Challenge for Lib Dems as memories of Iraq fade

Guy Keleny returns to the north London seat where he grew up to find political turmoil in the stolid Victorian suburbs

A bright spring afternoon on Hornsey High Street. Sunshine and traffic fumes; pedestrians hurrying in and out of shops; solid, florid Victorian buildings. None more solid than the Three Compasses, one of those towering Victorian pubs you find all across inner suburban London. On the upper floor of the Three Compasses is the Liberal Democrat campaign headquarters, where Lynne Featherstone, MP for Hornsey and Wood Green, is defending the 2,395-vote majority she won over Labour in 2005.

Lynne and I are on the pavement outside. Lynne Featherstone talks nineteen to the dozen. Her hands weave arabesques in the air; smiles flit across her face; facts, figures and jokes crowd the ears of the listener. She is telling me about the follies of the local borough council, dominated by Labour for four decades; about funding for local schools; about the Government's assaults on civil liberties; about how Labour's policy failures threaten to close a local A&E department – "They're absolutely stark staring nuts."

A young woman approaches the MP. I expect some vigorous pavement politics. But, no, her intention is kindly. Lynne really ought not to leave her handbag unwatched behind her on the pavement. Not around here. Why, the woman's own son was assaulted on that very corner not long ago.

Featherstone, the accomplished campaigner, doesn't miss a beat. There will be no cliché headlines about urban street crime, not if she can help it. "It's very vibrant around here," she assures me, adding that things are not that bad at all.

The Hornsey and Wood Green constituency is the western half of Haringey. That borough has achieved an unenviable national fame for the failures of its social services to prevent the deaths of the children Victoria Climbié and Baby Peter. But those horrible events took place in Tottenham, at the eastern end of the borough. With Haringey, as with central London, the west end is the posh end.

It certainly is vibrant. For my return visit I drove into the constituency from the east. Around Turnpike Lane the shop-fronts say things like Paradise Halal Butchers and Afro-Caribbean Unisex Salon. Driving west towards Crouch End, you cross one of those sudden London frontiers between poverty and riches. In the space of a few yards it was all Prospero's bookshop and Walter Purkis and Son, High Class Fishmonger and Poulterer – looking for all the world as if it had been there for ever, though I don't remember it being there when I was a teenager.

In those days the area was solid, prosperous, a trifle dull – all right, very dull. Highgate, Stroud Green, Muswell Hill, Crouch End – the very names of the districts speak of the bourgeois respectability that had settled on the area when it was built up in Victorian times.

Today's cosmopolitan Crouch End with its restaurants and pavement cafés was 40 years in the future. This was a place you got away from to have fun. The Northern Line tube, the link to the West End, spoke to the adolescent heart with the same glamorous longings as inspired Dick Whittington when he heard the bells of London paused halfway up Highgate Hill, and turned back to find his destiny.

You could call it Middle London. The very western edge of the constituency takes in half of the very pretty Highgate village. The flat in Stanhope Road that I shared with my mother during the university vacations is in Crouch End ward. The house we lived in while I was at school is just the wrong side of Hornsey Lane, in the neighbouring People's Republic of Islington North, where they don't count the Labour votes, they weigh them. Hornsey and Wood Green provides a more interesting spectacle: the middle classes in genteel political ferment.

That has been the story of the constituency since it was created in 1983. Its first MP was Sir Hugh Rossi, a lawyer and a "One Nation" Tory. He retired in 1992. In that year's general election Hornsey and Wood Green was taken by Barbara Roche for Labour. Her support for the Iraq war did her no good in 2005, when she lost to Lynne Featherstone. Featherstone has voted strongly against ID cards and in favour of an Iraq inquiry.

Labour says Featherstone is now vulnerable. Featherstone denies it, pointing out that when she won the Commons seat it was at the third try, and her vote had increased each time. Now she squares up to Karen Jennings, the new Labour candidate. What strikes you is how similar the two women are: both baby-boomers; each the mother of two children.

