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Sunday 25 April 2010
Janet Street-Porter: 13 years on: Who's the heir to Blair's lair?
Islington South used to be a safe Labour seat. Our writer, a local resident, went to watch the three leading candidates in action and found that even here, the world has moved on
There are only 14 days of campaigning to go when I meet up with the candidates in the gardens outside St James in Clerkenwell. This imposing church hosts AA meetings and toddlers groups, but tonight an old-fashioned hustings meeting is what's on offer. It's hard to tell how many locals are actually there, because the cluster of would-be female MPs are joined by candidates for the local council elections. Apart from the three main parties, there's James Humphreys, who is standing for the Greens, and works in Downing Street. I'd guess there are about 20 potential voters at best, but the vicar uses it as an opportunity to plug his upcoming evening event, bizarrely named iGod (you couldn't make it up), which he promises is a "multi-media exploration of the message of Jesus Christ". The questions that follow are mostly about local issues, and I slip away before the vicar corrals me into a discussion on belief.
Next morning, I turn up at Hanover Primary School, by the Regent's Canal and City Basin, which is now edged with new luxury apartments. The surrounding streets are a mixture of Georgian terraces and council estates. Emily Thornberry makes a short speech, but there are few potential voters here, and after a coffee in the staffroom she's off on the campaign trail. Emily's three children attended local primary schools, but the two eldest are now at a selective state school in Potters Bar.
I encounter Bridget Fox in Whitecross Street, near the Barbican, which has a council estate around it and expensive flats and offices in converted warehouses. Ten years ago, the market was very run down, but the area has been refurbished using community funding, and the number of stalls started to increase. Some shops are unlet, but there's a sprinkling of cafés, a variety of clothing, record and food stores. Businessmen from offices around Old Street mingle with local mums and the unemployed.
Big John lives around the corner, has a cake stall and is a committed Lib Dem voter – he's even got a poster above the cup cakes. Bridget has his vote because of improvements to the area pushed through by the Lib Dem council. Ahmed owns two cafés and he too has Lib Dem posters in his windows; he is impressed by Bridget, who is a regular customer. She tells me she's pushing the local message: that the Lib Dems are committed to working with small businesses and local communities. She says the Lib Dems' claim that they will halve our Budget deficit in four years is more realistic than what she sees as "more big government" from Labour or "radical cuts" from the Tories.
Most voters I talk to don't see a lot of difference between any of the parties, but I'm amazed by the dogged persistence that typifies all three women. Day in and day out, they tirelessly hand out their leaflets, repeat their mantra a hundred times each day.
I catch up with Emily on a housing estate at the back of King's Cross with her loyal team of pamphleteers. They have a printout of the electoral roll and are targeting people who haven't decided yet. There seem to be quite a few of them. Mind you, at this time in the afternoon, the only people around are pensioners, mums, carers, the unemployed and truants. Although the streets are lined with cherry trees in blossom, Emily is unimpressed by any "greening" of the neighbourhood: "I have the smallest amount of green space of any MP in Britain and the Lib Dems on the council sold part of Barnard Park for luxury flats." For the past 10 years the Lib Dems have controlled the council, and when she became an MP, Labour didn't have a single councillor in Islington South. Labour's share of the vote in local elections has gradually been growing, and now Emily is convinced she can reverse the downward spiral in the general election.
How is she dealing with the anti-Brown sentiment on the doorstep? "A lot of people think he's a good man doing a hard job... a lot say, after you've been talking to them for a bit and you've got their confidence, they say, 'Actually, I quite like Brown'... but they don't want to admit it. In a time of crisis, the Government has got to look after people and it's not costing us too much money. Social housing all over the country has been renovated since Labour came to power."
What about voter apathy? "I'm not encountering that... and the Lib Dems are trying to play the Iraq War card, but everyone knows I was against the war, went on the anti-war demonstration... it's just dishonest."
