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Can the Liberal Democrat Tom Brake keep the Tories at bay in Carshalton?

If Carshalton’s Kippers join the Tory shoal, Brake will drown in the blue tide. 

Tom Brake had been on telly, where he’d accepted the BBC’s description of his party’s local elections showing last week as “patchy”. By contrast, his general election record as Liberal Democrat contestant in Carshalton and Wallington in suburban south-west London is one of unbroken success since he first won the seat in 1997. But every one of his five victories have been narrow. In his constituency office, a short walk from the enchanting Carshalton Ponds, Brake describes his retention of the constituency in 2015 as being “by the skin of my teeth”. He was the only Lib Dem MP to hold a seat in the capital that year. He anticipates “an even bigger challenge” this time.

At first glance, his luck looks ready to run out. Brake won by just 1,510 votes two years ago, taking 35 per cent of the total. The Tories took 32 per cent. Ukip and Labour tied for third, with 15 per cent each. If Carshalton’s Kippers are joining the Tory shoal in anything like the numbers of counterparts elsewhere, Brake will drown in the blue tide. You might think that in Remain City being a Remainer in the most pro-Remain party would help. But Carshalton and Wallington is in Sutton, one of just five London boroughs out of 32 that voted Leave. What’s more, the poorer north of the seat, where Brake has previously harvested part of what in simpler times was called the “natural Labour vote”, is where backing for Brexit was the highest in his patch last June.

Meanwhile, problems with Lib Dem-run Sutton Council’s new bin collection scheme has handed Brake’s Tory opponent, Old Etonian Matthew Maxwell Scott, some fragrant photo opportunities. It’s also been brought to the keen attention of Theresa May at prime minister’s questions by Paul Scully, Tory MP for Sutton’s other seat, Sutton and Cheam. The hashtag #SuttonBinShame has excited radio presenter Jeremy Vine. Sutton Council has been in Lib Dem hands since 1986, defying political gravity much like Brake, but the refuse pile-ups are dragging it down, at least for now. They aren’t Brake’s doing, of course. But that’s not stopped Tories using them to rubbish him.

But don’t underestimate this Lib Dem. His party has picked up points in London as a whole in the past year according to a recent poll and Brake has defended an even smaller majority than his present one in the past – his winning margin in 2005 was just 1,068. An irony of the “bin shame” assault is that Brake’s resilience owes much to his reputation as a diligent constituency servant, making good on the traditional Lib Dem localist promise and making sure that it is noticed. “I am, without a doubt, very visible in the constituency, partly because I ride my bike and use the bus, which I think actually does make a difference,” he says.

He’s also very visible online. Noting the Tories’ investment in social media, he thinks his “one of the few seats in the country where we can match and even out do them”. Brake, who was a computer software consultant before becoming an MP, has the maximum number of Facebook friends (5,000) and nearly 34,000 Twitter followers. Twenty years of collecting email addresses means he can communicate directly with 11-12,000 constituents. In addition, “We’ve never scaled down the traditional methods, like putting leaflets through letterboxes,” he says. He first fought the seat in 1992, finishing second. He’d moved into the constituency two years before that, having been selected to turf a Tory out. An eight-page glossy Brake promo mag called Local Life hails “25 years fighting for you”. It’s knackering just thinking about it.

Carshalton and Wallington is one of a cluster of five seats in the south-western suburbs that Lib Dems and Conservatives have been fighting over all century. But though they are contiguous, they aren’t all alike. Scully’s Sutton and Cheam is more evenly middle-class than Brake’s seat. Kingston and Surbiton in the royal boroughnext door is still more so, (and still more steeped in sitcom history too). To its west lie the pair of affluent Richmond seats, one either side of the Thames: Twickenhamto the north; Richmond Park, which also contains a bit of Kingston, to the south.

Lib Dems held all of these until 2010, when Zac Goldsmith deprived them of Richmond Park. The rest perished five years later, except for Brake. With the Lib Dems’ three other London seats lost to Labour, the 2015 drubbing left Brake as his party’s sole London MP. With such solitude comes extra work: “It was tough. There was always a lot of pressure to support the regional party, speak at the regional conference, support by-election campaigns. You are torn many, many ways”.