Featherstone is rich but has never been idle. She had a career as a designer before going into politics. She proudly proclaims herself a "local girl". Jennings was not born here, but has lived locally for years. She is a former nurse and a union official. She comes across as quieter and more thoughtful, less concerned with local causes and more with national issues, genuinely horrified at the idea of a Tory government, keen to defend public services and to restore the good name of Parliament after the expenses scandal (which left Featherstone unsullied).

Jennings expects a close result: "Lynne Featherstone is locally a popular politician, so I think I've got to work hard". Featherstone sees no distinction between local and national issues: after the "disaster" of the expenses scandal "stickling up for local people is the only way politicians are going to regain people's trust".

I think Jennings would make a very good MP, but I don't see in her the touch of steel that makes Featherstone the formidable campaigner she is. But whichever of these two women wins on 6 May the people of Hornsey and Wood Green will have done themselves proud.

The person who is not going to win on 6 May, barring the biggest political upset since the fall of the Bastille, is Richard Merrin, the youngish Tory candidate. Last time, the Tories managed 12.8 per cent. But he gamely emphasises how warmly Sir Hugh Rossi is remembered locally, and enthuses about how all the recent immigrants are bursting with enterprise and hard work and make natural Tory voters. As the boss of a PR company specialising in technology, he muses about how this could turn out to be "the first election fought in cyberspace". He may not get into Parliament this time, but I think he represents the future of the Tory party.

Two things all the parties seem to agree on. One is that the ethnic communities live together harmoniously. One party worker remarked that this is probably the only place in the world where even Greek and Turkish Cypriots get on well together.

The other is that the electorate of Hornsey and Wood Green is very bright and highly political. "It's like a university constituency without the university," said one Labour party worker. And in this suburban reincarnation of the Petrograd Soviet, people actually go to meetings. Karen Jennings says: "People are engaging. I've not been turned away from a door yet. People are being very thoughtful about the future."

Some confirmation of all that came when I called at the house in Stanhope Road where I lived 40 or so years ago. The doorbell was answered by Sandip Patel, a captain in the Queen's Dragoon Guards. He has only lived there a year, but loves the area. He finds it fascinating too, because he read geography at university and did a study on gentrification.

So, what has the election meant to him? "A vastly huge number of leaflets through the door." He hasn't yet decided who he will vote for, but he definitely intends to vote. I seem to have stumbled upon the absolutely typical intelligent and politically aware voter of Hornsey and Wood Green.

Wistfully, I drove back through the Blackwall Tunnel to the leafy and deeply unvibrant Kentish outer suburbs. There, on 6 May, I shall confront a ballot paper with few "local girls", but prominently featuring Boris Johnson's little brother, parachuted in as Tory candidate for Orpington. Take me back to dear old Hornsey.

Hornsey and Wood Green: 2005 result

*Liberal Democrats......... Lynne Featherstone......... 20,512, 43.3%

*Labour Barbara Roche 18,117, 38.3%

*Conservative Peter Forrest 6,014, 12.7%

*Green Jayne Forbes 2,377 5.0%

*UKIP Roy Freshwater 310 0.7%

Lib Dem majority: 2,395

Turnout: 47,330 (61.8%)

PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
News
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Arts and Entertainment
glastonbury
News
i100
Arts and Entertainment
Shock of the news: Jake Gyllenhaal in ‘Nightcrawler’
filmReview: Gyllenhaal, in one of his finest performances, is funny, engaging and sinister all at once
Life and Style
Taste the difference: Nell Frizzell tucks into a fry-up in Jesse's cafe in east London
food + drinkHow a bike accident left one woman living in a distorted world in which spices smell of old socks and muesli tastes like pork fat
Arts and Entertainment
Kit Harington has been given a huge pay rise to extend his contract as Jon Snow in Game of Thrones
tv
Arts and Entertainment
Don’t send in the clowns: masks and make-up conceal true facial expressions, thwarting our instinct to read people’s minds through their faces, as seen in ‘It’
filmThis Halloween, we ask what makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?
News
peopleFarage challenges 'liberally biased' comedians to 'call him a narcissist'
Arts and Entertainment
Liam and Zayn of One Direction play with a chimpanzee on the set of their new video for 'Steal My Girl'
music
Arts and Entertainment
Young Fathers are the surprise winners of this year's Mercury Music Prize
music
News
i100
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating
and  

