West Side Tory: how concerned should Labour be by Andy Street's mayoral victory?
After victory in last week’s West Midlands mayoral election, Conservative strategists believe they can pick up a swathe of seats across the region. With a month to go until polling day, Sebastian Whale heads out on the Birmingham campaign trail
"Are you here to go out doorknocking, leafletting or phone canvassing?” Jess Phillips asks as she spots me sitting in the waiting area of her constituency office. I’d slipped in without much fanfare – “I’m here to see Jess” I told one of her staff as I was let through the locked doors – and typical British sensibilities nearly see me venture out on the campaign trail with local activists. After mustering the courage to disclose that I am in fact here for an interview, Phillips booms her patented laugh and summons me over.
The dust has barely settled from the local elections as I find myself in Yardley, east Birmingham asking the Labour candidate to unpick Conservative Andy Street’s win in the West Midlands mayoral race. The former John Lewis boss edged home by 3,766 votes ahead of Labour’s Sion Simon in the first contest of its kind in the region. The result suggests that Labour’s stronghold in the West Midlands – it currently holds three-quarters of the seats in the Commons – is looking extremely vulnerable. But with a turnout of just over 25%, how much can we read into the results?
Phillips is unsure what to make of the outcome. What she is certain of is that it was a “shock”. She finds some solace in that Birmingham overall and voters in her constituency backed Simon at the election. “It’s like in the European elections where we were the only place that didn’t elect any Ukip [MEPs]. Only Birmingham should be allowed to vote from now on,” she jokes.
Phillips was elected MP for Birmingham Yardley with a majority of 6,595 in 2015 on a swing of 11.7% from the Liberal Democrats, who held the seat from 2005-2015. The constituency voted for Brexit by 60%, and like Phillips the Lib Dem candidate John Hemming backed Remain. No party could truly stake a claim to the seat in recent history – it backed the Tories throughout Margaret Thatcher’s period in Number 10, went red in the 90s and turned yellow in the mid noughties – a true three-way marginal. At the time of writing, the Electoral Calculus gives Labour a 48% chance of winning, the Tories 34% and the Lib Dems 14%.
Phillips’ brief, but eventful, time in Parliament has taken in two Labour leadership contests, the death of a close colleague in Jo Cox and the EU referendum. She has made a name for herself as a champion of women’s rights, a straight shooter and an outspoken critic of Jeremy Corbyn. Not all of her interventions have been popular – her confession that she would stab Corbyn “in the front, not the back” springs to mind – and she has been an unwilling recipient of vitriol and abuse online.
While the party’s national standing has been in steep decline, Phillips’ personal stock has gone up. But she knows full well that Birmingham Yardley can be “swept with the tide”, as she states it, and swing between three political parties with relative ease. So the mayoral result is some cause for concern.
And for all her cut-through, Jeremy Corbyn does come up as an issue on the doorstep, she concedes, along with Brexit and local issues. The Labour leader is mentioned for “all the stuff that you’d imagine”, she says, adding: “People don’t really go into it more than ‘I don’t really like Jeremy Corbyn’. They’re that upfront about it”.
To circumvent that Phillips is very much pushing her own brand and her work as a constituency MP. But she thinks that the “personal vote” only accounts for about 2,000 votes.
“The strategy is always about me, not the Labour party. But it was last time… It’s the same for most candidates,” she says. “I don’t matter as much as my constituents and the tide that they feel. I am not a big enough character to win it on my own, but I am the best asset the Labour party has here.”
Showing no signs of complacency, her campaign team carry out three doorknocking sessions a day and are not short on volunteers to canvass. During our interview activists of all ages come in to offer their services. Phillips’ team aims to achieve 1,000 “contacts” and send out one piece of literature a week.
Security concerns play a looming role however: the blinds in her office remain down, door ringing has been implemented, and last year she installed a panic room. Even so, she relishes the opportunity for another crack at Westminster, and is upfront about her wider ambitions to one day run for the Labour leadership. “I’ve never even had a frontbench job, so at the moment it’s definitely not going to happen. But yeah, one day. At the moment it’s not a certainty that I’ll even return to parliament. So that has to be the focus.”
Only “humans” would be on her front bench, she tells me, and while they would have to adhere to collective responsibility they could still appear in the media and “not sound like a robot”. “It would be entertaining, it would be like sport and snooker used to be before the money and when people had actual personalities,” she says.
Phillips argues that she has for the most part a fair representation from the media. When I put it to her that this is due to being upfront and honest, which Corbyn is too, she cuts me off. “Not really, he shouldn’t have sat on the floor of that train. That was the end of being able to say you were honest. Why would you do that? I would just be like ‘well no, I’m not going to do that because we’re clearly going to get caught’,” she says, with a wry grin.
“And then afterwards he should have just gone, ‘mea culpa, what a dick move’. I would do that, I would say ‘what a dick move’.”
Should the Tories get a landslide victory on 8 June, Phillips says Corbyn’s position would be “untenable”. But she doubts that the veteran will stand aside. “I think it would be right and proper to stand down. But I don’t think he cares about what’s right and proper,” she says, looking down at her vape, knowing she could be in for yet another period of Labour infighting.
As for reports that the leadership is aiming to match or exceed Ed Miliband’s share of the vote in 2015 to strengthen his case for staying put, Phillips responds: “Yeah, but Ed Miliband stood down, to be fair. The comparison doesn’t stand up does it.” Her smile broadens.
