Jeremy Corbyn in Telford: Labour leader's visit a sign of need to win key seats
Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn’s decision to use Telford as the backdrop for his pitch to be a “very different kind of prime minister” shows just how important the seat is to the party.
Only created in 1997, the Telford seat was firmly Labour until the arrival of Conservative Lucy Allan in 2015.
Ms Allan flipped the constituency and won the seat in 2015 and 2017, although the respective margins of 730 and 720 votes show just how close the contest was.
The narrative for next month’s general election has been very much shaped around Brexit and the ongoing Parliamentary stalemate over the UK’s exit from the EU.
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But, for both Telford and The Wrekin the issue is not as simple, with another more immediate concern looming large in the minds of many of the electorate – hospital services, and what happens to Princess Royal Hospital Telford’s A&E department and its consultant-led women and children’s unit.
Current plans will see Royal Shrewsbury Hospital becoming home to the county’s only A&E department, and taking over women and children’s services.
Huge levels of opposition from Telford residents and the local council led to the Health Secretary asking for the decision to be reviewed.
However, there was widespread local disappointment when he approved the proposal last month, with the caveat that Telford become home to a downgraded ‘A&E Local’.
The details of an ‘A&E Local have been widely dissected but now the NHS’s own documents confirm that the service will not be 24-hours, and will fall some way short of that offered in Shrewsbury.
It is an issue that the Labour Party has placed front and centre of its local campaign, and when pressed on the matter Mr Corbyn took the opportunity to let the people of Telford know exactly how he feels, pledging to keep A&E units at both Shrewsbury and Telford, and dismissing A&E Local as “not a proper A&E”.
“Jonathan Ashworth and I have discussed this many times,” he told a packed audience, “we have discussed it with the council and I am absolutely clear there needs to be A&E departments in both Shrewsbury and Telford, full time.”
That comes as Ms Allan has also made her own pledges over the hospital situation, launching a crowd funding bid to pay for a legal challenge to the government decision.
The issue is such a political hot-potato that within two hours of Mr Corbyn’s announcement, Shrewsbury and Atcham Conservative candidate and the constituency’s four-time MP, Daniel Kawczynski, had responded, accusing the Labour leader of political opportunism.
Writing on Twitter he said: “For pure political expediency Mr Corbyn has announced that he would overturn the £320 million investment into our local trust. This is a decision promoted by 300 local Shropshire doctors and surgeons. Who do you trust with our NHS? Mr Corbyn or our local doctors?”
Ms Allan said: “We are all working to keep A&E at Princess Royal and we are finally making progress. It’s been confirmed there will now be A&E, details of which were published yesterday, as well as 24/7 walk in. In January this year the hospital management were not prepared to support this.
“We are not there yet, but it’s great that all local representatives are working together to make sure Telford has the hospital services it needs for the future.”
Mr Corbyn’s visit was also a return to his old stomping ground.
The Labour leader was educated in the county, growing up in Newport and attending Adams’ Grammar School – and even worked as a journalist on the Newport and Market Drayton Advertiser.
He also cut his political teeth in Shropshire, with his first campaign being Gerry Fowler’s 1966 victory over the Conservative William Yates in The Wrekin.
Opening his speech at the Telford Campus of Wolverhampton University alongside Telford’s Labour candidate Katrina Gilman, he said: “It is great to be here in Telford, I feel like I am at home.”
Home it may be but the region does pose a number of problems for the party he leads.
The chances of winning in North Shropshire, The Wrekin, Shrewsbury and Atcham, or Ludlow are slim to non-existent, and Labour ejected its long-standing Shrewsbury candidate earlier this week after an ongoing row in the local party.
That comes as Electoral Calculus predictions outlined Shrewsbury and Telford as key battlegrounds to win if either party want to return to Westminster with an overall majority.
The study forecasts that Shrewsbury and Atcham, where Mr Kawczynski is defending a majority of 6,627, is the key seat that Labour will need to take to secure a majority of one in Parliament.
Interestingly the polling firm’s predictions for Telford say that even with the involvement of The Brexit Party the Tories will still hold the seat with a greatly increased majority.
Telford voted 63.2 per cent leave in the 2016 EU referendum, and Ms Allan has been firm in her commitment to exiting the EU. There has also been criticism from the Midlands with former Labour cabinet minister Ian Austin today urging voters to back the Conservative Party to keep Mr Corbyn out of government.
For his own part Mr Corbyn said he would be a “very different” prime minister if his party wins the election.
He said: “I was not born to rule. None of us in this room were born to rule. I don’t pursue the kind of politics that thinks it’s all a game, a parlour game, a debating society game.
“I want to seek power for our party in order to share that power out all across the country and with all those communities that would have contributed to this historic Labour election victory which we’re looking forward to on 12 December.”
“My job as leader, and my party’s job, is to champion those people, and bring about real change.”
The Labour leader also expanded on the party’s plans for private schools.
During a question-and-answer session after his speech, Mr Corbyn was asked if Labour’s conference policy to deny private schools charitable status would make it into the party’s manifesto. He replied: “The manifesto will be launched a little later on – it isn’t all finished and in writing yet.
“The conference policy has been passed and some of that conference policy will go into the manifesto.
“I can say that ... we will be expecting those in private education, those private educational establishments to pay tax rather than get charitable status.”
Interrupting widespread applause following his comments, the Labour leader added: “I want to see fully-funded and properly-funded primary and secondary schools within our society through our national education service.
“I don’t think headteachers or any other teachers should be put through the stress of having to raise money just to maintain the school.”
During the Q&A Mr Corbyn was also pressed on support for veterans, with the question coming from Shropshire campaigner Gus Hales.
Mr Hales, of Builth Wells, is currently on hunger strike outside combat stress in Newport, to raise awareness of the plight of veterans. He also carried out a high-profile hunger strike on the issue last year.
Responding, Mr Corbyn said he had met with Mr Hales previously and that part of those discussions had been used to create the party’s policy for those in the armed forces.
The Labour leader said there was currently too much reliance on charities to help those suffering post-traumatic stress.
He said: “We would stop the privatisation of armed forces housing.
“We will give far more support for the education of service people’s families and children. We have also discussed with the three services the preparation for de-mobilisation because many are simply not given the preparation or support for when they leave.” He added: “There is insufficient support for charities to deal with those going through post traumatic stress disorder, or mental health stress and conditions that go with that.”
The Labour leader said that his party would also look to reduce the number of former armed services personnel who are rough sleeping. Mr Corbyn also personally addressed Mr Hales, adding: “I want to say thank you for the way you have highlighted this issue.”