Game On in Hampstead & Kilburn
Today I received the above piece of campaign literature from the Hampstead and Kilburn Conservatives. It isn’t exactly subtle, and it perfectly encapsulates the problem facing incumbent Labour MP Tulip Siddiq, defending her slim majority of 1,138.
When Glenda Jackson was defending the seat in 2010, Labour squeaked home with a majority of just 42, making the seat the most marginal in England. And crucially, back then the seat was a tight three-way marginal, with the Liberal Democrats less than a thousand votes off the pace. In 2015, the LibDems suffered in Hampstead & Kilburn as they did nationwide, despite fielding an excellent candidate in Maajid Nawaz, and slumped to just 3,039 votes.
By way of further context, Hampstead & Kilburn voted strongly in favour of remaining in the European Union during the referendum, 75% Remain to 25% Leave, with nearly 23,000 constituents signing an angry petition demanding a second referendum when things didn’t go their way with the first one.
So what will happen in the snap general election on 8 June 2017?
Given Labour’s current polling, and the personal polling of leader Jeremy Corbyn, by all rights Tulip Siddiq should be packing her office in Portcullis House and looking for something new to occupy her time. A majority of 1,138 puts Hampstead & Kilburn high on the Tories’ target list, and a few ministerial campaign visits and perhaps a drive-by from the PM herself ought to flip the seat, all other things being equal.
However, all other things are not equal.
The Brexit Factor
Brexit is a real factor here. Following the EU referendum I sat on the 139 bus from West Hampstead alongside numerous “March for Europe” protesters bearing placards weepily declaring themselves to be not British but European. Anger at Brexit runs deep here, as I discovered when I inadvertently carried a Brexit-themed shopping bag into the local Waitrose supermarket on Finchley Road during the campaign. The strength of pro-Remain feeling and the depths of the anger (and let’s face it – the arrogant refusal to even attempt to empathise with the opposing side) on display in this constituency throws everything up in the air when it comes to predicting general election results.
The LibDem Factor
To my mind, the key question is what happens to the Liberal Democrat vote. Nationally, the LibDems have come back from the dead, more in spite of Tim Farron’s leadership than because of it, and driven almost entirely by that party’s near-unambiguous anti-Brexit position. One knows that a successful vote for a LibDem candidate would result in an MP determined to delay or even scupper Brexit altogether were it remotely possible to do so, and this will be very attractive to a lot of voters here – the kind of people who abandoned the party in a hissy fit back in 2015 because of their coalition with the Evil Tor-ees, but who suddenly realise that they have common cause with Farron & Co. once again.
The Tory Factor
This is likely to see a number of voters – the “wetter”, less ideological and pro-EU Tories – switching their support from the Conservatives back to the Liberal Democrats. If your imagined “European identity” is the most important factor in your vote, then going LibDem is the only smart decision here.
In 2015, the Tories pandered to the constituency by running an extremely wet, centrist candidate – Simon Marcus was against the “bedroom tax” and welfare reform, and even against Trident renewal – and still came up short. I have yet to get a good sense of where 2017 candidate Claire-Louise Leyland stands on core ideological identifiers like tax policy, welfare reform, education, defence spending and civil liberties, but it seems likely that as an embryonic career politico (she stood for the Northern Irish constituency of West Tyrone back in 2015) she would generally toe the party line, perhaps diverging to the left on occasions.
Voters basing their decision on economic competence and basic credibility will probably therefore feel safe in voting Tory with Leyland on the ballot. Even though the Hampstead & Kilburn Conservatives probably don’t have any wiggle room to move further to the left, what else can centrist voters do – plump for Jeremy Corbyn? Hardly likely. That leaves the threat posed by the LibDems to the Tory europhile wing as the only real danger to be addressed.
However, just as Brexit is pushing some soft conservatives out of the Tory Party toward the LibDems, Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the Labour Party is likely to push a number of Hampstead & Kilburn voters away from Labour, also to the LibDems. Quite how much this will occur is hard to predict.
