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  1. Election 2024
19 November 2019

Will Labour topple Iain Duncan Smith in the Chingford and Woodford Green Tory heartland?

The former Tory leader and ardent Brexiteer has held the seat for 27 years – but younger, more ethnically diverse voters could be about to change that. 

By Anoosh Chakelian

Chingford and Woodford Green has Tory heartland written into its history. The Essexy outer London suburb includes Winston Churchill’s former patch from the historic constituencies of Epping and Woodford. Norman Tebbit, a cabinet minister under Margaret Thatcher portrayed as the “Chingford Skinhead” in Spitting Image, was MP here for over two decades.

And now Iain Duncan Smith, former Tory leader and ardent Brexiteer, is fighting his eighth general election in the seat he’s represented for 27 years.

All that could shortly be undone. Change is in the air, rippling the leaves of Epping Forest pictured in Foxtons estate agent’s “What Makes Chingford So Great?” area guide.

As is often the case with London suburbia, younger, more ethnically diverse families priced out of inner London are moving outwards – heading from places like Walthamstow, Hackney and Islington to their greener, more spacious surroundings, where urban sprawl abruptly meets golf courses and conservation areas.

As well as the flat whites, young mums in Doc Marten’s and a new wine bar in the generally leftier Hale End and Highams Park area to the constituency’s south, this shift brings new voting intentions.

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In 2017, Duncan Smith’s majority was slashed from 8,386 to 2,438. Labour had a decent swing in 2015 too, bringing Duncan Smith’s vote share down by 5 percentage points. Estimates suggest Remain and Leave were pretty evenly split in the 2016 EU referendum.

A long-term swing towards Labour is clear, according to the psephologist Lewis Baston. “It is all about demographic and generational change,” he says. “The population of inner London gets displaced outwards, partly because of affordability of housing, partly because of the life cycle – people want more space as they have children and settle down.”

This means inner London demographics “ripple outwards to the suburbs”.

“I reckon Labour might well win it this time,” says a 53-year-old woman who has owned a shop in Highams Park for 33 years (she prefers not to be named as she has “Labour and Conservative customers”).

“Everybody seems to be so sick and tired of going round in circles, and Iain Duncan Smith’s been with us for years,” she says.

Although she has always voted Conservative, she is now undecided and says the only person who helped her with her shop’s lease problems was a local Labour politician.

“The area’s come up a lot, it’s not so segregated now and there’s a lot more to offer. There’s a new little micropub opening and the wine shop – it’s trendier,” she says, suggesting this attracts younger residents.

Over in Woodford Green, the high road is home to a pizza place, village bookshop and fireplace seller, amid a cluster of takeaways and estate agents. Noor Islam, 40, moved to the UK from Bangladesh ten years ago and has been working in a Woodford Green dry cleaner for six years. “It’s all changing – the English people are leaving, selling their houses which were £100,000 and are now worth £1m,” he says.

“They’re going to Kent, Loughton, Essex, Cambridge, or to the other side,” Islam says, pointing west. “Now, many Asian people – from Turkey, India, Pakistan, Bangladesh – are coming here. Our customers used to be English, now it’s not so busy [with white British customers].”

He calls “Brexit” the biggest priority for longer-established residents here, but his main concern is “lots of shops closing”. He’s had three robberies.

Could Labour win here? “I don’t know,” he shrugs. He’s apolitical but believes Brexit should happen. “Maybe, if Labour are for Brexit? Actually no, they’re against! Are they against..?”

Perny Scglk, 35, has lived here for ten years but is originally from Turkey. From the seat of his white removal van, Scglk tells me he would “not be surprised” if the Conservatives were ousted this time, citing the success of his business as a sign of migrants flourishing here.

Painting the town red

Labour’s candidate, Faiza Shaheen, a 36-year-old economist who runs her own think tank called the Centre for Labour and Social Studies (Class), grew up in the borough. She’s hoping to unseat Duncan Smith this time around.

I follow her canvasing on a bitterly cold Monday evening in the Tory ward of Chingford Green to the north of the constituency (which, crudely, turns more conservative the further north you go).

