GENERAL ELECTION FEATURE: Cromwell hosts new battleground as national spotlight falls on Stevenage's bellweather seat after BBC Newsnight focus
PUBLISHED: 16:26 12 May 2017 | UPDATED: 16:32 12 May 2017
The impressively weathered stone fireplace at an historic inn situated in the heart of Stevenage's beguiling old town has a date carved into it: 1667.
Fast forward exactly 450 years and the site of the evocatively-aged hearth means the town’s Cromwell Hotel makes a fitting place for the BBC current affairs programme Newsnight to film one of their in-depth features as part of their relentless General Election coverage.
The show, which airs at 10.30pm nightly on BBC2, is deemed a must-watch by heavyweight politicians, pundits, pollsters and punters alike.
But the upheavals of the last 12 months now make it compulsory viewing for anyone who wants to be informed about June’s elections.
Because the turbulence, both domestically and overseas, unleashed after last summer’s fractious EU referendum has been so acute as to sweep away many previously established preconceptions.
And, in General Election, terms the town of Stevenage plays a significant part in the struggle to understand this new landscape.
For the seat of the town’s present incumbent MP, Stephen McPartland, a rising star of the Conservative Party – is high on the list of constituencies’ targeted by Labour strategists. Marginal battlegrounds that have to be claimed by the Labour Party in order for Jeremy Corbyn to become Prime Minister. Stevenage’s prosperity initially came, in part, from its close proximity to the Great North Road, now the route of the A1(M) straddled along Junction 7 and 8.
Although Stevenage Old Town can trace its antecedents back to the Doomsday book – with its Charter Fair first held in 1281 still taking place on the High Street every September – a large number of working-class Londoners moved out of the war-ravaged capital after 1945 with the laudable aim of being part of the first post-war new town in the country.
There may be a burgeoning aerospace and pharmaceutical industry busily earning a reputation as a high-tech hub, but only a few miles away two wards have been labelled some of the most socially deprived in the country.
The town of 90,000 based 30 miles north of London also experiences problems with crime as an influx of drugs coming from the capital has seen some drug-related violence. Only this week a 16-year-old boy from Lewisham was found guilty of stabbing police dog Finn in the chest and wounding his handler.
Newsnight’s coverage centred on the battle for Mr McPartland’s seat, visiting the well-known Wine Society’s headquarters on Gunnels Wood Road – a well-respected co-operative business that their BBC reporter David Grossman perfectly described as ‘making its members happy by the bottle or the case since 1874’.
The programme canvassed and broadcast the opinions of various locals – whose views, it could accurately be said, put them in the ‘floating voter’ category.
A man called ‘Daniel’ summed up the views of many by explaining: “I’m suspending my [voting] decision until I know a bit more about what they [the leaders of the main political parties] want to do.
“But for me it’s very much a leadership election.”
Grossman – who is as polite and unaffected off-screen as is he deadly professional on it – conveyed the message from the Cromwell Hotel where his BBC team filmed for their live link on Tuesday evening’s programme, concluding to millions on air: “That was our own, and I have to say very unscientific gathering of local voters.
“There is of course another month until the General Election so everything is still in play – even if the polls say otherwise.”
He was right.
The monumental failure of pollsters to predict last year’s EU referendum result, Donald Trump’s rise and election as US President, and even the results of Sunday’s French election means that whatever the polls point to, everything is in flux. That includes Stevenage, and similar marginals throughout the country.
With Labour’s parliamentary candidate Sharon Taylor fighting hard to turn over McPartland’s majority of 4,955 on a 2015 turnout of 68 per cent, there is the clear and present feeling that the seat could be up for grabs.
And as the camera stopped filming and the lights went off, the consensus in the bar at the popular – and revamped – Cromwell was very much that Grossman was correct in his assumption.
Speaking to the Comet afterwards, Grossman said he enjoyed his visit to the town. The St Albans-educated broadcaster fondly recalled childhood trips to the Bombay Spice Indian restaurant on the High Street as a child with his father for a hearty chicken bhuna – as at the time it was the only place in the area that served curry.
He also detailed a nice touch by The Wine Society who presented General Election-themed wines earlier in the day.
There was the sherry Faroan – which the Comet found described on Google as ‘taking time to mature and generally dry’.
There was a ‘Laborie’. Although, ironically, one particular website selling the French red – which the Comet later googled – apologised, as the product will be soon ‘no longer available’.
There was also mirth at the Argentine Kipu Malbec – admittedly a slightly convoluted reference to UKIP, as one review the Comet found later spoke of the grape’s ‘thin skins’ that did little to ‘endear the variety to Europeans’.
Humour aside – even if and during a long and arduous campaign it can be an effective antidote to the fear and loathing found on the campaign trail – the fact the experienced and ultra-professional Newsnight team made the trip up the A1(M) to Stevenage spoke volumes of the importance of the next four weeks’ political campaigning in this bellweather town.
As the BBC bade their fond farewells to the Cromwell, the manger of the popular spot, Dean Thompson, a no-nonsense, hard-working son of Stevenage who acted as the perfect host for the broadcasting team, took this newspaper on a tour of the building.
“Look at that”, said the man who has worked his way up from teenage pot-washer to manager of the bar and hotel.
He pointed to the fireplace that had 1667 carved on it.
“We’re not sure whether Oliver Cromwell – that this place is named after – ever visited,” he said.
“But it’s believed his spymaster general, John Thurloe, stayed here.”
As that delicious fact sunk in, it seemed appropriate in today’s era, where uncertainty rules ahead of a pivotal General Election, that Thurloe – an arch-master of parliamentary intrigue 450 years ago – featured as a footnote in Stevenage’s political history, as the battle for the seat hots up in 2017.