The Red Tide Hits Chingford

There were many exciting outcomes; support for a left wing manifesto, increase in youth voter turnout, and strong performances in unexpected seats.

There were many exciting outcomes of this election - the increase in youth voter turnout, the evident support for a solidly left wing Labour manifesto, the energy and buzz of the campaign; another is Labour’s strong performances in seats where it wasn’t expected. In some cases this translated into surprising Labour gains, such as in Canterbury and Kensington, but in many constituencies, while the party may not have won, there was nevertheless a huge surge in support. This means that certain seats, which may not have been targets for Labour for many years, if ever, will certainly be targets at the next election, whenever that may be.

All of this is reconfiguring the political map in strange and wonderful ways. Labour could now win in places that were previously thought unwinnable. One such place is Chingford and Woodford Green, in the outer edges of north-east London and where Iain Duncan Smith is the MP. Labour increased their vote share there by 15 per cent last Thursday, cutting the Tory majority from 8,386 to just over 2,400; it will definitely be a target for campaigning next time around.

I grew up in Chingford during the eighties and nineties in a Labour-voting family and it is an area of solid Tory pedigree. Winston Churchill was its MP when it was still part of Epping and by the time I was growing up there it had become its own constituency and was Norman Tebbit’s seat. In 1992 Duncan Smith became the MP and has been there ever since (its boundary changed to encompass Woodford Green in 1997). These are all pretty big Tory names and the area has become strongly identified with a certain kind of Thatcherite Conservatism; to this day often when I meet people and tell them where I grew up, Tebbit’s name is invoked, usually with a little shudder of horror. These early political experiences are formative; I’ve not lived in a Conservative constituency since I left home in 1998, but I still get a little shiver of delight whenever I see a Vote Labour poster in a window (and this happened even in the Blair-Brown-Miliband years, when I wasn’t particularly supportive of the party).

The constituency is in an odd position, buffering urban and suburban, London and Essex. It borders solid Labour-voting areas such as Walthamstow and Edmonton to its south and west, and the staunchly Tory Epping Forest to its north. Its seen fairly significant demographic changes recently, with many people who are priced out of neighbouring, gentrifying Walthamstow moving to the area. Everyone has their own personal highlights of election night, but hearing about IDS’s massively reduced Tory majority was definitely one of mine, for all of the reasons above. It’s a really positive result and there are various factors behind it. Something interesting is happening when it’s looking like Labour can win seats like this, so I wanted to talk to someone who had campaigned there to find out a bit about what happened.

Jenny Lennox is a Labour activist who lives in neighbouring Walthamstow. She’s been a Labour Party member for 18 years, joining when she was 18 years old at University. She was active in the Party way before that, campaigning aged 11 in the 1992 election and in 1997. She held many different posts in her university Labour Club, in a number of branches and constituencies. She is currently Vice Chair of the East branch of Walthamstow CLP. She became disillusioned with the Party during her years of student activism, and was reinvigorated to engage with the Labour Party to fight the Labour government’s decision to go to war in Iraq, attending the 2003 Labour Party conference as a delegate for Manchester Central. At the recommendation of a union colleague she attended a fringe meeting organised by a new group, the Labour Representation Committee, and immediately felt at home. She subsequently sat on the LRC National Committee, Executive Committee and spent two years as joint National Vice Chair. As a consequence of her involvement with the LRC, she supported both of John McDonnell’s bids for the leadership and volunteered for Jeremy Corbyn’s campaigns. She has run to be a PPC, and stood as a candidate for Labour in local elections. She moved to Walthamstow in 2009 and has been involved in the local party since then. She has just made it onto the Local Government panel in Waltham Forest.

First of all well done on such a successful campaign. Have you campaigned in Chingford before and if so how did it compare with previous times? Did you encounter many new members?

I have to admit that I have never campaigned in Chingford until this election. It always felt like a distant hope that one day Labour would win there, although I believed it was possible. But I did door knocking across the borough this time (Walthamstow and Leyton and Wanstead) and as the campaign went on something about the response in those places and the feedback from voters made me feel it was worthwhile putting my efforts into Chingford and Woodford Green. The response to the manifesto was always good, if the voters wanted to engage in a chat. Even Tories, who were definitely voting Tory, told us they liked it. Previous labour voters would tell us they liked it before a few told us they couldn’t vote for Corbyn.

Loads of new members came out canvassing. I ran two sessions in the pouring rain with loads of members, one which I tried to cancel and the members wouldn’t let me. They all wanted to be doing something to help Labour, and that attitude was what enthused the campaign so much. I think it helped on the doorstep with voters that people were actually prepared to work for a party as they were lashed by the wind and rain. On the day, in one committee room alone, we had more volunteers by mid afternoon than they had across the whole constituency in 2015. The last time I experienced a buzz like this in the Party was in 1997. Although then people wanted to be part of a victory, this time people wanted to fight for a victory.

