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Britain’s democracy demands that even Geoffrey Robinson must occasionally endure the indignities of campaigning.
So on a recent spring afternoon, Mr Robinson, a Labour patriarch who has represented the parliamentary seat of Coventry North West for more than 40 years, once ran the local Jaguar car company, played benefactor to the city’s football club and was instrumental in the creation of New Labour — so much so that he still refers to Tony Blair as “Tony” — was outside a primary school prospecting for votes.
The handlers had brought along bunches of red balloons, which attracted the children spilling out of the school gates and then, inevitably, their voting-age minders. Mr Robinson, dressed in a dark suit with a Labour rosette pinned to his lapel, stood patiently, a patrician among nannies and squawking children, waiting for the magic to work. He is blessed, even at 79, with a gleaming smile that instantly makes you like him — and want to be liked by him.
“Hullo, hullo!” he called occasionally, smiling. Then, as an aside: “It’s the job, isn’t it?”
But no one had accounted for 11-year-old Molly Kavanagh, a braided, bespectacled child poised beyond her years and seemingly immune to Mr Robinson’s charm.
Before giving an endorsement, she wanted to know how Labour differed from the other parties.
“Well, because we look out for all the people — particularly people in need,” Mr Robinson explained, draping an arm over her shoulder. So could he have Molly’s vote, he asked? Adults, including a visiting journalist, awaited the child’s reply.
“Eh, I’m not sure,” Molly said. Mr Robinson’s smile faltered. There was the sudden excitement of an actor departing from the script.
And so Molly did, lavishing praise on Theresa May, the Conservative prime minister whose advisers are seeking to transform through this campaign into the mother of the nation. “I think Theresa May does have a lot of potential,” she gushed, noting that Mrs May had even responded to one of her letters. “I’ve got a copy of it in my bag — well, not in my bag, in my desk.”
How about Jeremy Corbyn? Mr Robinson promised an even better response from the Labour leader if Molly would write to him, too.
“Um, no. Not yet,” she replied, before agreeing to do so. Then she was off, leaving Mr Robinson and his swarm of balloons in her wake.
What was once an easy sell for Labour’s longest-serving MP is no more. For the first time since he entered parliament in 1976, Mr Robinson and the Labour party are in real danger of losing their grip on the voters of Coventry North West. If they do so on June 8, it will be one more eruption on a British political landscape whose certainties are fast crumbling and being remade in an era of populist frustration that has already yielded Brexit and put Donald Trump in the White House.
Once upon a time, Coventry, a city in the British Midlands that is the birthplace of the nation’s auto industry, made things, and generations worked in the same factories and reliably voted for the same party: Labour.
Like many other parts of middle England, the first rumblings of discontent were apparent in last June’s EU referendum. Coventry seemingly voted against the interest of its automakers and other manufacturers by opting to leave the bloc, by a margin of 55 per cent to 45 per cent. Now, with this week’s general election, Mr Robinson is in danger.
“Looking back on it now, we hadn’t really grasped the extent of the anti-establishment, the anti-elitist, the anti-globalisation feeling in the world at that time,” he confessed. “And I think we were slow as a party, and I was slow, if you like, to catch on to the extent of it.”
All around Coventry, there are signs that the consensus that has long made it a sturdy Labour city is splintering. The populist UK Independence party, whose obsession with Brexit helped deliver the referendum, came from nowhere to win more than 15 per cent of the Coventry North West vote in the 2015 general election. With Ukip now in freefall, its disenchanted voters are floating free.
“In areas that used to be solidly Labour you now see Conservative posters in the window, which somewhat surprises me,” said Matt Qvortrup, a politics professor at Coventry University, who was one of few to predict the result of the Brexit referendum. “If [Mr Robinson] survives, that will be very much against trend.”
The election is about the future, what sort of nation the UK will become after Brexit, and what place it can carve out for industrial cities like Coventry. But it is also informed by the past, and the polarising legacy of the New Labour movement that ruled Britain in a golden era ended by the 2008 financial crisis, with Mr Robinson at the crossroads of wealth and power.
“He’s so much the personification of New Labour,” Mr Qvortrup observed. “He’s almost the last of the New Labourites.”
