Disbelief is dominating the reaction. Kensington is a byword for palatial wealth; the richest seat in England with house prices hitting £43m on one exclusive private road. The Kensington of Made in Chelsea and Notting Hill, the Kensington of milk-white Regency facades and glamorous cocktail bars, does not seem a place where a Corbyn “soak the rich” speech would be greeted warmly.
This does not tell the whole story. Nor does the explanation that Brexit dynamics alone are behind the shock, although doubtless they helped. Kensington is routinely misunderstood. The north of the seat holds serious deprivation, with two in five children in the Golborne Ward in poverty. The lifestyles of the Notting Hill set can be viewed from the tower blocks that jostle for space, cheek by jowl, with the mansions.
Even the mansions tell strange stories. Often tiny, badly-furnished box-rooms will be up for rent in fine buildings. I grew up on an a grand street in a Georgian house off Cromwell Road that had been split into dozens of small flats run by a rogue landlord who allowed damp, mould and vermin to run riot. The Town Hall turned a blind eye and eventually a charity bailed us out.
It’s not just hidden poverty that made Labour triumph possible. My school – the first London comprehensive – contained a melting pot of people from all classes and cultures (today just over 60 per cent of residents in the wider council area do not identify as White British). Many were from groups with a deep sense of community and solidarity. The conclusions drawn were often left-leaning ones even when we didn’t know it, and a spirit of defiance lurked.
That spirit has always existed. The West Indian community, corralled into slums that now sell for millions, came under repeated racist gang attacks during the 1950s. They were unbeaten, and the anti-racist movement helped give birth to the famous Notting Hill Carnival. Punk rock came to Kensington too; The Clash practiced in Trellick Tower and The Jam posed under the Westway.
Today, strange political alliances break out over disparate causes. From right- and left-wing locals uniting to save the Portobello Road Market, millionaire celebs opposing bus routes on their roads, or intra-Tory rows about oligarchs building super-basements for their cars, there is never a dull moment.
Yet when I lived there, there was also widespread disillusionment. Non-voting was common, even among people with strong opinions. Some would loyally trudge to the polling station for Labour, but not expect anything to come of it. The Liberal Democrats were sometimes seen as the only viable alternative.
Corbyn changed that. Hundreds joined the local Labour party. While we don’t know exactly what caused the election surge, it seems that a coalition of liberal middle class voters and disenfranchised working class voters, backed by a mass of young people, seems to have emerged in England’s wealthiest seat.
Corbyn’s pitch, based on redressing giant inequalities in order to fund a better society, will have struck a chord in a place where such inequalities are so obvious.
There is a further local story. A small crowd gathered outside the Town Hall last night in a rousing victory rally of the kind rarely seen for a local politician. Labour’s project is represented in Kensington by a pro-Corbyn MP, Emma Dent Coad. But she is more than her party – she is a trusted, veteran local councillor and activist.
She is known as someone who speaks truth to power and gets stuff done. When contrasted with the tone of local politics sometimes, such as the Conservative council’s chief whip yelling at parents in a special needs travel meeting to “shut up”, such integrity shines brighter. While still in school, I complained our academy conversion was being railroaded through, and she was one of few local politicians to champion the cause. As a housing campaigner she has combined community activism with a comprehensive grasp of the policy area that she uses to hold anyone who lets down her residents to account.
There is plenty to hold to account. Kensington and Chelsea is at the top of the firing line for £600m in expected cuts to London schools. Libraries, childcare and other key services have been slashed. The area’s desirability is fuelling ever-more luxury flats instead of affordable homes or local amenities. As the fanfare fades, Kensington’s new MP will have her work cut out. How she performs, along with new Labour MPs in Conservative areas like Canterbury and Leamington, will determine whether the party can advance on its gains.
The Kensington surge is not a miracle, but it is a triumph. It is a triumph that could only have been achieved by hard local organising standing alongside a bold programme that can inspire people to the polling stations. In that sense – as curious as the place can be – it is not that much different from the rest of Britain.
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