‘This is the dirtiest campaign I’ve ever seen’

‘This is the dirtiest campaign I’ve ever seen’

Tom Slater reports from Chingford and Woodford Green, a high-profile marginal where tempers are flaring.

Tom Slater

Tom Slater
Deputy Editor

Topics Brexit Politics UK

I’m in a pub in Woodford Green, a leafy suburb of north-east London, and Iain Duncan Smith is showing me a photo of a dead rat.

It was sent to the office of ‘IDS’, Conservative MP for Chingford and Woodford Green for the past 27 years, the previous morning. It is the most gruesome example yet, he says, of the nastiness of the election campaign this time around.

‘Genuinely, at the constituency level, this is the nastiest and dirtiest [campaign] I’ve ever seen’, he says, sipping tea before heading out door-knocking on another cold evening, a week out from polling day.

Pointing to the wobbly writing on the envelope the rat was delivered in, he notes that whoever sent it must have written the address while the semi-decomposed creature was already inside: ‘Pretty smart, that was.’

This wasn’t an isolated incident. The front of Duncan Smith’s local Conservative office was spray-painted with the words ‘Tories out’ at the end of November, and he says he’s been swamped with threats and abuse on social media.

He points the finger at Momentum, the pro-Corbyn campaign group that has been active in his seat. ‘There’s no question in my mind that elements of Momentum are behind all of this.’ Labour, he says, ‘should be rooting this stuff out’.

His challenger in the election tomorrow is Faiza Shaheen, a 36-year-old economist, the director of the CLASS think-tank, and a staunch Corbyn ally. For her part, Shaheen has condemned the abuse, noting that she herself has faced ‘intimidation and threats’.

But Duncan Smith is less than convinced. ‘The Labour Party of course says “Oh, it’s terrible”, but they know very well that Momentum behaves completely independently, but to support [them].’

‘I’ve stood on the streets of Northern Ireland, I’ve been a soldier, I’m not bothered when people threaten me’, he adds. ‘My problem is people who work for me, they’re volunteers for God’s sake.’

Certainly, there is a tension in the air, even leaving aside the nastiness at the campaign’s margins. Indeed, so much is at stake in this particular suburban race, and tempers have been fraying.

The Chingford area has been Tory for as long as anyone around here can remember. Winston Churchill represented it for more than 20 years, as did the hardline Thatcherite Norman Tebbit – nicknamed the ‘Chingford skinhead’ by Spitting Image.

But things are changing. At the last election, Duncan Smith’s majority was slashed to 2,438, after Labour’s vote surged. Chingford and Woodford Green is now one of the most high-profile marginals in tomorrow’s election.

IDS – a former Tory leader and cabinet minister – is one of the biggest Tory beasts at risk. And Shaheen – who was born and raised in the constituency – is in with a chance of bagging one of the biggest ‘Portillo moments’ of tomorrow night.

Labour has been throwing the kitchen sink at this seat. In recent weeks, star-studded rallies have taken place every weekend, featuring everyone from shadow cabinet ministers Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry to pro-Labour journalists Owen Jones and Paul Mason. Even Ken Loach did a stint.

Duncan Smith is unimpressed. ‘They do love a show and tell’, he tells me. ‘So there are lots of numbers coming up, but you stand at the top by the station, after those things are over, and only about half stay behind. The rest all get on to the train and go back somewhere else. They like the big photograph, but then they’re not all there to work.’

The actor Hugh Grant was the guest of honour at two Labour rallies in the constituency last Wednesday. He’s been campaigning with Lib Dems, Labourites and anti-Brexit ex-Tories in various seats to try to deprive Boris Johnson of a majority. (Shaheen backs a second referendum, and would campaign to remain.)

Hugh Grant addresses a Labour rally in Highams Park.
Hugh Grant addresses a Labour rally in Highams Park.

‘What an incredible service you here in East Woodford and Chingford [sic] would do for the country not just to give us a member of parliament like Faiza, but to take out one as ghastly as Iain Duncan Smith’, Grant told a cheering crowd of a few hundred people, opposite the Tesco in Highams Park.

Once the speeches were over, the crowds thinned to just a few dozen who were ready to go out canvassing. Many of them weren’t from the area, but they were keen to help out in what they see as a key and symbolic battle in this election.

Felix, a 24-year-old student and Labour member, is up for the night from Deptford. ‘Iain Duncan Smith is basically the incarnation of everything terrible about the Conservative Party’, he tells me. ‘It would be fantastic to see him out of politics because that’s one less heartless reptile.’

Universal Credit comes up a lot among activists. Labour says Duncan Smith’s flagship reform as work and pensions secretary, which aimed to simplify benefits payments, pushed more people into poverty. (Duncan Smith maintains the problem with the scheme was that it was fatally underfunded.)

Perhaps the bigger threat for the Conservatives in this seat is not an influx of activists from other parts of London, but an influx of residents from other parts of London, which has been quietly shifting the demographics of the area for years.

A place long associated with White Van Man and the aspirational working- and lower-middle class is now home to many more metropolitan voters, priced out of Hackney, Islington and even nearby Walthamstow.

