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Will Starmer recapture Nuneaton? The home of Middle England isn't thrilled at the prospect

Nuneaton Carnival, a local fixture since 1930 (Kevin Hargrave for Nuneaton Carnival, facebook.com/nuneatoncarnival)

Nuneaton Carnival, a local fixture since 1930 (Kevin Hargrave for Nuneaton Carnival, facebook.com/nuneatoncarnival)


June 21, 2023   6 mins

It’s 1pm, and the mercury is kissing 30°C when the first pipers round the bend. Four abreast, they march: drums beating, bagpipes pumping in the heat. Thousands of people line the pavement, pushed up against the verge, clasping warm pints of lager as they watch. I can feel my neck burning.

After the pipers comes a succession of American cop cars. One is from Los Angeles; another is playing KRS-One’s “Sound of Da Police”. Next are the floats, soliciting charitable donations, and then the local worthies. The scouts, a youth farming group, naval cadets, and a topless child manning a machine gun mounted on a truck are all present.

This is Nuneaton Carnival, an annual fair launched in 1930 to raise money for the local hospital that has been a fixture ever since. Today, following a four-year Covid-enforced break, the market town is out to party. It is Middle England as conjured by the fever dreams of Paul Dacre, a provincial part of Warwickshire where one might once have spotted old maids cycling to communion through the morning mist.

If Nuneaton lives at all in the public imagination today, it is as the place where George Eliot was born and Ed Miliband died. In 2015, it was viewed as the ultimate bellwether constituency: had Miliband won Nuneaton he would have been prime minister. But it wasn’t to be. David Cameron would later crow it was at 1.53am, when the town declared, that he knew he had won the general election outright.

Being 37th on Labour’s list of targets, the Warwickshire market town ought to have flipped that night. Other than at Thatcher’s pomp, in 1983 and 1987, the constituency had been red from 1930 to 2010. Brexity, deprived, struggling with the cost-of-living crisis and convinced that immigration is too high, it is the exact type of seat that Sir Keir Starmer is straining to win at next year’s general election. Since 2010, it has been held by Marcus Jones, a stolid Midlands solicitor who has lived in Nuneaton all his life, and whose lead over his Labour rival yawned to a 30-point gap at the last election.

Arriving at the town by train, the first sight is of Hell. On platform 1, a mural — about eight feet high and 20ft across — seems to depict the town alight: long tongues of flame wrap themselves around buildings, bridges and trees, consuming all. This Guernica of the West Midlands — On the Right Tracks by Joanne Bannister — was commissioned by Nuneaton & Bedworth In Bloom. I try to find someone to ask about it, but the ticket office is shut, and no staff can be found.

Across town in Gala Field, rows of gazebos mark the spot where the carnival procession is to begin and end. Amid the food trucks and tombola stalls, I meet Martin Parrack, who has pitched up to run a PR drive on behalf of the Warwickshire Freemasons.

“I’m here to dispel the myth that we’re in the Illuminati,” he tells me in a flat Brummie accent. “The principles of the Masons are to be good to your neighbours and your family.” Between the secret handshakes and cloak-and-dagger ceremonies, I suggest, you must talk to a lot of different people. How do you think the town is doing right now?

“The membership of the Masonic temple in Nuneaton is growing,” he says. “Young people who can’t afford to buy houses in Coventry or Birmingham are moving to the town. They’re moving to areas that wouldn’t have been so
 desirable in the past.”

But the region, he adds, is not in a good place. “Tamworth is struggling, Nuneaton is the same. I recently walked from Birmingham to Nuneaton, then from Nuneaton to Atherstone, to raise money for charity. If you walk through Nuneaton town centre, you can see a marked decline in footfall. Today is a Sunday, but that was midweek. It’s not vibrant.”

A few stalls down, two local women soliciting donations for a disability charity share much the same story. “We’re still at the tail end of Covid, feeling its after-effects,” the younger woman, who is in charge, tells me. “Society has changed. People are less sociable. The community spirit has petered out a bit.”

Her older colleague chimes in. “Covid was the final nail in the coffin,” she says. “The high street is declining. People are counting their pennies.”

Nuneaton has been on a slow decline for some time. Once an epicentre of the Industrial Revolution, the flat land around here was pockmarked with coal mines sunk deep into the earth. Just a decade ago, the Daw Mill colliery — just a 20-minute drive away — was one of the largest in Europe still operating.

