Laugh all you like when you get to the part where Michael Foster says that in the early hours of Friday 9 June he’ll be commiserating with Jeremy Corbyn, having replaced him as MP for Islington North. Mock his ambition. Marvel at his nerve. The truth remains that there are Labour voters in Corbyn’s seemingly impregnable North London seat who share Foster’s view that Corbyn is an ineffective Labour leader and should go. They said so on the doorstep on Sunday morning.
“You’re among friends here,” said a male resident of Beversbrook Road, N19. “I’m basically centrist Labour, though I’ve always had time for the Lib Dems. Put me down on your list. I’ll be voting for you this time.”
Labour flyers appeared in windows here and there. The Greens were the only others represented. But, further on, Foster secured a firm endorsement of his doorstep line that until “Jeremy” is got rid of there is no prospect of progressive social change. “I agree,” said the woman who’d answered his knock. “Well done!”
On Gatcombe Road, Foster encountered a Labour voter wrestling with Brexit doubts. The Lib Dem pledge to hold a referendum on the terms of the final deal held some appeal. He believed Corbyn had let the Remain side down. Foster strongly agreed: “You’re so right about Jeremy. I’m very strongly for Remain.”
Of course, this canvass sample was not scientific. Of course, people tend to be polite. What’s more, Foster is not easy to say no to: he is best known to the politics-consuming public as the long-time, large numbers Labour donor who unsuccessfully challenged Corbyn’s right to automatically be on the ballot paper for last year’s leadership contest and for being outspoken on the issue of Labour and antisemitism, but his combativeness is matched by an exuberant charm those Islingtonians struggled to resist. For all that, though, familiar doubts about Corbyn were clearly present in his own backyard. “He needs local support,” said a Tytherton Road loyalist who would not be moved. “But I agree with what you say.”
What Foster says about Corbyn is sometimes generous but mostly bruising. On the knocker he was willing to describe him as “a lovely man” and “a good constituency MP” but never failed to insist that, as a party leader, “Jeremy” just isn’t up to it. Running under the banner Labour for the Common Good – a name previously used by a Labour parliamentary group set up in 2015, incidentally – his campaign literature pointedly posits a politics “for the few and for the many” [my italics] and hammers home the message that a collective social mission is needed for all of Britain, including many who live in Islington North. His rosette is crimson. His logo is a white rose, which looks awfully like Labour’s red one.
Sunday’s excursion was in a segment of affluent Islington, west of Holloway Road in Turfnell Park. There, handsome, three-storey, four-bedroom, red brick houses are on sale for £1.6m. But, as Foster stressed time and again to his doorstep listeners, while the borough is widely gentrified, great deprivation exists there too. Islington is a shockingly high 13th in the national indices of multiple deprivation league table and the fifth highest in London (only Hackney, Barking and Dagenham, Tower Hamlets and Newham score worse). It is still a substantially working-class borough, with more than 40% social housing. Low pay has been increasing. A high 43% of its 19 year-olds lack adequate qualifications. Its child poverty rate of 38% is close to the London-wide average. Finsbury Park ward in Corbyn’s territory is its worst off of all.
Foster argues for more vocational training, local banks and credit unions. But mostly he argues, and did so fervently on Sunday, that until Corbyn goes there will be no chance of a Labour national government to help address the problems faced by those many in Islington who aren’t well off. “I love the Labour Party,” he insisted to the voters, setting out his activist cv: joined it in 1974; canvassed for it for decades; contested Camborne and Redruth in Cornwall for the party in 2015. And he was candid about why he has now left it: “I want to get rid of Jeremy.”
He became wealthy as a showbiz agent and although, at 59, he does less of that now, he remains a bit of a legend in that world. These days, Foster also invests his expertise in two charities: Creative Access finds opportunities in media industries for young black and Asian people; the Wish Centre, operating in Harrow and Merton, helps young people with recovery from self harm, violence and neglect. He speaks with pride about his parents, whom he describes as “much more left wing than me”. His mother worked on drafting the Attlee government’s 1948 Children’s Act. His father, a Jewish refugee from Austria, came to London in 1938 and ran the Anglo-Austrian Society, a charity promoting cultural links and dialogue between Austria and the UK. “Because of them I’ve always thought you ought to work for the common good.” It’s a very different strand of Labour tradition from Corbyn’s.