What were the responses to Corbyn himself? And to the manifesto? Were there any particular aspects of the leadership, the manifesto and the campaign that went down well?

As I said above people loved the manifesto, that seemed to be the unifying theme whatever the voting intention, which only goes to prove that people do read/listen/watch what is going on with policies. Corbyn has been the marmite of the campaign across the borough. Some couldn’t bring themselves to vote for him, and I think a few previous Labour voters will not have voted at all as a result of Jeremy’s leadership. Equally as many people love him, and he is the only reason they are voting Labour (and in some cases voting at all). And for many of the contacts Jeremy wasn’t discussed at all, but people were enthused by the manifesto and the campaign.

Were there any particular groups or areas that were more/ less receptive to Labour?

I didn’t do any voter ID in the places most likely to be Tory. In such a short campaign, parties pick the places where they think they will find their vote, and don’t waste their efforts on the ‘no-go’ places. A lot of non-voters talked about wanting to vote for the first time because of the manifesto/Jeremy.

Do you have any thoughts about where the Labour surge in this seat came from? Even 5 years ago it feels like this would have seemed very remote in such a Tory-identified area. How much is it to do with the local campaign itself, factors such as demographic shift in the constituency and national factors?

In the nicest possible way I would say that certainly in large parts of the constituency the campaign had nothing to do with the surge. Labour has had a big increase in membership since 2015 in the seat, but it hasn’t been uniformly good at engaging with them. Some great activists have come forward, and they really helped increase Labour’s visibility in the seat, and upped the amount of voter ID work, but the campaign was stalled by not having a candidate in place until quite late, and Labour’s strategy of sending people in ‘unwinnable’ seats to the nearest marginals.

We have to remember that for Labour (at least the machine) this campaign started as a defence of the status quo, and not an attempt to win. In the committee room I ran we didn’t have the data to tell anyone where the vote was coming from. We concentrated on areas where we had won councillors in 2014, and had more recent information, but we hadn’t made enough contacts. This was a surge all on it’s own, which was what was so amazing. I guess the national campaign must have really resonated. Activists reported lots of young people and Black and Ethnic Minority voters turning up at polling stations and queuing out the doors. And undoubtedly the ‘gentrification’ of Walthamstow had seen people priced into the constituency, both to buy and to rent (we found large pockets of European voters, who were of course disenfranchised in this process), and those people are more likely to be Labour supporters.

Do you have any general thoughts about how to improve accessibility in Labour campaigning for those who want to be involved but are trying to manage the demands of work and domestic life?

In a general election campaign, particularly a snap one, there are so many opportunities to get involved, that usually you can find a time to fit in with your life, but local parties the rest of the time often fall into habits in terms of the timings for canvassing which can be a barrier to involvement. This needs to change. There was some work done to train new members on how to canvass in some constituencies, but more of this must happen, and people should be reassured that kids are welcome to come along.

Waltham Forest Momentum contacted its supporters asking them to get involved, and arranged groups to go together to sessions, and reassured people about their concerns about getting involved (such as bringing kids). I was sceptical about doing this, but in 45 mins of phone calling I got 5 people to come along to a canvassing session who had never been to one before.

New innovations like the canvassing app which the party used this time were a great way of enabling people who were less mobile/unable to get out for sessions to contact people, and I know a lot of people who door knocked were also using this. I think a lot if the barriers can/have been removed, but we need to build people’s confidence, and not expect them to be immediately comfortable chatting to voters.

I’m assuming this is now a target for future elections. What do you think needs to be done to win this seat, and seats like it in future?

It’s a personal target for me(!) and I suspect it will be for the party too. To win we need to find our voters, so canvassing needs to continue, and we need a much better understanding of where our vote is before the local elections in 2018. Before now I would have said that face-to-face conversations are absolutely the best means of motivating people to vote, but clearly other tactics work too! But I think the people-power Labour has is our biggest asset. We must get them out, knocking on doors, and having conversations with voters. It will enthuse our activists, and demonstrate that we want to win.

Any other thoughts about the experience of campaigning for this election?

There was a real turning point in this campaign, and everyone felt it. It was the launch (unofficial and official) of the Labour manifesto. Once it was out there, the stock response of ‘they’re all the same’ almost completely disappeared. Activists could engage with confidence with the voters about how Labour would improve their lives, and voters wanted to know what Labour would do for them on disability/schools/the NHS etc. Non voters suddenly talked about voting.

Most people didn’t talk about the policies being unachievable/uncosted, even if they opposed Labour. For years I have felt that if Labour offered a real alternative, a socialist alternative, we could win. But it is only in retrospect that I could see that shift happening, because believing, however much of an optimist I am, is really difficult when people in your own party are telling you that you are delusional. The result in Chingford and Woodford Green feels like a combination of sheer hard work by the members, hope, and a fabulous manifesto, and it was an absolute privilege to be part if it.