Then, in February 2013, a fire broke out 740 metres below ground. Sparked seemingly from nothing, it spread quickly to a ventilation unit and 100 miners had to be evacuated. Fourteen stayed behind to contain the blaze, but to no avail. A few years earlier, employees had been making ÂŁ70,000 a year, with dozens chasing every vacancy. Now, out of nowhere, the mine was forced to close; 650 men lost their jobs.

Today, at Nuneaton Museum, a small exhibition featuring a spread of historical curios are all that remains of the industry. A woman working behind the desk tells me the closure of the pits was a blow to the town.

“We ran an event where we invited people in to discuss their memories of mining,” she says. “There is definitely a big sense of sadness at the loss of the industry. There was a fondness for coal. It was a real part of the town. It was in the bones of Nuneaton.” Can the area be revived? “There are a lot of plans in place to regenerate the town and to bring it out of what’s perceived as a slump,” she insists.

As for who they’ll vote for, she says locals are “sick” of the Tories. “The choice to vote for the Conservatives was made in desperation,” she explains. “Labour used to be popular, but there was a loss of faith in the party.”

Lianne Parry, a volunteer busy talking to the few guests who wander in, agrees that Starmer could win the seat. “The faith in Labour could come back,” she claims. Nuneatonians voted for Brexit, but they didn’t understand what it was or what it would do. “After it happened, they wondered why things were so difficult, but they voted for it without asking questions.”

I walk from the museum up into town, towards the high street. When the 18th-century non-conformist historian William Hutton visited Nuneaton, he described it as being “in the domain of sleep”. Some 250 years later, little has changed. Nuneaton Beds and Sofas is having a closing-down sale; the Myton Hospice a clearance sale; Debenhams is boarded up; a sign in the window of Gattsbys solid oak furniture specialists declares: “Sorry — closed.” The high street is largely deserted. The first man I try to talk to rides away at speed on his mobility scooter, insisting he does not live in Nuneaton.

I stop in at Lord Hop, a microbrewery set up in a shop that was once a former beauty salon. Its landlord, who was born in Nuneaton but now lives outside, says the footfall is so low, he often closes at 7pm during the week. Despite that, he insists, “the town is coming back”, with a new cinema and restaurant set to open. “It’s natural to be optimistic,” he tells me. “We never fully recovered from Covid. Covid chucked everything out of sync.”

In response, the Government “chucked money at the town”, he adds — but the £4 million from the levelling-up fund was not enough. It failed to tackle the real causes of decline — inchoate talk of council “corruption” and big business getting away with something, as well as a broader sense that the area hasn’t taken advantage of Brexit. Online, equally vague rumours about municipal corruption have been raised, with little substance behind them. “Where is all the money going?” ask Nuneaton and Bedworth Community Association on a website that also features a video suggesting the World Economic Forum “runs the world”.

The first crack in Labour’s local base of power came in 2008, when the Conservatives took control of the borough council for the first time since it was established in 1974. The “last fortress of socialism in Warwickshire” had fallen, the Coventry Telegraph reported. On a flying visit to the town, David Cameron congratulated then councillor Marcus Jones, the future agent of Miliband’s doom.

Could Jeremy Corbyn do any better? It was at a Labour leadership hustings in Nuneaton, after all, that the oddball backbencher drew such great applause that both Owen Jones and Toby Young foresaw his eventual victory. Held just a month after Miliband failed to win over the town, the occasion was designed to excise the spirits of defeat, but — as if the party’s new leadership had been built upon a burial ground — it would only come back to haunt them. In 2019, the Tory margin of victory stretched to 13,000.

“They’re all the same, all the politicians are the same,” says Nick, a regular nursing a pint of porter. “Corbyn was very Left-wing. He wasn’t interested in improving the town, he was interested in his own agenda. He believed in God knows what.” Nor was Corbyn strong enough, says the landlord — not strong enough to take on the capitalists, not strong enough to reverse decline, not strong enough to represent them.

Starmer, meanwhile, is too posh and too remote. Bill Olner, the Labour MP who represented Nuneaton from 1992 until 2010, was different, they say. Nick adds: “He mixed with the locals. He was a working man all his life until he was elected to parliament.” After his defeat, Olner, a former electrician and union shop steward, joined the local council and served until he contracted Covid and died in the local hospital.

