The home of tennis is hosting an extra Grand Slam this year. Wimbledon voted 70.6 per cent for Remain in 2016, making it the fourth most strongly Remain constituency in Outer London. A Wimbledon seat was first formed in 1885 and has never elected a Liberal or Liberal Democrat MP – despite the efforts of candidates including the philosopher Bertrand Russell – and it has only ever chosen two Labour ones, in 1945 and from 1997-2005. Stephen Hammond, Wimbledon’s Conservative MP since 2005, won with a majority of 5,622 and 46.5 per cent of the vote two years ago, with Labour second on 35.6 per cent of votes and the Lib Dems on 14.5.
But that picture seems to have changed dramatically. A constituency-level poll by Deltapoll conducted from 7-12 November, found 36 per cent of voters backing the Lib Dems against 38 per cent for the Tories, with Labour trailing on 23 per cent. YouGov’s recent much-heralded MRP survey, using polling, voting history and demographic data to model behaviour in different types of constituency, put the Tories further ahead on an estimated range of 35-50 per cent, the Lib Dems on 23-38 and Labour on 19-32. Yet it still looks like a close contest.
Wimbledon’s demographics mark it out as promising territory for a Lib Dem triumph. It has a highly educated population, one of the drivers of Remain everywhere. Mean income in 2016/7 was higher than in Richmond Park and Battersea and, strikingly, the constituency has the lowest levels of deprivation in London (although Wimbledon Labour point out that it still harbours stark inequalities, such as a 10 year drop in male expectancy on the bus journey from Wimbledon Village to Mitcham in the other half of the borough of Merton).
Over more than a decade, Lib Dems have built up a presence in Wimbledon with year-round campaigning, acquiring a reputation of being “very active, hard-working and organised” says Anthony Fairclough, who leads the party’s group on Merton Council. They went from a single councillor to seven in 2018, and in June came from third place to win a by-election in Cannon Hill ward. Membership and interest has been supercharged by the Brexit vote: 2017 Wimbledon candidate Carl Quilliam, says the increased activity in the current campaign, has been like “going from the Wright Brothers to the Apollo missions”.
His successor is Paul Kohler (pictured above), head of SOAS School of Law, co-owner of the Cellar Door bar and a familiar face to locals and many Londoners as the survivor of a brutal attack in his own home by a gang of burglars five years ago which made headline news. The Lib Dems crowdfunded his High Court legal action to stop the closure of half of London’s police front counters, which resulted in judges ruling the closure of Wimbledon Police Station unlawful.
“Wimbledon people are small-l liberal – tolerant, interested in politics, they want to talk,” Kohler tells me on the campaign trail. He says 60 to 70 percent of his voter interactions are about Brexit – “that’s the start of conversations” – but crime, the issue that originally politicised him, is also a good talking point: “It’s important that people see the Lib Dems as a party of law and order.” As for Boris Johnson earmarking police stations for closure when he was Mayor, “annoyingly, people have forgotten about that,” he muses. Merton Conservatives, who have a fractious relationship with Lib Dems on the council, smart that Hammond campaigned to save the police station before Kohler did. They say the High Court only ruled to save it on a technicality and that it could still be shut at short notice.
The irony of the situation in Wimbledon is that whatever else is uncertain about the dynamics of the election, the Conservatives appear to be leading in this 2016 Remain stronghold. Hammond (pictured above) rebelled against his party by supporting the motion to stop a No Deal Brexit and had considered standing as an Independent before being readmitted on the condition he backed Johnson’s deal. “The Lib Dems are making an undeliverable promise to the typical metropolitan Tory who voted Remain,” he says. But while recognising that this group might be “superficially attracted” to it, he says lots of voters are recognising that he would fulfil the promise he made to them in 2017, to avoid No Deal “or a ‘Hard Brexit’”, while also promising to honour the referendum result.
Like the Lib Dems, the Conservatives have been canvassing harder in Wimbledon than almost anywhere else in the capital. I followed them, knocking on doors of undecided and possible supporters in affluent Hillside ward, guided by CCHQ analysis, with canvassers sometimes asking “What matters to you?” to draw out voters’ feelings. Campaigners might try to bring around Conservative-to-Lib Dem switchers by asking whether they are OK with Corbyn as PM, but on this round there is at least one female voter who shoots back that she would prefer the Labour leader to Johnson. Election-watchers say there is something in the idea that well-off, sophisticated Wimbledon voters may have a particular loathing for the PM since his background makes him seem close to home.
Some local Tories think Hammond is too soft and Remainers think he’s a Brexiteer, but that, reckons blogger and pro-Remain tactical voting advocate Jon Worth, should make him “ideal for the demography of Wimbledon”. One Raynes Park voter, however, who thought he was effective and diligent in responding to residents’ concerns about Brexit, now declares his credibility is in tatters because of his actions.