Sarah Olney’s spectacular undoing of Goldsmith in December’s famous by-election has relieved some of that strain and also helped raise Lib Dem hopes that they might continue to re-assert themselves in these parts. Anti-Brexit feelings could again make the difference in three of those five south-west London seats. That the reverse could hurt Brake’s is another of his contest’s ironies.

It’s complicated all the calculus. Brake’s literature makes a blunt plea to Labour and Green supporters to help him fend off Maxwell Scott, but he has his fingers crossed that some who voted Conservative last time could now actually swing his way. “The south of the seat, which is richer and where we vie with the Tories, mostly voted Remain. Whether they will transfer their allegiances for a general election which the prime minister has made all about Brexit, I don’t know.”

Health and education are the more solid ground on which he’s building his stockade. An ongoing defence of St Helier hospital, where his two children were born, takes pride of place, enabling him to snipe at the Tories’ NHS reforms. Brake says he wants to “secure its full range of services,” describing its A&E and maternity services as coming under repeated threat. Forthcoming reductions in schools funding, while less severe in Outer London than Inner, provide him with his other big theme. He’s done a Q&A with students from Carshalton Boys Sports College: “I was asked question after question about the impact of school cuts.”

Before meeting Brake I spent two hours walking in the constituency, arriving by train at Carshalton Beeches, all inter-war commuter-belt dwellings where those possible blue Brexit-phobes may reside, and making my way east to Roundshaw, a housing estate and park built on the site of the former Croydon Airport. Lindburgh Street is named after the legendary US aviator, who dropped by shortly after completing the first ever transatlantic flight. A local church bears a propellor fashioned into a cross.


From there, it was north through the heart of Wallington, formerly part of Surrey, where three of Sutton’s five grammar schools are found. “Sutton is very popular because of the grammar schools,” Brake says. “Parents often make a point of moving to Sutton to access them. The downside is they are selective in their nature. It means that unless a child does well – not just well, but really well – in the 11-plus exam or the equivalent, then the fact that you live in Sutton is no guarantee that your child will get a place there. They are very high performing, there’s no doubt about that.”

Theresa May has paved the way for more grammar schools to be set up. Is Brake pro or anti-grammar? “Well, I think provision of schools is something that should be locally decided,” he says. “Our party position, and my personal view, is that it’s something local councillors should be allowed to make a decision on.”

Finely-balanced marginals require finely-tuned positions. Every angle must be covered, every edge over your challenger exploited. Brake has been described as bland. Don’t let that make you think he’s not up for a scrap or that he is averse to scoring personality points. “I’ve been blessed for a number of years by having Conservative candidates against me who I did not feel were really up to it,” he observes. “They seemed to think it was their right to represent Carshalton and Wallington on the back of a national swing, just by wearing a blue rosette.”

Matthew Maxwell Scott was the Tory he held off last time. If Brake defeats him again, it will be impressive. And if he loses? “I’ll be looking for a job.”

This article was originally posted on the website On London.

Dave Hill writes about London. Find him on Twitter as @DaveHill.


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I'm not going to be General Secretary, but the real fight to change Labour is only just beginning

If Labour gets serious about a new politics, imagine the possibilities.

For a second time, I was longlisted for the role of General Secretary of the Labour Party this week. For a second time, just as in 2011, I was eliminated in the first round. The final shortlist now consists of two veteran trade unionist women leaders, Jennie Formby of the Unite union and Christine Blower - formerly of the National Union of Teachers and the Socialist Party. I met them both yesterday at the interviews; I congratulate them, and look forward to hearing more about their ideas for Labour party renewal.

Last week in both the New Statesman and LabourList, I explained why I thought we needed a General Secretary “for the many”. I set out a manifesto of ideas to turn Labour into a twenty-first century campaigning movement, building on my experience with the Bernie Sanders campaign, Momentum, Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and other networked movements and platforms.

I called for a million-member recruitment drive, and the adoption of the new “big organising” techniques which combine digital and face-to-face campaigns, and have been pioneered by the Sanders movement, Momentum, Macron and the National Nurses Union in America. I set out the case for opening up the party machine in a radical but even-handed way, and shared ideas for building a deeper party democracy.

