‘There’s nobody representing us,” said the thirtysomething man killing time on a side street in Handsworth, Birmingham. Amid the weekday bustle on nearby Soho Road, a smattering of people told me they would be voting Labour, there was irate talk about the Conservatives’ record on immigration, and a few British-Asian former Brexit supporters said they now regretted voting for the leave side, what with prices creeping up and the uncertainties facing small business people. But to a greater extent than anywhere I’ve visited over the past three weeks, the election felt irrelevant to ordinary life.
More often than not, the contest supposedly gripping the country was shrugged off, or laughed about. And in almost every conversation, the same question lurked in the middle distance: if Theresa May’s Conservatism now defines our politics, where does urban England fit in?
Support for leaving the European Union may have been slightly stronger in some cities than many expected (in Birmingham the leave side won, by the tiniest of margins), but Brexit surely remains a byword for our suburbs, shires, and post-industrial towns. The prime minister well knows this, and presents herself as an unapologetically provincial politician. Grammar schools are back; foxhunting may follow. Her walkabouts have so far been largely restricted to market towns and coastal backwaters. In contrast to David Cameron in 2015 and the dependably hapless Boris Johnson, in nearly a month of campaigning she has apparently yet to visit a mosque, gurdwara or Hindu temple.
In the Tory manifesto, there may have been a few well-intentioned paragraphs about what its authors call “the race gap”, and such urban issues as stop and search. But whereas the Cameron and George Osborne years saw Conservative politicians habitually paying tribute to the modern wonders of cities, this document leaves that stuff well alone. The messaging is not exactly subtle: “Countryside communities” and “coastal…