From Godiva to Polling Day.....
With just one day to go until the latest general election I am concluding my "mini-series" of three blog posts summarising the poitical history of Coventry. My previous two posts have referred to national parliaments held in Coventry and MPS who have represented our city between the years 1295 and 1945 (when the city was considered as a single constituency. Today I shall be looking at some aspects of politics in Coventry before and after those years - beginning with the times of Godiva and Leofric, moving on to look at significant dates in the widening of democracy and finishing with a look at MPs who have represented Coventry seats from 1945 through to the present day.
It is often cited that Coventry was "founded" in 1043 with the establishment of a religious community around the Hill Top / Priory Row area. The Cathedral Church of St Mary and the associated Priory (both destroyed under Henry VIII's dissolution of the monestries) are reputed to have been established by Godiva and Leofric and much of the Godiva legend is associated with accounts which later came out of the site. Coventry's first (of three) cathedral is sometimes referred to as "Godiva's Cathedral".
Although we think of Godiva and Leofric as Coventry "icons" the area of Mercia (Leofric's Earldom) stretched from the South West Midlands to Cheshire with the North and Eastern section being part of the Danelaw - the area which at the time came under the rule and laws of the vikings. Leofric was favoured by Cnut (King Canute) and held sway over all of Mercia dispite the division between Viking and Saxon lands. Godiva in her own right was also a powerful landowner.
I shall be exploring the themes of the Godiva story, early English government, Anglo-Saxon Coventry and the history of the Priory / first Cathedral site on my guided walk "A Stroll in Godiva's Footsteps" early in the new year on the morning of Thursday January 9th - booking details here: https://www.eventbrite.co.uk/e/stroll-in-godivas-footsteps-tickets-83195681523
The Norman Invasion of 1066 saw feudal government taking hold across the country with a hierarchical power structure with the king at the top and local manors being subservient to Earls, Barons and Lords in between. In 1295 governmet was widened to include "commons" and the root of our current system of appointing MPs on a local basis (see my previous post for details of some early Coventry MPs).
As there had been ancient charters establishing Coventry as a "borough" with rights to return MPs and a tradition of relatively wide suffrage in the city (although very narrow by today's standards) the reform act of 1832 did not have such a major impact in the city as in other areas. Property owners and Freemen of the city had the right to vote already. The act extended the right to vote beyond property owners to those householders who paid a yearly rental of £10 or more. Although the act is generally thought of as progressive a backward step was the exclusion of women from electing MPs with a voter being defined as a "male person". Before 1832 propertied women were able to vote - well before the rise of the sufferagettes.
Although the Coventry electorate of the time was not so significantly increased as in other areas by the passing of the Reform Bill it is worth noting that one of the city's MPs, Edward Ellice, was a mover of the bill and founder of the "Reform Club" in Pall Mall - probably most famous for references in Jules Verne's "Around the World in Eighty Days" as the start and end destinations in Phileas Fogg's mission to circumnavigate the globe.
The 1885 Redistribution of Seats Act did have a significant influence in the political life of the city seeing the entitlement to MPs halved from two to one.
Movements for votes for women gained momentum in the late 19th and early 20th centuries with pressure exerted from those movements eventually leading to the 1918 Representaion of the People's Act which widely expanded the right to vote to include all men over 21 and and women over 30 who met property owning requirements (so still far from ideal).
Locally Coventry was amongst the first cities to see women councillors elected - a theme a shall be coming back to in the future. To anyone interested in Coventry's politics from the late 19th century to WWII I would recommend two books - firstly John A Yates "Pioneers to Power - The Story of the Ordinary People of Coventry", published in 1949 but a detailed account of the rise of the Trade Union and Labour movement in Coventry and detailed wider social history. The second book is Cathy Hunt's, "A History of Women's Lives in Coventry" - published last year and dealing with ordinary lives during the hundred years between 1850 and 1950.
Moving on now to the more modern post war era I shall look at our MPs from 1945 to the present day
In 1945 the Coventry Constituency was split into two - Coventry East and Coventry West.
Labour's Richard Crossman was the only MP to represent Coventry East from its post war inception when he won over 60% of the vote through to the February 1974 election which saw the end of the constuency. It is noteworthy that in the 1945 election the Communist Party candidate for the seat beat the Liberal Party candidate into third place and several subsequent elections for the seat were only contested between the Labour, Conservative and Communist parties. Crossman averaged around 60% of the vote across all eight elections in the history of the seat. He retired at the February 1974 election and died of liver cancer just two months later,
Coventry West MPs:
The Coventry East and Coventry West constuencies were replaced in 1974 by Coventry North East, Coventry North West, Coventry South East and Coventry South West.