The Labour Factor
The more Hampstead side of the constituency has its share of trustafarian Corbynista types who think that reheated 1970s socialism is the best thing since sliced bread, but I suspect that there are far more young lefty creative professionals here who recoil from Corbyn’s haphazard management of the party and the very real chance that he will significantly hike their taxes given half a chance. There are a lot of people here for whom being seen as a “lefty” is important for social and professional acceptance and/or advancement, but who also quite like having disposable income and a functioning economy in which to spend it. Thus Jeremy Corbyn isn’t really their guy.
Meanwhile, the more Kilburn side of the constituency contains an awful lot of Corbyn true believers – as I saw when I attended a Corbyn rally at the Kilburn State Cinema during the post-Brexit leadership coup. However, there are also a number of working and lower-middle class constituents who might recoil from the kind of metropolitan identity politics that the Labour Party currently peddles, as Channel 4 news discovered when they trawled Kilburn High Road for vox pops.
In short, the Labour vote here is even more unpredictable than the Tory vote. The Guardian suggests that Hampstead & Kilburn may be part of a “metropolitan firewall” for Labour. Hmm, now where have I heard vastly over-optimistic talk of an electoral firewall before?
Too Many Moving Parts
While it is safe to say that the Liberal Democrats will exceed their 2015 vote total (despite fielding a candidate without Maajid Nawaz’s household name factor), it is hard to predict just how strongly the party will rebound, or at whose expense. Theresa May’s Brexit position (and revulsion at Brexit in general) will drive some Tory voters over to the LibDems, while lack of confidence in Jeremy Corbyn will drive some Labour voters the same way.
Will the combined effect be sufficient that the LibDems manage a miraculous come-from-behind victory, sneaking past the two big parties to snatch the seat? Unlikely. It would take an awful lot of defectors to bump up the LibDem total by such a large amount. But it is not impossible. The LibDem vote here fell by 13,452 between 2010 and 2015 just because their voters were in a strop with Nick Clegg for his decision to pragmatically enter a coalition with the Evil Tor-ees in the national interest rather than propping up the rotting carcass of Gordon Brown’s Labour government. Stung by Brexit, how much more reason have they now to return to the fold, more motivated than ever before?
However, I think it is more likely that the Hampstead & Kilburn constituency will be won by the party which manages to do the best job preventing their peripheral supporters from defecting to the LibDems. And it seems to me that the Conservatives have an advantage here.
While 2017 candidate Claire-Louise Leyland remains something of an unknown quantity (former Stronger In campaigner turned Theresa May supporter, passionate about mental health and otherwise fill in the blanks), she at least represents a party viewed rightly or wrongly as basically competent. This article is not the place to relitigate the many ways that Theresa May’s government is endangering our national interests through their glib and superficial approach to Brexit negotiations, but in a head-to-head between Tory ideologues and fratricidal Labourites you pick the swivel-eyed Tory every time.
Labour, on the other hand, risk losing their most pro-European supporters – the kind of tedious people who paint the EU flag on their face at public demonstrations and call themselves “citizens of the world” – to the LibDems, together with portions of their young professional vote and working class anti-Corbyn vote.
In other words, while even an ardently pro-European Conservative voter has many reasons to think long and hard before abandoning the party, pro-European Labour voters with little real expectation of a general election victory have every incentive to shrug and vote for LibDem candidate Kirsty Allan (while furiously humming “Ode to Joy”, naturally).
And that is why the piece of campaign literature which came through my door today should be extremely worrying for Labour’s Tulip Siddiq. The helpful chart on one side makes it look as though this is a straight-up fight between Jeremy Corbyn’s loopy, crackpot Labour Party and the Tories (thus underplaying the possibility of a LibDem fightback), while the reverse side trumpets three “damaging” headlines in which Siddiq proudly takes credit for nominating Jeremy Corbyn to the Labour leadership, refuses to concede that it was an error and then actually joins his Shadow Cabinet (while conveniently omitting the fact that Siddiq later resigned from the shadow frontbench in order to clutch the EU flag and vote against Article 50).
