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2 May 2005

I keep quiet about it in Muswell Hill

The polls tell us they are out there in their millions - so why is it so hard to find anyone who wil

By Brian Cathcart

Vicki Ambery-Smith will vote Labour this time, but she doesn’t talk about it much. The leafy, chattering, north London district of Muswell Hill, where we both live, was once solidly Labour. If you had walked among the handsome Edwardian terraces in the small hours of 2 May 1997, you would have heard the periodic roars go up among the marketing executives, barristers, academics and media types as they toasted those Tory defeats. In those days, we drank Chardonnay, before it became the name of a footballer’s wife.

Now the sitting Labour MP, Barbara Roche, is under serious threat from the Liberal Democrats, at least in this part of the Hornsey and Wood Green constituency, and Vicki, an artist, is conscious she’s swimming against a local tide. “When it comes up in conversation, I can see quite a few people around here are Lib Dem who were easily Labour last time, so perhaps I’m a little quieter about it,” she says.

She wavered herself. “I did, because of the Iraq war. I remember how Blair started out with all those open forums – I can’t remember what they were called – when he was supposed to be listening to people. But when people told him loud and clear not to go to war he took no notice.” In recent months, however, she has decided to stick with Labour. She has praise for Roche as a local MP who has worked hard on behalf of the primary school down the road, but that is not really the reason.

“Labour needs to keep going with the other things, on health and education. Each Lib Dem seat subtracts from Labour. I know Blair will disappoint us, but nobody else will do as much for health and schools.”

Perhaps it’s the questions I ask, but you can tell she finds the whole business depressing.

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“In 1997 there was no hesitation. We all felt it was about bloody time. It was exciting, and we knew things were going to change. This time, everybody knows we won’t get anything new, and I’m certain there won’t be anything as controversial as the war: he wouldn’t dare. But I would prefer Brown. He’s just not as tainted with the war.”

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The streets tell the story of Labour’s lost allure. Where once at election time the red-and-yellow stickers would be seen in many windows in the neighbourhood, this time I count just two. Not that any other party is taking up the slack. But as Vicki points out, the Lib Dems are certainly showing more energy, with four mailshots to date against Labour’s one.

Vicki will vote – she’s the type – but as her words show, there will be precious little joy or hope in it. No wonder she says: “I don’t bring it up.”

Somewhere out there, there must be people who feel real enthusiasm for Blair, but I don’t come across them in Muswell Hill or anywhere else. It’s as though the man were holding his party hostage, with a gun to its head, and telling Labour supporters they must go to the polling stations and put their Xs in the right place, or else . . .

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