Thirty minutes east of Mile End on the District Line, Elm Park station opens out on to a shop parade that is more affable than affluent, formed from buildings that have yet to be dubbed design classics or reclaimed as cool. A Costa coffee shop feels incongruous, an outpost. A Percy Ingle reminds you that Hackney isn’t all that far away, although if you’re from there, as I am, you might feel as if you’re in another world. Round the corner, The Hobby Shop presents a neat and cheery face unchanged since 1959. Two doors down, there’s pie and mash. Plenty here to cherish, but also the challenge of coming change.
Elm Park is in Havering, the most easterly London borough and an outlier in every way. There are fields, farmhouses, villages, mansions and ancient churches where the southern end of the borough meets the Thames. Its council is an extraordinary conundrum of Conservatives, UKIP-ers and three different blocks of Residents groups, with Labour holding just two out of 54 seats.
Last January, well before anyone else, the Town Hall politicians took it upon themselves to vote, by two to one, that the UK would be better off outside the EU. During the referendum campaign, camera crews camped in the market of Romford, Havering’s biggest town, to hear people with what are now called Essex accents denounce Brussels and all its ways. While Greater London as a whole voted 60% Remain, Havering voted nearly 70% Leave. Two years ago, UKIP MEP Gerard Batten came second to Conservative Andrew Rossindell in the Romford constituency. Within six months, they had joined forces to “take back control”.
Elm Park does not stray from the Havering mainstream. I walked past 500 houses there in long, tight, terraced streets, some primped, others dowdy, none displaying a political flyer. Only one announced allegiances: a flag of St George above the front door; a Chelsea FC poster in its glass panel; a newspaper cutting in the corner howling: “For God’s sake let’s get out of the EU!” Yet the Elm Park ward does not fall in to a Havering constituency. Not Romford. Not the equally Tory Hornchurch and Upminster. Rather, it sits within Dagenham and Rainham, held by Labour’s Jon Cruddas with a 5,000 majority that isn’t quite as solid that may sound.
This is one of the five London seats where Ukip finished second in 2015, taking 30% of the vote to Cruddas’s 41%. The Tories finished third, with 24%. Five years earlier, they came a pretty close second. The British National Party (BNP) were third that time, gathering nearly 5,000 votes. You see how the land lies. If enough of the UKIP vote swings behind the Tory candidate, eager Leaver Julie Marson, and enough of Labour’s switches to her too, Cruddas could be on his way.
That would be a shame for his party. Cruddas has been a deep thinker about how Labour can reconnect with the sorts of working class voters who’ve abandoned it; how it can find a new accommodation between progressive goals and cautious, patriotic values. It’s worth noting that Romford, now a Tory stronghold, was won by Labour in the first Blair landslide. Cruddas is trying to solve a puzzle Jeremy Corbyn seems not to see. His patch of Outer East London pretty much exemplifies why he and Labour need to succeed.
The seat, oddly-shaped, like a wobbly guitar, covers nine wards. Three of those at the fat end are in Havering. The southernmost contains the town of Rainham, whose commercial district, like other parts of the seat, borders the Thames. The other six wards are in Barking and Dagenham, a borough familiar with rapid transformation and its strains.
The leader of its council, Darren Rodwell, like Cruddas a Remainer, wants to energise and modernise, but knows the dangers that can bring. A keen regenerator and promoter of education and the arts, he trades on his local roots and likes the world to know he has a portrait of the queen on his office wall. Unlike Havering, Barking and Dagenham is strongly Labour, but went 62.4% Leave. Rodwell keeps a wary eye on his populist right flank. The BNP, famously and ineptly, occupied a dozen council seats between 2006 and 2010.
Change is rolling across this territory and all points east of the Royal Docks, bringing with it opportunity and anxiety following years of decimation by de-industrialisation. The plight of Newham since the 1980s has been compared with that of Liverpool. Rodwell, one block further from the Square Mile, speaks of a community still learning to move on from a time when lives were regulated by shift patterns at Fords. The politicians wooing Dagenham and Rainham are operating at the brittle leading edge of the long, slow push for economic renewal and all the cultural churn that goes with it. Some ward comparisons provide a sense of this.
