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5 June 2017

View from Islington North: will this patch of London still come up roses for Jeremy Corbyn?

This year's constituency battle could see the Labour leader's majority reduced - but support for the wider party is deep.

By India Bourke

“You are my sunshine, my only sunshine…” The tune drifts out across the sweet-peas and cabbages of a community garden in Islington North. It is a perfectly sunny day and 75-year-old Roy, a former hospital porter, is serenading a group of pensioners on his mouth-organ. In another rose-strewn corner, two children chase butterflies, while their family snacks on a picnic lunch.

The idyllic scene is the work of local residents, who cultivate King Henry’s Walk Garden and open it to the public on weekends. Together with The Garden Classroom charity, they are transforming Islington, a borough which has the city’s least green space per head. Users span the constituency’s widely unequal social range, from well-paid professionals, to schools with some of the country’s highest proportion of free-school meals.

Henry’s Walk typifies the passions of the constituency’s allotment-loving MP, Jeremy Corbyn. The Labour leader is an unsurprising hit with visitors. He is a “lovely man”, says 90-year-old Petal, who uses a wheelchair. “I can’t condemn him as being a softie, as some people say.”

Not everyone is so hopeful. “Whoever gets in won’t do much good – the country’s in a state!” says mouth-organ playing Roy, a lifetime Labour voter, who is sick of politicians full stop. Andy, the site manager and chainsaw-wielding beekeeper, is leaning towards voting Lib Dem. And there are seeds of doubt about Corbyn himself: “I often wonder if he is powerful enough and strong enough to be able to do what a leader of a country has to do,” adds Petal, politely.

Organ-playing Roy is not keen on any of the parties on offer.

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So could these concerns lead to humiliation for the constituency’s longstanding MP on 8 June? It’s unlikely – he had a 21,194 vote majority in 2015. But they could put a dent in his support and his security as party leader. Or so his opponents hope.

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Michael Foster, who is standing against Corbyn under the banner “Labour for the Common Good”, represents this attack at its most internecine. “Labour belongs to its voters and not to party members, and not to party activists,” the former Labour donor told my New Statesman colleague Patrick Maguire. The Liberal Democrat candidate, school governor Keith Angus, claimed that disillusioned Labour voters are also swelling Lib Dem ranks. “We’re getting support from people who would ordinarily define themselves as Labour, but they are in despair at Corbyn as leader – they are seeing this as the opportunity to get their party back.” 

It is Green Party candidate Caroline Russell, however, who could do Labour most damage from the left. I meet up with Russell on a drizzly morning, and find her striding Islington’s streets in practical brown leather shoes. Her pitch is not limited to the environment; it stretches from support for electoral reform to a promise to tackle the injustices of the gig economy. A train-shaped bit of topiary even becomes a reference for renationalising rail.

On the doorstep Russell meets with a sympathetic response. Like the Lib Dems, she is going hard on Corbyn for his limp response to Brexit: “In relation to the referendum I think he’s made a terrible, terrible mistake,” she says. Plus, as a local councillor, her knowledge of the constituency’s problems rivals those of the MP himself. “She gets things done and she’s the only opposition councillor against Labour,” says Elaine, a former Labour supporter who is now campaigning for the Greens.

Left-wing opposition within the constituency could therefore drain some of Corbyn’s support come 8 June, as will voter indecision and apathy. This could play well for the Conservatives, who placed second here in 2015. But there is also a sense that Labour’s base is rooted deep and growing – not just out of loyalty to their local MP but from a sense that the wider party needs shoring up.

On Sunday 7 May, the same day as the borough’s very first nature festival, hundreds marched from Islington to Hackney in a protest against rising knife crime. Those I spoke to on the streets were all committed Labour voters, including a primary headteacher who believes that Labour and Corbyn are the only responsible choice. Back in Henry’s Walk garden, a similar concern for the vulnerable is widely shared. A 25-year old woman, with a sister in social care, says that while she likes the Greens, it is Corbyn who will get her vote.

90 year-old Petal, a life-time Labour voter and former teacher in London’s inner-city schools, perhaps sums up this weary resolve best: “It can make you want to just let it all go,” she says of austerity, poverty and rising care costs, “but unfortunately we can’t. We have to continue to think for ourselves.”

Former teacher Petal says that she will be voting for Labour.

You can find the rest of our consituency profiles from the 2017 general election here.