, and… motorways. But stand above the A58(M) – the first “urban motorway”  in the country – and you might struggle to pinpoint its tourist appeal.

Back in the 1970s, though, the city council was sufficiently gripped by the majesty of the motorways to make them a part of its branding. Letters sent from Leeds were stamped with a postmark proudly proclaiming the city's modernity: “Leeds, Motorway City of the Seventies”.

Image: public domain.

During the 1960s, post-war optimism and an appetite for grand civic projects saw the rapid construction of motorways across England. The construction of the M1 began in 1959; it reached Leeds, its final destination, in 1968. By the early 1970s the M62 was sweeping across Pennines, and the M621 loop was constructed to link it to Leeds city centre.

Not content with being the meeting point of two major motorways, Leeds was also the first UK city to construct a motorway through the city centre: the inner ring road, which incorporates the short motorway stretches of the A58(M) and the A64(M). As the council put it in 1971, “Leeds is surging forward into the Seventies”.

The driving force behind Leeds' love of motorways was a mix of civic pride and utopian city planning. Like many industrial cities in the North and Midlands, Leeds experienced a decline in traditional manufacturing during the 1960s. Its position at the centre of two major motorways seemed to offer a brighter future as a dynamic city open for trade, with the infrastructure to match. In response to the expansion of the roads, 1970s council planners also constructed an elevated pedestrian “skywalk” in an attempt to free up space for cars at ground level. Photos of Leeds from that time show a thin, white walkway running through blocky office buildings – perhaps not quite as extensive as the futuristic urban landscape originally envisaged by planners, but certainly a visual break with the past.

Fast forward to 2019 and Leeds’ efforts to become a “Motorway City” seems like a kitsch curiosity from a decade that was not always known for sustainable planning decisions. Leeds’s historic deference to the car has serious consequences in the present: in February 2019, Neville Street – a busy tunnel that cuts under Leeds station – was found to contain the highest levels of NO2 outside London.

City centre planners did at least have the foresight to sink stretches of the inner motorways below street level, leaving pedestrian routes largely undisturbed. Just outside the centre, though, the roads can be more disruptive. Sheepscar Interchange is a bewildering tangle of arterial roads, Armley Gyratory strikes fear into the hearts of learner drivers, and the M621 carves unsympathetically through inner-city areas of South Leeds with pedestrian access restricted to narrow bridges that heighten the sense of a fragmented landscape.

 

Leeds inner ring road in its cutting. Image: author provided.

 

The greatest problem for Yorkshire's “Motorway City” in 2019, however, is not the occasional intimidating junction, but the complete lack of an alternative to car travel. The dire state of public transport in Leeds has already been raised on these pages. In the early 20th century Leeds had one of the most extensive tram networks in the country. The last lines closed in 1959, the same year construction began on the A58m.


The short-sightedness of this decision was already recognised in the 1970s, as traffic began to build. Yet plans for a Leeds Supertram were rejected by successive Conservative and Labour governments unwilling to front the cost, even though smaller cities such as Newcastle and Sheffield were granted funding for light transport systems. Today, Leeds is the largest city in the EU without a mass transit system. As well as creating congestion, the lack of viable public transport options prevents connectivity: the city's bus network is reasonable, but weaker from East to West than North to South. As a non-driver, I've turned down jobs a short drive away that would be a logistical impossibility without a car.

Leeds' early enthusiasm for the motorway was perhaps premature, but there are things we can learn from the 1970s. Whatever else can be said about it, Leeds' city transport strategy was certainly bold – a quality in short supply today, after proposals for the supertram were watered down to a trolleybus system before being scrapped altogether in 2016. Leeds' rapid transformation in the 1960s and 70s, its grandiose visions of skywalks and dual carriageways, were driven by strong local political will. Today, the long-term transport strategy documents on Leeds City Council's website say more about HS2 than the need for a mass transit system within Leeds itself, and the council has been accused of giving up the fight for light rail and trams.

Whilst central government's refusal to grant funds is the greatest obstacle to Leeds' development, the local authority needs to be far more vocal in demanding the transport system the city deserves. Leeds' desire to be the Motorway City of the Seventies might look ludicrous today, but the political drive and utopian optimism that underpinned it does not.