With UK elections to the European Parliament only days away, what do voters in Meriden – the self-styled “centre of England” – think about them?
It’s a weekday morning and the sun is shining over Meriden, a prosperous village just outside Coventry. Although the true centre of England lies about 10 miles north, for centuries Meriden has proudly claimed to be “middle England”, in geographical terms at least.
There’s a steady stream of people going about their business, with customers popping in and out of the convenience store, which sits in a row of shops overlooking the village green.
The seats are already filled at the hairdressers, while staff at the nearby chip shop are setting up in preparation for the lunchtime trade.
At one end of the shops three teenage girls share an animated conversation, while at the other end some bikers are parked up on the corner, near the closed tearooms, ready to make the next stop on their ride.
Neither group wants to talk about the European elections when approached, although other people enjoying the spring sunshine in Meriden were far from reticent.
‘They are like kids in the playground’
Retired builder Robert McGann, who is out walking his Staffordshire bull terriers Bruce and Mr Blue Sky, thinks the handling of Brexit could have an impact on voter turnout.
“A lot of people are not going to vote because of what they [the government] have put us through,” says the 66-year-old.
“I will be voting for whatever party that sides with [Nigel] Farage, and yet I’ve always voted Conservative, but now I can’t because they are all back-stabbing each other.
“They are like kids in the playground.”
Mr McGann voted to leave the EU but believes the country has been “short-changed” by the government.
“I’m going to be voting for Farage; he is the only one that’s got any bottle. He should never have dropped out of politics. He was the only truthful one.”
‘We want things to be normal’
Kam Nijjar, who runs the Spar convenience store at the heart of the village, has a holiday booked so cannot vote on Thursday.
Behind the till, pausing only to serve customers, he says had he been able to he would be voting, but says politicians “are not taking any notice at all” in any case.
For Mr Nijjar, 34, the most pressing issue is Brexit.
He thinks people might not have realised the implications of voting to leave the EU, believing many voted on the issue of immigration and “didn’t realise what other massive things were involved”.
Mr Nijjar says he feels there has been an impact on the economy since the referendum.
“People are spending less in here – we’ve noticed people are spending less. We don’t know what the future holds, it’s a difficult one.
“We want the country to be a better place and things to just be normal.”
‘How can we vote again?’
One person who will not be casting their vote on 23 May is retired bookkeeper Hilary Foster, a customer at the Fordes hair salon in the village centre.
“I’m not bothering to vote because it seems to me MPs do things to their own ends and that means money to them,” says the 84-year-old.
Politicians do not listen to people, she explains, adding: “How can we vote again after what we are going through?”
Mrs Foster, who voted Leave in the referendum, said: “Europe has taken a lot off us.
“I think immigration has ruined us – who wouldn’t want to be here and have an NHS? We can’t take them all. I think when we leave it will alleviate the country.
“Being English is one of those things; we are good fighters and will get through anything. I feel in particular we can be big on our own.”
Meriden in the middle
- Not just a village, Meriden is also a council ward in Solihull, as well as the name of a parliamentary constituency
- In the EU Referendum, on a turnout of just over two-thirds, 58.8% of voters in Meriden backed Leave – almost 37,000 people
- In the 2017 general election the constituency returned a Conservative MP, Dame Caroline Spelman, who has held the seat since 1997
- It hasn’t voted in a Labour MP since 1974
- The turnout for the West Midlands in the last European elections in 2014 was 33.1%, just below the UK-wide average of 34.19%
‘So many people regret voting for Brexit’
At the village chip shop, the pies are being kept warm as Maka Okropiridze prepares to open the business she has run for the past three years.
Mrs Okropiridze, who is originally from Georgia, has two children, and their future, as well as that of her business, is an issue of concern.
The impact of Brexit, she thinks, will be a factor in how people vote on Thursday.
“We are often talking with customers; the biggest topic to talk about is Brexit.
“I can see so many people that regret voting for Brexit – I’m sure quite a lot have changed their minds, because before we didn’t realise all these problems and now we find all that’s going to happen.
“I think that will show with the result next week.”
Leaving the EU will have a knock-on impact for her customers, says Mrs Okropiridze, who has lived in England for 15 years and has British citizenship.
“It’s going to be more expensive and more difficult for people to afford it. We have no choice – we have to increase the price, which is going to affect people.
“I’m worried for the future of my business.”
But whatever happens come 31 October – the latest date for the UK’s exit from the EU – Mrs Okropiridze is sure of one thing.
“I want to see a nice and peaceful place which is going to be safe for future generations.”
‘We’ve got to wake the government up’
John Billington takes a break from his bike ride, basking in the rays as he sips on a hot drink.
He often cycles through Meriden and today is sitting on the bench close to the Cyclists’ Memorial on the village green.
He was employed at a paper mill in Nechells, Birmingham, for 27 years and was a Labour supporter and union member during his working years, but became disillusioned with the party and started voting Conservative in 1995.
“I will be voting next week and I will be voting for the Brexit Party,” says the 71-year-old.
“I’m not happy with what’s happening at the moment with the government that we’ve got in. They are not interested in what’s going on locally.
“They are more interested in keeping their little club together in Europe and don’t listen to the people. They are not listening to those issues that are important to the people.”
Mr Billington, who voted to leave the European Union in the 2016 referendum, says he is unhappy with the government’s handling of exiting the EU and he expects many people will vote for the Brexit Party, “mostly as a protest vote”.
“We’ve got to wake the government up.”