How the left went west

You thought Islington was the new Labour heartland? Wrong. Giles Corenexplains the lure of Notting H

On the day in 1997 that new Labour announced a clampdown on road tax evaders, and ceremoniously pulped an offending vehicle before an invited press audience, Philip Delves Broughton, then a young diarist on the Times and resident of Notting Hill's exclusive Northumberland Place, stepped out into the bright morning.

Turning right, and heading towards the Tube station, he passed the front door of the then Minister without Portfolio, Peter Mandelson, his next-door-neighbour-but-one. Glancing at Mandelson's green Rover, he noticed, to his delight, that the tax disc had expired. Naturally enough, he wrote the story up and it appeared next morning in the Times.

"About six o'clock," he recalled to me last week, "I got a phone call at work from Mandelson, who was standing on a train platform with Derek Draper and Robert Harris, saying that he was appalled by the story. He asked me if I thought it was neighbourly behaviour. He clearly felt that his Notting Hill address entitled him to special treatment from the press."

But now the west London home that Mandelson apparently saw as a force field has become the very hubristic flaw that brought about his fall. Notting Hill, like Excalibur, is the ally only of he who has truly earned it and understands its mystical power.

In the aftermath of Notting Hillgate - as the scandal has come to be known - the most shocking revelation for the general public was that Mandelson lived in west, rather than north, London. Those who had been led to believe that N1 was the political postcode of the decade were left goggle-eyed by talk of W2. And the question left quivering on a million lips was: whatever happened to Islington person?

As a feature writer on the Times whose career began only weeks before the death of John Smith, I spent most of 1994 in Islington. I was sent to Granita the night after what the paper called "The Night of the Long Fishknives" to find out what it was about the Upper Street restaurant that had led Tony Blair and Gordon Brown to play out their power struggle on its stripped pine floorboards. Glenda Jackson was in there, and Judi Dench. Islington, they said, was the centre of new Labour power. And it all seemed so right.

But did new Labour fit in? I was sent to Barnsbury Square dressed in Victorian clothes with a troupe of carol singers from St Bride's to see how much the Blairs would give compared to the rest of the street. It took a harassed-looking Cherie some time to open the door. Surrounded by children, she seemed incredibly relieved to discover that we were only carol singers and not journalists. She gave a pound. Most of the rest of the street had given a fiver. I felt terrible, and told my editor there had been nobody at home.

Now fashion, like new Labour, has moved on. While the foot soldiers of the revolution - the Chris Smiths, Harriet Harmans, Geoff Mulgans and Alan Rusbridgers - are still in Islington, the key figures in the government's maturity are being gobbled into the gravitational pull of the Westway. Was Islington a mere staging post? Can we reasonably characterise it as the Damascene spot where old Labour paused on its route down from the grimy North, learnt its focaccia from its Ferragamo and practised a few new vowel sounds before its final push on the seat of privilege?

It is true that very few of our elected representatives, on their £45,066 a year, can afford an area that is now, in pounds per square foot, more expensive than Chelsea. But what has happened is that, ensconced in office, the Labour Party has turned towards the new establishment (better off, in fact, than the old Knightsbridge Tories) to keep up momentum. Lord Jenkins is crucial to Blair's ideological life, but Roy's neighbour in Kensington Park Gardens, Elisabeth Murdoch, will be of more long-term use to the party. And they both live on the all-important south side of the street. Anyone who is anyone backs on to Ladbroke Square, darling.

Benjamin Wegg-Prosser, the 26-year-old special adviser credited with overhauling the Mandelson image, must have been delighted when his boss moved in. Round the corner in Palace Gardens Terrace, Wegg-Prosser is just the sort of dyed-in-the-wool Notting Hillbilly (or should that be Notting Hilltony?) on whom the future of the party looks to depend.

