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%)

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