Mr Robinson now finds himself in an alien Labour party under Mr Corbyn, an avowed Socialist who rejects the centrist approach that won elections during the Blair years. While he has attracted ardent followers— particularly among the young and metropolitan — Mr Corbyn is toxic to others. He has at times been in open warfare with the Blairites.
Further clouding Mr Robinson’s prospects is the sense of upheaval in Coventry itself. A city long defined by industry is increasingly dominated by fast-growing universities that cater to foreign students. Strolling around its city centre, one is less likely to encounter an electrician or machinist than a teen from Southeast Asia wearing over-sized headphones.
The candidate seeking to topple Mr Robinson is a 28-year-old daughter of Indian immigrants, Resham Kotecha, who grew up in a London household where Margaret Thatcher was revered and went on to attend the University of Cambridge.
While Mr Robinson was haunting the school gates she was going door-to-door, handing out leaflets, dressed in jeans and trainers.
“You win more votes if you shut gates — I’ve learned that,” she said, taking care to re-set the latch in front of a suburban house after sliding her literature through the letter slot.
“Excuse me! What are you doing? Get away from my f*****g house!” one resident shouted.
“Guess he won’t be voting for me!” Ms Kotecha grinned. She carried on unfazed.
“I want to help people because there’s a lot of good you can do if you want to,” she said, when asked about her political ambitions. She professes to “love” Coventry, a town she only moved to a few weeks ago after the local Conservative party selected her from London headquarters.
Asked how she would deal with the deindustrialisation that has plagued Coventry and similar places, Ms Kotecha repeats a series of buzzwords about education, apprenticeships and skills that, in fact, sound little different from Labour. In fairness, it is a question that politicians across the west have struggled to answer.
She is hoping to trail in the slipstream of a prime minister who has argued that only she can be entrusted with the daunting task of leading the UK out of the EU. Ms Kotecha is also determined to show that she is game in a way that critics say Mr Robinson — who has never even lived in Coventry — is not. She understands what she is up against.
“When you have people who’ve always voted Labour, whose parents have, whose grandparents have, it can be difficult to break the habit of a lifetime,” she explains. “We’re meeting a lot of people who are saying: ‘My grandfather would turn in his grave if he knew how I was voting.’”
In its development, Coventry had a mechanical logic, with one industry giving rise to the next. It was once England’s foremost centre of ribbon-making. Its pedal-driven sewing machines eventually led to bicycles, and then to motorcycles, tractors and automobiles.
Britain’s first car, a Daimler, was built in Coventry in 1897. The industry grew rapidly, sucking in workers from around the UK, particularly Scotland and Wales.
Coventry was famously demolished by the Germans in the second world war. The local joke is that postwar architects finished the job the Luftwaffe had started. The city has since been characterised by an odd jumble of brutalist modern buildings that once looked like the future beside the few timbered remnants of the past.
Its heart is the haunting ruin of a bombed-out 14th century cathedral and a soaring annexe completed in 1962 by architect Basil Spence that has become a worldwide symbol of reconciliation.
Bounding it all together is an earthbound concrete ring road that is mocked by outsiders but inspires some fondness in “Cov”, as the locals call the place. “It’s a love-hate thing,” said Adam Steiner, a local artist, who describes Coventry as “an underdog city” whose residents are “used to being kicked around”.
Coventry boomed after the war. With scant competition from Europe, the auto industry became a world leader and the rebuilding programme was in full swing. Demand for workers was seemingly endless.
“You could quit on Friday and start somewhere else on Monday,” said David Jarvis, a professor of regional development at Coventry University, whose grandparents left the south Wales coal fields to work in Coventry’s factories during the second world war.
Workers were so well paid that their wages set the standard for those elsewhere. In pay negotiations, trade unions across Britain would invariably try to achieve what was known as the Coventry tool room rate.
Mr Jarvis recalled a city that was quiet during the day because everyone was in work. Then it would change in an instant. “The hooter would go and the guys would come charging out of the gate,” he said, remembering the factory across from his old school and the smell of a bus packed with working men.
When the jobs went, they went quickly: Between 1975 and 1982, the city’s 15 largest companies are estimated to have shed about 55,000 jobs.
