For These Labour Candidates, Brexit Might Be The Difference Between Winning And Losing
In an election that was supposed to be about Brexit, but where the parties have hardly discussed the issue, two Labour candidates tell BuzzFeed News it's been central to their campaigns.
Tulip Siddiq, who's seeking re-election as the Labour MP for the north London seat of Hampstead and Kilburn, has been called a “Remoaniac” by UKIP. And for her, it’s a badge of pride.
“I mean if UKIP have a problem with me, that means I’m doing something right. I think having an alliance with UKIP in the way the Tories have is very worrying for mainstream politics,” she tells BuzzFeed News.
We meet outside Finchley Road underground station, where there is a stack of copies of the Camden New Journal – its front page is about a visit to the area by Justine Greening, the education secretary. As a marginal constituency, Hampstead and Kilburn is attracting much attention.
Labour won the seat in 2015, when Siddiq pipped the Tories at the post by just 1,138 votes. It’s a place where 75% of voters opted to remain in the EU, and an area with 17,000 EU nationals. It’s a similar situation in Ealing Central and Acton, in the west of the capital, where Labour gained a seat in the Commons by a slim 274 votes over the Conservatives at the last election.
In both these London constituencies, the vote in last June’s EU referendum was overwhelmingly to stay in Europe. In both, the Labour MPs voted against the triggering of Article 50.
And there’s one more crucial factor: In both of these seats, UKIP has pulled out.
At a national level, discussions about the UK leaving the EU have been surprisingly minimal for what was dubbed the “Brexit election” – with Theresa May promising more homes and jobs while Jeremy Corbyn claims there is “24 hours to save the NHS” on the last day of the campaign. But in these two seats it is the issue the two Labour candidates are fighting on: They believe it’s the issue people care about enough to re-elect them.
On the day the Evening Standard splash reads “Jeremy Corbyn in shock surge as Labour leader now more popular than Theresa May in London”, Siddiq, walking past the fruit and veg stalls on the high street, says she is cautious of polls.
“I think it's a really unpredictable election, especially for my seat. It's hard to know how people will vote but this seat has always been unpredictable – the bookies have often got it wrong,” she says, pointing to the 2010 election in which her predecessor, Glenda Jackson, won by just 42 votes.
“Brexit has come up an awful lot on the doorstep. Seventy-five per cent of my constituents voted to remain,” Siddiq says. She has proven to be an independent-minded MP on the issue, voting against the Labour whip to trigger Article 50 and losing her frontbench position as shadow education minister as a result.
Though she enjoyed the shadow cabinet role, she says: “I felt it was worth doing that because Brexit and the referendum was so important to people in the constituency, and it's nice to know when I'm on the doorstep people do recognise that.”
Siddiq says she will be fighting against an “extremely hard Brexit”, adding: “I fear the prime minister is going that way. I do fear. We need to really think about what we want for our country, and the future of our country, and for my daughter.”
She criticises May for calling the election in the middle of negotiations with Europe, describing it as “an opportunistic decision”. She adds: “I also keep hearing about Theresa May's plan. What is the plan? All I can tell you – and for someone who reads a lot of what she says, and is well-informed – all I can tell you is Brexit means Brexit.
"And the Tory candidate here – on every leaflet it says: ‘I endorse Theresa May's plan.’ And I'm like, ‘Please tell me the plan, because I would like to know what the plan is, and so would the rest of the country.’"
One Conservative leaflet that has been circulating on Twitter, which Labour campaigners have seized on, quotes The Sun: “Sky-high immigration would continue for years under Jeremy Corbyn.” It’s being distributed in a multicultural London constituency with thousands of EU citizens.
The local Conservative association did not respond to a request for an interview with Claire-Louise Leyland, the local Tory candidate. When BuzzFeed News called asked about how significant the Remain vote would be, we were told Brexit wasn’t the biggest issue on the doorstep.
Yet, as BuzzFeed News has revealed, seats such as Hampstead and Kilburn have been targeted on Facebook by Tory attack videos warning the UK faces a Brexit disaster if Corbyn is allowed to carry out negotiations. One such video has been viewed 1.4 million times.
Siddiq says: “The EU nationals we have – there are 17,000 here – I know they can't vote, but the ones that live here are part of the fabric, and they're part of the successive generations that have come before them. They contribute a lot to the local economy, to the community, they're part of the Hampstead and Kilburn family and the tapestry that makes up Hampstead and Kilburn.
“I think it's very divisive to send out messages like that, and they've sent one out to every household and they’ve been called out on Twitter for it.
"It may do well in other parts of the country – it doesn't do well in my constituency and I hope people see through it.”
Oliver Denton, who is working on Siddiq’s campaign, says: “The Conservatives’ election materials – highlighting the perils of immigration – have gone down like a lead balloon.” It’s an area where a number of local representatives are European, he says, and where a Tory councillor even resigned over the party’s stance on Brexit.
“It’s impossible to live and work in our area without personally knowing a European who has come to Britain and contributed in a huge way,” Denton says. “It feels like a huge misjudgment and has come up time and time again on the doorstep.”
Yet in an area where Brexit is an important issue, when asked why voters wouldn’t put an X in the box for the Liberal Democrats – who have pledged to give voters another say on Brexit with a second referendum on the final deal – Siddiq says a vote for the Lib Dems in such a tight race is a vote for the Tories.
