Last November, accompanied by television cameras and the BBC’s political editor, Ed Miliband visited Harlow in west Essex. It was a highly choreographed visit. A few days earlier this magazine had criticised his performance, precipitating a leadership crisis – there were reports of coups and secret letters circulating – and this was to be part of what was being described as his fightback. Miliband’s cerebral socialism and appalling personal ratings, as well as his wretched conference speech – the philosopher John Gray called it a “dire threnody to togetherness” – had dismayed many of his own MPs, who were briefing incessantly against him. It was as if, by turning up in Harlow, he wanted to demonstrate that, contrary to what had been written, he did indeed understand the concerns and aspirations of Essex Man and Woman and was determined to reach out beyond Labour’s core vote.
The Conservatives won Harlow in 1983 and held it until 1997, when Tony Blair swept all before him. Robert Halfon won the seat back for the Tories in 2010 with a majority of a little under 5,000, having lost it by just 97 votes in 2005. (He also contested the seat in 2001.) If Labour is ever to win an absolute majority again it has to start by winning back working-class voters in Home Counties constituencies such as Harlow, where unemployment remains high and wages are stagnant. At present, Labour does not have a single MP in Essex, Kent, Sussex or Hertfordshire, and, excluding London, only ten out of 197 seats south of the Severn-Wash line.
Harlow new town was a creation of the New Towns Act 1946. In the early years of the town, the local council and the Harlow Development Corporation together owned most of the housing stock and rents were cheap. My parents were among those who moved out here in the 1960s, first renting and then buying a house in a quiet cul-de-sac on a private development. As children, they had been wartime evacuees and Harlow offered a fresh start for them and new opportunities in a semi-rural environment – even today, as much as a third of the town is parkland or fields and cattle graze within walking distance of the main railway station.
I grew up and went to school in the town during a period of considerable optimism and cultural homogeneity, when it felt as if there was a strong sense of common purpose. The new town had its own manufacturing base providing employment, a vibrant town centre, excellent infrastructure, first-rate recreational and sporting facilities (Glenn Hoddle emerged from the Harlow leagues), a network of cycle tracks, abundant housing and an elegant, 164-acre landscaped town park. The local population was tough and resilient – many of them from cockney families – but Harlow also had a dedicated and idealistic intelligentsia who used to meet for film, poetry and drama evenings at the Playhouse Theatre. My father was one of them. Life in the town could be insular and nearly everyone I knew was white. The schools could have been better and much more academically rigorous, but at the time it felt like a good, safe place to live – and the excitements of London and its football clubs were a short train ride away.
“The town attracted progressives, community-minded people,” Ron Bill, a local historian and Labour Party activist, once told me. “Frederick Gibberd [the consultant architect planner for the Harlow development] was an example of such a person. That first wave of people who came to the town in the 1950s and 1960s – many of them socialists and communists – they wanted to build something. The trouble is, there wasn’t a second wave equal to the first.” (I discovered many years later that the headmaster of my school, whom I remember as a short, bald, aggressively strutting man, was or had been a member of the Communist Party. Perhaps this explained his general air of disenchantment and charmlessness.)
Yet by the time my parents moved away in the early 1980s much of the optimism of the early pioneering years of the new town had faded and many people of ambition were keen to get out. Many of the housing estates were in need of urgent repair, businesses and companies were relocating, the infrastructure was not being updated, and schools were closing their sixth forms or closing down altogether. On my first day as a student studying A-levels at the local sixth-form college, I was dismayed to discover that our English literature teacher allowed pupils to smoke during lessons. It was hardly a classroom environment conducive to disciplined study, as well as seeming to me symptomatic of what was going wrong in the town, and I quickly lost interest. Within a year, I had dropped out.
I understand now that to have lived in Harlow when I did was to have been a participant in some grand quasi-socialist, postwar experiment and, in our town at least, for all its admirable intentions, it hadn’t quite succeeded. Today, Harlow has long been associated with decline and underachievement. There are areas of entrenched deprivation and unemployment has been persistently high (the number of people claiming Jobseeker’s Allowance doubled between 2005 and 2012).
The town centre, when I visited one recent afternoon, felt especially desolate. The market – which used to be a place of boisterous interaction and clamorous activity on a Saturday – was no more. There were too many pound stores and empty units. The old bustle and energy had gone. In February, Marks & Spencer had closed its town-centre store. “That was a real blow for us,” Robert Halfon told me when we met. For many in the town, including one of my aunts, the only member of our family still living in Harlow, the loss of Marks signified something fundamentally wrong, a deeper malaise.