Yet if it was Nuneaton where Labour’s crack-up began, and Nuneaton where their entry into the wilderness was confirmed, it may yet be the origin of their revival. A recently watered-down green energy plan from the party would mean investment for a new electric battery factory in the region. Locals remain confident things can change, while sceptical of the ability of politicians to help. Or, as Harry Ghale, one of the town’s many retired gurkhas told me as he helped set up a community barbecue: “Nuneaton is okay. I’m not bothered about who wins the next election.”


Felix Pope is a reporter based in London.

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NCFC Paul
NCFC Paul
1 year ago

The more I hear of Conservatives and Labour the more I curse the pair of them. Towns like Nuneaton are common, hollowed out and broken by a governing class who oppose just about everything normal people hold dear.
Recently I’ve looked at Reform, I’m very sympathetic to the SDP, but neither will win a seat, let alone get close to impacting an election.
Something has to give at some point, but who knows what or where.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 year ago
Reply to  NCFC Paul

Agree. The birds are squawking and taking to the skies – tsunami incoming. But no political party can arrest or alter our decline. None. The post 97 System of Governance instituted by EU/Blair cut to bone the hamstrings of democratically elected national executive power. The gearbox was ripped out. Power has sat for 20 + years first with Ruling EU lawmakers & the vast and utterly useless Permanent Clerisy or Blob which has been cloned & spawned here. Andrew B. Nicola S. Spider Tyrant Supremer Judge. Faceless Energy/Water Quangocrats. We must come to terms with this shower and their New Order, just like Russians had to surrender to the Leninist Order post 1917 and after the failure of the Civil War which ensued (kulaks = Brexiteer people). Middle England is scared rigid by Starmer’s blank manifesto, woke mind virus and perma fibs. But it makes no odds. The Tories have been crushed and tanked. The good folk of Nuneaton will hold their noses and only vote for Mr Patriot My-Ass, 2Ref Coup Leader, Knee Bending 2 BLM and Very Confused About Biology Above Knees because they know they he not actually govern or save us. Ruin is now baked into our twisted GDR style society. Voters need to mercy kill the hapless Lockdown Socialist/Fake Tories and give them a chance to rediscover true conservatism (wealth creation? Liberty?) before 2030…then start to rebuild the UK in a Year Zero scenario. But first – thanks to Zero Interest & QE Regime, lockdown catastrophe, Net Zero insanity, Socialism, Welfarism, Identitarianism & all the core structures they have shattered (education/energy/labour/housing) – comes the coup de grace Tsunsmi. Brace…

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  NCFC Paul

That is the question. I think Reform and UKIP have the right ideas about Brexit and how to triumph in it. Why they don’t work together I don’t know. Reform are in danger of scuppering everything if they don’t try and work with UKIP. We are caught between hell and highwater. The hell of Labour and the highwater of the tories which threatens our country by not making the best use of Brexit and their flirting with the WEF which wants to defeat us all by their deception.

Walter Marvell
Walter Marvell
1 year ago
Reply to  NCFC Paul

Agree. The birds are squawking and taking to the skies – tsunami incoming. But no political party can arrest or alter our decline. None. The post 97 System of Governance instituted by EU/Blair cut to bone the hamstrings of democratically elected national executive power. The gearbox was ripped out. Power has sat for 20 + years first with Ruling EU lawmakers & the vast and utterly useless Permanent Clerisy or Blob which has been cloned & spawned here. Andrew B. Nicola S. Spider Tyrant Supremer Judge. Faceless Energy/Water Quangocrats. We must come to terms with this shower and their New Order, just like Russians had to surrender to the Leninist Order post 1917 and after the failure of the Civil War which ensued (kulaks = Brexiteer people). Middle England is scared rigid by Starmer’s blank manifesto, woke mind virus and perma fibs. But it makes no odds. The Tories have been crushed and tanked. The good folk of Nuneaton will hold their noses and only vote for Mr Patriot My-Ass, 2Ref Coup Leader, Knee Bending 2 BLM and Very Confused About Biology Above Knees because they know they he not actually govern or save us. Ruin is now baked into our twisted GDR style society. Voters need to mercy kill the hapless Lockdown Socialist/Fake Tories and give them a chance to rediscover true conservatism (wealth creation? Liberty?) before 2030…then start to rebuild the UK in a Year Zero scenario. But first – thanks to Zero Interest & QE Regime, lockdown catastrophe, Net Zero insanity, Socialism, Welfarism, Identitarianism & all the core structures they have shattered (education/energy/labour/housing) – comes the coup de grace Tsunsmi. Brace…

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago
Reply to  NCFC Paul

That is the question. I think Reform and UKIP have the right ideas about Brexit and how to triumph in it. Why they don’t work together I don’t know. Reform are in danger of scuppering everything if they don’t try and work with UKIP. We are caught between hell and highwater. The hell of Labour and the highwater of the tories which threatens our country by not making the best use of Brexit and their flirting with the WEF which wants to defeat us all by their deception.