“In this constituency, the Lib Dems will not win. They've always come third by a long way,” she says.
“In an area where there’s 72% Remain, I will remain a Remainer,” local resident Rosamund tells Rupa Huq, who has been her Labour MP for the last two years, at the front door of her house in leafy Acton. She says she will give her a vote. “I won’t take a poster though.”
Knocking on doors with activists ahead of Thursday’s election, Huq carries a handful of leaflets. At the top, the first pledge states that Labour will fight “against hard Brexit.” On the reverse, Huq is quoted as saying: “The Tory candidate is a career politician who campaigned for a hard Brexit … A vote for the Lib Dems here will mean you get a hard Brexit Tory MP. Don’t risk it. Vote Labour.”
“The thing is, the whole election has been framed in terms of a personality contest between the two leaders,” Huq says, in between speaking to local residents.
“Even with the Conservative opponent of mine, people [don’t know] much about her because all their leaflets are talking about standing with Theresa May on Brexit,” she says.
David Lammy, who's standing for re-election in Tottenham, has also come to help with canvassing – going up and down the stairs of a local estate and knocking on the doors. “They are talking about Brexit – here and in London, every next voter is an EU national or knows someone who is an EU national,” he says.
“London voted to remain in droves, and of course candidates like Rupa have stuck their neck above the parapet, to slurs and racist insults, and as a consequence have been recognised as brave and courageous in what has been a difficult period.
When asked about Tory Remain voters, Lammy says: "I think in London there are lots of Tories who are Remain Tories. They may be fiscally conservative but they haven't been impressed by the way the campaign has been run.”
It’s been a dramatic few weeks in Ealing Central and Acton, of the UK's most marginal seats – with the Greens pulling out early on in what was a tactical withdrawal to boost Labour's chances, only for UKIP to follow suit in support of the Conservatives’ position on Brexit.
Then came a row erupting over the borough’s hospital, with Labour accusing the Tories of not protecting Ealing hospital and claiming the Tory candidate, Joy Morrissey, was a “hard Brexit activist”. Morrissey pulled out of hustings and threatened legal action over claims made in Labour leaflets.
Huq says of Morrissey: “She's just saying she's Theresa May's representative, just says give me a mandate to give Theresa May a strong hand – which is not what people want. It's been misjudged.”
While there are questions on the doorstep about the status of the local hospital, the issue of leaving Europe is one that the local Labour party wants to keep at the forefront of its campaign, and has certainly had some traction during canvassing.
Huq says there are 13,000 EU nationals in her constituency, adding: “On the day after the [referendum] result I had a headmaster say there were tears in the playground.” Asked for her thoughts on what Tory voters who wanted to remain in Europe would do, she says: “Well, we found some of them are coming directly to us.”
She adds: “The argument is in a democracy you need opposition MPs. Independent-minded ones are not a bad thing, and just to give her [Theresa May] an untrammelled majority to do what she wants – people find that quite distasteful.”
When pressed on whether Corbyn resonates with voters in the area, with many constituents working in the City, Huq says: “Nobody has mentioned it at all today so far. But I think now people have seen him in the debates people are warming to him.”
She goes on to say: “Theresa May isn't on the ballot paper, or Jeremy Corbyn for that matter.
“I mean [from] last election none of those three leaders are still there: Cameron, Clegg, Miliband are all gone. But I'm still here.”
Andy, a voter who did not give his last name, walks up to Huq to tell her his wife is a fan of hers, despite usually being a Lib Dem voter. They have a long chat, and afterwards Andy tells BuzzFeed News: “I think the government wanted a strong hand in parliament, but it won’t make a difference on the European stage.
“Really the only thing that comes across is the strong leadership mantra, but ultimately parliament decides. We usually vote Lib Dems, but my wife is keen on the way Rupa has helped the local constituents against the grain.”
Although there are a few Labour posters on windows in the area, we also pass a Conservative sign outside a house, which the Labour activists jokingly tell us not to take a photo of. We try to contact the local Tory party multiple times – but they do not respond to emails or phone calls.
The next day while in the area, BuzzFeed News manages to catch up with Morrissey while she’s campaigning; she’s in a buoyant mood, her sunglasses up on her head. She’s accompanied by activists – one travels around on a scooter – and has even been joined by the prime minister during the campaign. As Morrissey and her team head down a leafy residential road, one man who assures them they’ve got his vote says: “If you decrease taxes you’ll be alright.”
Another voter, while parking up, winds down her window and asks the activists: “I do have a question – what’s your view of the hospital closing in Charing Cross?” One replies that the hospital isn’t closing.
Morrissey says the biggest issue in the area is affordable housing, and also being tough on crime and antisocial behaviour. Asked about her wanting to leave Europe in an area that voted to Remain, she says: “I think for me it doesn't matter whether you voted Leave or Remain; we now have the democratic mandate, and I know a lot of people are upset with the result.
“But what I believe is Theresa May will be the best person to do those negotiations and that I will be the best person to advocate for the unique needs of this constituency.
Morrissey, who is American but stayed in the UK after studying in the UK, says: “I'm an immigrant, 40% of our population here is nonwhite British – I understand the struggles and anxieties people are feeling. I want to own my own home just like so many people my age, and so I can relate to this community, which has welcomed me with open arms.”