Taking on New Labour
20 years since Dr Richard Taylor won in the Wyre Forest
As hundreds of people gathered at Kidderminster’s Glades Leisure Centre in May 2001 to hear the election result for Wyre Forest, it was the scale of the victory rather than the outcome itself that was the shock.
Dr Richard Taylor, a retired hospital consultant, had led a campaign to save services at Kidderminster Hospital when the closure of its A&E and other key departments was announced in 1998.
It was Blair’s election four years earlier that sowed the seeds of the election result
When the campaign failed to stop them moving 18 miles away to Worcester, he decided to stand to unseat Labour MP David Lock, who had surprised many when he was elected in Tony Blair’s landslide four years before. He did so with great aplomb, securing a 17,630 majority. As cheers rang around the centre Taylor referred to the fury that drove his victory: “The message is … you cannot ride roughshod over a local community’s feelings without rebellion.”
Twenty years on, sat in the house he shares with his wife Chris and their daughter Georgie, a short walk away from the hospital where he worked for decades, Taylor’s life is dedicated to his 3 B’s: “birds, books and Beethoven”.
He said: “I did think we were going to win, I didn’t think the majority was going to be so big, then when we saw the papers piling up it became very obvious. It was very very moving.”
It was Blair’s election four years earlier that sowed the seeds of the election result. On the campaign trail ahead of his historic landslide in 1997 and in a bid to chase the literal “Worcester Woman,” he pledged that the city would have a brand new hospital to replace the outdated and unpopular Ronkswood hospital.
After the election rumours began to filter around Kidderminster that its district general hospital was going to lose services, including its A&E and maternity unit, to ensure the finances worked for the new hospital. Initially the response in this usually apathetic, grumbling part of rural conservative England was muted. Clive Joyce, then-editor of the local newspaper the Kidderminster Shuttle recalls: “Kidderminster was one of a range of options in the list and initially, although they were shocked, people didn’t think it was going to happen and it was one option of many.”
Then the proposal was formally announced. A “Save Kidderminster Hospital” campaign group was quickly formed, with Taylor at its head, and Lock as one of its vice chairs.
One petition gathered 66,000 signatures, campaigners demonstrated outside Downing Street and 12,000 people marched through the town centre. A horse-drawn funeral carriage on the march bore placards saying “death on the A449” over fears that people would die in ambulances on the dual carriageway on their way to Worcester hospital.
The town itself was in at the start of a period of decline. Once the centre of the world’s carpet trade, factories and firms had been closing down for years before the late 1990s. The hospital was another potential massive loss. At the time Lock opposed the changes, but after an independent study by the King’s Fund backed them along medical and financial lines, he changed tack and resigned from the campaign. A legal challenge to the Court of Appeal in 1999 later failed.
Lock declined to be interviewed, owing to his position as a deputy high court judge. Yet he told Radio 4 in 2017: “The results for my constituents under the existing arrangements were appalling. It was phenomenally difficult because the public felt they were being let down by their MP. “When you get into a public consultation exercise, there will always be someone who says you don’t have to make the choice, someone who argues these are just cuts and opposes the plans without putting anything in their place. If you’ve got the option of not making the decision, or not engaging in the process, that is often too tempting.”
Campaigners had success in the local elections but services were still moved out in the summer of 2000, as was equipment that had been funded by locals. Further unhappiness was aired when prime minister Tony Blair visited flood-hit Bewdley. Demonstrators, precariously standing on partly-submerged picnic tables outside a pub held up a banner saying “Save Kidderminster Hospital and heckled Blair. He told them “I’ve got the message,” but nothing changed.
So when it was announced in February 2001 that Dr Taylor would stand for the new independent “Health Concern” party, campaigners rallied and volunteers hit the streets. One rally for Taylor attracted hundreds, with sitting independent Tatton MP Martin Bell and comedian John Fortune visiting to drum up support. Taylor said: “It was just a natural progression from the hospital campaign, David Aaronovich [journalist] came down and we went on a walk around and went down Stourport main street and at the end of that he said ‘It’s just like a ward round isn’t it, they all know you’. It actually was.
“As I said so many times, being a doctor is an ideal preparation for being an MP, because I’ve got two ears and one mouth and you know how to use them both.”
Joyce said: “If you saw my mailbag every week, you knew the vast majority of people wanted to save the hospital and the way to do it was to get rid of David Lock and get Richard Taylor in. It’s probably a bit fanciful because these things don’t change much, getting an MP in doesn’t mean it’ll save your hospital, but it didn’t matter to people in the end, because they were so cheesed off.”
Meanwhile Lock had known for some time that he was in trouble. He had visited Joyce in early 2001 to try and play it down. Joyce recalled: “We went out for a cup of coffee and he said ‘you know this issue is over, this hospital issue is over, you don’t need to keep writing about it’, I said ‘David my readers and the public will decide when this is over, not me and not you.’”
“One of the phrases about Dr Taylor’s popularity was ‘Of course he’s popular, he treated half of their grandmothers.’”
Taylor continued: “Election day was drab and drizzly. I was escorted around the polling stations and had a most memorable encounter with an elderly lady with a blue rosette. She shook me warmly by the hands and said ‘you gave my husband an extra nine years’, this was very moving but I don’t know how she voted despite her affiliations.” It chimed with a joke told by long-standing Labour councillor in the area and Kidderminster’s former mayor, Nigel Knowles. “One of the phrases about Dr Taylor’s popularity was ‘Of course he’s popular, he treated half of their grandmothers.’”
Joyce was at the count to see the result unfold. His newspaper produced a special edition that morning to announce Taylor’s win. “The majority was huge and that wasn’t anticipated anywhere. Lock thought he was going to lose, he was going around in the lead up to the election looking like a beaten man. But nobody expected that kind of figure [17,630].
“People saw what he did as betrayal really. There was no way they were going to put a cross in a box for him.”
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