I noted innovations like the Taiwanese government’s use of online deliberation systems for surfacing differences, building consensus and finding practical policy solutions. Finally, I emphasised the importance of keeping Labour as a broad church, fostering more constructive internal discussions, and turning to face outward to the country. I gladly offer these renewing ideas to the next General Secretary of the party, and would be more than happy to team up with them.

Today I am launching LabourDemocracy.net, a new digital democracy platform for the Labour movement. It is inspired by experience from Taiwan, from Barcelona and beyond. The platform invites anyone to respond to others’ views and to add their own; then it starts to paint a visual picture of the different groupings within the movement and the relationships between them.

We have begun by asking a couple of simple questions: “What do we feel about the Labour party and movement? What’s good, and what’s more difficult?” Try it for yourself: the process is swift, fun and fascinating. Within a few days, we should have identified which viewpoints command the greatest support in the movement. We will report back regularly on this to the media.

The Labour movement is over 570,000 members, thousands of elected representatives, a dozen affiliated unions and millions of Labour voters. We may disagree on some things; but hopefully, we agree on far more. Labour Democracy is a new, independent and trustworthy platform for all of us to explore our differences more constructively, build common ground, and share ideas for the future. I believe Labour should be the political wing of the British people, as close to the 99 per cent as possible – and it will ultimately only be what we make of it together.

Yesterday I spoke over Skype with Audrey Tang, the hacker and Sunflower Movement leader who is now Digital Minister of Taiwan. Audrey is a transparent politician, so she has since posted a video of our conversation on YouTube. I recommend watching it if you are at all interested in the future of politics. It concludes with her reflections on my favourite Daoist principle, that true leadership leaves the people knowing that they have made change themselves.  

This General Secretary recruitment process has been troubled by significant irregularities, which I hope the party learns from. The story is considerably more complex and difficult than is generally understood. I have spent considerable time in the last week trying to shine greater light on the process in the media and social media, and encouraging the national executive committee, unions and politicians to run a more open and transparent process. I even started a Change.org petition to the NEC Officers group, calling for live-streamed debates among the candidates for this crucial and controversial party management role. I very much hope that there is no legal challenge.

Most importantly, the last week has exposed a significant fault line in Labour between the new left and the old left. When Jon Lansman of Momentum entered the contest against the “coronation candidate” Jennie Formby, many people read this as a fight between two factions of the old left. But Jon’s intent was always to open up a more genuine contest, and to encourage other candidates – particularly women – to come forward. Having played the role only he could play, he eventually withdrew with dignity. His public statements through this process have been reflective of the best of the new politics. And despite our very different political journeys, he kindly agreed to be one of my referees.

There has been plenty of the old transactional machine politics going on behind closed doors in the last couple of weeks. But out in the open, the new left movements and platforms have shown their strength and relevance. Momentum emailed all its members encouraging them to apply for the role. On Facebook Live, YouTube and podcasts like All The Best, the Novara Media network has been thoughtfully anatomising the contest and what it means for the future of the left. Even the controversial Skwawkbox blog finally agreed to cover my candidacy, and we had a constructive row about the leaked memo I wrote for Corbyn’s office back in December about how to win the next election using data, organising and every new tool in the box.

I am worried about the old left, because I feel it is stuck in a bunker, trapped in a paradigm of hierarchical power and control. The new left by contrast understands the power of networks to transform conversations and win hearts and minds.

The old left yanks at levers, and brokers influence through a politics of fear and incentives. But this tired game is of decreasing relevance in this day and age. The new left has the energy, the reach, the culture and the ideas to build a new common sense in this country, and to win decisive victory for Labour and progressives in the next general election – if the old left will partner with it. 

I am keen to help. So are many others. I hope we can start to have a more constructive and equal conversation in Labour soon. Otherwise an exodus may begin before long; and no-one wants that.

Paul Hilder is an expert on new politics and social change. He is a co-founder of Crowdpac, 38 Degrees and openDemocracy. He has played leadership roles at Change.org, Avaaz and Oxfam, and was a candidate for general secretary of Labour in 2011.