One of Phillips’ rivals, Lib Dem candidate John Hemming, served as MP for Birmingham Yardley for 10 years from 2005-2015. Standing again for re-election, he says he is running on a ticket of “comparing and contrasting” his record with that of Phillips.
“I was a full-time Member of Parliament. I didn’t go off on book promotion tours and things like that, and I actually dealt with all the issues people came to me about,” he says in a dig at Phillips, who recently released a book.
“I’m well known for doing all the work on the family courts and things like that. Obviously as a secondary thing I’m a vote against Jeremy Corbyn, so that’s a factor as well, because a lot of people don’t want Jeremy Corbyn.”
Of the 28 MPs representing the West Midlands, 21 are Labour and seven Tories, and safe seats are few and far between. Seven Labour incumbents to the Tories’ two have a majority of under 5,000. Rob Marris, who is standing down at the election, bequeaths the narrowest lead at 801 to the new Labour candidate over the Conservatives in Wolverhampton South. James Morris, MP for Halesowen and Rowley Regis, has the title of lowest Tory majority in the region of 3,082 from Labour.
According to analysis by the Birmingham Mail, the result of last week’s Midlands mayoral election suggests that the Tories could take Labour seats in Birmingham Northfield, Walsall North and Dudley North. Birmingham Erdington, represented by Labour frontbencher Jack Dromey, also looks finely balanced.
A Tory source says the party has its sights set on Labour candidate Steve McCabe’s seat in Selly Oak, where he holds a majority of more than 8,400, and Birmingham Edgbaston. Gisela Stuart, the outgoing Labour MP and leading Brexiteer, is standing down after 20 years representing the constituency. She bequeaths Preet Gill, the new Labour candidate, a tight majority of 2,706 in a Brexit-backing constituency.
Gill was born and raised in Edgbaston. She has served as a councillor and is Sandwell’s cabinet member for public health and protection, alongside being chosen for Labour’s Jo Cox Women in Leadership programme.
Birmingham Edgbaston holds the unique bragging rights to having elected a woman MP at every election since 1953. This trend will continue – barring any major upsets – as the Tories selected Caroline Squire, a public affairs and communications consultant, to contest the seat. Gill, like Phillips, is letting voters know that it is her they will be voting for on the 8 June.
“It’s about who’s on the ballot box for the constituency when they go to vote at the general election. It’s going to be me,” she says. Gill’s pitch to voters is her strong record campaigning on local issues, her knowledge of the area and ability to get things done. As for those who use the Corbyn “excuse” for not voting Labour, Gill says the election is about “issues” – “it’s about Labour values, it’s not about personalities”.
A Labour MP privately told me that the seat would be “a goner” if Street did emerge victorious at the election. Gill certainly has a fight on her hands, with the Tories currently seeing a 61% chance of regaining the seat they lost to Labour in 1997, according to the Electoral Calculus.
In 2014 Gary Sambrook became the first Conservative councillor to get elected in Kingstanding since the 1960s. The ward covers more than a quarter of Jack Dromey’s Birmingham Erdington constituency. Sambrook mucked in with Street’s successful mayoral campaign, and is now helping to run fellow local councillor and Tory candidate Robert Alden’s bid to become MP for the seat. The party’s grassroots movement in the area is said to have caught the attention of Nick Timothy, one of Theresa May’s joint chiefs of staff.
As a clued up member of the Tories’ West Midlands operation, Sambrook says that a sustained effort targeting “working class seats on the outskirts of the city” is beginning to pay dividends. He believes Brexit could play a key role on 8 June.
“I think the referendum is doing in England and especially in white working class areas what the Scottish referendum did to the Labour party, in the sense that it’s a huge dividing line and a lot of these areas are simply just seeing it through ‘are you going to deliver Brexit or aren’t you’, properly and in the way that they want to be delivered,” he says.
Though Dromey’s majority is more than 5,129, Sambrook is confident of victory with Corbyn once again playing a prominent role. “We see Jeremy’s views on defence particularly don’t go down very well in places like Erdington and Kingstanding, where there are multiple members of a family from different generations who have been in the Forces, who see Jeremy’s views as a bit of a traitor in a sense.”
Labour deputy leader Tom Watson, another candidate in the West Midlands in West Bromwich East, helped launch Dromey’s campaign, showing perhaps how concerned the party is of losing the seat. The collaboration speaks to a wider trend across the region, as Labour candidates look to pool resources where possible. Labour was this week dealt a fresh blow, however, after Ukip decided not to field a candidate, meaning the 6,040 votes the party won in 2015 are up for grabs.
Dromey, the shadow minister for labour, is in defiant spirits however. He says he is standing on his seven-year record of service to the people of the constituency, which includes saving “hundreds” of community and police officers.
“I will always put Erdington first. For the Tories, Erdington comes a sorry second,” he says.
Turning to the mayoral race, Dromey argues that the Tories poured an “eye-watering” £1m into the campaign and also cites low turnout figures. “That we’ve got a Tory Mayor makes it all the more important for people in Erdington to have a Labour MP who will speak up for them,” he argues.
The Labour party won 24 of the then 29 seats in the West Midlands at the 1997 election, as Tony Blair swept to a landslide victory. Given Street’s victory last week, the outlook 20 years later could look markedly different.
Back in Phillips’ constituency office, she says a strong Tory presence in the West Midlands is not an unknown. “When I was a kid Birmingham was bellwether,” she recalls.
The growing support for the Conservatives does not make her feel “deeply sad”, for it is not as if Labour “is entitled to some sort of stronghold in Birmingham”.
“I don’t think that any political party thinks that they should deserve an area or take it for granted,” she adds.