I once spoke to a woman who had a housing problem of some kind. She lived in the north of the City of Westminster in the Church Street area, just off Edgware Road beyond the flyover where Arabic restaurants and billows of shisha smoke give way to more prosaic terrain. She had a harsh voice, lots on her mind and many angry views. Her mood brightened, though, when mention was made of her MP.
“Oh, Karen Buck,” she said. “I love her. I love Karen Buck.”
Such a thing. In a time of deep derision for politics and politicians, the woman’s declaration was quite startling. But it was not a freakish sentiment. Ensuing years have revealed that if personal votes really do count for much in general elections, Buck’s could be large and resilient enough to see her over the line one more time in a seat the Tories have long coveted.
She is defending a majority of 1,977 in Westminster North. Weird national polling and a mix of local straws in the wind make the result perilous to call. But when we meet in a cafe called Sandro’s close to Westbourne Park Tube, Buck is clear about one thing: “What has come through in this election and has genuinely surprised me, given where we were when we started, has been the really warm response. It’s felt really good. It’s felt better than it has for a long time. I’m not quite sure why.”
We might speculate that London is going to do tomorrow what has become its usual thing, which is to stick by Labour more than the rest of the country does. In 2010, the Tories missed half their Labour targets in the capital, including Buck. In 2015, as Labour made losses elsewhere, it picked up seven seats here. Jeremy Corbyn has been a problem for campaigners on many doorsteps across the metropolis, yet probably a smaller one than in the Midlands and the North. We are a 60% Remain City. Westminster a whole was 69% Remain. An impulse to protect Remainer MPs like Buck could add to Labour’s positive “London effect”.
And, yes, Buck is well liked in her own backyard. Not that she’ll admit it. I probed. Is it because she likes helping people and they’ve noticed? But she’s hopeless at boasting, so it’s left to a couple of friends sitting with us to reveal that earlier in the day she had been greeted by half their fellow passengers on a Number 36 bus. Buck is better at explaining why she likes her job:
“I think the fact that people come to you, with their comments and thoughts and problems, and raise an often fascinating mix of the personal and political, and the local, and the interaction between the law and policy and money, and you to try and weave your way through all those things and advocate for people… Advocacy. You’ve got me to the right word. I love the advocacy, whether it’s for individuals or around issues.
“And the unique thing about being a member of parliament, perhaps especially when you’re in such a fascinating, complex and diverse area as this, is that you have a combination of one-to-one contact – the person whose house you go into and see the conditions they are living in – and going into parliament, where you can try to amend the law to do something about it. You don’t get that in any other job on the planet. I love that.”
Buck had arrived from dropping in on a group of parents who’ve started a project to prevent knife crime. Gang activity has been a recurring problem in some parts of her seat. “It’s good to be involved in that discussion and try to get those parents together with the institutions of the state that might benefit from their involvement and which can help them too,” she says. “So often, with all sorts of problems, people’s interactions with the parts of government or other people who could help them just don’t work, either because they aren’t familiar with the processes involved or they just can’t get through the front door.”
Housing and housing policy is a field of expertise. She’s seen enormous changes in her part of Central London, as you’d expect. Younger readers will be amazed that the part of Westminster close to its border with Brent was once a prime site for cheap flats. In 1983, Buck bought one for £21,000. Not long after, she bought a bigger one a street away for £60,000 and has been there ever since. Meanwhile, the local housing landscape has changed and changed again, not only in terms of soaring purchase prices and rents.
“In my constituency, it’s changed in several ways,” Buck says. “Some of the poorer communities have gone through a significant tenure shift. A lot of social housing has been lost through Right to Buy and is now in the private rented sector, some at the higher end of the market but a lot of it not. A lot of multi-occupancy properties were turned into single household homes and became very valuable, but some of those are going back to being occupied by large groups of people because one or two earners aren’t enough to be able to afford it. You’re seeing more sharing, and people not having enough money to maintain the quality of the building. These areas don’t just gentrify and stop, they keep on changing. You’re seeing constant movement.”
There have also been large demographic churns. Buck, who was born in County Tyrone and educated in Essex and at the London School of Economics, became a Westminster councillor in 1990 and and an MP in 1997, winning the now defunct seat of Regent’s Park and Kensington North. When she came into politics there were substantial Irish and Caribbean communities in her area, but these have shrunk: all over the city, young adults cannot afford to live in the places where they grew up.
There have also been huge influxes, some rich, some not and massively diverse: “We’ve got 30,000 EU residents in Westminster, and that’s very different from 20 years ago. Arabic is our second language. Albanian is very common, in the Kosovan community here. There are about 30 different Muslim communities. It’s absolutely, really dramatic.”
All of this will affect the electoral dynamics of Westminster North, though the nuances are hard to quantify. There is, though, a voting geography which closely fits the “two cities” cliché. Labour is strongest in the poorer areas like Church Street, West Kilburn and Harrow Road. The Tories prosper amid the wealth of Bayswater and Regent’s Park. Maida Vale is split. It truly is a seat that could go either way.
Before a previous election, I asked Buck what she might do if defeated. She said she might train as a social worker. This time she confides a secret longing to be a DJ. “Do you think I’m too late?” she inquires. I don’t, and that’s because her knowledge of pop music is impressive. This is a woman who can compile a list of the Top Ten Social Comment Soul Music Records Of All Time in about ten minutes and leave little room for argument. But DJ-ing’s gain would be Westminster North’s loss, as that woman from Church Street would confirm.