The battle for Chester
Lewis Baston on a borderland election battle
Chester and Wrexham sit on either side of the border between England and Wales, a city and a town with very different histories, political complexions and stereotypes. Chester is supposed to be middle class, comfortable, full of tourists, while Wrexham is rough, tough working class mining country. In 1955, a placid election at the peak of class as the basis of voting, the two seats were mirror images. City of Chester voted Conservative by 57 per cent to 32 per cent for Labour, while Wrexham was 56 per cent Labour and 33 per cent Tory.
Wrexham has attracted a lot of attention in the 2019 election, as an example of a ‘traditional Labour seat’ where the Tories are hoping to gain. Chester, however, is nearly ignored because it fits less comfortably into the prevailing narrative. I’m going to redress this a bit today, and talk about Wrexham in the next piece, because we can learn a lot about the state of politics from taking the two of them together.
People imagine Chester as a chocolate-box city but the reality is social indicators close to the national average
Chester’s electoral history is as a once-Conservative seat with a substantial Labour minority which has gradually tipped into marginal status. Labour has been gaining in strength in Chester, even while the party has struggled to retain its advantage across the border in Wrexham. The first election where the Tories’ margin in Chester fell below their national lead was 1987, and Labour’s first win here was in 1997. Although the Conservatives regained the seat in 2010 their tenure was short as Labour took it back in 2015, one of twelve gains (only eight outside London) the party made from the Conservatives. Labour’s winner, Chris Matheson, was victorious by the precarious majority of 93 votes, making him on paper the most vulnerable Labour MP when Britain returned to the polls in 2017. To general amazement, Matheson was returned with a majority of 9,176 votes – just short of a hundredfold increase.
I’ve always been intrigued by border towns, where the rules change from one side of the road to the other when you cross an imaginary line between two countries. Being on the border gives one a different perspective on concepts – identity, sovereignty, co-operation, even the role of the state – to those who live less examined lives in the interior. Border towns are often intriguing mirror images – along the border in Ireland for instance, Fermanagh and Monaghan are better understood by each other than either is by Dublin or Belfast, let alone London.
Chester is the only urban area of any size in the UK to be bisected by a national boundary. Saltney, an eastern suburb, straddles the line between England and Wales. Boundary Lane, running through a housing estate, does what the name suggests. Chester’s football stadium stands right on the line, so unless the match is extremely one-sided the ball will cross the frontier hundreds of times during the 90 minutes. Caer, as the city is known in Welsh, has buses and trains with bilingual announcements. The Airbus manufacturing centre at Broughton, just across the border, employs many Chester people and conversely Chester’s big employers attract commuters based in Wales. The divergence in English and Welsh public policy since devolution has meant that more distinctions, such as free prescriptions on the Welsh side, have appeared over the years.
In some ways, Chester is a border town between three countries – England, Wales and Merseyside. It is a terminus for Merseyrail’s metro-like Wirral Line that loops under Liverpool’s city centre and the local accent is a softened version of Scouse. This is important because, politically, Merseyside is basically a separate nation. A dear friend, a proud daughter of the city of Liverpool, sometimes referred to me in the category of ‘you English’, usually when I was doing something like obeying the rules when nobody was looking. Liverpool has become a city of the left, and its suburban hinterland has increasingly followed it. While Chester is a city in its own right, it also has a share of Liverpool commuters and the Labour tendencies of the Merseyside middle and professional classes have influenced Chester’s voting behaviour.
The idea that Chester is a chocolate-box, problem-free city arises from its beautiful city centre, which deservedly attracts visitors from far and wide (although a Chester talking point is that the city hides its light under a bushel compared to the likes of York or Bath). But the reality is of a mixed city whose social indicators are close to the national median – 310th out of 533 English constituencies in terms of deprivation, for instance. The old city is ringed by modern manufacturing and large banking and finance employers, such as Bank of America and MBNA. Its university, which received its full charter in 2005, attracts students and young people to the city but it is far from being a student-dominated town. It has two large council estates out by the Welsh border, Blacon and Lache, which are the traditional anchor of the Labour vote, some upmarket suburbs and an inner city liberal enclave at Hoole just north of the station where traditional independent traders and hipster coffee bars provide a pleasing urban blend. The constituency extends out of the city into the rural hinterland, including the Duke of Westminster’s huge estate at Eaton Hall (seriously, it is huge. It occupies around ten per cent of the constituency’s land area).
I have a theory that there is a type of place where a ‘good constituency MP’ can dig in. It is a free-standing town or city, rather than a slice of a metropolis; it has a local newspaper and a densely networked, rather insular civic establishment despite being submerged in the ‘Cheshire West and Chester’ unitary council since 2009. People from the churches, Chambers of Commerce, councillors and trade unionists all know and talk to each other. MPs who build friendships and alliances, introduce people to each other and make things happen – and make sure the local newspaper knows – are a good fit. Many of the more remarkable survivors over the years – Frank White and Alistair Burt successively in Bury from 1974 to 1997, and Robert Halfon more recently in Harlow, represent this sort of seat. Chester is a near-perfect example of the right sort of place to be a ‘good MP’ and Chris Matheson exemplifies the sort of person who can make it work. When I walked with him around the streets of central Chester, people would come up to him and greet him as ‘Chris’, share their problems and be free with their opinions. He projects confidence and charisma, but is much more considerate than that might suggest – there were several occasions in a couple of hours when I saw Matheson, by action or by hanging back, put the comfort of others ahead of hustling for votes. Being an MP is in part about being the elected squire for your patch, and Matheson is good at it.
The sudden onset of the 2019 election left the other parties scrambling for candidates – the Conservatives’ Samantha George was only selected a few weeks before the election was called, and has not had long to make an impression. YouGov’s MRP model had Labour comfortably ahead, with 48 per cent for Labour, 38 per cent for the Conservatives and 7 per cent for the Lib Dems. While the 2017 contest was three-way, the Brexit Party (4 per cent) and the Greens (3 per cent) are both standing in 2019 and their impact on the main parties probably nets out at zero. In Chester at least, there would appear to be only a small swing to the Tories over the last two years, but the seat is clearly still marginal and the local campaign hard-fought. The shadow of the unpopularity of the national Labour leadership hangs over the contest, with Matheson’s campaign material emphasising that his is the name on the ballot in Chester, and stressing his civic role and his personal political stands – pro-European, pragmatic and centre-left rather than Corbynite. The headwind for the Conservatives is the desperate, stretched state of public services; although some people blame the local council, it has had to cope with a £330m withdrawal of grant from the central government. Food banks and the miseries of the Universal Credit system, social services and the court system stretched to the limit, increasingly visible homelessness – all these are there in allegedly cosy Chester. It has a strong civil society, and a lot of volunteers help as they can, but it is only just hanging together.
Labour has benefited from having a strong MP who is in tune with Chester, but this sort of place – reasonably prosperous but under pressure, a cohesive city where people know each other – seems to have drifted away from the Conservatives as the party has ceded the professions and local civic life to Labour. Remarkably, all four local authorities governing prosperous Cheshire are run by Labour following the May 2019 local elections. Labour’s national approach has taken risk after risk with what should be a growing base, but the Conservative Party is also, whatever happens in the General Election, incapable of inspiring the durable loyalty that kept the City of Chester Tory when Labour were winning landslides in 1945 and 1966.
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