The Coventry South constiuency was created in 1950 and replaced in the reorganisation of 1974 eventually to return in 1997 (it has been held by Jim Cunningham who has retired prior to tomorrow's election from that time).
Coventry South MPs:
1950 - 1959 Elaine Burton (Labour) - stood for the "Commonwealth Party" in Hartlepool in 1943 campaigning for common ownership of the means of production. She moved to Labour and advocated opportunites for women in public life. She became a peer and sat in the Lords. She joined the Social Democratic Party in 1981 and died in Westminster shortly after.
1959 - 1964 Philip Hocking (Conservative) - During his time as a Coventry MP was Parliamentary Private Secretary to the Foreign Office. The only Conservative to have held this seat his election theme tune was "high hopes"!
1964 - 1974 Bill Wilson (Labour) - See Coventry S.E below
Coventry North West MPs (both Labour)
1974 - 1975 Maurice Edelman - served as a as a Coventry MP from 1945 in the Coventry East and Coventry North constuencies prior to his election for the new seat in 1974. Edelman lived a varied life as a linguist, researcher into materials during WWII and a novelist.
1976 - Date Geoffrey Robinson was elected in a bye-election following the death of his preecessor Edelman. He is retiring at the upcoming election after having served as a Coventry MP for forty three years including holding the office of Paymaster General in government. He has had a varied career background holding financial office at British Leyland and being instrumental in setting up the Triumph workers co-operative at Meriden. Also known locally for his period as chairman at Coventry City FC.
Coventry North East MPs (all Labour):
1974 - 1987 George Park - a typical Coventry Labour politician of his day. Having worked in the motor industry he became convenor of the Amalgmated Engineering Union at the Ryton car factory (under the auspices of Rootes at the time, later to become Chrysler, Talbot and Peugeot - all various incarnations of the company which grew out of Humber).
1987 - 1992 John Hughes - Union convenor and Labour left winger with a working class background. Born in the North East he was a Durham miner and continued that occupation at Keresley having served in the Royal Navy during WWII. During his time on Coventry City Council he was expelled from the Labour group three times for his stance on fighting spending cuts, incresed prices for school meals and rent rises. In 1988 he was orderered to leave the Chamber of the Commons by the speaker after asking the clergyman not to bless the house in protest to the social impact of the Conservative government's social policies following delays to life saving treatment for one of his constituents.
1992 - 2015 Bob Ainsworth - another MP who started out as a worker and trade union activist in the local motor industry (Jaguar). His appointments included being Secretary of State for Defence.
2015 - Date Coleen Fletcher - Coventry born and another former councillor. Local to the constituency having been educated at Lyng Hall school and Henley College.
Coventry South East MPs (all Labour):
1974 - 1983 Bill Wilson - a Coventry solicitor who had served as an MP for the Coventry South constiuency prior to the creation of Coventry South East. Attained the rank of Sargeant in the army during WWII.
1983 - 1992 Dave Nellist - a commited socialist who considered his role to be akin to that of a shop steward and advocated that those elected to public office should not recieve a wage significantly higher than those they represent. His election slogan was "for aworkers' MP on a worker's wage" and he stuck to this commitment as an MP taking the wage of a skilled factory worker. He donated over half of his salary to the Labour movement and community causes.
A prominent supporter of socialist nationalisation and prominent campaigner against the poll tax, he was recognised as a very able and hard working MP and won the "Backbencher of the Year" award shortly before his expulsion from the Labour Party in 1991. His left wing views did not fit with the "New Labour" philosophy and he was expelled for "membership" of the socialist "Militant Tendancy" (which was later to become the Socialist Party represented by Dave Nellist, Rob Windsor and Karen McKay on Coventry City Council for several years up until 2012). Dave Nellist has sought re-admittance to the Labour Party and endorses the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn.
1992 - 1997 Jim Cunningham (see Coventry South below)
Coventry South West MPs:
1974 - 1979 Audrey Wise (Labour) - A campaigning left wing MP renowed for her active involvement in trade union struggles (she joined the picket line during the famous Grunwick dispute). A strong advocate of public ownership and member of "The Institute for Workers Control".
1979 - 1997 John Butcher (Conservative) - elected as Margaret Thatcher came to power. Served Coventry for eighteen years in a keenly contested seat incluing a stint as Minister for Trade and Industry during that time. He was a Euro-sceptic and voted against his own government over the Maastricht treaty in 1993. He retired before the 1997 election when the constiuencies were redrawn and died on Christmas Day in 2006 aged 60.
The four Coventry constituencies were re-constituted into three in 1997 seeing the loss of Coventry South East and Coventry South West and the creation of Coventry South where Jim Cunningham has continued to sit as an MP until his retirement prior to tomorrow's election.
We shall soon see who is to be added to the list..........