Wirral South’s geography has its ups and downs, and so does its politics. “Each of our canvassing routes has a hill to climb,” one of Alison McGovern’s activists said, referring to the steep incline we were walking up as the team working to re-elect McGovern- Labour MP for the constituency since 2010- were knocking doors on each of the houses to ask voters if they had any issues they wanted to speak to McGovern about, and whether they would be supporting her in May.
It certainly was an uphill challenge for McGovern to win the seat in May 2010. With a majority of just 531 votes, Labour’s victory there was paramount to denying the Conservatives a majority in the House of Commons. The seat was won by Labour’s Ben Chapman from the Conservatives in a by-election in February 1997, held just a few months before the 1997 general election, a result giving Chapman many more Labour colleagues. Chapman retired in 2010 following controversy over his expenses.
The closeness of the result in 2010 means that Wirral South is an important battleground in May 2015. If the Conservatives don’t win in Wirral South, then the party is unlikely to find the necessary seats to get to 326 (or the sufficient 322-ish due to Sinn Féin not taking their seats). However, although the high stakes may be high, McGovern tells me that the fight for the outcome is not all glamour.
“It’s not the West Wing,” McGovern informs me is her campaign team’s motto. Referring to the recent TV show Inside the Commons, which followed MPs at work in the House of Commons, she commented, “Most of my day job isn’t in Chandelier-filled rooms, it’s on the doorstep and back in the constituency. Inside the Commons should follow that.”
I asked what she thought of the programme, and the Parliament it portrayed. “The days when people think that it is a Gentleman’s club are thankfully over.” Reflecting back to her first days in Parliament, when she was 29 she said that “After 2009 and the expenses scandal, it was good not to look or speak like a traditional MP.”
But not fitting in the mould of the stereotypical MP also presents challenges. “It’s hard for women to get into Parliament, and then when you do, there can be an expectation that you only talk on certain topics.” As the Shadow Minister for Children and Young Families- a policy issue which has traditionally been associated with women- I asked her whether she feels she’s been pigeon-holed. “I’ve never been asked that question before. I don’t feel that I have, because childcare is not just a woman’s issue, men care about these issues. It’s also an economic issue.”
McGovern has also served as a party whip. An infamous role because of its traditional association of making MPs do what they rather wouldn’t, I asked her whether she enjoyed it.
“Absolutely” she said with a wry smile. Commenting on the role that whips have in arranging which MPs need to be present for a particular vote, she continued, “But being a whip is also about helping out MPs: a big part of the work is about asking people ‘Your missus is sick? You need to see your children then?’ And making sure it works.”
Reaching the end of the canvassing route planned for the team, and having a few questions left to ask McGovern, the resulting part of the interview happened whilst she was driving me back to her campaign office.
Port Sunlight, the village where I stayed the night before meeting the Labour campaign team – and a former “stomping ground” of McGovern’s when she grew up in the area – is a model village built by the Lever Brothers to accommodate workers in its soap factory, which is now part of Unilever. The village contains 900 Grade II listed buildings. In the constituency as a whole, the proportion of workless claimants who were registered jobseekers, which is a proportion of total unemployed claimants, was 2.3%, lower than the 3.8% national average.
In The Politicos Guide to the 2015 General Election Iain Dale applies the seat’s demographics to assert that the constituency would be staunchly Conservative if located anywhere else in the country. I asked McGovern for her assessment of Dale’s statement.
“That’s trivially true… you can say that about a lot of places. I’ve often thought about the South West and the weakness of the trade union movement there.”
I suggested that Dale’s comment stemmed from the problems the Conservatives have in gaining support in parts of the north of England, particularly in cities and especially in Merseyside, where the unpopularity of the Thatcher governments in the area has caused long-term damage to the popularity of the party there.
Esther McVey, elected the Conservative MP for Wirral West in 2010, is the only Conservative to have represented a constituency on Merseyside in the last Parliament. Indeed, all bar two of the constituencies on Merseyside are Labour, only McVey in Wirral West and Lib Dem John Pugh in Southport, didn’t return Labour MPs in 2010.
“The problem with the Conservatives talking about ‘England’ is that they don’t know the whole of the country,” McGovern responded, “Places like Liverpool, Manchester, Sheffield… In Sheffield you just don’t vote Conservative. The idea of English votes for English laws just feels like more top-down from Westminster, we need devolution down to the regions.”
Approaching the end of the journey back to the campaign office, we entered some traffic, giving me the opportunity to put a few more questions forward to McGovern. Knowing that she had grown up in the area and had family still living there – “my nan is a constituent, my old friends from school, my parents’ friends, friends of my parents…”- I asked McGovern what it was like to represent that seat.
Comparing the time as MP to the period when she served as a Councillor in the Borough of Southwark when she lived in London, McGovern reflected, “I absolutely loved living in Camberwell, but nothing can be the same as representing the place where you grew up. On an issue, you just get a sense of how people will feel.” adding, “A lot more MPs are from their local area than people think.”
With her local knowledge of the road system, we finally broke free from the traffic and arrived back at her campaign office, which is just down the road from her parliamentary office.
“My parliamentary office is by the reptile shop, and my campaign one is by the butchers.” Whether both of these buildings will become vacant is for the voters of Wirral South to decide. But just before we got out of the car, I asked her about the importance of the election to her personally.
“I won with a small majority last time, and if I win again it will be with a small majority, but to lose, well that would be devastating.”