Sunday, 11 April 2010

The constituency of Warwick and Leamington

Continuing our series featuring on the highly marginal constituency of Warwick and Leamington, we look at its social make up. In terms of geography, it should be noted that the two towns form one urban area, but with two distinct town centres. The shopping centre of Warwick is very much focused on tourism, something which draws some complaints from locals. Leamington has a well served and attractive town centre, but one that faces retail competition from centres like Solihull.

In the 1970s there used to be a billboard on the outskirts of Leamington proclaiming 'There's a part of Leamington in every car.' Leamington was also known as the brake and clutch capital of Britain and the local football team are still known as the Brakes.

In the run-up to the Second World War, manufacturing industry was decanted out of Birmingham. Leamington became the home to Automotive Products, a specialist manufacturer of brakes and clutches. At one time it employed 6,000 people. Today there are just 200 working for a rump firm.

Another big employer was the Ford Foundry, but that has now closed and its site is awaiting re-development. One or two specialist motor manufacturing firms survive making airport fire engines or refuse collection trucks. Volvo has a substantial office facility in Warwick, but the IBM facility across the road is shuttered.

At one time the gas appliances industry was important and the town was the headquarters of the Society of British Gas Industries. But Pottertons which made boilers has been closed and replaced by a housing estate (where the apartments are not selling too well). However, Aga still operates in the town.

There are plenty of smaller factories, but some of those are downsizing, e.g., a former Heinz factory. Nevertheless, unemployment has been relatively low. When someone visited the town for the first time in many years, they remarked how many Mercedes and other expensive cars there were on the road.

There is what in the 1980s would have been called a 'yuppie' element in Leamington. Down by the old Pottertons site, the old Rock Mill has been converted into some very stylish 'loft' style apartments.

So what do these professionals do? Although the Law Society is phasing out its complaints headquarters in the town as work is transferred to the Legal Ombudsman Service in Birmingham, there are some quite big law firms in Leamington, not least the appropriately named Wright Hassall which has moved into out-of-town premises formerly occupied by the Cheltenham and Gloucester Building Society.

There is quite a lot of public sector employment with the offices of Warwickshire County Council in Warwick and Warwick District Council in Leamington. Many employees at the University of Warwick live in Leamington, particularly on the more up market north side.

There are also some very successful fee-paying schools, of which Warwick School and the Kings school for girls in Warwick are the best known.

However, there are also some areas of real social deprivation, for example parts of Lillington in Leamington but also significant areas of Warwick. The older parts of South Leamington face challenges with drugs. Some of these deprived areas are quite close to more prosperous areas. The town also has quite a strong nighttime economy which leads to tensions with the considerable number of residents who live in the central area.

One of the most interesting areas from an electoral point of view is Whitnash. In effect Whitnash is a suburb of Leamington, but it was at one time part of Warwick Rural District Council and thus has its own town council. The town council, the seats on the district council and the county council seat are controlled by the Whitnash ratepayers led by Bernard Kirton, who at one time in the distant past was a member of the Labour Party. They are very much a 'Whitnash first' party.

Whitnash for a long time functioned as a dormitory suburb for workers at AP close by. Today it has a relatively ageing population, but a predominantly white one. It is the sort of area which probably saw a switch of votes to Labour in 1997, but could be fertile territory for UKIP today.

Leamington has seen successive waves of immigration. In the immediate post-war period it was the Polish and the Irish. In the 1960s there was a small but significant Afro-Caribbean community but that has largely disappeared. The biggest immigrant group is made of Sikhs. The Mayor of Leamington is a Sikh and they recently opened a new gurdwara which cost them £12m to build which they raised themselves. It's an attractive addition to the skyline and I enjoyed a tour of it when it opened. More recently, there has been a wave of Portuguese or Portuguese-speaking immigrants.

For all the waves of immigration, there is still a substantial proportion of the local population who were born in Leamington or in one of the nearby villages. The 'townsmen' as they are known are a social force to be reckoned with.

What this adds up to is a very diverse and heterogeneous constitunecy which in many ways is reflective of modern Britain. It has in many ways a relatively sophisticated electorate which means that it requires the right kind of candidate, particularly for the Conservatives.

As the campaign develops, we shall be looking at the candidates.


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