Inspired by Splintered Sunrise‘s extraordinary series of “know your constituency” posts on the election in the North of Ireland, here are some thoughts on the constituency The Gaping Silence calls home. (Personal to Splinty – how do you do it? I’ve only done this one and it’s taken me all evening…)
Leech (Liberal Democrat) 15,872 (42.4%)
Bradley, Keith (Labour) 15,205 (40.6%)
Bradley, Karen (Conservative) (no relation) 3,919 (10.5%)
Candeland (Green) 1,595 (4.3%)
Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 424 (1.1%)
Bennett (Ind) 243 (0.6%)
Zalzala (Ind) 153 (0.4%)
Reed (Their Party) 47 (0.1%)
2010 candidates: John Leech (LD), Lucy Powell (Lab), Chris Green (Con), Brian Candeland (Green), Robert Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP), Yasmin Zalzala (Independent), Marcus Farmer (Independent)
The Withington constituency, after a bit of boundary adjustment following the 2005 election, extends from affluent, liberal, green-ish East Didsbury northward and westward to green, liberal, affluent-ish Chorlton. It’s a rough triangle, with Northenden and Sale to the southwest, the Heatons and Stockport to the southeast and Fallowfield, Whalley Range and the city to the north.
For anyone who’s tried to buy a newspaper in Chorlton on a Saturday, the political complexion of the constituency might seem fairly self-evident. If you’re looking for an Express or a Star (or, oddly, an Independent) you’ll have to root around in the ground-level shelving, down among the Morning Stars and the Irish Posts. The only challenge with the Guardian is negotiating a route to the counter through the ramparts of newsprint. Chorlton is home to the Unicorn vegan megastore, which does a roaring trade in jute bags with vaguely improving slogans and runs a truly remarkable Comments book. (At least, I know it used to be – I had to stop reading it after the “Make do and mend” episode.*) Small independent shops thrive, most of them selling stuff that isn’t strictly essential at prices that aren’t strictly cheap; so does a “Keep Chorlton Interesting” campaign. A visitor to Chorlton could easily come away with the impression that nobody who lives here comes from round here, and that everyone who does live here either works in the health service, works in higher education or is in higher education.
Against that background, the Liberal Democrat victory in 2005 – taking a Labour seat on a 17% swing – doesn’t seem any great surprise: the effect of population change (i.e. the influx of the Guardian-reading classes) was simply accelerated by the Iraq factor. But there’s more to Withington than meets the eye. The eastern end of the constituency takes in the fairly down-at-heel Burnage, while Chorlton and Withington themselves have substantial areas of ex-council and social housing. A not particularly strenuous Chorlton pub crawl could start with a £3 pint in a gastro-pub owned by the ex-owner of Manto (“No drinking on the green. No standing on the terrace”) and finish at a cavernous Wetherspoon’s where a pint is £1.69 (but it’s a bit harder to relax with). Even if UK Polling Report is correct to say that demographic shifts killed off the Withington Conservative vote in the 1980s (personally I think it just died of shame), I don’t believe the Labour vote has gone the same way just yet. I do the four-mile journey between Chorlton and Withington fairly regularly, and five years ago the route was wallpapered with Lib Dem orange. There are plenty of placards out this time round, but Labour out-placards the Lib Dems by about 4 to 1. A seat the Lib Dems should have been able to count on – an active and conscientious sitting MP, an unknown Labour challenger, a knackered Labour government and hey! Nick Clegg in the debates! – is currently looking awfully marginal.
What’s going on? I may be proved wrong in a few days’ time, but my gut feeling is that nothing much is going on now, relative to 2001; a seat which returned a Labour MP with a huge majority will once again return a Labour MP with a cough, mumble majority. In 2001 Labour and the Liberal Democrats shared 76.1% of the vote: this in turn split 7:3 between Keith Bradley and the Lib Dems’ Yasmin Zalzala, giving Bradley nearly 55% of the votes cast. In 2005 Labour and the Lib Dems between them took 83% of the vote, which split 49:51 between Bradley and John Leech. In other words, there was a massive, oceanic shift of votes from Labour to Lib Dem, helped along by tactical voting by Tories (the Conservative vote dropped from 15% to 10%). And this was 2005: the election where we gave our verdict on Iraq; the election of Backing Blair and of endless blog posts explaining that voting against Labour wasn’t actually voting against Labour (“this is a single-issue election, and the issue is New Labour”); the election where it was actually safe to vote against Labour (the party’s support fell by 5% as against 2001, but they still ended up taking 55% of seats). This isn’t to say that John Leech was elected on a protest vote, exactly, but certainly on borrowed votes – and I think on Thursday Labour will get a lot of them back.