Robert Halfon was born with spastic diplegia and walks with the aid of crutches. He is from a wealthy north London family – his father was a Libyan Jew – and was educated at Highgate School and Exeter University, where his friends included Sajid Javid and David Burrowes, now both Tory MPs, as well as Tim Montgomerie, the co-founder of the ConservativeHome website.
Halfon is a self-described Thatcherite (though his politics have softened and deepened since his student days). He has a picture of Ayn Rand on the wall of his Westminster office and once, during a coffee meeting there, we had a conversation about her novel Atlas Shrugged, which he reveres. But Halfon is no free-market fundamentalist. He is a campaigning MP and understands well the needs of the town he represents. What makes him a Conservative, he says, is the conviction that you “can’t spend more than you’re taking in”. This and his dislike for what he considers Labour’s authoritarian and statist instincts, its bossiness and bullying tendencies.
But he believes that the Tories must change. He advocates what he calls “white van conservatism” – he rejects the phrase “blue collar” – and argues that the Conservatives should change their name to the Workers’ Party. They should be the party “of the ladder” – in other words, of aspiration and social mobility. He supports trade unions, investment in apprenticeships, lower taxes for lower earners and increases in the National Minimum Wage. He has campaigned for a cut in fuel duty and against a bingo tax, hospital car-parking charges and illegal encampments in the town. On the question of immigration, he has a simple slogan: “Fair immigration, fair for the taxpayer.”
“Rob is a tribune for the people of Harlow,” says David Skelton, director of Renewal, which campaigns to broaden the appeal of the Conservative Party. “He is immersed in Harlow. His success comes from his authentic voice; he speaks for the people, knows what they believe, what they want.”
Until George Osborne appointed him as his parliamentary private secretary in 2014 – an example of the Chancellor’s pragmatism and desire to surround himself with heterodox opinions – Halfon was admired on both sides of the House for free thinking and candour, and wrote occasionally for our Staggers blog. He is no government stooge or careerist. Because of his campaigning gifts and belief that conservatism needs to be driven by a sense of moral mission, many believe he should be the next party chairman, replacing the ludicrous and intellectually lightweight Grant Shapps, who would be laughed out of a town such as Harlow.
Throughout the campaign, between 7am and 9.30am, and then again during the evening rush hour, Halfon can be found sitting or standing by the A414, or one of the other main roads running through Harlow. Because of his disability, his movements are restricted and he cannot canvass house by house, street by street. Instead, he stands by the road, eyeballing the drivers as they pass, a very public presence. “People know how much I love Harlow,” he tells me. He has made his home in the town and is a constant presence at events and in the local media.
On the morning of my visit, we set off from his office in (what else?) a white van, which has a large portrait of Halfon imprinted on the side and from which loud speakers pump out music from the Rocky films: Survivor’s “Eye of the Tiger” and “Gonna Fly Now”. Simon Carter, Halfon’s agent and a local councillor, drives the van. Not everyone is pleased to see us. As we approach a mini roundabout, a man dangles his arm from the driver’s window of his car and gestures obscenely. “We get a bit of that,” Halfon says, cheerfully enough.
Our destination is a Lidl at Staple Tye, a shopping centre in one of the most deprived wards in the town. “I could have taken you to one of the leafy Tory areas,” he says, “but this is where I spend a lot of time.” The area is tatty and run-down. Together with a group of volunteer supporters, Halfon stands outside the main entrance to the supermarket and greets people as they come out, handing them leaflets and flyers. Most of the shoppers are middle-aged or older and they seem pleased to see him. “What, you again!” one woman says. One man thanks Halfon for “helping him out”. Another tells the MP that she will “vote for the man, not the party”. Another man points at his crutches and says: “I’m very sorry for you about that.”
An overweight man in a blue T-shirt, black tracksuit bottoms and white trainers says: “God help us if f***ing Labour get in.” Halfon smiles. A nurse at the local Princess Alexandra Hospital stops to talk about the NHS. She is worried about cuts, as are many of the shoppers. “There will be no cuts,” Halfon says, moving closer to her as if he does not wish to be overheard. “We’ve pledged an extra £8bn.” They have a long conversation (Halfon has several long conversations with different people, and never displays boredom or irritation), at the end of which he says to me: “I think I turned her round.”