NCFC Paul
NCFC Paul
1 year ago

The more I hear of Conservatives and Labour the more I curse the pair of them. Towns like Nuneaton are common, hollowed out and broken by a governing class who oppose just about everything normal people hold dear.
Recently I’ve looked at Reform, I’m very sympathetic to the SDP, but neither will win a seat, let alone get close to impacting an election.
Something has to give at some point, but who knows what or where.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 year ago

It’s curious that people still take it upon themselves to declare that other people, people they don’t even know, voted for Brexit without knowing what it was. I think that is a lot of arrogant projection. A continuation of ‘anyone who doesn’t agree with me is stupid and didn’t know what they were doing or they would have agreed me’. Either way, if Nuneaton votes Labour or they vote Conservative nothing will change. Neither have any ideas or plans to resolve the UK’s structural economic issues, namely poor productivity and its causes.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Galt Was Correct
Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
1 year ago

So you concur that post Brexit nothing changed – even got worse? It was never going to address underlying issues of productivity and regional inequality. It created years of distraction, displacing huge amount of resource and political energy into the current cul de sac – The Brexit motto being: “For things to stay the same, everything must appear to change”.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 year ago

No Aidan, you have read my post and imagined your own content. I wrote that Labour and the Conservatives will not improve anything, but it was a general comment and not referring to Brexit whatsoever. Maybe you are one of those people who are obsessed with it.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

There are some good MP’s in the Tories but the government does not give them a chance with their globalism and neglect of the small UK businesses.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

There are some good MP’s in the Tories but the government does not give them a chance with their globalism and neglect of the small UK businesses.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

The tories let us down that is all. They have not managed Brexit well.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 year ago

No Aidan, you have read my post and imagined your own content. I wrote that Labour and the Conservatives will not improve anything, but it was a general comment and not referring to Brexit whatsoever. Maybe you are one of those people who are obsessed with it.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

The tories let us down that is all. They have not managed Brexit well.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

The common people generally have the right instincts. The trick is to hold these politicians to do what they are supposed to do rather than push their own agendas.

Aidan Anabetting
Aidan Anabetting
1 year ago

So you concur that post Brexit nothing changed – even got worse? It was never going to address underlying issues of productivity and regional inequality. It created years of distraction, displacing huge amount of resource and political energy into the current cul de sac – The Brexit motto being: “For things to stay the same, everything must appear to change”.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

The common people generally have the right instincts. The trick is to hold these politicians to do what they are supposed to do rather than push their own agendas.

John Galt Was Correct
John Galt Was Correct
1 year ago

It’s curious that people still take it upon themselves to declare that other people, people they don’t even know, voted for Brexit without knowing what it was. I think that is a lot of arrogant projection. A continuation of ‘anyone who doesn’t agree with me is stupid and didn’t know what they were doing or they would have agreed me’. Either way, if Nuneaton votes Labour or they vote Conservative nothing will change. Neither have any ideas or plans to resolve the UK’s structural economic issues, namely poor productivity and its causes.

Last edited 1 year ago by John Galt Was Correct
Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Definitely an area to watch for the next election. But not I think typical “Middle England”. More a very early “Red Wall” seat (strong mining heritage, consistently voted labour) ?
Sounds like Sunak won’t have much more appeal there than Starmer. Hard to think of a down-to-earth, common sense politician around at the moment who would. Which seems to be what they want. Shouldn’t really be too much to ask, should it ?

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Definitely an area to watch for the next election. But not I think typical “Middle England”. More a very early “Red Wall” seat (strong mining heritage, consistently voted labour) ?
Sounds like Sunak won’t have much more appeal there than Starmer. Hard to think of a down-to-earth, common sense politician around at the moment who would. Which seems to be what they want. Shouldn’t really be too much to ask, should it ?

F Hugh Eveleigh
F Hugh Eveleigh
1 year ago

The only way, it seems to me, for this country to rid itself of mediocre government is to vote Reform UK or whoever represents the right of centre in any particular constituency. Reform has ideas on armed forces, immigration, HS2, net zero, benefits, tax and much else all largely opposite to all other parties. Voting Conservative just continues the decline and voting Labour just accelerates it. Were concerned citizens to vote for change then change becomes possible.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

Exactly.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

Exactly.