Wearing two coats, Shaheen’s already a master of the art of doorknocking, having been selected back in July 2018. Now she does two canvases a day and more on the weekend when supporters flock to assist her. The activist network Momentum hosts “Unseat” rallies with key left-wing figures; Ken Loach and Billy Bragg are scheduled in the days after I visit.

Shaheen had 700 people doorknocking for her over one recent weekend. Aside from the Peterborough by-election, her operation has spoken to more voters than any other local Labour campaign in the past year – breaking records for the most contact on the first Saturday of the general election campaign.

“It’s an incredible feeling when so many people turned up to support us here, they really want us to win, and obviously IDS is a bit of a notorious character, so I think I get some more support from that,” she smiles.

There’s “definitely a polar opposite thing going on” between Shaheen and her longstanding rival. His infamous welfare reforms as work and pensions secretary are divisive. Shaheen’s mother was “on the receiving end” when she was put through unnecessary reassessments for disability benefits after heart failure.

“That process, the stress for someone who’s already got a heart condition – in that respect, I couldn’t have more different values from IDS,” Shaheen says. “Then Brexit is the obvious one, him being a hard Brexiteer, me thinking it’s all an epic waste of time!”

Shaheen grew up a few roads away from where we’re visiting tonight, and points to the church where she played an angel in the nativity, her old dentist, a textile shop that sold buttons and patterns to her late mother, and the library where she used to read books with her siblings.

“My mum was obsessed with us learning, so we’d be there constantly,” she says. The name “Faiza” means “successful”.

We knock on the door of a teacher from Shaheen’s old school, who wishes her luck. Her former dry cleaner Jamal and the brother of a schoolfriend have also joined the volunteering effort.  Another former teacher jokes that he wants to be “education tsar” if Shaheen gets into government.

Growing up, Shaheen never thought “there would be a chance for Labour to get in here”. Norman Tebbit was MP when she was born. Her father, a mechanic, “used to complain about how racist he was,” she recalls.

“We were one of the few families, the few people of colour” in the area at the time, she says. Shaheen’s father grew up in Fiji while her mother was Pakistani.

“It’s much more diverse now – there’s definitely that demographic shift, that’s happened all over the constituency… Younger families are moving in down the line from Hackney or wherever.” 

A local mother organised a coffee morning for other parents to meet Shaheen this morning, and positive comments on Facebook about the event have spread to the residents I meet.

After some friendly chats over coffee, the local Green Party stood down its candidate. Shaheen has also received backing from the People’s Vote campaign. But the Lib Dems have been less forthcoming, and she cites the party as a threat. 

“I guess the biggest challenge – I think I’m probably a little bit concerned that all these people who voted Labour last time, that there might be some drift towards Lib Dems, so I think that we do have to really squeeze that vote,” she says.

Another obstacle is negativity towards Jeremy Corbyn. This comes up on the doorstep. “I would not vote for the Labour Party with Corbyn as leader,” says one Green voter considering the Lib Dems this time around. Another praises Shaheen, but says she couldn’t vote Labour because of its leader.

“This happens a lot,” Shaheen admits. “‘You’re very nice, I’m sure you’d make a great MP but I just can’t vote Labour.’ Ok, what can I say? It’s hard, isn’t it? It’s frustrating.”

She calls this the “pro-Faiza-but-anti-Corbyn category”, and tells me it’s “not uncommon”. I watch Shaheen counter this Corbyn-scepticism, telling residents that she knows Corbyn and can vouch for his good intentions – and that homelessness keeps him awake at night.

Negative Facebook ads targeted at voters here about Corbyn are partly to blame, she claims. “They’re framing it here like it’s the difference between IDS and Jeremy Corbyn when he’s not running. That’s tricky. 

“There’s so much negativity about Corbyn, we just have to hope over the next few weeks when they see more of him, and they’re like ‘oh yeah, he’s not a communist’, or whatever craziness it is!”

Her 17 volunteers tonight are unwaveringly cheerful, however, even on the semi-detached, traditionally Conservative campaign trail. “Kill it with kindness” is Shaheen’s motto.

