In 2017 the north London constituency of Chipping Barnet almost provided that election with a “Portillo moment” – a shock defeat for a senior government figure. In the event, cabinet minister Theresa Villiers scraped home just 353 votes ahead of her Labour challenger Emma Whysall.
Two years on, according to Whysall, back for a second run, the seat remains too close to call. Her view is borne out by the YouGov poll and MRP analysis which has Labour and the Tories level-pegging on 41 per cent, making it possibly the most marginal seat in the capital.
Chipping Barnet, site of London’s only significant military confrontation, the Wars of the Roses Battle of Barnet in 1471, isn’t quite the leafy suburb – more Tory Home Counties than metropolitan – that it appears to be at first sight.
From the Monken Hadley conservation, area where the city meets the country, and the old market town of Chipping, or High, Barnet itself, only incorporated into Greater London in 1965, it stretches south to the urban streets of Coppetts ward adjoining Muswell Hill below the North Circular, with pockets of social housing too.
And, like much of Outer London, it’s changing. Good schools, cheaper housing, plenty of open space, the Northern and Piccadilly lines and mainline trains into Moorgate; they’ve all fuelled a shift from Inner London to Outer, with incoming residents bringing with them that characteristic London mix of relative affluence and socially progressive attitudes which has seen the Tories increasingly struggling in the capital.
It’s a shift seen clearly in the 2016 EU referendum result, with the constituency voting 59 per cent Remain – adding to the pressure on Villiers, currently Boris Johnson’s environment secretary, who, as a prominent Leave campaigner and European Research Group member, voted against Theresa May’s withdrawal agreement at all three readings.
And it’s being noted on the doorstep. “Streets of classic Betjemanesque suburban semis, once solid Tory, are now producing plenty of Labour promises for canvassers, from the younger incomers and the many south Asian families now living there,” says one experienced Labour campaigner.
Chipping Barnet might actually have changed hands in 2017, had Labour read the runes and targeted the seat, rather than directing activists to nearby marginal Enfield North, which the party held with a majority of more than 10,000 – though Villiers too may have misread the signs, apparently also spending much of the 2017 polling day there.
This time round there’s no such complacency. “It’s seen as a big seat, and lots of people are out campaigning,” says Whysall. She doesn’t have “official” Momentum endorsement – the organisation backed her main rival when she was reselected a year ago – but activists from across London have been volunteering. Whysall is also well-known in the constituency, unusual for a non-MP, say campaigners, and a well-informed electorate widely recognise they have a highly marginal two-horse race on their hands.
Brexit, predictably, is the key doorstep issue, particularly for Labour voters, with Tory to Labour switchers identified too. “The choice couldn’t be more stark,” says Whysall, who was one of the first candidates to sign the “Remain Labour” pledge, committing to campaign for remain in a future referendum. “I’m very clear on how I would vote, while Theresa Villiers voted against May’s deal more than Jacob Rees-Mogg and Boris Johnson did.
“A lot of Tory voters backed Remain, and even Leavers in the area tend not to be hard-line no dealers. It’s a watershed election. Whatever comes of it will determine the next 20, 30, 50 years. That’s the crux of Brexit. We want a close relationship with Europe, more internationalist, not an isolationist, stark free trade approach. People are telling us they are reluctant to vote for Theresa Villiers because of Brexit, and they get that the best option is a public vote.”
With tactical voting clearly at the front of residents’ minds, and even the prospect of voters “lending” their support to Labour this time round, Conservative campaigners have been talking up the Liberal Democrats – though that may prove counter-productive with supporters reluctant to back a hard Brexit stance and reluctant to back Labour too. Meanwhile Labour reports Lib Dem voters offering a tactical vote to Labour.
Anti-Semitism is a doorstep issue though, as it seemed to be in the 2018 local council elections in the area, when Labour lost seats. Whysall is in the odd position of having been backed by the Jewish Labour Movement to become Labour candidate, yet not officially enjoying their support in the election. That is because the group decided in October it would not back any Labour candidates in non-Labour held seats and would only support incumbents who had been “unwavering in their support” for the Movement. However, Whysall has signed up to the “Ten Commitments” set out in the Board of Deputies of British Jews’ Jewish Manifesto. “People know I’ve not held my tongue on antisemitism,” she said. “We should be doing a lot more.”
And there’s hostility to Jeremy Corbyn too. While “disliking the leader” is recognised by experienced canvassers as a reason for not supporting Labour that is often given by voters who wouldn’t vote Labour in any event, “the hostility is somewhat greater this time”, one says.
Whysall, who launched her campaign with London Mayor Sadiq Khan and Dave Prentis, general secretary of public sector union UNISON, says “people know I’m not Momentum”.
Meanwhile, as Whysall points out, Villiers is doing her best not to talk about Brexit. It’s hard to find a mention of the issue on her campaign website or Facebook page, which highlight instead her commitment to opposing antisemitism and supporting the state of Israel, alongside local issues, “protecting our suburban environment”, opposing housing development on High Barnet tube station car park and backing the Green Belt and local town centres.
For north London born and bred Whysall, an employment lawyer who clearly knows the area well, local issues are about “lots of problems under the surface” – left-behind social housing, schools funding cuts and nurseries threatened with closure, the performance of the local, Conservative-controlled council – underpinned by almost a decade of austerity.
She doesn’t oppose the High Barnet tube station development proposals outright either: “There is a need for affordable housing. Transport hubs are the obvious place, and new homes will help revitalise the high street.”
She’s worked with councillors and Mayor Khan to improve the scheme – now 300 new homes rather than the 450 originally proposed, six and seven storey blocks rather than 10 and 12, better bus access, more trees, local job and apprentice opportunities during construction – and is waiting to see final plans.
Where Villiers does stray from local issues, it’s on Corbyn not Brexit. She told the Times that “anxiety about his economic policy and, of course, his record on anti-semitism” are expressed on the doorstep most often. She highlights to voters that “this is a constituency which could have a significant impact on the national result.”
But, overall, Labour’s vote is holding up. And as one Labour doorstep veteran says: “The shifting demographics and effective targeting mean that, all things being politically equal, Labour would win this seat with a couple of thousand votes to spare.”
But in this neck-and-neck race, if it’s the Brexit election, it’s also the Corbyn and antisemitism election too. “For many now in the ‘don’t know’ column, their wider support for Labour or opposition to Brexit and the right-wing Tory pitch will override that. For some it won’t, making things really unpredictable,” the campaigner says. “Too close to call feels about right to me, but with any shift in the polls towards Labour this is a likely Labour win.”
And the latest London poll for the Evening Standard suggests that shift may be underway, with Labour squeezing the Lib Dem vote and up eight points since November to 47 per cent, albeit still below its 54.5 per cent 2017 score.
The first Battle of Barnet was a decisive confrontation, giving victory to King Edward IV, apparently a personable and charismatic figure, and ushering in 14 years of Yorkist rule. Could the current battle be as decisive? A full list of candidates standing for the Chipping Barnet seat can be seen here.
Photograph: Barnet Council.
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