Where Things Stand
If this is indeed a scenario in which the two leading parties – Labour and the Conservatives – are attempting to win by losing the least number of votes to the Liberal Democrats, then the Tories presently have the advantage, and if they are smart they will do everything they can to tie Tulip Siddiq to Jeremy Corbyn in the public imagination. This will certainly be the advice/orders filtering down from Lynton Crosby and CCHQ in any case.
The more that Hampstead & Kilburn constituents are seeing and talking about how Tulip Siddiq helped inflict Jeremy Corbyn on the country and repeatedly enabled his chaotic leadership of the party (fair characterisation or not) rather than how the Tories have a childlike understanding of Brexit and an increasingly tarnished reputation for economic competence, the more likely it is that the Conservatives will prevail on 8 June and Claire-Louise Leyland will be returned as our new MP.
To survive and retain the seat for Labour, Tulip Siddiq must find a way of beating the Labour Party’s unbeatable Brexit conundrum while also distancing herself from Jeremy Corbyn – but not to the extent that it keeps the Corbynista vote at home or threatens any support she might need from the party leadership. In other words, Siddiq really has to thread the needle to prevail here.
Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats need to make the local race all about Brexit, and nothing else. Kirsty Allan needs to paint herself as the only candidate with the courage to stand up for all of Hampstead & Kilburn’s heartbroken “citizens of the world” by acting with other LibDems as a drogue parachute on Britain’s departure from the European Union. Then she must hope that she can tempt enough such people away from their 2015-era partisan loyalties in order to pull the LibDems back to their 2010 levels of support, plus a little bit extra. It is a tall order, but not quite an impossible one.
So, all to play for at the moment. Bring on the hustings!
Update – 30 April
This interesting analysis from the Guardian and Electoral Calculus uses ICM polling to suggest that the Liberal Democrat resurgence may be a paper tiger – an attractive theme (and one eagerly picked up by the Remain-sympathising Westminster press) but with little basis in actual reality.
In particular, it shows that while a number of previously Labour-voting Remainers are indeed likely to jump ship to the LibDems, the Conservative vote looks far stickier, with 2015 conservative voters far less likely to jump ship even if they disagree with Brexit. This would seem to pour cold water on any hopes of a LibDem resurgence here.
The upshot of their analysis:
Our model sees the Tories on 422 seats, with Labour reduced to just 150, and the Lib Dems declining from 9 to 6. The Conservative majority would be north of 190. Labour would be wiped out beyond what most people are currently predicting. Leadership candidates like Clive Lewis would no longer be leadership candidates, because they would no longer be MPs.
The Lib Dems could lose a third of their MPs even after gains in places like Cambridge, with seats like Carshalton & Wallington, Richmond Park and Southport especially vulnerable. The danger in these seats is pretty clear. In Carshalton, Tom Brake won a majority of 1,510 in 2015. If a fraction of the town’s 7,000 UKIP voters return to the Tories, that majority will be wiped out. Southport is almost identically poised. Unless a major influx of Remain voters arrives from somewhere – and there’s no indication in any of this data that it will – then these seats will be lost. The Lib Dems don’t face the same problem in Richmond Park, which only turned back to the Lib Dems in December; but with a majority of less than 2,000 and a recent history of flipping, you wouldn’t bet the mortgage on a hold.
Devastating if correct.
On the plus side for Labour, there is hardly any UKIP vote in Hampstead & Kilburn to drift back to the Tories, unlike some other constituencies where the potential backwash of ex-UKIP voters to the Conservative Party threatens to sink LibDem and Labour candidates alike. This means that Tulip Siddiq’s fate as the constituency MP is firmly in Labour’s own hands, and their ability to hold on to their vote in the face of Jeremy Corbyn’s broad unpopularity.
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