F Hugh Eveleigh
F Hugh Eveleigh
1 year ago

The only way, it seems to me, for this country to rid itself of mediocre government is to vote Reform UK or whoever represents the right of centre in any particular constituency. Reform has ideas on armed forces, immigration, HS2, net zero, benefits, tax and much else all largely opposite to all other parties. Voting Conservative just continues the decline and voting Labour just accelerates it. Were concerned citizens to vote for change then change becomes possible.

Alan Colquhoun
Alan Colquhoun
1 year ago

Perhaps the local economy will be rescued by an influx of southerners in search of cheaper house prices? London is little more than an hour by train and Birmingham only 30 mins (when they are running..)

Alan Colquhoun
Alan Colquhoun
1 year ago

Perhaps the local economy will be rescued by an influx of southerners in search of cheaper house prices? London is little more than an hour by train and Birmingham only 30 mins (when they are running..)

Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
1 year ago

You forget Larry Grayson.

Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

I grew up in Nuneaton. As a local celebrity, Larry Grayson was as well-known as George Eliot. Unlike Ken Loach, who was never mentioned.
I haven’t been back for years, and have missed the Hellscape mural, but I remember the life-sized topiary figure of George Eliot that was a feature of the station platform in the summer. Perhaps she now appears in the Hellscape alongside Grayson and Loach?

Last edited 1 year ago by Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
Dulle Griet
1 year ago
Reply to  Harry Phillips

I grew up in Nuneaton. As a local celebrity, Larry Grayson was as well-known as George Eliot. Unlike Ken Loach, who was never mentioned.
I haven’t been back for years, and have missed the Hellscape mural, but I remember the life-sized topiary figure of George Eliot that was a feature of the station platform in the summer. Perhaps she now appears in the Hellscape alongside Grayson and Loach?

Last edited 1 year ago by Dulle Griet
Harry Phillips
Harry Phillips
1 year ago

You forget Larry Grayson.

David Forrester
David Forrester
1 year ago

Good to see more flyover country articles. I really wish they would do more though right across the country.

David Forrester
David Forrester
1 year ago

Good to see more flyover country articles. I really wish they would do more though right across the country.

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

“A few years earlier,* employees had been making £70,000 a year”

Can this be true? If so, no wonder we had to scrap the Mines!

(*circa say 2010?)

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

It’s hard, dangerous, dirty work, why shouldn’t they be well compensated for it?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘Moderation in all things’.*
They were too greedy and thus committed industrial suicide.

(*Hesiod, circa 700BC to use christian chronology.)

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

They were “greedy” because they couldn’t compete against the children mining the coal we could import. Market forces innit.

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Where were these child coal miners ? Poland ? Australia ? I think those were some of the countries we imported coal from.
As far as I know, the child mining is in Africa for things like cobalt. Don’t think coal mining is a good fit for child labour these days (though we have to admit we did try it in the past).

Peter B
Peter B
1 year ago

Where were these child coal miners ? Poland ? Australia ? I think those were some of the countries we imported coal from.
As far as I know, the child mining is in Africa for things like cobalt. Don’t think coal mining is a good fit for child labour these days (though we have to admit we did try it in the past).

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

Yeah. Remembering Scargill.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

So UK coal miners should have been happy to receive the same wages as their Polish counterparts, simply because it’s “the market”?
And people wonder why neoliberalism is slowly being consigned to history

Simon Blanchard
Simon Blanchard
1 year ago

They were “greedy” because they couldn’t compete against the children mining the coal we could import. Market forces innit.

Tony Conrad
Tony Conrad
1 year ago

Yeah. Remembering Scargill.

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

So UK coal miners should have been happy to receive the same wages as their Polish counterparts, simply because it’s “the market”?
And people wonder why neoliberalism is slowly being consigned to history

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago
Reply to  Billy Bob

‘Moderation in all things’.*
They were too greedy and thus committed industrial suicide.

(*Hesiod, circa 700BC to use christian chronology.)

Billy Bob
Billy Bob
1 year ago

It’s hard, dangerous, dirty work, why shouldn’t they be well compensated for it?

Charles Stanhope
Charles Stanhope
1 year ago

“A few years earlier,* employees had been making £70,000 a year”

Can this be true? If so, no wonder we had to scrap the Mines!

(*circa say 2010?)