Policing in the area is a big issue and there have been three murders in King's Cross the past few months. "We need more police officers on the beat and we have dedicated teams for each neighbourhood. They have to talk to local people and connect with them. We need CCTV around here, but the Lib Dems won't have it. The only camera is outside the council offices! If people here want a Labour government, they've got to vote for me, because the Lib Dems haven't said they won't team up with the Tories."
My final calling point is Sainsbury's off the Liverpool Road, in Angel, where shoppers are pushing past the ramshackle stall erected by Antonia Cox and her two helpers. Antonia sets about accosting shoppers and dishing out leaflets with Cameron on one side and the words "We can't go on like this" and her election pledges on the other, two of which relate to the planned closure of Whittington Hospital, and highlighting the fact that there's a been a rise of 30 per cent in the number of Islington council employees paid over £100,000.
I'd not given Antonia much of a chance here in the heart of working-class Islington, but astonishingly, she seems to be going down rather well. One lady tells me she has 10 grandchildren, all unemployed, and she's definitely switching to the Tories.
Antonia has given up her job to campaign full-time. "I've been trying to persuade people to vote, not to give up on the democratic process... I started pounding the streets of Islington in 2008 and managed to get selected in 2009. I do think the Tories are trying to push more women forward." She reels off a list of female candidates, and predicts they'll manage to get 50 elected. But surely she doesn't stand a chance? Has she got any dirty tricks up her sleeve? "No, people are disillusioned with politics, and although I might spring a few surprises, I've got to play it by the book."
I stroll across the car park in the sunshine, leaving Antonia to her formidable task. Has she placed a bet on her victory? No, but she tells me, "quite a few Lib Dems in the area have been placing money on me". While Emily's husband has put £50 on her to win, Bridget's partner has staked £100 on her becoming Islington South's first Lib Dem MP. It's a bit like the Grand National – where nothing is certain.
But I do know that three hardworking women are flogging their guts out for a political system that's run by men and places a man in a suit at the front every time the election is discussed in the media. And that's what ultimately will turn off all voters. It's a shame that, on 6 May, there will only be one winner in Islington South.
At the 2005 election, the Liberal Democrats polled 11,861 votes (38.3 per cent of the vote, up from 21.3 per cent in 1997) and the seat is one of their key targets. Bridget read History and French at Oxford University and then went on to North London Polytechnic to train as a librarian. She works for a specialist software company and has lived in Islington (where she has been a local councillor and former deputy leader of the council and a school governor) for nearly 20 years. She currently lives in a council flat off the Essex Road. She is a trustee of a local charity.
Battle dress Lime-green suit, easy to spot. Elegant white linen jacket. All very pulled together, nothing too threatening. Smart bob.
Emily Thornberry (majority 484)
Since 2005, Emily has been trying to increase the Labour vote in the constituency. Having grown up in social housing, she is now a human rights lawyer, and is married to a QC. She managed to come out of the expenses saga unscathed, ranking 508th out of 646 in the league table of MPs' expenses. Her workload has been substantial, as she deals with the large amount of social deprivation in the area. Lord Waheed Ali is godfather to one of her three children, two of whom are educated outside the borough at the selective Dame Alice Owen's school in Potters Bar.
Battle dress Garish red blazer, gruesomely obvious. Well cut, perky hair.
The Tories only managed just over 4,594 votes at the last election (14.8 per cent, up from 13 per cent in 1997), but this time around, they might inflict real damage on Labour. Antonia Cox, with three children, calls herself "a working mum" and is married to a businessman. She lives outside the borough in Paddington and worked in investment banking in the City and Wall Street, before moving into journalism, writing for The Daily Telegraph and the Evening Standard. She has challenged Emily not to take the big increase in the London Supplementary Allowance that MPs were awarded last year. If elected, Antonia says she will not claim it.
Battle dress Jeans and a shirt worn with a pretty necklace. Would probably be more at home in a suit and pearls.
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