Britain's resurgent leftists hope Thursday's local elections bring unprecedented success in London's richest boroughs
The Socialist Republic of Kensington?
As a bird chirruped for spring outside a handsome redbrick parade near London’s Sloane Square, one left-wing activist was awed by her surroundings.
“I can’t believe we are canvassing somewhere called Carlisle Mansions,” quips Anastasia Palikeras. Until last June, the 22-year old had never knocked on a door, less than a year later she is helping to organise a swathe of ‘Unseat’ events. Hers is the platform that Momentum, a faction fiercely loyal to Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn, is using to storm areas that have for decades staunchly supported the Conservative party.
While the borough of Kensington and Chelsea is the wealthiest in the UK, it also has some of the country’s highest levels of poverty. Emma Dent-Coad shocked many even in the Labour party by winning one of the borough's parliamentary seats in 2017’s general election. Now Labour are attempting to take control of the council for the first time.
Labour’s assault on this ‘true blue’ heartland would have been unthinkable not so long ago. Then came the fire at Grenfell Tower, a block of public housing flats that burnt down last summer killing 71 residents. For many, the tragedy served as a deadly microcosm of the UK’s growing inequality. At the time, Labour MP David Lammy declared it “a tale of two cities- this is what Dickens was writing about in the century before the last”.
The Labour opposition upended expectations in last year’s snap election, cementing Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership of the party, and a year on, those who once mocked his chances of making it into Downing Street concede it is a real possibility.
Dozens of Momentum activists started on Thursday outside the World’s End estate, a council housing estate, before filtering out across the constituency as voters filed in to polling stations.
Owen Jones is the headline act for the ‘Unseat’ events, one of four he is set to appear at on Thursday. Tellingly the others - Westminster, Wandsworth and Barnet – are all Conservative held councils. The novelty of campaigning in such a ward he calls the “Socialist Republic of Kensington”, doesn’t appear lost on him.
“My first campaigning in Kensington was last Saturday”.
“We would never have dreamed of campaigning in Kensington and Chelsea to make serious gains. I think our new strategy is that we will campaign anywhere, we don’t regard anywhere as a no-go area. We are going into boroughs that Labour would never have dreamed of going in to”.
“This idea that a borough like this should be automatically Conservative is false, it’s a borough with a huge housing crisis, we saw the most extreme of that here with the Grenfell horror”.
Mr Jones buzzes the door of redbrick mansion of luxury flats: “No cold calling, give me the leaflets and I’ll make sure they get them”, responds the building porter in his three-piece suit. Canvassing here is a logistical nightmare.
Speaking to the crowd of activists who have gathered, Mrs Dent-Coad insists “Labour look after everyone, whoever they vote for. It’s not about class… it’s about our shared values”.
How does one pitch the socialist message on the doorstep of a £5-million house? “We saw in the last election that Labour won over people who were struggling, but also won over very affluent voters," Mr Jones said.
"Just because people are doing very well doesn’t mean they don’t care about the society they live in.
“The affluent suffer from things like cuts to infrastructure – roads and police, to firefighters. We know affluent voters did vote for Labour at the last election”, insists Mr Jones.
“Everyone’s angry about the cuts, and the council caters for people regardless of their background. Everyone wants a strong council,” he adds.
Matthew Goodwin, a senior fellow at Chatham House, insists the current shift pre-dates the rise of Corbynism. “Since the 1980’s the [Labour] party has been increasingly moving ahead of the Conservative party in London, it reflects a broader pattern of Labour doing very well in the big cities.”
“This is partly wrapped up with the legacy of the Brexit referendum, we saw London shift strongly to remain. It also reflects a broader international pattern of centre-left liberal parties doing well in the big cities – Bill de Blasio in New York, Emmanuel Macron in Paris”.
“Labour has been doing increasingly well in London for years, so this is not a Corbyn factor, Corbyn appeals to the younger voters who tend to congregate in big cities and university towns, but this shift has been a long time coming”, he tells The National.
But whether or not Mr Corbyn is responsible for London’s Labour shift, it is undeniable his leadership of the party has galvanised grass roots activism. Regardless of whether or not Kensington and Chelsea council turns red on Thursday night, as Mr Jones says “the fact that we’re even campaigning here says something”.