Friday 15 December 2017

Britain split on vote but terror attacks won't change outcome

Kim Bielenberg gauges the election mood in the West Midlands and Manchester

Jeremy Corbyn has a selfie taken with a woman at an election rally in Colwyn Bay. Picture: Reuters
Jeremy Corbyn has a selfie taken with a woman at an election rally in Colwyn Bay. Picture: Reuters
Kim Bielenberg

Kim Bielenberg

The afternoon drinker in the Red Lion pub in Erdington has no doubt about what he would like to do with the Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn.

"Corbyn is against the monarchy," he says as he nurses his pint in an ornate hostelry decorated on the outside with the red and white flag of St George.

"If I was king, I'd put him in the Tower of London."

His fellow drinkers erupt in laughter at the thought.

Areas like Erdington, on the edge of Birmingham, should be a shoo-in for Labour in today's general election. Although Jeremy Corbyn's party still holds the local seat, this poor suburb in the post-industrial heart of the West Midlands has become a key battleground.

The vast local Dunlop factory once employed up to 10,000 people, but it closed three years ago. The Tories are targeting "Erdington man" - he is a character down on his luck and torn between a natural inclination towards Labour, and a disdain for immigrants.

Alan Poole at his stall in Birmingham city. Photo: Laura Dale
Alan Poole at his stall in Birmingham city. Photo: Laura Dale

Theresa May is hoping to win the same kind of blue collar vote that was attracted to Donald Trump in the United States. The sense of disillusionment expresses itself among the white working class in a strong feeling against immigrants, and this has been heightened by the spate of terrorist attacks. Almost two-thirds of voters here chose Brexit.

The man in the Red Lion puts it bluntly: "Why should we have to answer to Brussels over who we let into this country when we ruled the world for hundreds of years?"

When he hears I am from the Irish Independent, he sends me across the road to the Royal Oak pub - "Go over there, they're all Irish over there." And true to form, there are GAA jerseys covering the ceiling in the Royal Oak. Landlady Linda Kavanagh, who came from Galway 34 years ago, says: "I don't know who to vote for - they all make promises but do they keep them?"

Again, the anti-immigrant feeling is strong, even among the Irish. "I voted for Brexit because there are no border controls here," she says.

Among more affluent voters in Birmingham city centre there was criticism of the decision to quit the EU and Mrs May's questionable leadership qualities. Sitting in the sunshine while reading a book in St Philip's Square, Nick Murray pauses to reflect. He says the Conservatives have tried to promote Mrs May as a successor to Margaret Thatcher. "She doesn't come across as strong and stable at all. She's weak and wobbly," he said.

Mr Murray, who lives in Stratford-upon-Avon and works for a food company, says: "Brexit is horrendous for food companies like my own that have to trade across borders."

Linda Fitzgerald, landlady of the Red Oak pub in Erdington Photo: Laura Dale
Linda Fitzgerald, landlady of the Red Oak pub in Erdington Photo: Laura Dale

Business people may be anxious, but there is little sign among voters who supported Brexit that they have changed their minds. At his stand selling Union Jack paraphernalia in the city centre, Alan Poole favours Theresa over Jeremy. And Brexit and immigration are the big issues for him. He says: "Britain is strong enough to cope on its own.

"The problem is that there are more foreigners than British in this city now. It's time to shut the gates."

The post-industrial wilderness of the West Midlands may turn blue today, swinging the election in Mrs May's favour, but the Northern Powerhouse of Manchester is likely to remain steadfastly red.

In the North West of England, Theresa May was hoping to make inroads in Labour heartlands. But here voters have warmed to Jeremy Corbyn. He has shown himself to be a gutsier campaigner than most had bargained for.

In the revitalised docklands of Salford, there is little sign Mrs May can overcome a cultural distaste for the Conservative Party.

The area fell into decline in the 1970s and the docks closed during Thatcher's time. But it has been reborn over the past decade.

Next to a bridge over the Manchester Ship Canal, youth worker Donna Black fears recent terror attacks will impact on how people vote. "It's a cheap trick that they are playing up the anti-immigration line. It feeds into people's fears and might have an impact as people are frightened."

If local people are more wary as they go about their business, there are few signs in this ebullient city. Just a fortnight after the bombing, restaurants and pubs are packed, and garrulous Mancunians are enjoying nights out as they did before. In Albert Square there are crowds of people in a reverential hush, laying flowers for the victims.

Warehouseman Simon Livesey doubts the atrocity will affect how people vote.

"Nothing could have been done to prevent something like this, and it does not matter which party is in power."

Irish Independent

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