Matthew Freud, the young head of Freud Communications and central to the Dome project, recently bought a £2.5 million house round the corner in Ladbroke Road, before moving out when his relationship with his neighbour Elisabeth Murdoch became public. She it may have been who pointed Mandelson towards Lambton Place Health Club, where he is often seen on the treadmill chatting to Lady Antonia Fraser. She and her husband, Harold Pinter, new Labour's greatest literary grandee, live two minutes up the road in Campden Hill Square. Blair's favourite huntsman, John Mortimer, is but a "view-halloo" away. Also in Notting Hill, you will find Lord Hollick, Blairite proprietor of the Express, and David Sainsbury, generous new Labour donor.

When the sacked minister David Clark blamed the loss of his job on being "out of the loop" and "not part of the London social scene", complaining that as an outsider "you don't make the contacts, you are not invited to the soirees, the coffee mornings, the dinner parties", he presumably had in mind Carla Powell. She, since becoming friends with Mandelson, has become the first "society hostess" for some time to enter the sphere of political influence. She lives in Caroline Place, but a short trot down Queensway from Newton Road, where the columnist Paul Johnson, a Blair confidante, seems also to be making a comeback.

The Express editor, Rosie Boycott, in Chepstow Road, has her part to play. Michael Jackson of Channel 4 and John Birt are among the other on-message media mandarins in the heart of Trustafaria.

There are red herrings, too: it is said that Peter Mandelson offered to babysit for his neighbour Princess Charlotte of Luxembourg, a power alliance that is probably not too threatening. Norman Lamont can be found in Kensington Park Road, but then he surely bears as much responsibility as any Millbank spin-doctor for getting new Labour into power. It's more difficult to fit in Tony Benn, who has lived in the area for years. It is not impossible to imagine the Prime Minister strolling down Westbourne Grove on a Sunday morning on his way to chat to Lord Jenkins about the Third Way, waving merrily to the gawping Okay Yardies, only to spot Benn coming back from the newsagent, and having to dart into Cafi 206 to hide behind Mariella Frostrup.

Perhaps there is a natural affinity between Labour and Notting Hill. For years after the war it was the working class, the poor and the ethnic minorities who made it what it was. By the 1980s, however, the property boom caused an identity crisis to set in, leading to some years in the wilderness. From the early 1990s, however, money was embraced wholeheartedly, and the area is now dominated by right-thinking but style-silly media slaves. They may have gone to public school, but they pay lip service to the ideals of cultural diversity and salt-of-the-earth rootsiness they believe their postcode upholds.

All this could so easily have been old hat by now. In November 1995 the Evening Standard revealed that the Blairs had employed a "looker" to find them a "suitable residence in west London". They were forsaking the wilds of Islington, it was revealed, for this "paradise for upmarket lefties". It was only the events of May 1997, then, that kept them out of Notting Hill. But for one small landslide Tony might have had an address to be really proud of.

It is still his dream. If you ask him where he would most like to be living in five years' time, he will say "No 10". Watch his eyes very carefully and say, "is that on the north side of Kensington Park Gardens or the south?"

This article first appeared in the 15 January 1999 issue of the New Statesman, A slight and delicate minister?

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In the heartlands

What does visiting Wallasey, Pontypridd and Islington North reveal about Labour’s future?

Islington. It’s the idea, as much as the place itself, that the right hates: an enclave of wealthy people who have the temerity to vote against right-wing interests. The real Islington, and Jeremy Corbyn’s patch of it in particular, is not all like that. Although parts of his constituency do resemble the cliché of large townhouses and overpriced flat whites, Labour’s 78-year hold on the seat is founded not on the palatial houses around Highgate Hill but on the constituency’s many council estates.

It’s a place I know well. As a child, Islington North was the place next to the edge of the known world, or, as I would come to call it later in life, Barnet. After going to church in Bow, my mum and I would take the bus through it to choir practice, where I sang until my voice broke, in both senses of the word.