Buzzing from house to house in the company of just one helper, a lively, diligent woman called Nashreen, Foster gradually refined his patter, as canvassers always do. Before too long he found his ideal line: “I want to bring Labour back to its voters.” Later, we settled in his campaign headquarters, an office in a start-ups warren near Arsenal’s Emirates stadium, and conducted the following quick interview.
Question: Why exactly are you making this challenge to Jeremy Corbyn in his own backyard?
Answer: The social changes made by Labour politicians like Atlee, Wilson, Callaghan, Blair and Brown have made have been the most important towards lessening deprivation in our society. Only by being in power were they able to make the changes that most Labour voters wish to see. The extremism engendered by the Corbynistas and the lack of leadership means that Labour cannot do more of those things. Jeremy is a head-in-the-clouds socialist theoretician. The only way we can return Labour to its voters is to have an acceptable range of policies put forward by a leader capable of implementing them in power. Since no seems able to rid us of this troublesome priest, I thought I would do it myself.
Q: You’ve got this catchphrase on your literature: “politics for the few and for the many”. It seems to define a key difference in attitude between you and the present leadership.
A: You absolutely expect the few, that is those people who are very, very wealthy, to bear the tax burden that pays for the many. That is absolutely right. But you cannot do it by punishing and excluding them. A Labour Party that tries to punish and exclude richer people and those who are entrepreneurial and in business is a Labour Party that is going to fail. I am shocked that in 2017 they have presented a manifesto with slogans that, in effect, are saying not only are we going to tax you more, which is perfectly reasonable, but also make the assumption that you do not care about poor people.
The impression I get is that if you earn £26,000 or less you are a good person, and if you earn £80,000 or more you are a bad person. I’m not quite sure what they think of people in the middle. You look at that [draft] manifesto and all the things it wants to do are admirable, but it’s a bit like the child who wants to eat every sweet in the sweet shop. And you certainly cannot eat all the sweets in the sweet shop if you haven’t got the money to pay for them. There’s no-one within Labour expounding how to create wealth and to tax it in a coherent way.
Q: So let’s imagine it’s the early hours of Friday morning, 9 June, and you’re standing next to Jeremy…
A: I’m commiserating with him, because he’s lost…!
Q: But what would define success for you in the Islington North election?
A: One more vote than Jeremy. It’s really simple. I am standing to beat Jeremy to give Labour back to the voters so that we can have a country that as soon as possible ends current levels of social deprivation. Jeremy’s never going to do that, so I am doing it. I never do anything unless I believe in it. If you set targets and you believe in them and you work really hard, you can hit them every time. You’ve got to have a clear strategy and a real belief. Standing here is giving me a lot of pain. Not one of my friends in the Labour Party – and I have many, many, many friends in the Labour Party – has spoken to me at all, emailed me at all, texted me at all, since the day I declared, because if it was found out that they had, they would be expelled. I am a loyal person. I do not like standing against a party I have supported for so long. But Jeremy has to go. My beliefs are more important to me than my loyalty to the party. He has to go. However nice a man he is and he is a lovely man..
Q: Do you sincerely believe that he’s a lovely man?
A: Well, I think he’s also a very arrogant, grumpy, difficult man. His heart’s in the right place. But his blinkered commitment to a socialist utopia just gets in the way.
Q: Wouldn’t even just one less vote than Jeremy in Islington North be pretty good on 8 June?
A: No. Only winners count in politics. It will be a horrible defeat if I do not beat him. It will not only be a defeat for me, it will be a defeat for the whole of the country.
Michael Foster intends to have personally canvassed every street in Islington North by polling day. His party website is here. To assist him, join his Common Good Register by emailing: Nashreen@Labourforthecommongood.org