There is some dissension in online tactical voting advice for Wimbledon: Comparethetacticals.com shows that two sites recommend Remain voters to back the Lib Dems, two others call for a Labour vote on the basis of stopping the Conservatives, and two more are TBC. Tom Baldwin and James McGrory’s post-People’s Vote platform Vote for a Final Say has selected Wimbledon among 28 key seats because, Baldwin says, all reputable tactical voting advice points to the Lib Dems, while a letter sent by Lib Dems to Wimbledon voters from Mike Smithson of politicalbetting.com carries the same clear endorsement. There have been heated exchanges on and offline between Lib Dem and Labour supporters – fuelled by egregious tactical voting claims for other constituencies – with activists on each side accusing the other of misinformation and facilitating a Tory Hard Brexit.
Peter Kellner notes an important distinction in the Deltapoll results for Wimbledon and two other constituencies, whereby more Labour voters are prepared to vote tactically for the Lib Dems to stop a Conservative candidate than Lib Dems are ready to vote tactically for Labour. But in the extreme volatility of current politics, it’s harder to get agreement on what constitutes a commanding lead, let alone agree a common course of action between parties, from shifting campaign resources to standing candidates down. “It’s a classic fight where it’s not quite clear who’s second. It’s a bit absurd to tell Labour to back off,” says Labour activist and commentator Luke Akehurst.
“We need to Remain. But you don’t do it by alienating the country and dividing them,” says Labour’s energetic Momentum-backed candidate, schoolteacher and community activist Jackie Schneider (pictured below). Fresh from briefing a crowd of volunteers outside a Raynes Park pub – perhaps 70-80 people, but Labour have had up to 350 in one session – she talks extensively on the doorstep about rebuilding the industrial base, homelessness and the Green New Deal on the doorstep, and tells me how local businesses are struggling with poor broadband. On transport, “our policies are ridiculously popular, particularly with Tories”.
Twenty-five year old Miles Brass, who was canvassing every day and is working in the Labour office for the final stretch of the campaign, is sceptical about the polls. “We’re not here to measure popularity for Labour, we’re here to build popularity” he says. In this high stakes election, he believes, the Lib Dems are stuck doing the old politics, failing to match their rhetorical diehard opposition to Brexit with a dialogue about what this means in practice, and with an eye on building up their support for future elections rather than being totally consumed in winning this one.
The huge amount of campaigning Schneider has undertaken with local volunteers and others from far afield – “it’s such a joy, it’s a thing that gives me hope” she says – impresses long-time Merton watchers, as the consistently left-wing local Labour Party has never been so active before, though a Labour critic of Schneider from another borough doubts she has sufficient experience in party political campaigning, and doesn’t think, for example, that videos by journalist Paul Mason in support of her candidacy are the right approach for Wimbledon.
Lib Dem strategists are sanguine about the competition from Labour: “It’s unhelpful, but it’s not fatal” says 2020 London Assembly candidate Rob Blackie. The Lib Dems are winning the battle of the posters and garden stake-boards by a country mile. Wimbledon voters will register Labour’s absolute fence-sitting on Brexit, says senior party strategist Nick Carthew. The Lib Dems take pride in their canvassing App MiniVAN, which stores data without needing to be online throughout a canvass session, making it easier to correct mistakes and offering a script to follow for inexperienced canvassers. The Tories have VoteSource, while Labour is still mainly using paper, which Blackie estimates is 25 per cent less efficient. The Lib Dems might ask themselves whether the tone of the campaign – with Kohler telling a schoolboy reporter that he thinks Corbyn is “more dangerous” than the “total disaster” of Johnson, because of his position on national security – is the right strategy if it puts off potential tactical voters on the Left. But perhaps trying to satisfy everyone is a fool’s errand.
A three-cornered tennis match makes fora fascinating spectacle, and a dangerous one. Tom Baldwin – who stresses that, as a lifelong Labour member, he’s not interested in using a second referendum as a Trojan Horse to reshape politics – says, emphatically, “At the moment, we are heading for a Tory landslide, and the only question in town is whether we can stop it. The pessimism that I feel is also our best argument”. One in ten people could be prepared to vote tactically, enough to deprive Johnson of an overall majority, according to a Vote for a Final Say survey last week.
The determination is laudable. But with the proliferation of tactical voting advice sites, all with their own formulas and some using out-of-date data, and the animosity they’ve inspired, can even a highly disciplined tactical voting drive gain much traction? Having once rebelled, does Stephen Hammond belong among the “English nationalists and Brexit extremists” attacked by Vince Cable, or can he be looked at as a brake on Boris?
What are ardent Remainers’ arguments against voters like the father-of-two who Kohler speaks to at the end of his canvassing round, someone who, on an emotional level, would love to stay in Europe but doesn’t think it’s feasible to go back to square one and face a whole new cycle of arguments, whereas by leaving “at least something would happen”? And if the Lib Dems can’t win at such a climactic election in seats like Wimbledon, what does that say about them, and the Remain cause? If they pile up votes, but don’t win enough seats to deny a Conservative majority is that meaningless, or an important step?
Politicians need to channel SW19’s tennis champions – throw every once of energy into the current match as the most important of their lives, and at the same time remember there’s all of next season to get through.
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