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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.

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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 in the landslide years of 1945 and 1966, with Eagle the first Labour politician to win 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.”

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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 and the PSA's Journalist of the Year. His daily briefing, Morning Call, provides a quick and essential guide to domestic and global politics.

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

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Alfie’s Other Army: the parents and doctors defending Alder Hey Children’s Hospital

To hundreds of thousands, Alfie Evans is the baby condemned to die by cruel doctors – but others condemn the myths and methods used by protesters fighting for his life.

“Over the time we were there, they saved her life three times over,” says John*. “From our point-of-view, we will always be grateful. If it wasn’t for Alder Hey, she wouldn’t be standing here today.”

Six months ago, the 42-year-old father of four nearly lost his five-year-old daughter to a brain tumour. Suffering severe headaches in October last year, she was rushed in an ambulance to Alder Hey Children’s Hospital in Liverpool, near where the family lives in Warrington, and a brain tumour was found at the back of her skull.

What followed was every parent’s nightmare. With their three other children waiting for news at home, they waited – living in the hospital – as their daughter underwent emergency surgery to drain fluid from her brain, a 12-hour operation to attempt to remove the tumour, and nearly suffered from sepsis after she developed an infection.

The surgery was successful, and John’s daughter still has regular appointments with the oncology specialist now.

But the scene outside the hospital has transformed since they arrived in that ambulance last autumn.

A mass of protesters have gathered in solidarity with the parents of Alfie Evans, a 23-month-old boy with a rare neurological condition whose life support has been withdrawn.

Over the past few weeks, there’s been a public surge of sympathy for his parents, Tom Evans and Kate James, which has grown into what’s known as “Alfie’s Army” – a wave of online support as well as a near-permanent rally outside the hospital, where he’s been since December 2016 and remains in a “semi-vegetative” state.

“I feel terrible for Alfie’s parents. I have no idea how they feel; I’ve only been part way down the path that they’re on,” says John. “I can only imagine that they’re at their wit’s end. I applaud them for fighting for their son as much as they are doing.

“What I’ve got an issue with is pockets of the protesters who have caused massive issues and could be stopping other children being cared for, abusing medical staff, and just generally disrupting the hospital on a daily basis,” he adds. “And it’s the kind of place that can’t afford to be disrupted.”

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The protesters support Alfie’s parents, who have lost a string of legal battles to keep their son’s ventilation on; he’s been in a coma for well over a year and has been deemed incurable.

They have attracted a range of people, from other parents to people who don’t live locally – including a mother from Manchester whose son went deaf after developing sepsis during birth – to Christian pro-life campaigners (Alfie’s parents are represented by the Christian Legal Centre, which is part of a religious campaign group called Christian Concern) to a 400,000-member strong Facebook group.

Although Merseyside Police emphasise that “many people have gathered to protest in a peaceful way”, a minority of the protesters have converted their sympathy for Alfie’s parents into hostility towards the hospital, with dozens trying to storm it on Monday, and “instances of verbal abuse and acts of intimidation from those outside the hospital”, according to police.

Protesters have also disrupted traffic, hooted car horns, played music and inflated a bouncy castle. Merseyside Police Assistant Chief Constable Serena Kennedy commented last week that some of their actions caused inconvenience to “people trying to access the hospital”.

A few days later, Chief Inspector Chris Gibson had to “remind the public that this is a hospital for sick children” and asked protesters to “respect families and staff”.

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Online, parents of patients currently in the hospital report feeling upset by the protesters. One says the hospital staff are “still smiling despite the obvious strain of insults being thrown their way”, and claims a couple of them have had “people banging on their car windows on the way into work”. Another whose own child is on life support feels “trapped”, so reluctant is she to face the protesters outside.

This has given rise to a new online movement expressing support for the hospital. The #ImWithAlderHey hashtag is used on Twitter by locals defending the work of their hospital, NHS staff from other hospitals, and people dismissing the protesters as deluded.

There are also Facebook groups in support of the hospital, but they reach nowhere near the numbers of Alfie’s Army. Even its official page is smaller, with just over 60,000 followers.

Supporters of the hospital say this is because both traditional and social media have fuelled a viral movement against Alder Hey. The UK tabloids have been sensationalising the story – “Conspiracy to murder” was the Metro’s splash today – and social media is spreading myths about Alfie’s condition and the doctors’ and judges’ motives.

Some claim the hospital is trying to save money by reducing Alfie’s treatment to palliative care; a few accuse the doctors of a “conspiracy” to end Alfie’s life; others suggest he’s in better health than doctors suggest, because he continued breathing after his ventilation was switched off (doctors say they expected this).

“Everyone jumps on Google and suddenly thinks they are qualified doctors,” says Clare, a 21-year-old mother whose friend’s two-year-old child is being treated at Alder Hey. “Social media especially [has influenced people].

“They [the staff] have done nothing but wonderful things for my friend’s child even during the madness of the protests. It’s so lovely to see their child smile because of the staff,” she says. “I’m disgusted that grown adults think it’s acceptable to stand outside of a children’s hospital… threatening staff and other visitors.”

“I think the people have joined because it’s within the media, it’s talked about, people know about the case,” says Poppy*, a nurse at a different hospital, who knows people at Alder Hey and has a 19-month-old baby.

“I most definitely think they have been influenced by the media, social media. The page ‘Alfie’s Army’ is a huge source of information… [but] they also use the page to slander Alder Hey and their staff,” she says. “There’s no moral respect for anyone. And it’s not just NHS staff they target. It’s everyone who doesn’t agree with ‘saving’ Alfie.”

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There is a cultish feel to a handful of online posts about Alder Hey. While trawling, I even find a picture of the famous Auschwitz gate mocked up to read the hospital’s name.

This kind of tone shows the unintended consequences of a campaign going viral, and puts Alfie’s parents into an even more distressing situation. Last week, his father even had to apologise “to the parents and staff” affected by the protesters. While they are understandably fighting as hard as they can for their child, not everyone joining them in battle is helping.

The upshot is that this case has morphed from a debate about life support ethics into an issue of protecting hospital staff and patient visitors.

Parliament is now being petitioned to “Protect hospitals with exclusion zones preventing protest outside”, and although its low number of signatures is nothing on the petition for the Queen to intervene in Alfie Evans’ case, it does echo the context of a landmark ruling to ban pro-life protesters from outside an abortion clinic earlier this month.

While the swell of sympathy for Alfie’s parents is understood by all I speak to, the myths and methods swirling around it could be doing more harm than good.

“I think people have joined the family’s cause because they care,” a visitor to the hospital tells me. “It’s human nature to protect our young and nobody wants to see a child die... [But] it’s awful to see such hard-working professionals being criticised in such a way when they’ve gone above and beyond for every patient in their care.”

*All names have been changed on request of anonymity.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.

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