There are plenty of Labour posters in the windows, swing voters, and people impressed with her Chingford credentials and policy knowledge.

One woman, cradling a cup of tea swirling steam into the night air, is concerned about Uber. Her husband is a black cab driver.

“Would you talk about Uber in parliament, if you were MP?” she asks. Shaheen impresses her with a comprehensive take-down of the company’s operational model, and has worked with unions on the issue. “Lovely, alright then,” she smiles, pledging her vote.

East-side Tories

I meet John Moss, chair of the Chingford and Woodford Green Conservative Association in the party’s office by Chingford station. Tebbit and multiple Churchills stare down at us from the walls of a pokey meeting room.

“There is a very clear sense that people have recognised that there’s a decision point here. It’s make-your-mind-up time,” says Moss, wrapped up warm for a third outing later this evening. He’s been involved in Tory politics here since 1999. Moss was suspended for a month in June this year after posting a number of Islamophobic comments on Twitter, including: “I’m sad to say Islam is damaging to women almost everywhere”.

Moss believes people didn’t take the 2017 election seriously because “they thought it was a foregone conclusion that we were going to win a big majority. What we’re seeing now is, ‘No, we’re not doing that again!’”

He says there’s “no slippage” among the Tories’ core support, as well as the “squishy softy bit in the middle” that they’re targeting.

“We’re hearing the same thing: ‘we want to see this [Brexit] done, parliament is a blockage, it’s preventing the government delivering on things that matter to us, which is schools and ‘ospitals, in the old parlance,” he tells me.

The Conservative campaign looks a little fusty compared with the volunteers turning out in their hundreds every weekend for Labour, and the real-time social media coverage this has generated. 

“We run differently,” Moss says. “Labour get big huge crowds of people coming up from Hackney and Islington and other places looking like an invading horde. We have our local teams that work their local patches.

“We could have three teams of 15 out at any one time, quite easily. We do the big Saturday and Sunday days when we get 50, 60, 70 people, our best was about 180. So we can cover our ground.”

Still, Moss accepts the area is changing. “We’re an outer London suburb; demographic change is a fact of life. But you talk to your voters and you react to their issues and you gain their support. Politics is farming not hunting… We’ve seen a strange washout from the gentrification of Walthamstow. People who can no longer afford to live in Walthamstow come and live in Chingford. And ethnically it’s changed, there’s a bigger BME community.”

Although he admits the diversity of local Conservative councillors “went backwards”, he claims some of the party’s new membership comes “from the ethnic minority community, so it’s changing but I’m not sure whether that’s driving democratic change rather than demographic change.”

The Conservatives lead slightly among white voters in London now, as they did in February 2018, according to data from Queen Mary University’s Mile End Institute. Since this data was available, the lowest the party has polled among white Londoners is seven points behind.

In contrast, the party has been between 31 and 67 points behind among BAME Londoners, according to analysis of this data by professor of politics at Queen Mary, Philip Cowley, whose view is that there is no route to electoral success in London that relies solely on white voters.

“It’s interesting actually because Chingford and the south bit of the Woodford Green side is still very much the same,” Moss observes. “Still very much three-bed semis, cars on the front, and a lot of traditional manual labour and self-employed.”

Marginal gains

According to the election analyst Lewis Baston, this is “probably an election too soon for Labour”. Core Conservative values and “Brexityness” are part of the constituency’s political fabric. “People there often have Thatcherite success stories almost,” he says. “You’ve got people from fairly modest backgrounds who have done well, bought their own houses, in a pretty environment” who are resistant to change.

But “if demographic destiny applies, Chingford’s probably only got one more election left as a Tory seat.”

If that. Faiza Shaheen is leaving no door unknocked.

“We’ve just become really brave in this campaign and gone into areas that we’ve never been in before,” she says. “You often say it’s going to be really hard and there’ll be some hard doors, but we also come back a bit surprised – there are a lot of Labour votes, people are angry about Brexit and they know where IDS stands.”

Iain Duncan Smith did not respond to an interview request for this piece.

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