Ominously for Labour, I hear few expressions of support for Miliband. A recent Ashcroft poll of Harlow showed that Halfon was 9 points ahead of his Labour rival, Suzy Stride, and poised to retain the seat.
Over lunch at a nearby McDonald’s, Halfon tells me he was encouraged that, at the launch of the Conservative manifesto, David Cameron had claimed to represent the “party of working people”. This language was reminiscent of Halfon’s, even if some would have found it risible when spoken by Cameron. “That helped us,” he says. He uses a curious metaphor to characterise where the Conservatives have reached: “We have got the car on the drive but we are not yet in the house. The Tories are the workers’ party – the party of 30 hours of childcare, lower taxes, good schools, hard work, of £8bn extra investment in the NHS – and we’ve got to let people know it.”
The campaign being fought against him by his Labour opponent, he says, is excessively negative. “She keeps going on about my voting record.” Evidently, this bothers Halfon because he mentions it on several occasions, including just before we part.
Suzy Stride – her alliterative name has the ring of a character from a Martin Amis novel – instructs me via text to meet her on a bench in “Water Gardens in front of Nando’s” in the town centre. When I arrive, she is not there; but one of her campaigners is, a bearded former Liberal Democrat (now disaffected), who says that Stride has gone to buy lunch at the nearby Asda. She returns holding a drink and a packet of crisps.
Born and brought up in modest circumstances in the East End – she has the accent and vernacular conversational style to prove it – Stride studied at Girton College, Cambridge, and then worked in education and for a charity providing youth crime prevention projects. She is warm, energetic and animated but a little guileless. She overuses the rhetorical phrase “do you know what I mean?” – and is convinced of Halfon’s duplicity. No sooner have we met than she shows me a leaflet detailing her opponent’s voting record in the Commons. “He voted for bankers’ bonuses and for cuts in local government funding,” she says. “He’s Halfon the hypocrite. He says one thing to the people of Harlow and then votes for bankers’ bonuses and the bedroom tax.”
I suggest that he would have been constrained by collective responsibility. Stride is not convinced.
“Sorry, what does that mean? He talks the language of aspiration, of helping the people of Harlow, but this isn’t consistent with his voting record. On 18 occasions, he voted to protect bankers’ bonuses.”
Is her campaign against Halfon too negative, as he would have it? “I believe in exposing truth,” she says. “Do you know what I mean? He voted against the town. He voted for cuts in local government. He’s a lot of talk. I’m working to fix problems that he voted for and created. People are worse off than they were five years ago. I hear this on the doorstep.”
I ask Stride what has gone wrong in Harlow. Why does so much of the town feel run-down, especially the town centre? “You’ve got to change the mindset. People aim too low. They’re aiming here” – she holds out her hand – “but they’ve got to aim here.” She extends her arm high as if trying to shoot a basket. “You can’t just talk about aspiration and wish for it. You’ve got to make it happen for people.”
I liked Stride. Her passion and commitment are impressive, as is her journey from Bow, in Tower Hamlets, to Cambridge, where she says she never felt entirely comfortable and used to volunteer to work with people on a council estate so that she could “experience normality”. She says she admires Ed Miliband – “he’s a great leader” – but concedes that Labour needs more diversity on its front bench, more politicians like Alan Johnson who know something of life outside the seminar room, the special adviser’s office and policy forums. “I feel you need people who are good with policy but also people who have lived and breathed normality, who have lived and breathed struggle. All three parties have got to change. You’ve got to shake up Westminster. I go there and I feel out of place.”
Labour ought to win Harlow, where most voters earn less than the national median wage and where 30 per cent live in social housing, but for some reason Ed Miliband’s deliberative style does not resonate in the town or more generally with the skilled working class in Essex. Suzy Stride is also unfortunate in having as an opponent Robert Halfon, one of the most dedicated MPs in the Commons.
I asked my aunt, a long-time Labour supporter who has lived in the same house for more than 50 years, what she thought of her MP. “Oh, I do like that little man,” she said. “You see him out and about and he works hard.” I asked if she would vote for him. “I couldn’t… I’d be worried what Edgar [her late father, my maternal grandfather, a union man] would say.” She paused. “But I do like that man, I really do like him.”