Midlands North-South divide in topsy-turvy politics

Image copyright PA
Image caption Jim Callaghan's Labour government needed a pact with the Liberals to survive, limping along from one crisis to another

We're upside down and back to front

You need a long memory to recall another time when politics was anywhere near as weird as it is now.

The 1970s are the only period that comes close.

Jim Callaghan's Labour government needed a pact with the Liberals to survive, limping along from one crisis to another.

In some of the most bizarre scenes ever witnessed at Westminster, Labour's weary backbenchers, some of them not long for this world, had to be wheeled through the lobbies for votes which were as critical as their medical conditions.

And we haven't even begun talking about the night Michael Heseltine seized the Commons' mace and brandished it above his head.

These are the epic events riotously re-imagined in James Graham's excellent new play This House.

Image caption The Conservatives did better than expected in some predominantly white working-class areas of Birmingham

And by way of a busman's holiday, it was while my coverage of the recent local elections was going full tilt that I joined the capacity audience who had gone to see the play at Birmingham Repertory Theatre.

If you haven't done so yet, it's not too late. It comes to Malvern's Festival Theatre next week (15-19 May 2018).

During the interval at The Rep, I bumped into one local Conservative who was embroiled in a tough fight to retain his council ward in a white working-class corner of north Birmingham.

It had been seen as a safe Labour preserve until he came along.

With an air of mild surprise, he told me the Tories' campaign was going better than expected in gritty areas like his, whereas the more prosperous districts towards the south of the city, long seen as Conservative strongholds, were proving more of a challenge.

In the event, he has been re-elected. And during the early stages of the Birmingham count on Friday morning I detected a mixture of puzzlement and panic in Labour circles as the realisation dawned that they were indeed struggling in those predominantly white working class areas of the city which they had long considered their own.

They owe it to later declarations elsewhere in the city that Labour's majority now is proportionately virtually identical to what it was before the city's first all-out election.

Expect the unexpected

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Jeremy Corbyn visited Dudley twice during this year's local election campaign

Birmingham isn't alone.

The Black Country is another area where traditional Labour affiliations have weakened.

Jeremy Corbyn came twice to Dudley during the campaign. His party needed just two more seats for a majority on the council.

But the Conservatives benefited most from Ukip's decline and the minority Tory administration can now contemplate its future more confidently than it could before.

Up the road in Walsall, the Tories replace Labour as the largest party and are confident of forming a minority administration.

The Tories have also deprived Labour of their majorities in Nuneaton and Bedworth and in Redditch. They came close to doing so in Cannock as well.

Image caption The Tories have deprived Labour of their majority on Nuneaton and Bedworth Council

You will no doubt have noticed that these places all have key parliamentary marginal seats which so often prove decisive in general elections.

Even though the Brexit negotiations have technically nothing to do with the running of our local councils, there's no doubt they provided the mood music surrounding these contests.

Voters who supported Leave in the EU referendum now see the Tories as the better bet to deliver their vision of Brexit, as Labour edges towards "a European customs union".

That would certainly tally with the Conservatives' capture of former Labour seats in Walsall North and Stoke South in last year's general election.

Could the converse be equally true?

Labour sprung their biggest surprise last year in capturing Warwick and Leamington, one of the Conservatives' traditional affluent strongholds.

And this time too, a by-election in the Leamington ward vacated by the newly-elected MP himself has again gone Labour's way.

"Leafy Edgbaston" and Selly Oak, in Birmingham, are also among those one-time Conservative bastions where Labour's writ runs now.

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Image caption There is a possibility a series of Corbynist "mini Islingtons" are springing up in the West Midlands

So what's going on?

My hunch is that areas like Edgbaston, Warwick and Leamington, which are home to substantial academic establishments, also have correspondingly "progressive", predominantly Remain-minded, electorates; not just the students but also among the academics themselves.

I have written in the past about the possibility that a series of Corbynist "mini Islingtons" may be springing up in areas of what we once called "Middle England".

This shatters the assumption that the only kind of Labour Party that could possibly succeed there had gone with Tony Blair.

Upside down, back to front, topsy-turvy.

Perhaps that's just the way it seems to me.

Maybe it's just a nine-day wonder.

But if not, we may well be in for another era when politics explores the outer limits of our imaginations.

It could even turn out to be no less dramatic than the 1970s.

I wonder if James Graham will write a play about it one day.