Let me take you back to April 2015, when Britain moved to the sound of Major Lazer featuring Mo and DJ Snake, and the iPhone 7 was the stuff of a madman’s dreams.
The bookmakers’ odds on the Conservatives forming a majority after the impending general election were an unlikely 7-1, a hung parliament virtually certain at 1-8. Meanwhile, Leicester City were bottom of the Premier League, the table dominated by the big-city powers of London and Manchester. The idea that in September 2016 the Foxes* would be making their UEFA Champions League debut would have been – well, it would have made the iPhone 7 seem distinctly conceivable.
What happened next (which you probably know but I’m going to mention anyway, to link into the next bit) was that the Tories did form a majority government, and Leicester not only avoided relegation but in the following season won the Premier League at record odds of 5,000 to 1, earning City their place at Europe’s lucrative top table.
It was the first time the competition had gone to a Midlands team. In fact, it was the first time the English league champions (including the pre-1992 Football League Division One) had hailed from outside Greater London, the North West or Yorkshire since Aston Villa took the title back home to Birmingham in 1981. But then, that pesky vote on 7 May 2015 that had given the bookies a jolt similar to the one Leicester gave them 12 months later perhaps offered a clue that the Midlands was Britain’s region to watch.
After all, on election night, where was the greatest focus? And where were the results that confirmed that the seemingly outlying exit poll was, if anything, understating the Conservative vote?
First, there was Nuneaton, around 20 miles from Leicester, the first marginal to declare. The surprise swing to the Tories led BBC election guru John Curtice to suggest a majority government was possible, while David Cameron – who had visited the constituency regularly – later said the result was the one that convinced him they had won.
Then Loughborough – even closer to Leicester than Nuneaton – delivered another blow to Labour. It has been won by the government-forming party at every election since February 1974, and last year the Conservatives not only held it, but attracted an even bigger swing than in Nuneaton.
Just as neither Tottenham Hotspur nor Arsenal could thwart Leicester’s title push a year later, the swing to Labour in London was insufficient to make up for what happened in the Midlands. (Yes, the Tory majority came about through their successful targetting of Liberal Democrat seats in the South West, but it was in the Midlands where they won the crucial battle with Labour.)
In the same way that Leicester City’s success shone a light on an unfashionable footballing region, the unfolding of the 2015 general election was a reminder that it is the bits of the UK that aren’t much talked about that have a habit of making their existence felt at important times. George Osborne seldom spoke about a ‘Midlands Engine’ before the 2015 election, but he was quick to put that right soon after. Not that his flattery was repaid: it was the West and East Midlands that produced the biggest percentage votes for Leave in June’s EU referendum** – only a month after Leicester had delivered an even more earth-shattering upset on the football pitch.
And this was not the first time the Midlands dragged the rest of the country with them, electorally speaking. In 1964 Labour were expected to garner a handy parliamentary majority, but a low swing in the Midlands (specifically an anti-immigration-tinged move to the Conservatives in the West Midlands) meant Harold Wilson only scraped in by four seats. I’m not saying it was an omen, but a few months earlier Leicester City had won their first major trophy.
In 1970, the unexpected Conservative win was boosted by bigger than average swings in the West Midlands and cities that included, of course, Leicester. This was in the days of (Enoch) ‘Powell country’, and not only did the Wolverhampton South West MP play a big part in the Midlands moving to the right in 1970, so four years later his decision to abandon the Tories – over a referendum on Britain’s membership of the ‘Common Market’ – helped deliver Labour a victory based (yes, you guessed it) around big gains in the Midlands.
Since Midlander football likes to reflect Midlander politics, Wolverhampton Wanderers won the 1974 League Cup (having gone without a trophy throughout Powell’s last 15 years as MP there) and Brian Clough – fresh from making Derby County into a force to be reckoned with – was about to work miracles with Nottingham Forest, the last time the East Midlands regularly upset the soccer powerhouses of London and Lancashire before 2015-16.
Even in the 1997 general election, when in the end the difference in regional swings was pretty moot, there had been much talk during the campaign of ‘Worcester Woman’. The West Midlands constituency, which had never previously voted Labour***, was considered the home of just the voters most attentively courted by Tony Blair. Oh, and Leicester took the League Cup, their first major trophy since the last time Labour had won a Westminster election 23 years previously.
Not only do Midlands swings often prove decisive in general elections, but the key marginal constituencies now tend to be located there. In 1964 it was the South East and North West where the crucial gains were made, but the Midlands have risen in importance.
This is partly because of the north-south divide. Once closely contested areas at either end of England have become safer territory for one or other of the two main parties (there are far fewer marginals these days). It is perhaps no coincidence that of the two Conservative cabinet ministers in most peril at the last election, Nicky Morgan won in Loughborough while Esther McVey was defeated in Wirral West. The Midlands seat more closely reflected the average national picture than did the Cheshire constituency.
Divining exactly why is as difficult as working out how Leicester suddenly came good in the Premier League last season. But it may be that size matters.
In the Midlands, unlike in the South East or the North, it would appear that smaller cities and larger towns, such as Derby, Leicester, Loughborough and Stafford, have been less likely to subsume, or be subsumed by, nearby conurbations. And, according to Demos, the East and West Midlands are the only English regions where towns outperform neighbouring cities in socio-economic terms. Perhaps the relative absence of the urban sprawl that appears to have been so favourable to Labour in London and Greater Manchester is a factor. But, on the other hand, the number of increasingly Conservative-trending rural areas in the Midlands is pretty much on the national average, far below the South or East Anglia.
Also, the Midlands remained relatively immune to the pre-coalition Liberal (Democrat) revival. This is still a land of two-way Conservative-Labour fights, as most key marginals vulnerable to a national move from left to right, or vice versa, have tended to be. (In the 1950s there were around twice as many close seats, as a third candidate was then a relative rarity in much of the country, unlike the multi-cornered contests of recent decades.)
Wolverhampton Labour MP Pat McFadden pointed this out after the 2015 election: ‘In the vital Tory-Labour marginals, which decide ultimately who gets to govern and who is in opposition, we made virtually no headway. We won one or two of them but most of our targets we made very little progress in.’
It would obviously be a gross simplification to see the Midlands as a homogenous electoral region, just as it would be to say that Greater London is increasingly a Labour stronghold while ignoring different patterns in the Essex, Kent and Surrey fringes. But it is fairly clear that the demographic changes that have reduced the number of marginal, election-deciding seats elsewhere in England have not affected the Midlands quite as much, increasing the region’s psephological importance.
So the moral of this story is that the Midlands is more than just a handy way of keeping the North and South apart (though it does do that job tolerably well). More noise may be made (most of the time) by devolution-hungry northern regions, or indeed nations; the Greater London behemoth may regard itself as a 21st-century city state; and the cabinet may hail overwhelmingly from the South and East Anglia, but the squeezed Midlands can be relied upon to be there, or thereabouts, at the end of the 90 minutes. Just ask Leicester City’s Premier League rivals.
* That’s Leicester City’s nickname, folks.
** OK, Leicester voted 51.1 per cent to remain – a team in Europe with an Italian manager isn’t something you just throw away.
*** Actually boundary changes had made it a much more urban seat than before 1997, but Labour did gain it and hold it until 2010. However, the Conservatives unexpectedly increased their majority last year, just like in Nuneaton. As Worcester goes, so goes etc, etc.