Election 2024: Constituency profile – Chipping Barnet

Election 2024: Constituency profile – Chipping Barnet

Just two days before the general election was called, Chipping Barnet’s Conservative MP Theresa Villiers was on her feet in Parliament, railing against what she called the “madness” of Low Traffic Neighbourhoods – schemes which she said punished people “just for trying to get around”.

It was par for the course for the veteran politician, who was first elected to the Commons in 2005 after six years as a member of the European Parliament and went on to serve four years as Northern Ireland secretary. She’s been a fierce critic of bus lanes, 20 mph speed limits and the Ultra-Low Emission Zone expansion, as well as an ardent Brexit-backer.

Most notable, perhaps, is her outspoken opposition to development, prompting some to describe her as the “patron saint of Nimbyism”. She led a successful Tory backbench revolt forcing the government to scrap new homes targets for local authorities and has warned that areas like hers are at risk of turning into “East Berlin”.

But time may be running out for the suburban warrior, as it almost did in 2017 when she scraped home just 353 votes ahead of Labour. It was close again in 2019, when her winning margin increased but only to 1,212 votes, leaving the seat still one of the most marginal in the capital.

Brexit was a significant issue five years ago in a constituency where 59 per cent voted Remain in the referendum. But antisemitism and Jeremy Corbyn were important too in a seat where some seven per cent of the population is Jewish. Labour locally blamed its losses at the 2018 Barnet Council elections on its then party leader’s failure to deal with antisemitism, and that factor was still clearly a concern a year later.

This time round things look different. In the 2022 council elections a Labour landslide saw the party take control of Barnet Council for the first time, going from winning 25 to 41 council seats while the Tories slumped from 38 to 22. In what Centre for London chief executive of the time, Nick Bowes, had cited as a key test of how successfully the party had “shaken off Jeremy Corbyn’s toxic legacy on antisemitism”, Labour had come through.

Keir Starmer was in Barnet that year to launch the party’s local campaign and he was quick to visit again this year. A meeting with Jewish residents brought him an early boost, with Board of Deputies of British Jews vice-president Edwin Shuker telling the Labour leader he would be voting for his party for the first time.

As in other parts of outer London, demographics are shifting too. Incoming residents seeking cheaper housing, along with good transport links and schools and more open space, bring with them that London mix of relative affluence and socially progressive attitudes which has seen the Tories increasingly struggling in the capital.

Chipping Barnet still, in the main, looks like commuter suburbia, though somewhat more diverse than it used to be: well-educated, 67 per cent homeowners, 64 per cent white, 80 per cent car owners. The average age remains a little higher than the London average, but the Electoral Calculus consultancy now characterises the demographic as “Kind Yuppies” – socially liberal and decidedly anti-Brexit.

Something of a shift can be seen “below the line” on the website of the venerable Barnet Society, with lively debate by no means always backing Villiers’s positions. And the MP has suffered a recent rebuff over her long-standing opposition to new homes on a piece of former farmland behind Barnet hospital.

Not only did the council’s planning committee approve the 115-home plan, including five-storey blocks of flats, but the scheme, to the dismay of the Barnet Society, was also backed by the Barnet Residents Association, which argued that they could not ignore the importance of Barnet’s target to build 2,300 homes over the next five years.

Labour candidate Dan Tomlinson is an economist who started his career at the Treasury before moving to the Resolution Foundation think tank and, more recently, the Joseph Rowntree Foundation. He served briefly as a councillor in Tower Hamlets but has now settled in Barnet and started a family.

In some ways he exemplifies the demographic shift in the borough. But he also grew up on free school meals and was homeless for a time as a child. His campaign, boosted by plenty of support from neighbouring party activists, emphasises Starmer’s “change” message.

“I believe it’s time for a new generation of politicians, who will get on with making things better in this country,” he says. In this latest battle of the suburbs, that time may well have come.

X/Twitter: Charles Wright and OnLondon. Support OnLondon.co.uk and its writers for just £5 a month or £50 a year and get things for your money too. Photo from Barnet Council.

Categories: Analysis

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