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Senior IP Opportunity at Major Firm

vary Attractive Salary: Austen Lloyd: MANCHESTER - AN OPENING AT A VERY HIGH Q...

Nursery Manager

£100 - £110 per day: Randstad Education Ilford: Nursery Manager Long term Ran...

Sales Consultant – Permanent – West Sussex – £24-£25k plus commission and other benefits

£24000 - £25000 Per Annum plus company car and commission: Clearwater People S...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£45 - £65 per day: Randstad Education Bristol: Supply SEN Support Jobs in Bris...

Day In a Page

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

The drugs revolution starts now as MPs agree its high time for change

Commons debate highlights growing cross-party consensus on softening UK drugs legislation, unchanged for 43 years
The camera is turned on tabloid editors in Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter'

Gotcha! The camera is turned on tabloid editors

Hugh Grant says Richard Peppiatt's 'One Rogue Reporter' documentary will highlight issues raised by Leveson
Fall of the Berlin Wall: It was thanks to Mikhail Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell

Fall of the Berlin Wall

It was thanks to Gorbachev that this symbol of division fell
Halloween 2014: What makes Ouija boards, demon dolls, and evil clowns so frightening?

What makes ouija boards and demon dolls scary?

Ouija boards, demon dolls, evil children and clowns are all classic tropes of horror, and this year’s Halloween releases feature them all. What makes them so frightening, decade after decade?
A safari in modern Britain: Rose Rouse reveals how her four-year tour of Harlesden taught her as much about the UK as it did about NW10

Rose Rouse's safari in modern Britain

Rouse decided to walk and talk with as many different people as possible in her neighbourhood of Harlesden and her experiences have been published in a new book
Welcome to my world of no smell and odd tastes: How a bike accident left one woman living with unwanted food mash-ups

'My world of no smell and odd tastes'

A head injury from a bicycle accident had the surprising effect of robbing Nell Frizzell of two of her senses

Matt Parker is proud of his square roots

The "stand-up mathematician" is using comedy nights to preach maths to big audiences
Frank Warren: Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing

Frank Warren column

Call me an old git, but I just can't see that there's a place for women’s boxing
Adrian Heath interview: Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room

Adrian Heath's American dream...

Former Everton striker prepares his Orlando City side for the MLS - and having Kaka in the dressing room
Simon Hart: Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manchester City will rise again but they need to change their attitude

Manuel Pellegrini’s side are too good to fail and derby allows them to start again, says Simon Hart
Isis in Syria: A general reveals the lack of communication with the US - and his country's awkward relationship with their allies-by-default

A Syrian general speaks

A senior officer of Bashar al-Assad’s regime talks to Robert Fisk about his army’s brutal struggle with Isis, in a dirty war whose challenges include widespread atrocities
‘A bit of a shock...’ Cambridge economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

‘A bit of a shock...’ Economist with Glasgow roots becomes Zambia’s acting President

Guy Scott's predecessor, Michael Sata, died in a London hospital this week after a lengthy illness
Fall of the Berlin Wall: History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War

Fall of the Berlin Wall

History catches up with Erich Honecker - the East German leader who praised the Iron Curtain and claimed it prevented a Third World War
How to turn your mobile phone into easy money

Turn your mobile phone into easy money

There are 90 million unused mobiles in the UK, which would be worth £7bn if we cashed them in, says David Crookes
Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs:

Independent writers remember their Saturday jobs

"I have never regarded anything I have done in "the media" as a proper job"