The industry had built up too much capacity and there was more competition from a reviving Germany. The Thatcher era was particularly wrenching.
As factories closed, the city’s population began to shrink and it became a place of racial tension, violence and decay — a discordant mood captured by the local ska revival band, The Specials, in their 1981 song “Ghost Town”:
Do you remember the good old days before the ghost town?We danced and sang, and the music played in a de boomtown
The bitterness from those days remains — so much so that upon Mrs Thatcher’s death in 2013, a Labour council leader quipped in a widely-distributed email that he would like to fly a flag “with a happy smiling face” from the local council building.
These days, Coventry is a confusing place. The surrounding region is producing more cars than ever, thanks to Jaguar Land Rover, which is now owned by Indian steel giant, Tata, and the London Taxi Company, which is owned by a Chinese group. But it is doing so with fewer workers.
In 1970, manufacturing accounted for 58 per cent of employment, and distribution services 28 per cent. Nowadays, education and health are the biggest employers; manufacturing provides just 11 per cent of the jobs.
Like other UK industrial cities, the ghosts of the past still haunt the streets. “There are so many men who haven’t worked in 10 or 15 years,” said Jessica Vincent-Burns, who works at the Watch Centre charity. “They don’t know what to do. They don’t know how to use a computer. They don’t know how to do anything else.”
There are also success stories featuring speciality manufacturers that somehow manage to stay a step ahead of the Chinese. Unemployment is low and the population is again growing.
“The mood of confidence in the West Midlands has certainly picked up in the last couple of years,” said Jonathan Duck, chief executive of Amtico, a company that makes PVC flooring that eerily resembles wood and stone designs, from an old factory that once churned out the Jaguar E-type. “There are a lot more cranes in Coventry.”
While Brexit has created uncertainty, it has also unleashed a short-term boom for exporters by reducing the value of the pound. Amtico’s sales, for example, are running 12 per cent ahead of last year. “Brexit has actually been good news for us,” Mr Duck said, sounding slightly embarrassed by his good fortune.
But prosperity has not necessarily trickled down. The charity Shelter now regards Coventry as one of the UK’s “homelessness hotspots.” For many, there is a sense of loss not easily captured by macroeconomic statistics.
“You had social stability that came from the glue of the employment structure. We don’t have that any more,” said Dave Nellist, who entered parliament as a Labour MP for Coventry in 1983 and briefly shared an office with another young party member: Tony Blair.
Where there were once social clubs and company-sponsored cricket grounds to create a sense of cohesion, Mr Nellist — a longtime Corbyn ally who sports the same white beard — now sees a fractured and fragmented city: dazed ranks of the working class beside affluent students, newly-arrived immigrants and well-paid government and university workers who tend to live outside the city.
As he spoke, he strolled past advertisements for new high-rise student housing offering high-speed internet, slick kitchenettes and other amenities. “They’re the worst neighbours in the world,” he grumbled.
The Cambridge-educated Mr Robinson has prospered at the intersection of government and commerce. He began his career as a Labour party researcher in the 1960s, and then entered the auto industry after impressing higher-ups at a Labour-led body that facilitated the 1968 merger between Leyland Motor Corporation and the troubled British Motor Company.
By 1973, Mr Robinson was appointed chairman of Jaguar — aged just 33. He left two years later as the industry’s retrenchment was in full swing.
With his party in the wilderness during the Thatcher era, he devoted his energies to amassing a fortune — in part from business ties to Robert Maxwell, the disgraced financier, and an inheritance from a Belgian divorcee. Mr Robinson owned not one but two homes designed by architect Edwin Lutyens, as well as properties in London, Tuscany and the south of France.
Such wealth was out of step with a party of miners and welders. But it was seen as a virtue by Mr Blair and his chancellor, Gordon Brown, who wanted to align the government more closely with business. As Peter Mandelson, a New Labour architect famously remarked at the time: the party was “intensely relaxed about people getting filthy rich.”
He was appointed paymaster general of the Treasury in 1997 after Mr Blair swept to power in a historic landslide in which Labour pushed into areas long dominated by the Conservatives.
