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7 June 2004

Positively seething in leafy Wimbledon

By Will Brierley

Wimbledon is a leafy and prosperous place. If you browse the noticeboard of Wimbledon library, you will find advertisements for nannies and yoga classes. This is, after all, the home of the All England Lawn Tennis and Croquet Club. So when the Labour candidate, Roger Casale, narrowly won over this traditionally staunch Conservative constituency in the 1997 parliamentary elections, it had many choking on their strawberries and cream. In 2001, Casale increased his majority to just under 4,000. He has proved to be an effective local MP. So why, at the midterm stage, does he believe that there is a “real danger” he could lose the seat at the next elections?

Casale is keen to stress that declining Labour Party membership in Wimbledon is part of a national trend and will not disclose figures. He reports that his constituents’ concerns are “increasingly local”, but concedes that Iraq and its repercussions are “recurrent themes” of dissent within an electorate that has one of the highest percentages of professionals in the country. He is all too aware that this demographic of middle-class, well-educated and politically aware voters “feel very strongly about these issues”.

Joanna Bazley was part of the enthusiastic team that took to Wimbledon’s tree-lined streets to help campaign for Casale’s initial victory. She recalls that “it was very, very exciting” when the Conservatives were overturned, but seven years later, she cites the war in Iraq as the reason for her disenchantment with her local MP. “I found that what his party was doing was absolutely unacceptable, and his loyalty to people who were behaving like that was something I could no longer sympathise with.”

Bazley’s frustration was compounded when letters to Casale expressing her opposition to the war were forwarded to the government, and answered with ministerial replies that contained a recital of the official party line. Her experience has led her to view the current political system as “scary, and I don’t think it’s a democracy”.

So it is ironic, given the Labour mayoral candidate’s opposition to the war in Iraq, that the only “propaganda” visible at the Wimbledon Labour Party office is in support of Ken Livingstone’s re-election campaign. Disaffected voters will hope that, like the rash on a body suffering from an allergic reaction, the eruption of bright red posters declaring “Vote Ken June 10” are evidence of a degree of contrition on Labour’s part.

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Accountability was a concern for a constituent who requested that his views not be attributed, for fear that he would be ostracised by the local party. “New Labour pushes you to the wings if you have differing opinions. It’s a kind of bullying.” He describes himself as “Labour, not new Labour”.

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Looking forward to the general election, Casale says: “The question that people ask themselves is how they want to be represented. I hope, whatever people’s views are about a particular issue, and whatever my views are about that issue, that they think I can do the job of representing them well.”

Bazley is quite clear about what she thinks the current atmosphere of disillusionment will result in. “I would feel sad if Labour lost,” she says, “but on the other hand I think that it serves them right – there is no other way that we can say that we really mean it. The only thing we have left is our vote.”