When I went back home to Stroud in Gloucestershire over the Easter weekend not much had changed (save for my parents knocking down a wall inside our house, a decade after moving in). My Dad made handpicked wild garlic pesto; there was a beer festival on at the Crown and Sceptre (which also hosted 50for15’s TV debate viewing); I bought over-priced Mother’s Day gifts at the twee gift shops in the market town of Nailsworth. And, after five years of dallying with the Conservatives, the constituency looks like it will also revert to the familiar in politics.
Labour’s David Drew, a recurring moustachioed face at many a ribbon cutting and fete in my childhood, turned the countryside constituency red in 1997. He held it until the Tory landslide-that-wasn’t in 2010, losing by just 1,299 votes, or 2%, to Neil Carmichael, who had run for the seat twice before.
Stroud is a classic bellwether marginal, voting in governing party MPs since 1979. But it also has its own quirks. There is a hefty green welly contingent – just over the constituency border is Prince Charles’ country pile Highgrove and Princess Anne’s vast estate Gatcombe. Farmers markets and artisanal bakeries abound.
With that passion for local produce comes a veritable army of literally dyed in the wool hippies, many of them ‘expats’ from Bristol and London. There are two local Waldorf Steiner schools and a further education college catering for severe learning disabilities that grows crops by the phases of the moon. A joke in my village, Horsley, goes that everyone is either a therapist or in therapy (alternative, obvs).
And then there are the families who have lived in Gloucestershire for generations, whose forefathers tended sheep and worked in the mills. Many of them rode the property wave before the financial crash, having bought their council houses under Thatcher.
The centre of Stroud reflects a town divided too. Woolworths was replaced by a 99p Store, but where most of the chains have fled the shops are sad and empty. Meanwhile, at the top of town the health food stores and boutiques still seem to be thriving.
But I don’t think I’ve ever met a local, whatever their political persuasion, who has a bad word to say about Drew personally (save for back in 2009-10, when Drew took the side of the former boys grammar headteacher, who was sacked over allegations he bullied staff by, you guessed it, then-chair of governors Carmichael).
When the MPs expenses scandal broke there were approving murmurs Drew had already swapped his rented London flat for a Travelodge some years before (I wasn’t able to confirm this via a Google, but his expenses were the lowest of any Gloucestershire MP). He was an old-fashioned backbencher, who rebelled against the party elite by voting against lefty call-to-arms like the Iraq War and assiduously courted the Green vote. An election leaflet posted to my Mum didn’t mention Ed Miliband at all, but did point out Drew’s local campaign against badger culling.
I have been living out of Stroud for most of the past five years, and the majority of my parents’ local friends are middle class lefties, so I can’t really vouch for Carmichael’s local base-courting credentials recently – although I do know he owns and fixes his own tractor. He is, however, a northerner who moved to the south west in 1999 to fight the seat, whereas Drew was born and bred here.
My sister remembers seeing Carmichael sat on a bench in the centre of Stroud on his election victory day in 2010, being studiously avoided by passers-by – she thinks Drew would have been surrounded by congratulators. Whether that anecdote is telling or not, it is clear that those Stroudies who aren’t Tory feel comfortable tactically voting for Drew, even if they don’t like the Labour front bench.
A Lord Ashcroft poll of Stroud in January had Labour inching up 2% to 41% of the vote, while the Conservatives had collapsed spectacularly from 41% to 30%. So even the surge in support for UKIP and the Greens, from 2.2% and 2.7% respectively in 2010 to 11% each, probably won’t keep Drew from winning back the seat. Next time I go home his goofy grin will probably be splashed across the front page of the Stroud News and Journal once again.
Rachel Savage is the web editor at Management Today. She tweets @rachelmsavage.
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Photo: Philip Halling.