Chadwell Heath, at the thin, tuning end of the guitar, had around 10,000 residents at the last census in 2011. Of these, 55% said they were White British, compared with 49.5% for the borough as a whole and 45% for all of Greater London; the Black African group was a bit smaller than the borough average, at 9.4%; the Asian Indian was a bit higher, at 5.3%. There were 5,715 Christians, about 1,000 Muslims and 328 Hindus. The largest occupational group were in professional occupations, at 14.5%.
Of the nearly 4,000 households, about 2,000 were home-owning (54%), about 1,200 were social renters (32%) and about 500 rented privately (12.4%). Chadwell Heath is represented by three Labour councillors: Jeff Wade, whose other responsibilities include sitting on the pensions panel; Sade Bright, who is Rodwell’s cabinet member for equalities and cohesion; and Sam Tarry, national political officer for the TSSA and a close ally of Corbyn.
Elm Park ward is very different. Havering as a whole is 88% White British. Elm Park, at 82% White British in 2011, is relatively diverse. It contained just over 5,000 households at that time, of which 3,860 lived in property they owned (75%), 773 were social renters (just 14%) and 431 rented privately (8.4%). There were 132 Hindus, 279 Muslims and 8,236 self-defined Christians in its population of 12,466. The largest occupational group, 18.7%, were in administrative and secretarial occupations.
The ward’s three councillors go under the banner of the Elm Park Residents Group, though they were elected as members of the Hornchurch Residents Association in 2014. In a crowded field, Ukip’s candidate – calling himself a Ukip local resident – came fourth. The next six places were split between Labour and Conservative. Cruddas has been out there, defending the Green Belt, but in a general election the Elm Park ground looks more fertile for the latter.
Marson, the Tory candidate, describes herself as “proudly Chadwell Heath born and bred”, as a “wife and mum” and “magistrate”. On Twitter, she’s been laying down the law about Corbyn being soft on terror, soft on crime and surrounded by soft-headed lieutenants. She’s drawn attention to the absence of the Labour leader’s name and face on Cruddas literature (not that this marks him out). Items from the Express and the Sun are highlighted. There is a video clip of a visit from Boris Johnson, Marson beaming in his reflected fame.
She is, of course, wooing the UKIP vote as well, although that fading force, unlike in many parts of London, is putting in an effort. Its candidate Peter Harris, who, like Marson, also ran in 2015, has eagerly embraced his party’s new headline message, which critics say has reduced it to an anti-Muslim protest group. At the end of March, Harris hosted a talk by Anne Marie Waters, whose stance on Islam has been so strident it later prompted UKIP’s national executive to block her candidacy in Lewisham East. That has not deterred Nigel Farage from foghorning his way down Dagenham Heathway in Harris’s support.
The perverse electoral calculus of this seat might mean that an energetic UKIP showing could be of help to Cruddas, because the smaller the expected switch from Kippers to Conservatives, the more evenly the non-Labour vote would be split, leaving him again victorious. That outcome wouldn’t prevent a Tory government and neither would it postpone the alterations that are coming to Elm Park’s socio-economic composition, as long-gestating regeneration plans gradually come to fruition and London’s centre of gravity moves east. It would, though, ensure that people living there continue to have an MP who grasps its range of implications.
What will Elm Park be like in ten years’ time? Let’s guess. Mine is that there will still be little white girls scootering to the shops with their mum, dazzling in shocking pink, their long blonde hair brushed into rippling waves. There will still be white lads over-revving their cars and reversing too fast into parking spaces by the shops, drivers’ seats reclined, one hand only on the wheel. But black and brown people will be more numerous. They will be followed, eventually, by white people of a different kind, who will find Costa too commercial and bypass Percy Ingle in search of something artisanal.
It is, after all, not much more than half an hour to the City on the Tube and maybe less to Canary Wharf. Imagine that. Taking my leave, I eavesdropping on two middle-aged white women who boarded the train at the same time and spoke intently of crematoria and surgery as the District Line took me back to the East End.