Tuesday, 7 October 2014

By-election Preview: Heywood and Middleton

House of Commons
Caused by the death of Labour MP Jim Dobbin at the age of 73.  Member of Parliament for Heywood and Middleton since 1997, he died while on a Council of Europe visit to Poland.

York Street, Heywood
Ah, northern Greater Manchester.  To the north-east of Manchester is Rochdale, which in your columnist's opinion is an unattractive town with the redeeming feature of one of the most beautiful town hall buildings in Christendom.  To the north of Manchester is Bury, a post-textile town with military connections and an allegedly-world-famous market, whose town centre is thriving thanks to major development despite the hard times of recent years.  In between are Heywood and Middleton, which are, well, none of these things.

The Heywood and Middleton constituency comes in four distinct parts.  The largest part, despite the order of the names, is Middleton, a depressed mill town on the northern edge of Manchester.  Middleton does have some nice bits, such as the residential Alkrington Garden Village, formerly home to the comedians Steve Coogan and Bernard Manning; it also has some dodgy bits such as the Langley Estate, a Manchester overspill development.  To the east is Castleton, a Rochdale suburb which suffered badly from the demise of Woolworth's, who had a large warehouse here; one of the main local employers now is Carcraft, a chain of used car supermarkets based in Castleton.  Further up into the hills, above the Roch valley, is Heywood, another mill town whose economy now is based on the enormous Heywood Distribution Park, an industrial area off the M66 motorway; Heywood is also a recipient of Manchester overspill, this time in the Darnhill estate.  Finally, up to the north in the moors are the Rochdale suburbs of Norden and Bamford, which one of the most affluent areas in the whole of North West England.  Above this area is the uninhabited Scout Moor, home to a large windfarm which can be seen from all over north Manchester.

Most towns in the north of Greater Manchester have a reputation for insularity (a large number of Boltonians think the world ends at the Chequerbent roundabout) but it would be fair to say that Heywood (in particular) and Middleton are more insular than most.  The fact that Heywood has a long-standing nickname of "Monkey Town" probably tells you everything you need to know.  One of your columnist's workmates - a person who makes Joey Essex look intelligent - is from Heywood.

Heywood and Middleton, as a single constituency, dates from 1983.  Before then Middleton was the Labour-voting half of the marginal Middleton and Prestwich constituency, while Heywood was one end of the bizarrely-shaped marginal seat of Heywood and Royton, which wrapped around the north side of Rochdale like a pair of earmuffs.  Before 1983 Heywood and Royton was represented by Joel Barnett, who served in the Cabinet as Chief Secretary to the Treasury during the Callaghan government and whose name has been immortalised in the Barnett Formula, of which we have heard much during the recent Scottish independence referendum.  Barnett had gained the seat from the Tories in 1964 by just 816 votes, and some of his future majorities were small (903 votes in 1970, 2287 votes at the seat's last election in 1979); one famous personality whom he saw off was the future Home Secretary David Waddington, who was the Tory candidate here in 1966.  The Middleton and Prestwich MP before 1983 was Labour's Jim Callaghan; not to be confused with the Prime Minister of the same name, Callaghan had been MP for Middleton and Prestwich since gaining the seat from the Conservatives at the February 1974 general election.  In that election he defeated Alan Haselhurst, who later returned to the Commons for a safe Tory seat in Essex (which he still holds) and served for many years as Deputy Speaker.

The effect of the creation of Heywood and Middleton in 1983 was to make a safe Labour seat out of two Labour-held marginals.  Barnett retired and Callaghan continued his parliamentary career in the new seat with a majority at that first election of 9.5 points over the Conservatives.  Callaghan would go on to defeat another present Tory MP in the shape of Eric Ollerenshaw, former leader of the Conservative groups on Hackney council and the Greater London Authority; Ollerenshaw fought Heywood and Middleton in 1992 and since 2010 has been MP for Lancaster and Fleetwood.

Callaghan retired in 1997 and handed the seat over to Jim Dobbin, who had unsuccessfully tried in Bury North in 1992.  Born in Fife as the son of a miner, Dobbin had spent his career in the NHS as a microbiologist, and had been a Rochdale councillor since 1983; at the time of his election he was leader of the council.  In Parliament he chaired the all-party pro-life group and voted on moral issues in accordance with his Catholic faith; he was made a papal knight by Benedict XVI.  At his last election in 2010 he polled 40% of the vote to 27% for the Tories and 23% for the Lib Dems; the BNP saved their deposit with 7%.

Heywood and Middleton wards in Rochdale Metropolitan Borough Council showing 2014 winners in each ward

At Rochdale council level (see map: grey wards are outside the constituency), Bamford and Norden are now safe Tory wards; the only Lib Dem councillor left in Rochdale after the party's epic collapse over the last few years represents North Heywood; and Labour win everything else.  At the most recent local elections in May UKIP came within 24 votes of gaining West Heywood ward.  The Lib Dems in their prime (about seven or eight years ago when they controlled Rochdale council) had a stronghold in Castleton and could win Norden and Bamford, while the Tories did well in South Middleton ward (which includes Alkrington) during the Brown years.  That was before the Lib Dem group in Rochdale comprehensively fell apart during the early years of the coalition, with huge numbers of defections.

Issues in the constituency include a child grooming scandal with racial overtones; the murder last year of Fusilier Lee Rigby, who was from the Langley estate; and a paedophilia scandal involving the late Rochdale MP Cyril Smith.  With racially-charged issues like these, there has been some speculation from people who don't know the area well that UKIP could win this seat.  However, two opinion polls of the constituency have shown clear Labour leads with UKIP in second place, which sounds about right to me.

Defending for Labour is Liz McInnes, selected from a shortlist on which local candidates were conspicuous by their absence; she is the most local of the shortlist, being a councillor in Rossendale on the other side of Scout Moor.  The Tories have selected Bury councillor Iain Gartside.  The Lib Dem candidate is Anthony Smith, from Castleton.  UKIP's candidate is John Bickley, who was runner-up in the Wythenshawe and Sale East by-election earlier this year.  Completing the ballot paper is Middleton-based Abi Jackson, a recent psychology graduate.

John Bickley (UKIP)
Iain Gartside (C)
Abi Jackson (Grn)
Liz McInnes (Lab)
Anthony Smith (LD)

May 2010 result Lab 18499 C 12528 LD 10474 BNP 3239 UKIP 1215 Ind 170

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