Every one of the last five years has involved a major electoral event. As a Councillor in my home borough of Wandsworth in London, I’d forgive myself for feeling jaded at the thought of knocking on even more doors as the days get shorter and colder. But when the starting pistol was fired for the 12 December election, my only feeling was one of excitement. I’m one of those drawn back into politics by Jeremy Corbyn, and I think the chances of getting him in 10 Downing Street are pretty good. Just as Westminster seemed amazed at the progress that a supposedly unelectable Labour party made in the last general election, I suspect they’ll be in for another surprise this time around. For those interested, this is how I see it.
The last two years have been difficult for any ardent Labour supporter. I’m not sure if I count as part of the metropolitan elite, but most of my friends probably do. Since the referendum, I’ve had endless conversations with left-leaning friends about how Labour wasn’t making a strong enough stance to stop Brexit. Several former Labour voters have said they just can’t back Corbyn this time through anger at his dithering over Brexit. I’ve asked them why they weren’t similarly angry about stepping over rough sleepers on their way to work or watching children get stabbed to death on the streets of our big cities - but no amount of persuasion has so far brought them back into the Labour fold. Try as I might to explain that the party’s response to Brexit had to be nuanced to keep the coalition of Labour’s inner city strongholds and northern heartlands together, my pals have struggled to accept that Corybn’s lukewarm support for a ‘People’s Vote’ was anything other than a betrayal of their Remain sensibilities.
So on that score: yes, I worry. The prospect of an election, dominated by arguments about Brexit, might sound ill-advised when so many of the most vocal Labour supporters have such doubt. But when I knock on doors on the estates of Battersea, it’s a very different story.
Brexit rarely comes up. People want to talk about youth violence, the lack of social housing, the paucity of our public services, the state of our transport systems and the bleakness of the future on offer to the next generation. On the rundown estates, the impact of a decade of austerity is felt – and it’s really evident. Many of these areas were not doing well before the recession, now they are on their knees. Kids with nowhere to go, hang out looking for entertainment, desperate repairs take an age and are then done poorly, cleaning has been outsourced to whoever offers the cheapest service and this is reflected in the permanent sheen of grime.
Talk of our relationship with the European Union or even the colour of our passports is not something that interests those I speak to regularly in these communities. The choice for them has never been whether they vote Tory or Labour: it’s whether they bother voting for anyone at all. Last time, in 2017, Labour did well at convincing a reasonable number of these residents that they were offering something new, something that would actually change their lives. They came out to vote, and almost knocked the Tories off their perch. When the Labour manifesto is launched (or leaked) it needs to do the same again this time.
The area of Battersea that I represent as a councillor has one of the largest income gaps in the country. On one side of Battersea Park Road, there’s the mansion blocks which face Battersea Park, where Prince George and Princess Charlotte went to school. On the other the Doddington estate has seen two murders in the 18 months that I’ve been a councillor.
Even on the more affluent side of the street where opposing Brexit is more of a cultural matter, I’ve been surprised by how many households, marked as ‘against’ on my canvassing sheet, have invited me in to lament Boris Johnson’s attempts to ride rough-shod over our democracy to force through a form of Brexit that no one asked for. They still balk at going full-Corbyn but I suspect Tory candidates in Remain-voting constituencies are in for a tougher time than they might expect.
For what it’s worth, I wholeheartedly back the calls for a confirmatory vote on leaving the EU and I’ll be arguing for Remain if that vote ever comes. My Tory counterparts find themselves having to contort into ‘Get Brexit Done’ supporters even though many know that their electorate does not agree. But when Theresa May called her ill-fated snap election in 2017, she was sitting on a 20-point poll lead. The same hubris that convinced her predecessor to call the referendum in the first place encouraged her to see if this opinion poll lead could convert into power. The Tories then encountered rather a lot of voters who see the world in the same way as the ones I spoke to. The people who tend to be left out of opinion pollsters’ research. They voted last time, and I see no reason why the same won’t happen again. Believe me: life has not got much better for them in the last two years.
Boris Johnson is right on one thing: this election is a choice. By Christmas, we could have an emboldened Tory Government, forcing through a hard Brexit and selling national assets off to the highest bidder. Or we could have a transformative Labour Government giving the people a final say and standing up for the communities who have had enough neglect from the Brexit obsessives now running the country. To people like me, and many of the people I speak to, it’s not such a tough choice.