Today, austerity is making Islington North look more like its past. Not the Islington of my teenage years, but of my childhood: grimy streets and growing homelessness. Outside the Archway McDonald’s an elderly woman points out the evidence of last night’s clubbers and tells me that today’s teenagers are less considerate than I was or her grandson is. She’s wrong; I once vomited in that same street. But street-sweeping, particularly at night, has been one of the first things that councils have cut back on under constraints from decreasing local authority budgets.

As for homelessness, that, too, has come full circle. Tony Blair’s government was the first to count the number of people sleeping rough, and by the time Labour left office it had been reduced by two-thirds. In the six years since David Cameron first came to office, the homeless figure in England more than doubled from 1,768 estimated rough sleepers to more than 3,569 today. This is the world that Jeremy Corbyn’s supporters want to fight against. These are the effects of Conservative rule that make Labour activists yearn for an anti-austerity champion.

***

Demolishing the stereotypical views of Islington and elsewhere is vital if we are to understand the currents flowing through ­Labour. This summer, there have been three main characters in the soap opera (or farce) that has played out in the party – the beleaguered leader, Jeremy Corbyn, of Islington North; the leading rebel, Angela Eagle, whose constituency is in Wallasey; and finally, the eventual challenger, Owen Smith of Pontypridd. I visited all their constituencies in a whirlwind week in the hope that it would illuminate the leadership race and the wider challenges for left-wing politics in Britain.

In all three places, the easy assumptions about Corbyn’s appeal were complicated by the facts on the ground, but a common thread united them. Outside the Holloway Road Odeon, I heard it first: “Jeremy is a nice guy, but he’s not a leader.” The trouble was that even those who questioned Corbyn’s leadership had little faith in those challenging him.

On 4 July, during a meeting of the Parliamentary Labour Party, Neil Kinnock talked about “the supermarket test”: how people in Tesco or Lidl would say “I want to vote Labour, but I can’t vote for Ed Miliband”. He urged Labour’s representatives in the Houses of Parliament to “apply the supermarket test for Jeremy Corbyn and see what answer you get”.

In reality, they had been applying it for months. That was the spur to the attempts in late June to oust Corbyn as Labour leader. For the 172 MPs who said they had no confidence in him – and the 41 per cent of Labour members who told YouGov that they thought Corbyn was doing either “fairly badly” or “very badly” – he is an obstacle on the road to saving Britain from the Tories. Idealism didn’t create a minimum wage, set up Sure Start centres, or bring in civil partnerships: assembling a broad enough coalition to elect a Labour government did.

The minority of MPs who support him, and the thousands of members who say they will vote for him again, feel differently. For them, Corbyn’s demise would feel like a capitulation. It would feel like ­accepting that neoliberalism, capitalism and austerity have won the day, that the role of the Labour Party is to ameliorate rather than oppose them.

When I visited Islington North, Labour’s leadership election was only just starting to get under way and Angela Eagle was still in contention. Her tough performances deputising for the leader at PMQs have made her popular at Westminster but that enthusiasm has not made it as far north as Islington. “To me, I can’t see Angela Eagle as a prime minister either,” said Mike, one of the regulars at the Coronet, a Wetherspoons on the Holloway Road. “What are they running her for?”

The same sentiment prevailed in Wallasey, the Wirral constituency that Eagle has represented since 1992. There, too, were a few pockets of Corbynmania. There was also a sense that Labour is heading for defeat as long as Corbyn remains in place – but little faith in Eagle’s ability to alter that trajectory.

Wallasey is of less long-standing Labour vintage than Islington North. It remained steadfastly Conservative even between 1945 and 1966, and Eagle first won the seat in 1992. Although she is now in possession of a 16,000-vote majority, her neighbour Margaret Greenwood took Wirral West seat back from the Conservatives by a margin of only 400 votes. Tory strategists still eye the Wirral hungrily.

