Election focus: Nuneaton

There’s no smoke without fire in Nuneaton, where Labour is facing one of its toughest fights in the West Midlands.

By Alex Stevenson

Sweeping cuts by the Tory-run Warwickshire county council, including what the Fire Brigade Union has described as the biggest ever closure plan proposed by a county’s fire service, are fuelling the party’s hopes of clinging on in Nuneaton.

Seven fire stations were earmarked for closure last September, in proposals which opponents say would lead to the loss of 100 jobs and one in three fire appliances. Its significance could outreach even these cuts, campaigners claim. The neighbouring West Midlands fire services currently provides support for Warwickshire once a day, in return for which Warwickshire fire engines provide reciprocal support once a week. This already imbalanced relationship could prove unsustainable if Warwickshire fire service makes further cuts.

Labour says many feel services are being moved away from working-class areas. “They’re basically downgrading our service,” the party’s candidate Jayne Innes says.

Ms Innes is defending the 2005 majority of Bill Olner, who after 18 years in parliament is calling it a day to spend more time with his wife. Mr Olner is defending a notional majority of nearly ten per cent – but a real majority of just five per cent. Conservatives in the region frequently mention Nuneaton when discussing their most promising seats. This is the kind of marginal which David Cameron must do well in if he is to enter Downing Street after the general election.

“We’re in the north of Warwickshire, quite a long way from where decisions are taken,” Ms Innes says. “When people think of Warwickshire they think of places that are leafy, beautiful, rather wealthy. We have some beautiful areas in Nuneaton – gorgeous areas – but also some of the county’s biggest problems of deprivation.”

It’s this mix which makes the seat so fascinating. Its mining and industrial tradition has helped it stay mainly Labour, apart from a decade-long blip in the shape of Tory Lewis Stevens during the bulk of the Thatcher years. Now, though, the mood seems to be shifting. In 2008 the borough council switched to Conservative control. Boundary changes have swayed the balance further towards rural areas, but these if anything serve to underline the inequalities. Life expectancies vary as much as 17 years between different wards.

One thing which unites many of the people of Nuneaton, it seems, is anger at the proposed fire services cuts. Ms Innes, who was selected in July 2007 and admits she feels like the “incumbent”, has contributed 7,000 Nuneaton signatures to a county-wide campaign against the proposed cuts.

“People actually ring me up and request copies of the petition so they can go and do their street,” she says, demonstrating the strength of feeling against the changes. People have queued – in the rain, for heaven’s sake! – to sign their names. Across Warwickshire 30,000 have signed up.

“We’re keeping the pressure up,” Innes says. She’s aware there’s a real risk the Conservative-controlled council will seek to limit the electoral impact of the scheme by dragging its collective feet. “What we need to be very careful is they go into the general election kicking this into the long grass. We’ve got to fight it now.”

Innes’ challenger is Marcus Jones, a former leader of Nuneaton and Bedworth borough council. He calls her campaign “totally disingenuous” for suggesting that Nuneaton constituents could lose out. The Warwickshire fire services review proposals state that Nuneaton’s own fire station will remain fully operational and fully manned.

“It seems this is a campaign which is designed more for political gain rather than actually looking into the issue at hand. Nuneaton will in no way be affected,” he insists.

“That’s politics. I’m quite aware Labour are likely to try and do anything to hold on to the Nuneaton seat. It’s up to us as Conservatives to get out their on the doorstep and put our message across in a positive way, which we’re currently doing.”

While Jones is upbeat about interest in Tory proposals – he says “people are glad to see us on the doorstep” – he finds it easy to fight against the Labour government. Its regional spatial strategy, which threatens 10,800 homes in Nuneaton, is proving a big local issue. So are the future of the George Eliot hospital and the provision of train services for Nuneaton station. What are voters going to be interested in come polling day?

“Quite simply, it’s a general election,” he says.

“A general election is there to elect a government, not there to elect a local authority. On that basis I’m quite sure when it comes to a general election people will be voting for a government – whether you want to keep Gordon Brown and Labour or want a change.”

But with the Conservative council having announced £10 million in cuts, targeting social care as well as music teaching, the local authority’s actions are bound to have a big impact. One of the central themes of the Nuneaton campaign reflects a much wider trend across the country: Labour incumbents using the Tory council to point to what a national government headed by Cameron would look like.

Innes is quite prepared to take this a step further and attack Jones for his decisions taken in charge of Nuneaton and Bedworth. She says he lost £3 million placed in Iceland in the financial crisis. He ended the playscheme in the town centre which had been “going on for decades”. And – quelle horreur! – he “privatised the gardeners” who had tended Nuneaton’s “beautiful parks”. “We seem to have more of a litter problem now,” she adds. “These are things he’s personally responsible for.”

As with the fire services campaign, the only thing Jones can do is defend himself and his party’s record. “I made difficult decisions as leader of the borough council. But that was in the backdrop of taking over authority that had been run by Labour for 34 years,” he says. It was his Labour predecessors who made the Iceland decision, not him. “That’s an absolutely ridiculous and disingenuous comment,” he says. The gardens decision has saved the council £400,000 and, in any case, only affects a small part of the constituency. As for the playscheme – we are clearly in local politics territory here – a play rangers alternative was judged to be “better value for money”.

“It’s quite easy to criticise some of the difficult decisions that have to be made in local government,” he says.

“We’ve got to look over a period and look at the history to get a full picture.”

Innes and the Labour campaign are, for now, on the offensive in Nuneaton. It’s far too early to tell whether that will be enough to extinguish the Tory threat.