The national spotlight fell on Bromsgrove during the expenses scandal, forcing local MP Julie Kirkbride to stand down. Adam Aspinall visits the town to find bitterness and apathy in the air ahead of the General Election.
If you spend any time in Bromsgrove asking about the upcoming General Election you may very well get the impression you’ve said a dirty word.
The anger over the expenses scandal, which saw one of it’s most high profile victims in local MP Julie Kirkbride, is still palpable.
And as much as they may want to gloss over it, the new Westminster wannabes admit the biggest issue facing them in this usually safe Tory seat is widespread apathy.
But it is not the apathy born of ignorance, most of the people I spoke to in the quiet Worcestershire town, were well-heeled, well-informed subjects of the Crown.
But the overriding feeling was that they felt helpless, and that no matter who they voted for it would not make much of a difference in the long run.
Indeed, my modest straw poll seemed to back-up recent fears that this year’s turnout at the ballot box could be the lowest since records began.
The voter turnout in the recent Iraqi elections was at 62 per cent, higher than the 61.4 per cent for the last UK General Election, and British voters did not have to run the gauntlet of deadly terror attacks.
With that in mind, you perhaps would have expected the main political parties to have paid careful attention to their nominees. But instead they have parachuted in two candidates from London.
Not that this is an unusual practice at election time, but it was something seized upon by every person asked about the looming election.
The Tories have chosen rising star Sajid Javid, a 40-year-old banker who was born in Lancashire and who now hails from leafy Fulham.
The Liberal Democrats have opted for the fresh face of youth in 29-year-old former BT manager Phil Ling, who also lives in London.
Labour, on the other hand, have played it closer to home and chosen Birmingham-based Sam Burden, from Surrey.
To his credit Mr Javid promised he would move his family ‘lock stock and barrel’ to Worcestershire should he win.
Although Mr Ling was less committal, insisting he would buy a ‘base’ for him to use at weekends but that any decision to move to the constituency would involve a lengthy discussion with his wife.
Mr Burden only lives up the road in Hall Green and promised it would his main priority to move into the town should he win in May.
But wherever they choose to lay their hats, all three broadly agree on the main battlegrounds between now and the supposed election date of May 6.
The tired town centre seemed to be the main issue and all three argue it is in dire need of regeneration.
They also argued that the transport links are poor and that anyone representing Bromsgrove must do all they can to protect the greenbelt and fight for the rights of the local farming community.
But they also agreed it was going to be an uphill fight winning back the trust of the public and getting them to the polling booths in May.
Sajid Javid faces perhaps the toughest battle after inheriting the poisoned chalice left by disgraced MP Julie Kirkbride who was badly exposed during the expenses scandal and the infamous Julie Must GO! campaign.
But confidence is not a problem for Mr Javid, who was one of the youngest presidents in Deutsche Bank’s history when he was just 24.
He said he hoped he would represent a different option for the voters of Bromsgrove.
He said: “I think the expenses scandal could have an impact on the turnout and there is no such thing as a safe seat and people have a right to be upset.
“But what I would say to people is do you want a career politician who has done nothing but work their way up the greasy political pole, or do you want someone with a record of achievement outside of politics and someone who actually knows what they are talking about?
“So far I have received a very warm reaction from local people. I could have expected more negativity with everything that has happened but lots of people I’ve met on the street are still rightly upset about the expenses scandal but realise there is an election coming up and they now have a chance to do something about it.
“I promise there is nothing you can’t ask me that you won’t get a straight answer to now and in future.”
But Mr Javid has not had much time to pound the streets since he was selected and Labour candidate Sam Burden, who has already been campaigning in the area for a year, gave a different perspective on the feelings of Bromsgrove voters.
“There is a real need to re-build trust in Bromsgrove,” he warned. “I would say that integrity and public trust are the number one issues in this election and walking around the constituency as I have done for the last year I would say there is a long way to go until we achieve this.”
Mr Burden, a 36-year-old pensions consultant who has lived in the West Midlands for the last ten years, also laid the blame for Bromsgrove’s struggling town centre squarely on the Tories.
He said: “Until recently the Tories were running Bromsgrove for years and we can see the results. There has been a real lack of vision and that has to change.
“For example there are plans to knock the Market Hall down but I would do my best to save it as it could still have an important role to play for the community.”
Traditionally a safe Conservative seat, Mr Burden also senses this could be Labour’s chance to win it back in spite of the widespread anger and apathy from the public.
He said: “I think the turnout could be poor but I have noticed a change over the last month and there seems to be a renewed focus on the campaign.
“I think the expenses scandal has changed everything so between independents getting more votes and the fact that the other parties have seemingly parachuted in candidates from outside, that could well erode the traditional Tory vote and help Labour to victory.”
One of those candidates Mr Burden described as ‘parachuted in’ is Liberal Democrat Phil Ling, who was born in Warwick.
Like Mr Javid this is Mr Ling’s first time in politics but the 29-year-old robustly rejected the idea that could have any bearing at the ballot box.
He said: “Charles Kennedy was 23 when he became an MP so I don’t see my age as a problem at all. The local party were looking for members and there was no one particularly relevant so they chose me.
“My wife is from Droitwich Spa and I am from Warwick so it seemed a realistic base for me and I feel that I am the right calibre of person for this role.
“The party sees Bromsgrove as a seat for the Tories to lose and we do see an opportunity there. I would say to people that we are here as a proper alternative to the major parties whereas in the past perhaps people didn’t think that as much.
“We see that people see politics as broken so we are hoping to offer people the chance change that.”
WHAT THE PEOPLE SAY:
Chef Malcolm Bithell, aged 64, said: “I think a lot of people in Bromsgrove think that their vote could be wasted because people don’t see the point in voting this time after everything that has happened. Also I think people would like to see a candidate that actually comes from an area, we are well aware of the backgrounds of a lot of these people and wonder if they really know what they are talking about.
“I think it is going to be too close to call but the memory of Julie’s actions and the way she went about things will stay in people’s heads.
“I think the turnout won’t be good at all.”
Douglas Urquhart, aged 57, retired, said: “I see this election as an opportunity for a change and I would hope the expenses scandal would have chastened the MPs.
“But I understand there is a disillusionment from many people in the area but I would hope that disillusionment would not get in the way of people voting as that would be a shame.
“There are lots of things that need doing in Bromsgrove and the only way we are going to get them done is politically so people have to vote to take charge of the situation.”
Sue Barnett, aged 52, volunteer support officer, fears there will be a low turnout. She said: “It seems to most people that however they vote it won’t make any difference and the area will remain Tory no matter what happens.
“I think it is wrong the way politicians have behaved but the people of Bromsgrove cannot see an alternative so I think everything will remain as it is no matter how much we moan. I will be voting in May but I can understand if a lot of people just didn’t bother.”
Sarah Hardwick, aged 30, a shop owner, said businesses in the town desperately needed support. She said: “I’m sure this used to be a very nice place to live and work but it has become very rundown in recent years and as a small business owner I feel like I am getting squeezed out of the market.
"The problem is that while the economy has been struggling, the business rates of the shops in the town centre have stayed the same so everybody has been losing money but the rates haven’t changed at all which makes it very difficult for us to compete.
“I think whichever politician can promise to make a realistic difference to the businesses in the town centre, they would appeal enormously to the voters of Bromsgrove.”