What about the candidates? I ought to like John Leech – he seems like a pretty solid leftish Liberal – but I just can’t. Partly it’s personal; partly it’s those endless bar-charts and two-horse races and leaflets featuring the noble deeds of local campaigner Fred Scragg, of whom you have never heard and will never hear again until he resurfaces at the council election as the candidate of the Liberal Democrat Focus Team**. But mainly it’s the way Lib Dems seem to triangulate by default – every leaflet that criticises the government over Iraq or ID cards will also criticise them over inadequate funding for the police or lack of attention to anti-social behaviour. They’ve got enough left-liberal*** policies to make a really solid pitch to the left of Labour, but they can never quite bring themselves to do it – not even in a constituency like this, where it would be giving a lot of the punters what they want. This goes double at national level: a vote for the Lib Dems isn’t of itself a vote for a Liberal-Tory alliance, but it isn’t a vote against one either. Even now – even after all those years of New Labour, after PFI and Iraq and with ID cards round the corner – I don’t distrust Labour as much as the Lib Dems.
Speaking of Labour, I know nothing about Lucy Powell, other than that she coasted through the selection process; also, she’s opposed to replacing Trident but in favour of ID cards and wouldn’t want to rule out military action against Iran. Chris Green’s profile is low to the point of invisibility; I haven’t seen a single Tory poster in the constituency. (He’s also failed to respond to TheyWorkForYou’s questionnaire for PPCs, from which I learned about Ms Powell’s slightly alarming views.) Brian and Mary Candeland are fixtures on the local Green scene; I’ve voted for Brian at least once at a general election and several times for the council (Mary usually stands in the next ward along). He got 1539 votes (4.4%) in 2001 and 1595 (4.3%) in 2005; his vote’s unlikely to grow much this time and may be squeezed by anti-New Labour votes returning to the fold – but again, probably not by very much. Gutfreund-Walmsley – pass. (Gutfreund-Walmsley? Is there another side to UKIP?) Marcus Farmer stands for environmental regulation and lower taxes; this odd combination of policies may be related to Mr Farmer’s day job, running a waste-recycling business. And then there’s Yasmin Zalzala, the former Liberal Democrat parliamentary candidate who was defenestrated after getting 22% of the vote in 2001 (which wasn’t bad going, considering that the party had taken 13.6% of the vote in 1997). She has subsequently been vocal in denouncing the racism and sexism of the party machine. I hold no brief for or against Ms Zalzala – I have no inside information on the Liberal Democrats and no way of knowing the ins and outs of the story – but I do think it’s worth noting the name of her election agent in 2001: John Leech.
Finally, it’s worth mentioning the dog that isn’t barking: the Left. The SWP has a strong and growing branch here – they recently changed their name from South Manchester to Chorlton, to reflect the rootedness of the branch in the locality; in past elections we’ve had candidacies from the Socialist Alliance and RESPECT (mk. 1), as well as a council candidate one year for the Democratic Socialist Alliance (long story). The Socialist Labour Party got some of their better results here, or so a member told me once – I voted for them myself in 1997. This time round, TUSC are standing SWP member Karen Reissman up the road in Gorton, Gerald Kaufman’s seat. This seems like a bit of a missed opportunity twice over – a chance to test the waters in Withington and a chance for a single agreed Left candidate in Gorton – but hey, you can’t make omelettes without breaking eggs. (At least, that’s what they tell the eggs.)
All in all, I think Withington’s almost certainly going back to Labour next Thursday; I wouldn’t be surprised if a few other seats that changed hands last time did likewise, particularly given the general drift of support from the Lib Dems to Labour in the polls over the last few days. I think Labour are going to be in a stronger position on Friday than the polls are currently suggesting; given that the alternative is the Tories being in a stronger position, this strikes me as a good thing.
* Details on request.
** We did actually have a local campaigner as our Lib Dem candidate a few years ago; the difference was that we knew his name and what he did before the Lib Dems started telling us about him.
*** Rare example of this adjective actually meaning something.
Update 7/5/10: how wrong you can be. Laughing boy holds on, with a swing to the Liberal Democrats.
John Leech (Liberal Democrat) 20,110 (44.6%)
Lucy Powell (Labour) 18,260 (40.5%)
Christopher Green (Conservative) 5,005 (11.1%)
Brian Candeland (Green) 798 (1.8%)
Bob Gutfreund-Walmsley (UKIP) 698 (1.5%)
Yasmin Zalzala (Independent) 147 (0.3%)
Marcus Farmer (Independent) 57 (0.1%)
Majority 1,850. Turnout 62.2%, up 6.8% on last time – and with a large number of people locked out of the polling stations at 10.00. (Probably not 1,851 of them, though.)