But New Labour — avowedly pro-EU and optimistic about globalisation — had no great plan to revive manufacturing in places like Coventry. In fact, it believed it still had to shrink further to make way for the new services economy. Mr Duck, a McKinsey alumnus, had just moved to Amtico when he recalled Mr Blair’s industrial adviser informing him and other local business leaders that the government believed manufacturing should be an even smaller segment of the economy — a message starkly at odds with the current vogue. “It was a bit of a shock,” he said.
He plans to vote Conservative on Thursday, based in part on his belief that Mrs May will be able to secure a better Brexit deal for the UK. Still, he did not seem to feel any of the candidates — for all their talk about job creation and industrial strategies — grasped his needs, and what it meant to make investments over a 20 to 30-year horizon. “A lot of it is fundamentally irrelevant,” he said of government.
If factories did not capture New Labour’s imagination, schools and hospitals did. It released the purse strings to launch a building spree after years of Thatcherite restraint. One of the single biggest projects was in Coventry, where the Labour-built University Hospital is so vast that it looks more like a major airport or a theme park. Its facilities are surrounded by acres of parking lot. Mr Blair turned up in 2005 to inaugurate its women’s unit.
The hospital is well regarded. Yet it was not viewed in Coventry as a symbol of unalloyed progress after it emerged that taxpayers would be on the hook for £3.3bn, thanks to the private financing scheme used to pay for it. Exorbitant parking fees — which Labour now promises to abolish — have been a particular source of anger.
Another New Labour initiative to send public jobs from London to places like Coventry has also had mixed results. The Qualifications and Curriculum Authority, which develops school curriculums, decamped to Coventry in 2009 — a development that did not bring universal cheer to its 550 staff.
Mr Jarvis argued that parachuting in such jobs — and the urban regeneration projects that went with them — did little to fix the underlying economy. “Those jobs aren’t wealth generating — they’re just recycling wealth,” he said. In any case, they became vulnerable after a new Conservative government began to tighten spending after coming to power in 2010.
“Decline and reliance on the public sector — that’s the legacy of New Labour,” he concluded.
Wyn Grant, a professor at the University of Warwick, is more generous in his assessment. “I think it did make some impact but I’m not sure people attribute it to New Labour,” he said, noting that era “would seem quite a long way away for most people now.”
Mr Qvortrup had another take: “People tend to like many of the things that New Labour delivered — schools, hospitals, the introduction of a minimum wage — but not the way they went about it.”
For Mr Robinson, personally, New Labour also turned out to be disappointing. His wealth became less a source of validation than suspicion after it emerged that he had lent Mr Mandelson £373,000 to buy a house — a transaction neither had disclosed. Meanwhile, revelations about his offshore trusts turned inconvenient for a party that had pledged to crack down on tax avoidance. Mr Robinson ended up resigning as paymaster general in December 1998.
Not everyone is so downcast about the Labour years.
Trisha Evans was a recently divorced mother trying to raise two children when Labour came to power. Changes the government introduced to benefits laws allowed her to go to work while still receiving some government support to supplement her income.
“That was massive for me,” said Ms Evans. Labour schemes also helped her further her education.
“If it was a Conservative government I would have been on benefits,” she said.
Ms Evans’ family story is a classic Coventry tale. They arrived from Motherwell, Scotland when she was four after her father and older brother went to work at the local Chrysler factory. “The car industry was absolutely booming in the 1960s,” she recalled.
The family moved into a nice house in the leafy Stivichall neighbourhood. But then came an epic strike in 1973 that closed the factory for months, costing the family not one but two salaries.
Eventually, they were forced to sell the house and move into social housing in another neighbourhood, Stoke Aldermoor, that is troubled to this day. “It was a huge change for us as a family,” Ms Evans recalled. They were guided through the turmoil by an aunt who was active in the Chrysler union and an exceptionally helpful local councillor — Dave Nellist.
Over the years, all five of Ms Evans’ siblings worked for Chrysler and Jaguar — either on the factory floor or in back office roles. And they all voted Labour. Now they are scattered.
Ms Evans went into social work and today manages the Watch Community Centre charity in the Hillfields section of town. It is a neighbourhood that was cut off by the ring road in the 1960s, and which has traditionally served as a landing pad for new immigrants — first the Irish, Scots and Caribbeans, then the Indians and Pakistanis, now the east Europeans, Somalis, Iraqis and Kurds. They tend to move on quickly, but with each intake there is also a group that has remained behind.
