A By-Election of Importance

The 2nd. of March was cold and there had been fresh snowfall. A train with a dozen carriages crawled painfully along the icy tracks in the early evening, each carriage packed with commuters hoping to get home to their dormitories after a day’s toil ending with a difficult trek to the station in a blizzard. Between two stations, the train shuddered and stopped. It did not move for four hours. The passengers were jammed together in intense discomfort. There was no thought of sustenance or a hot drink. Staying upright and surviving was all that could be hoped for. There were no toilets on the train. Movement was anyway virtually impossible for the patient passengers in the packed carriages. At last a mutiny began and passengers disobeyed the instructions of the railway staff to stay put. They opened the emergency doors, streamed out of the train and began to plod through the snow to the nearest station. Trains here are powered from a third rail at ground level. The railway staff were forced to turn this off for fear that a passenger might be electrocuted. The passengers plodded on, their town shoes sodden with the freezing snow. They painfully made their way home, on foot or by bus, where busses were running. The mutiny was uncomfortable but successful.
Public opinion was strongly in favour of the mutineers, not those running the antiquated railway. Where was this train? Was it perhaps the infamous slow train from Minsk to Smolensk? In fact it was the even more infamous North Kent line from London Bridge to Chatham, one of the world’s oldest and least reliable tracks. The train was stranded between Lewisham and Blackheath in South East London in the heart of a constituency about to lose its popular MP, the Labour remainer Heidi Alexander, who had been offered a deputy mayor (transport) job with the Labour ‘remain’ Mayor of London. Commuters to Blackheath and beyond were about to be given a channel for their protests about the railway, Brexit, knife crime and much else in a by-election provoked by Heidi Alexander’s departure.

Voters in the Lewisham East constituency do not have much sense of identity about their arbitrarily drawn up collection of wards. They do have a strong sense of identity with South East London.

On the North, the constituency is bounded by wonderful Greenwich Park with the Royal Observatory, the Naval Museum (Henry VIII’s palace), the ex-RN college, the Seamens’ Hospital and views across the Thames to Canary Wharf, St. Paul’s and beyond. On the East, the A2 leads over Shooters Hill to Kent. This is the Roman road to the coast and Chaucer’s pilgrims’ road to Canterbury£. It makes a straight line through Dickens country with Woolwich, the Royal Artillery and Military Academy on the North along the Thames. Here, in hulks on the river, convicts were assembled for transportation to Australia, sometimes working in Woolwich Arsenal during their wait. On the South of the constituency are the prosperous stockbroker Tudor suburbs of Bromley and Chislehurst. This is the country of Orpington Man, not a cousin of Neanderthal but a phenomenon of the 1960s when the Liberal party had one of its perennial recoveries from extinction. On the West are Camberwell and Deptford, old dockland country now gentrified on the river side. On this fringe of the constituency is the home of Millwall football club. (Song:’ Nobody likes us, we don’t care’.) Its somewhat bellicose supporters easily become agitated, particularly during matches with local rivals Charlton, Crystal Palace and West Ham. Further inland is genteel Dulwich. Like Blackheath, this is a chunk of Hampstead in South London.

The constituency is mixed socially and economically but mostly without extreme wealth or poverty. Lewisham East has rather more people in good jobs than the national average and higher levels of education. The Blackheath ward is prosperous and popular with city workers, civil servants, journalists and academics. A couple of generations ago it was ‘Separate Tables’ territory where retired colonels treated themselves to rock cakes behind the lace curtains of joyless teashops. Now it bustles with boutiques, exotic restaurants, prosperous estate agents and a renowned concert hall. In Blackheath and elsewhere in the constituency, voters worry about the Brexit effect on their jobs. Whether merchant bank high-fliers or Bob Cratchit pen-pushers, as they stand patiently during their interminable train journey from the City, they read in the Evening Standard of yet another Brexit-fearing finance house moving jobs to Frankfurt, Amsterdam, Paris or Dublin. These are people with much spleen to vent and much concern to express in the by-election.

Lewisham East and contiguous constituencies have a venerable political past with local MPs who included Gladstone, Morrison, Callaghan and Rosie Barnes, the Labour schismatic who won Greenwich from Labour and held it for the Social Democrats/LibDems for a dozen years. This is an area of moderate radicalism, unlike Woolwich to the East where there were traditionally many more Daily Worker readers and fellow travellers.

In view of the by-election, the most important characteristic of Lewisham East is the position of its voters on Brexit. This is ‘remain’ country, even more than the rest of London. About two thirds of the constituents voted ‘remain’. A friend in the constituency was recently witness to a heated political discussion in a local pub. A contributor referred to Jeremy Corbyn as a Marxist freak and Boris Johnson as a château bottled charlatan to general approval and amusement. This is not easy territory for the Conservative or Labour party leaderships.

The Labour majority of Heidi Alexander in the General Election was strong at over two thirds of the vote. The candidacy for her vacancy was fought hard and sometimes acrimoniously by two Corbynite Momentum and Unite candidates and a strong ‘remainer’, Janet Daby, committed to the Single Market and Customs Union. She won the candidacy by a large margin and got the ex post endorsement of Corbyn. All three candidates were ladies from ‘minority ethnic groups’, as required by the Corbynite pc doctrine. The LibDem candidate, Lucy Salek, was installed with little competition and backed with a visit from Vince Cable including photoshots at Millwall football ground. The Conservative candidate, Ross Archer, got 23% of the vote at the General Election and is well known in the constituency. He is a respected local party worker who has so far taken a consensual line on Brexit issues.

Especially with her ‘remain’ credentials, it would be surprising if the Labour candidate were to do badly in the contest. Ross Archer, on the other hand, is likely to be strongly contested for second place by the LibDem Lucy Salek. The UKIP candidate got less than 2% of the vote at the General election and is likely to fare even worse this time. There is a plethora of minor party candidates including the inevitable Monster Raving Loony Party which will give voters plenty of choice and some entertainment. The results of the election are likely to draw a flood of analysis and comment because this is a constituency strongly representative of the whole of London and the Home Counties. The election campaign takes place during the brief lull before the Lords amendments to the Brexit Bill come back to the Commons.

An election is worth many opinion polls and June 14th will be a milestone on the long march which began with the Brexit Referendum. The ‘People Have Spoken’ phase is receding and Parliament is back in control and centre stage. Ross Archer has a daunting job. He has to navigate a minefield of difficult issues. To succeed in obtaining the respectable vote which the Conservatives badly need, he has to explain, justify, reassure and cajole on many complex issues. A minimum list would include falling house prices, fragile commuter train services, knife crime, the inadequate police budget, the NHS staffing crisis, the continuing squeeze on real incomes and the Byzantine problems surrounding Lewisham town council attempts to take over and redevelop the Millwall football ground with a shadowy offshore financier.

I join with the Conservatives of South East London in wishing Ross Archer courage, good luck and success in a key contest.

Peter Huggins

The. Author, BCiP member Peter Huggins has deep roots in South East London. He was born in Greenwich, went to Primary school in Woolwich and grammar school in Blackheath. Before moving to work in Paris, Peter and his wife Christa lived in Blackheath on the fringe of Greenwich Park.