The New Marginal

In 2010 Iain Duncan Smith won his east London constituency by 13,000 votes — but now it’s trending red.

Jeremy Corbyn speaks at a meeting of Chingford and Woodford Green Labour Party in July 2017.

I was getting the vote out in Enfield on election day in 2017 when a young man told me that he had heard Chingford and Woodford Green (CWG) would be close. I laughed. As someone who grew up in the area it felt like it would always be a Conservative stronghold. But last year Iain Duncan Smith scraped home by just 2,438 votes. It is now entirely possible that the constituency — whose former MPs include Norman Tebbit and Winston Churchill — could go red whenever the next general election comes.

A closer look at the data reveals the dramatic shift. In 2010 Iain Duncan Smith won by 13,000 votes, in 2015 he won by 8,386. In 2017, the margin was even closer. Chingford and Woodford Green saw a massive 7 percent swing from Conservative to Labour — three times the national average. We saw one of the highest increases in the number of Labour voters of any seat in London, a rise of 63.6 percent. What explains the shift — and will Labour soon win the constituency?

Of course, there is the broader picture. Labour did well in the last general election on the back of a popular manifesto including commitments to the NHS, social housing, and transport. The previous prospective parliamentary candidate in the area, Bilal Mahmood, worked hard to increase the vote. But neither of these alone can explain the size of the swing.

Between the 1970s and the 2000s, the most notable change in the geography of deprivation was the pushing out of low and middle-income households from the city centre to the suburbs of London. This pattern has only intensified, owing particularly to benefit cuts and the growing speed of gentrification.

This is definitely part of the story in CWG. The demographic change is notable in the south of the constituency where housing is relatively cheaper, especially compared to neighbouring Walthamstow which is experiencing Zone 2 levels of house price surges. Young families and ethnic minorities are a growing part of Chingford, and many are bringing their Labour votes with them. Walk down a street in the south of the area and you will see just how rapidly houses are changing hands from the painting materials on the patios.

The overground rail running to Chingford and the underground in Woodford means some growth in rental properties, but not in a way comparable to other London areas. In Highams Park, an area on the overground that gets commuters to Liverpool Street in twenty minutes, young couples are moving in from a few stops down in Hackney, Clapton, and Walthamstow to get more for their money when buying their first home.

Inequality also plays a role within the area itself. While there are certainly wealthy parts of the constituency, a parliamentary library report from 2015 showed that Chingford has one of the United Kingdom’s highest proportions of workers subsisting below the living wage — 48 percent. Clearly, Labour’s anti-austerity policies and support for a £10 minimum wage speak to people struggling to get by.

The irony for the Conservatives is that their economic approach coupled with Theresa May’s UKIP-light rhetoric has created exactly the right conditions for more Labour votes in traditional Conservative outer London areas such as CWG. On the doorstep, countless people have spoken to me about the worries they have for their children and grandchildren unable to afford housing, parents have been up-in-arms over threatening or already botched academisation of primary schools, and there is dismay about the way the Tories have handled Brexit. Crucially these aren’t just new residents, but people who voted Conservative in the past.

In this context winning in CWG means being clear about how we are going to address the pressing concerns of everyday people. From the NHS to housing we need to have firm plans about what the Labour Party are going to do to make people’s lives easier, and how they are going to do it. We also need to be able to explain why austerity is the wrong approach and where the money for our alternative is going to come from. If only I had a pound for every time people I spoke to liked our ideas but thought we couldn’t afford them. Being able to convert the 2017 manifesto from the national to the local will be fundamental to having persuasive conversations with voters.

While the changing politics of CWG is positive, and makes winning plausible, two important points must be noted. The first is that the Conservatives also increased their vote share in the 2017 election, scooping up UKIP voters and retaining a large share of the retired. Secondly, while there were more Labour councillors elected in the 2018 local elections here, we expected to do better. The results proved that nothing can be taken for granted in CWG.

While many people will be motivated to oust Iain Duncan Smith in the next election, it’s important we focus on our own ambitious vision for change. His record of destroying lives with heartless benefit cuts can stand in contrast to our positive campaign, with messages and commitments rooted in the problems ordinary people face.

For too long Chingford and Woodford Green has been overlooked. Even a famous son like David Beckham memorably had to deal with interviewers calling it Essex rather than east London. But there can be no doubt, as its recent history shows, that it is London, with London problems. More than ever its people need the Labour Party to solve them.