Tom Brake had been on telly, where he’d accepted the BBC’s description of his party’s local elections showing last week as “patchy”. By contrast, his general election record as Liberal Democrat contestant in Carshalton and Wallington in suburban south-west London is one of unbroken success since he first won the seat in 1997. But every one of his five victories have been narrow. In his constituency office, a short walk from the enchanting Carshalton Ponds, Brake describes his retention of the constituency in 2015 as being “by the skin of my teeth”. He was the only Lib Dem MP to hold a seat in the capital that year. He anticipates “an even bigger challenge” this time.
At first glance, his luck looks ready to run out. Brake won by just 1,510 votes two years ago, taking 35% of the total. The Tories took 32%. Ukip and Labour tied for third, with 15% each. If Carshalton’s Kippers are joining the Tory shoal in anything like the numbers of counterparts elsewhere, Brake will drown in the blue tide. You might think that in Remain City being a Remainer in the most pro-Remain party would help. But Carshalton and Wallington is in Sutton, one of just five London boroughs out of 32 that voted Leave. What’s more, the poorer north of the seat, where Brake has previously harvested part of what in simpler times was called the “natural Labour vote”, is where backing for Brexit was the highest in his patch last June.
Meanwhile, problems with Lib Dem-run Sutton Council’s new bin collection scheme has handed Brake’s Tory opponent, Old Etonian Matthew Maxwell Scott, some fragrant photo opportunities. It’s also been brought to the keen attention of Theresa May at prime minister’s questions by Paul Scully, Tory MP for Sutton’s other seat, Sutton and Cheam. The hashtag #SuttonBinShame has excited radio presenter Jeremy Vine. Sutton Council has been in Lib Dem hands since 1986, defying political gravity much like Brake, but the refuse pile-ups are dragging it down, at least for now. They aren’t Brake’s doing, of course. But that’s not stopped Tories using them to rubbish him.
But don’t underestimate this Lib Dem. His party has picked up points in London as a whole in the past year according to a recent poll and Brake has defended an even smaller majority than his present one in the past – his winning margin in 2005 was just 1,068. An irony of the “bin shame” assault is that Brake’s resilience owes much to his reputation as a diligent constituency servant, making good on the traditional Lib Dem localist promise and making sure that it is noticed. “I am, without a doubt, very visible in the constituency, partly because I ride my bike and use the bus, which I think actually does make a difference,” he says.
He’s also very visible online. Noting the Tories’ investment in social media, he thinks his “one of the few seats in the country where we can match and even out do them”. Brake, who was a computer software consultant before becoming an MP, has the maximum number of Facebook friends (5,000) and nearly 34,000 Twitter followers. Twenty years of collecting email addresses means he can communicate directly with 11-12,000 constituents. In addition, “We’ve never scaled down the traditional methods, like putting leaflets through letterboxes,” he says. He first fought the seat in 1992, finishing second. He’d moved into the constituency two years before that, having been selected to turf a Tory out. An eight-page glossy Brake promo mag called Local Life hails “25 years fighting for you”. It’s knackering just thinking about it.
Carshalton and Wallington is one of a cluster of five seats in the south-western suburbs that Lib Dems and Conservatives have been fighting over all century. But though they are contiguous, they aren’t all alike. Scully’s Sutton and Cheam is more evenly middle-class than Brake’s seat. Kingston and Surbiton in the royal borough next door is still more so, (and still more steeped in sitcom history too). To its west lie the pair of affluent Richmond seats, one either side of the Thames: Twickenham to the north; Richmond Park, which also contains a bit of Kingston, to the south.
Lib Dems held all of these until 2010, when Zac Goldsmith deprived them of Richmond Park. The rest perished five years later, except for Brake. With the Lib Dems’ three other London seats lost to Labour, the 2015 drubbing left Brake as his party’s sole London MP. With such solitude comes extra work: “It was tough. There was always a lot of pressure to support the regional party, speak at the regional conference, support by-election campaigns. You are torn many, many ways”.
Sarah Olney’s spectacular undoing of Goldsmith in December’s famous by-election has relieved some of that strain and also helped raise Lib Dem hopes that they might continue to re-assert themselves in these parts. Anti-Brexit feelings could again make the difference in three of those five south-west London seats. That the reverse could hurt Brake’s is another of his contest’s ironies.
It’s complicated all the calculus. Brake’s literature makes a blunt plea to Labour and Green supporters to help him fend off Maxwell Scott, but he has his fingers crossed that some who voted Conservative last time could now actually swing his way. “The south of the seat, which is richer and where we vie with the Tories, mostly voted Remain. Whether they will transfer their allegiances for a general election which the prime minister has made all about Brexit, I don’t know.”
Health and education are the more solid ground on which he’s building his stockade. An ongoing defence of St Helier hospital, where his two children were born, takes pride of place, enabling him to snipe at the Tories’ NHS reforms. Brake says he wants to “secure its full range of services,” describing its A&E and maternity services as coming under repeated threat. Forthcoming reductions in schools funding, while less severe in Outer London than Inner, provide him with his other big theme. He’s done a Q&A with students from Carshalton Boys Sports College: “I was asked question after question about the impact of school cuts.”
Before meeting Brake I spent two hours walking in the constituency, arriving by train at Carshalton Beeches, all inter-war commuter-belt dwellings where those possible blue Brexit-phobes may reside, and making my way east to Roundshaw, a housing estate and park built on the site of the former Croydon Airport. Lindburgh Street is named after the legendary US aviator, who dropped by shortly after completing the first ever transatlantic flight. A local church bears a propellor fashioned into a cross.
From there, it was north through the heart of Wallington, formerly part of Surrey, where three of Sutton’s five grammar schools are found. “Sutton is very popular because of the grammar schools,” Brake says. “Parents often make a point of moving to Sutton to access them. The downside is they are selective in their nature. It means that unless a child does well – not just well, but really well – in the 11-plus exam or the equivalent, then the fact that you live in Sutton is no guarantee that your child will get a place there. They are very high performing, there’s no doubt about that.”
Theresa May has paved the way for more grammar schools to be set up. Is Brake pro or anti-grammar? “Well, I think provision of schools is something that should be locally decided,” he says. “Our party position, and my personal view, is that it’s something local councillors should be allowed to make a decision on.”
Finely-balanced marginals require finely-tuned positions. Every angle must be covered, every edge over your challenger exploited. Brake has been described as bland. Don’t let that make you think he’s not up for a scrap or that he is averse to scoring personality points. “I’ve been blessed for a number of years by having Conservative candidates against me who I did not feel were really up to it,” he observes. “They seemed to think it was their right to represent Carshalton and Wallington on the back of a national swing, just by wearing a blue rosette.”
Matthew Maxwell Scott was the Tory he held off last time. If Brake defeats him again, it will be impressive. And if he loses? “I’ll be looking for a job.”