Never mind the B'lox - street politics is in rude health

Abbreviated road signs in Walsall Image copyright Karl Rogman
Image caption The abbreviated road signs in Bloxwich

For anyone who thinks these local elections are dull and boring, I have this challenge - come to Walsall.

The writing, if not on the wall, is clear enough on the roads themselves. Street level democracy is in the rudest of rude health here. Which here in Walsall, really is quite rude!

The saucy "double entendre" that's been enlivening local social media is an appropriate piece of signposting for a town where passions run deep and local politics is anything but the dreary, humdrum business of general repute.

Although in fairness, we should point out that the council has now responded by repainting the offending road markings since this "hot button" image was recorded for posterity.

For this is a town with a very acute sense of itself.

Traditionally the home of the leather industry, Walsall has a football team known as the Saddlers.

They are mounting a spirited challenge for promotion to the second tier of English football, the Skybet Championship. There they would rub shoulders with an assortment of local rivals including the newly-relegated star attractions, Aston Villa.

At the centre of the town, is the art gallery which opened 16 years ago to widespread international acclaim.

Microcosm of the political landscape

It is home to works by, among others, Jacob Epstein, Monet, Picasso, Van Gogh and Turner. No less significantly, it has provided a catalyst for the economic regeneration of the area surrounding the canal basin, like a smaller version of Birmingham's famous Gas Street.

And Walsall really is like a microcosm of the political landscape of our part of the country as a whole.

It's like all our famous marginals rolled into one electoral battlefield. Or is it a minefield more like?

It has long been a predominantly two-party affair: the map shows the west of the town, leaning towards the rest of the Black Country, almost exclusively Labour red. While the east, inclining towards Birmingham's leafy stockbroker belt in neighbouring Four Oaks and Little Aston, is an exclusively blue Conservative preserve.

Image copyright Andrew Teale
Image caption The town is almost divided in two, as an election results map from 2012 shows

And within the council, where one third of the 60 seats are up for election, the numbers reflect the changeable political weather in a region well-known for swinging back and forth between the two biggest parties. It is a significant weather vane.

Labour and the Conservatives have both had long periods in over-all control. But this is a council is famous for its knife-edge outcomes producing no outright majority, with all the back room deal-making and deal-breaking that entails.

A year ago the town had a minority Labour administration.

But last June, the indefatigable Conservative group leader Mike Bird brokered a minority administration even though Labour have two more seats than his party. He wrestled-back the leadership of the council with the support of the three UKIP and two Independent councillors.

A town that's grown accustomed to living on a political knife-edge now faces another equally cut-throat encounter.

'Only fools predict elections'

Labour's fortunes hit a notable high the last time this particular set of seats were contested four years ago, so this time round they appear to have far more to lose than to gain.

They must defend nine of their 27 seats while the Conservatives defend seven of their 25.

With both remaining Liberal Democrat seats up for election, the Conservatives will be fighting hard for the six seats they need for an overall majority.

If Walsall is like a microcosm of all our famous Midlands marginals rolled into one, you can see why this will be seen as such an important early test of Jeremy Corbyn's controversial brand of Labour leadership: is he a vote winner or an electoral liability?

But with political fortunes so evenly divided between the two biggest parties no one here is rushing to make rash predictions. When Paddy Ashdown remarked "only fools predict elections", he could have been thinking of Walsall.

By now, I hope I have convinced you that far from being dull and boring, local elections can be seething hotbeds of drama and intrigue.

Our Black Country Political Reporter Rob Mayor will be in Walsall this week to find out who has seen writing on the wall or heard the word on the streets? Or are they just those naughty abbreviations on the road?

We'll have the answers to these questions and more in this weekend's Sunday Politics Midlands at the later time of 13: 40pm on BBC One, following coverage of the London Marathon.

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