The Path to a Majority Runs Through Chingford

by Michael Walker

2 September 2019

In proroguing parliament, Boris Johnson has taken an epic gamble. His – or rather his closet adviser Dominic Cummings’ – hope is that decisive action will draw voters back from the Brexit Party, whilst any outrage provoked will be reserved for pro-Europeans, who, divided and disorganised, pose little electoral threat.

Initial nationwide polling is positive for Downing Street. That is, whilst the public see prorogation as “unacceptable”, the Conservatives are posting consistent double-digit leads.

That said, instant reactions presented in aggregate data give us only a narrow sense of how Johnson’s wager will play out in a general election, whenever it might come. The impact of prorogation will be determined by the reactions and counter-reactions it provokes among Britain’s competing parties. And, given our parliamentary system, the extent to which grand gestures and disputes on a national level play out in the granular struggles taking place in Britain’s marginal constituencies will be crucial.

So, whilst the first Saturday after Johnson’s prorogation saw thousands of left-wingers take to the streets of Britain’s major cities, I decided to spend a quieter morning with Faiza Shaheen, the left-wing prospective parliamentary candidate for the suburban constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green.

The fight for Chingford.

It’s in places like this that the next general election will be won or lost. Once a Tory heartland – whose MPs have included Winston Churchill and Norman Tebbit – demographic change has meant the constituency now looks up for grabs. In Labour’s surprise surge in the 2017 general election, Iain Duncan Smith’s majority in Chingford and Woodford Green was reduced to two and a half thousand, down from 8,386 in 2015 and 12,963 in 2010.

Moreover, with respect to voting patterns the constituency has come to look strikingly representative of the country at large. The Brexit vote here was on a knife edge, leaning Remain by a 0.24% margin. In the recent EU elections, the parties’ rankings mirrored the rest of the country, with Brexit Party coming first, followed by the Liberal Democrats, Labour, Greens and Conservatives, in that order.

Shaheen has been working the area relentlessly since winning the selection last September. Meeting every Saturday morning to canvass, her campaign has built up a small activist community that travel from neighbouring boroughs. It’s meant the constituency has the highest contact rate of any in London and the highest of any marginal in the country.

The commitment appears to be paying off. Olumide, a 23-year-old part-time tutor, has travelled to Chingford from his home in Newham most weekends since seeing Shaheen give a lecture on racial injustice last year. He tells me that despite Labour’s battering in the press, “once people meet Faiza they are re-assured” and that “to the extent it’s about IDS vs Faiza, we will win”.

According to Shaheen, her appeal is grounded in her being a local candidate who, having gone from the local comprehensive to running a think-tank, has a good story to tell. “People like that I worked in the local Greggs, and went from serving pasties to presenting policy in parliament” she says.  The local connection also comes with more direct benefits. Faiza’s sister Nadia recently bumped into their old dinner lady whilst out canvassing. Her vote is apparently guaranteed.

Labour’s silence comes at a cost.

But how are national political developments bearing down on the local contest? As in much of the country, Shaheen’s chances will come down to the extent she can claw back 2017 Labour voters who defected to the Greens and Lib Dems last spring. On that count, she says she “wants the Labour party to be a lot clearer in terms of its Brexit position, and to be more visible in the media. Both Jeremy Corbyn and other shadow cabinet members”.

Visibility is a recurring theme. On the doorstep I spoke to Nadine, a 69-year-old psychotherapist. Nadine had voted Labour in 2017, but voted Green in the European elections. She said Corbyn had been “too silent” and that some of the people around him had gone “too far right”. On the latter, I had to double-check I hadn’t misheard as the opposite critique is far more common on the doorstep. However, Nadine was clear. She believed the country was moving in a far-right direction and Labour hadn’t sufficiently stepped up to challenge it.

It’s a criticism which conforms to a conclusion reached by growing numbers in the labour movement, and, it seems, Labour party strategists. That is, sitting out of any political struggle which many see as intimately connected to fundamental values comes with significant costs. It’s why Corbyn’s presence at a ‘StopTheCoup’ demonstration in Glasgow makes electoral sense, whether or not one believes a ‘coup’ is the best frame to describe prorogation.

Hitting a moving target.

However, the local contest in Chingford equally shows why a firming up of Labour’s remain credentials won’t be enough to guarantee a majority. “It’s actually not the Lib Dems that are my main worry” says Shaheen; “My main worry is that the Tories are going to be putting everything into this seat. All their volunteers, they’ll mobilise their older vote quite well.”

“We will need all the voters we had last time and a little more. We’ve got to understand that last time the Tories didn’t do anything here and now they are giving it their all. It’s not going to be 2,400. We need to have 5,000 more.”

Defeating Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green means hitting a moving target. The Tories ran a lacklustre campaign in 2017, with the impact of cuts to school budgets proving particularly damaging. Johnson’s recent announcements regarding a boost to schools’ budgets suggest it’s not a mistake they’ll make twice.

On Labour’s response to the Conservatives new spend-thriftness, Shaheen says “we need to make sure Boris Johnson’s new leadership doesn’t mean people dissociate the conservatives from austerity. It’s still the same party and the same MPs that voted for austerity. They’re doing the bare minimum to fix the mess they created.” Indeed, IFS analysis shows last week’s headline spending pledges still falls £1bn short of reversing nine years of Tory cuts.

Whenever an election comes, Labour’s route to a majority runs through places like Chingford. Winning here means reversing voter drift since 2017, expanding the electorate, and keeping pressure on the Tories. It requires a visible national leadership, impressive local candidates, and an army of activists. With candidates like Shaheen working the doorstep whilst front-benchers take to the streets, after an exacting year for Labour, it’s a goal which seems in reach.

Michael Walker produces Tysky Sour for Novara Media.

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