Wallasey is home to New Brighton, the seaside resort commemorated in Martin Parr’s 1985 series The Last Resort. A popular tourist destination for most of the first half of the 20th century, New Brighton was hurt by tidal changes in the River Mersey, which stripped most of its sand, and by the closure of its pier, but it remains a favoured destination for retirees and day trippers. In times past, Liverpool families that did well for themselves crossed the Mersey, bought a home – and promptly started to vote Tory. Wallasey, and the Wirral as a whole, is still where Scousers who have made it good set up their homes, but nowadays their politics usually survives the river crossing unscathed.

Yet there is still a vestigial sympathy for Conservatism in the leafier parts of Victoria Road and Seabank Road, one that is largely absent from Islington North. Perhaps Theresa May’s diligence in dealing with families affected by the Hillsborough disaster, which was mentioned frequently when I asked people for their opinion of the new Prime Minister, is sufficiently well regarded here that it is beginning to erode the Thatcherite taint still hanging over the Tory rosette on Merseyside.

However, it is not just Labour politics that is proving increasingly capable of weathering the journey across the Mersey. In Westminster, the chatter is that Militant – driven out of Labour in the 1980s, though most of its members continued to live and work on Merseyside – is back as a force in the city’s constituencies, and that many of its members have moved out and retired to New Brighton. Their influence is blamed for the series of damaging stories that slipped out of Wallasey in the days after Eagle declared her candidacy.

“There’s a reason why they’re so good at getting themselves on the national news and in the papers,” one MP tells me. “It’s that they’ve done all this before.”

***

The perception that Eagle “lost control” of her local party, as well as a disastrous campaign launch, led to support from fellow MPs ebbing away from her. It went instead to Owen Smith, the MP for Pontypridd, a little-known figure outside Westminster, but one who has long been talked of as a possible Labour leader inside it.

Smith’s great strength, at least according to some of his backers, is that he is a blank canvas. Certainly, as with Corbyn in Islington, there was a widespread perception in Wallasey that Eagle was not cast from the material from which leaders are made. Smith at least had the advantage of introducing himself to voters on his own terms.

His slim hopes of defeating Corbyn rest on two planks. First, the idea that a fresh face might yet convince wavering members that he could win a general election. A vote for him rather than Corbyn can therefore be seen as a vote against the Conservatives. Second, he is willing to call for a second European referendum. Among Labour Party activists, who backed staying in the European Union by 90/10 per cent, that is a compelling offer.

In Islington and Wallasey, both of which voted Remain (and both of which still have  houses flying the flag of the European Union when I visit), that message also has wider appeal. But in Smith’s own seat, a second referendum is a tougher sell. The Valleys voted to leave by a near-identical margin to the country at large. No one to whom I spoke was enthused about replaying the referendum.

Smith’s status as a “blank slate” will only be useful if he manages to write something appealing on it over the course of this summer. It is also possible he could just remain largely unknown and undefined.

Travelling around the country, I became accustomed to explaining who he is. Even at my hotel in Cardiff, which borders his constituency, the name “Owen Smith” was met with blank looks.

Unfortunately, the habit proved hard to break once I was in Pontypridd, resulting in an awkward scene in the back of a taxi. “I know who my MP is,” my driver said angrily, before launching into a lengthy diatribe about the arrogance of London-based journalists and a London-led Labour Party. The accent had changed, the setting was more confrontational, but the story remained the same as in Islington and Wallasey: he was convinced of neither Jeremy Corbyn’s nor Angela Eagle’s ability to fight and win an election. “That voice? In a room with Putin?” he said of Eagle. Then he said something unexpected. “But I’ll tell you what – they need a change from Jeremy Corbyn – and why not Owen Smith?”

“Why not Owen Smith?” As much as they might wish to deny it, that is the message with which Corbyn’s critics will try to take back control of the Labour Party. It is a message that feels unlikely to move or inspire. As I catch the train back to London, I reflect that those who want to convince Labour activists to give up Jeremy Corbyn – and what they feel he represents – need to offer them something compelling in return. No one puts “Vote for the lesser of two evils” on a banner.

Stephen Bush is special correspondent at the New Statesman. He usually writes about politics. 

This article first appeared in the 28 July 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Summer Double Issue