Watch was founded a year after Mr Blair came to power. Its offices are on the edge of a square formed by curry shops and one of the neighbourhood’s infamous high-rise blocks of flats. Labour levelled several of them in 2005 to remove blight and make way for the gleaming new Coventry College, which juts into Hillfields.
On a recent afternoon, Ms Evans warned a visitor against stepping on a patch of grass beside her office because of the syringes. “They also use it as a lavatory,” she explained. There were occasional shouts from the denizens of the plaza, raised voices that might be aggression, friendliness or commerce — it was not entirely clear. Young men circled on bicycles.
“I know people talk about the deficit being higher [under Labour] but there were certainly a lot more services,” Ms Evans said. Hillfields, for example, was patrolled by community development officers and street wardens. The local council gave grants to Watch to try to place new immigrants in local factories.
“This centre used to be so vibrant. It was absolutely buzzing,” she said, recalling how Watch helped Peugeot staff an entire night shift at its Ryton factory. (The plant closed in 2006 as the company shifted production to Slovakia).
But that changed after the 2008 financial crisis. Austerity filtered down, with the council taking over more of the work itself, cutting grants to outside charities. By 2011, Ms Evans had to lay off most of her 22 staff.
Things have somewhat improved, thanks to a grant from the EU. Still, Ms Evans sees the neighbourhood deteriorating with “more and more food banks”, crime and public drinking.
She now lives in a village 20 minutes outside Coventry that provides some respite from Hillfields. She will vote for Labour, as she always has. “It’s about getting behind the party, isn’t it?” she said. Of Mr Robinson, who has been in office since she was a child, she added: “He’s been very good for the city . . . He’s been around for a very long time, obviously.”
But for her daughter, a nurse who owns a home nearby, the old bonds have been broken. She and her partner now vote Conservative. “They see Labour as being for people who are down and out and they really want to disassociate themselves,” Ms Evans explained — as much to herself as her guest. Her son, 28, refuses to vote at all.
Sitting in his cream-coloured Jaguar, Mr Robinson — like so many other politicians these days — tried to make sense of the corrosive public mood.
The big thing to tackle, he argued, was inequality. “It isn’t fair a small minority have done so well, and the bulk of the people, hardworking people — that’s what everybody refers to them — are not sharing at all . . . in the huge creation of the wealth that’s been generated by the internet, by globalisation and by growth all those years prior to the crash of 2008.”
He seemed unaware of the irony that a man who had grown so wealthy in that era while supposedly devoted to the public should be giving such a speech — and from the leather seats of a luxury car. Hadn’t inequality increased under New Labour? If so, had New Labour failed?
Mr Robinson bristled at the question. “We’re getting into some deep stuff now, which isn’t exactly what I expected on the campaign trail in the heart of Coventry North West,” he complained. But eventually he responded.
He noted how he and Tony and Gordon had succeeded at rescuing the National Health Service, and how the country had not felt such élan since those days. He despairs over the disaster of Iraq.
“You know what they say: a rising tide lifts all ships. We had a rising tide. Everyone was getting better off,” he said. Now it was time to adjust with more progressive policies — including higher taxes — to share the wealth.
“I think Corbyn wants to do that,” he added. “But A) — will he be given the opportunity? We don’t know yet. And B), whether he’s a person who could do it.”
Securing votes is not easy.
“Labour, I think, in many ways took people for granted,” Mr Qvortrup said, pointing to a volatile, unsettled electorate. Among Coventry’s Brexit voters, he sensed an attitude of: “We bloodied their nose, now they have to get their act together!”
That seemed to be the case for a grandmother picking up her child from school, who rebuffed Mr Robinson when he asked for her vote outside the school gate. While he wished to talk about the NHS, she was more interested in Brexit.
“We need a strong leader to take us out,” she said, mouthing a Conservative campaign slogan.
The glad-handing candidate eventually moved on, and the grandmother complained about politicians who “don’t come to Coventry unless there’s an election”. Asked how she planned to vote, she checked to see that Mr Robinson was out of earshot. Then she said in a quiet voice: “It’s nice to have a change.”
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