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SANDWELL: Interview with Shaun Bailey MP

SANDWELL: Interview with Shaun Bailey MP

Copyright Shaun Bailey

Shaun Bailey MP, aged 29, is a reserved man.

He made headlines when he became part of the “Red Wall” cohort – Conservative MPs who won seats in traditional Labour heartlands –  in 2019 as a Conservative MP for West Bromwich West. It was the first time in 84 years.

It was an election driven by Labour’s dizzying losses, and the Conservative’s exercise in political re-branding.

This is where Mr Bailey finds himself. An off-the-cuff question about what it means to be a Conservative in 2021 produces an insightful answer: “I don’t think the welfare state is a bad thing at all. At all. I think we need to get better at how we manage it. Because at times, and it’s not all the time, we’ve got brilliant people within it, but I don’t think they get the support they should be getting from it.”

We meet at a Costa in Oldbury, at a retail park not too far from Bailey’s own constituency, a week before the Conservative Party conference.

From the outside it looks like any other Costa – except with huge six foot lettering. It’s no quasi-hipster cafe like the ones found in Birmingham, but it represents the desires of many here who live in a post-industrial town: a quiet suburban life with some of the niceties seen in big cities.

He should have been an exemplary figure for a Labour candidate. Hailing originally from Telford, he was raised by a single mother, his sister, and in his words, “escaped domestic violence when I was about four”. But along the way something went awry.

“When I was younger my mom went to ask for help from a Labour councillor. He told her: ‘Just sign on love, because people like you shouldn’t aspire to do much anyway’. He also said: ‘Don’t worry about your son, because he’ll probably be dealing drugs by the time he’s 17’ – and that really annoyed me.”

It was this interaction that sparked his belief of aspiration. “It was very much drilled into me that if you want anything in life you work for it. I saw my mom do that. We basically had the door slammed in our face.

“I grew up with that and realised it was the Conservative party that spoke to my aspirations, the idea I wanted to improve myself, and lift myself up from the situation I was in.”

After joining the Conservatives aged 15, he delivered leaflets, knocked on doors, “the usual stuff”, and eventually studied for his A Levels at Idsall School in Shifnal, Shropshire. After graduating with a degree in Law and French at Aberystwyth University, he studied for his master’s degree in legal practice at the University of the West of England in Bristol. Prior to his election as MP, Bailey worked as a trainee solicitor for Barclays Bank PLC.

It is this sense of justice that motivates him, particularly on social housing. He quips that it’s “not something you hear my party talk about” and yet his daily casework consists of social housing problems. “It’s a big, big hill”. For him, the pandemic underlined the importance of having a safe home to live in, and says a “total revolution” is needed.

“I was brought up in it, my mom still lives in a council house. We need to look at building social housing, but also ensuring the stock of social housing we’ve got is a quality that people want to live in – in the long term. We saw how reliant people became on their homes during the pandemic – they couldn’t go anywhere.”

According to UK Census Data, West Bromwich has a lower rate of home ownership – standing at 22.7%. England’s average is 9.4%. This is supposed to indicate economic deprivation, but for Bailey, it indicates an opportunity for the Conservatives to no longer see aspiration as exclusive to home ownership.

“One time I had a social housing casework, and someone close to me said: ‘Why are you bothered about getting it repaired? [This person] just lives in a council house anyway’, I was just like: ‘Sorry? This is someone’s home’. I think that encapsulated to me why I’ve taken this on as it’s quite personal to me.

“If you’ve got a safe place where people can start from, such as their home, that they can go back to in the evening, they can build the foundations of their lives, they can aspire to do things, to focus on their education, rather than focusing on ducking and diving to the next place they’ve got to live.

“To see that situation is why my lot, and my party, need to get their backsides into gear on this stuff, and realise that [aspiration] is not exclusive to home-ownership. People who live in a council house are just as aspirational as those who live in a semi in Surrey.”

But to give those stepping blocks of aspiration requires the basics to be nailed first: good quality housing, solid transport links, and decent schools. And places like Tipton, Oldbury, and Wednesbury – the areas Bailey represents – are desperate to level up.

Sandwell is a top-priority for the Conservatives, with the borough set to secure £67.5 million of investment from the government’s so-called ‘Towns Funds’. It’s the largest amount of money given to any local authority area, to help with “town and high street regeneration, local transport projects, and cultural heritage assets”. Of that investment, West Bromwich will gain £25 million, Smethwick £23.5 million, and Rowley Regis £19 million.

But Michael Gove, the new levelling up secretary, admitted at this year’s Conservative Party Conference some areas had not seen their fair share.

He remarked: “If you look at communities in Walsall, in Dudley, in Wolverhampton, that the connections haven’t been there, the investment hasn’t been there, and the drive to improve productivity hasn’t been there in the way it might have been.”

Is some levelling up more equal than others? “I represent a little of West Bromwich because of the boundaries, but my community has got nothing out of the Towns Fund. Tipton didn’t get anything. Wednesbury didn’t get anything. While I’m hopeful the money that has been allotted is used in the right way. For my towns, I’m very frustrated. Okay, we’ve got the Metro Extension … but I’m arguing for tangible results on the ground.”

Bailey is sceptical of money just being placed into an area for a “balance sheet at the treasury” rather than his local people. “I would rather see investments in roads, for example. A lot of people drive here. If there’s say a brand new X, or there’s £20 million quid for Y, what’s that going to do for Sheila in Tipton? Is her life going to improve? Because that’s the litmus test I use.”

Bailey admits himself he is not the most “intellectual” in the party, but it would be unreasonable to say that it is the defining trait needed for an MP to be effective for their constituents. His passion for his local community is self-evident, and that is something to be admired.

“I went to a sixth from in Tipton once, and I asked how many of them would stay here or come back here after university. Not one kid put their hand up to say they would.

“I would like to go back to that sixth form in five or 10 years time and see the kids say, ‘I’d live here’ or ‘I’d build my life here’. Success in my job is that people want to stay here and make a community here.”

Words: Rhi Storer, Local Democracy Reporter

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