‘Coming from Islington and Hackney and places like that, they tend to have already brought their beliefs with them’, says Duncan Smith. ‘They’re all working. They all earn reasonable incomes. And welcome to them. But I think, over time, they’re the sort of group that we need to talk to.’

I dare say many of them won’t be that receptive. I speak to Richard Ashby, a 33-year-old academic, who is doing his shopping in Highams Park, a trendy area where many newcomers are settling. ‘I think things have changed and Iain Duncan Smith doesn’t really represent the area anymore and the people in it’, he says.

This is what Labour is banking on.

Faiza Shaheen is a hard person to pin down, but she offers to take a few questions as we’re walking out of a hustings at Bancroft’s School – in between students interrupting her for selfies. ‘I barely get a chance to talk to her as well’, jokes her husband, as he tries to lead the way out.

Faiza Shaheen, appearing on the BBC. Picture by: YouTube
Faiza Shaheen, appearing on the BBC. Picture by: YouTube

I ask her why she thinks she is the person to turn Chingford red. ‘I don’t think it’s about me’, she says. ‘Demographically, this area has changed a lot. I’m a local candidate, and I think that means something to people… The demographic change here points towards more Labour values and the values I stand for.’

‘I think people are fed up of Iain Duncan Smith’, she goes on. ‘They do recognise that his policies have hurt disabled people and people who have been on benefits.’ This issue is personal for her: Shaheen’s mother, who died in 2017, was reassessed for benefits while she was waiting for a heart transplant. She said the experience humiliated her.

But Shaheen’s close association with Jeremy Corbyn has proved to be a major problem. At one of the Hugh Grant rallies, Jewish protesters interrupted Grant, demanding to know why he was supporting a party that is currently being investigated for anti-Semitism by the Equality and Human Rights Commission.

After some uncertain burbling from Grant about him supporting various parties, Shaheen took the question head-on, and struck a conciliatory note. ‘I’ve been really clear that mistakes were made in the Labour Party, in not dealing with those complaints fast enough… I’m very sorry and the party is very sorry, and more has been done to address that.’

But she was also keen to move the conversation on to her own experiences. And what might have been an attempt to show solidarity with other victims of prejudice ended up sounding like changing the subject. ‘I am being subject to Islamophobia’, she told the crowd. ‘[I]t’s really upsetting, actually, being a woman of colour running here.’

She has highlighted the case of John Moss, a local Tory councillor who was suspended and required to go through diversity training earlier this year over a series of anti-Islam statements. (He said that ‘every 11-year-old girl’ should be scared of Islam, and railed agains what he sees as ‘Islam’s barbarism, its sexism, its racism, its homophobia’.)

Shaheen also accused the local Liberal Democrat candidate, Geoffrey Seeff, of ‘engaging in a dog-whistle Islamophobic campaign’ against her. This was in response to an open letter he wrote to Shaheen in October, raising Corbyn’s praise for the Islamic Human Rights Commission, a charity criticised for its support for the Iranian theocracy.

Seeff’s letter asked Shaheen how she can ‘respect and work under a person [Corbyn] who shares the views of this unsavoury organisation’. She dubbed it an attempt to ‘highlight my Muslim identity and bracket me off with the behaviour of an organisation I have nothing to do with’.

Back at Bancroft’s, tempers flare after the hustings when two students confront Shaheen over the issue of anti-Semitism. They get into a bit of a row. ‘Don’t talk to me about racism like I don’t know, I do know’, she says.

As we head for the car park, Shaheen is frustrated with the ‘fearmongering’ about Corbynomics. ‘They’ve done a good job of demonising Jeremy Corbyn, it’s very strong on the doorstep. But once you talk about the policies and you talk about the local candidate and the fight here, that’s the way in which you take the sting out of some of that.’

Still, in many parts of this constituency, it seems like that will be an uphill battle for her.

Two days later, I go to meet Duncan Smith and his canvassers. It’s 9.30am, and bitterly cold, outside Highams Park train station. After the obligatory team photo for social media, we’re off to the Endlebury ward. It’s a picture of suburbia, a solid pro-Tory area, full of quiet streets, lined with semi-detached houses.

Tory councillor Mitchell Goldie, right, takes the obligatory team photo.
Tory councillor Mitchell Goldie, right, takes the obligatory team photo.

In a red neckerchief and navy-blue fleece, Duncan Smith looks like he’s dressed for a Sunday walk. But he’s moving at breakneck speed. As he charges up the road to his next door, he waves at the people his activists are talking to in the distance, reciting his name almost like a catchphrase. ‘Iain Duncan Smith. Hello! How are you?’

Mitchell Goldie, Tory councillor for Endlebury, is manning the clipboard this morning. He’s not your stereotypical Tory activist. He grew up on a council estate and is 20 years old. When elected, at 19, he was the youngest councillor in the country, and reckons he might still hold on to the record in London.

Goldie says the atmosphere is completely different to 2017, when the prospect of a Corbyn-led government seemed impossible. ‘You knock on doors and people know it’s going to be close’, he says. In areas like this, they’re seeing a lot of Labour voters turn Tory over their fears of a Corbyn government.

The antics of some Labour supporters clearly aren’t helping matters. Aniket Patel, 38, a Tory councillor from nearby Buckhurst Hill, says his Vote Conservative sign was knocked down outside his house the night before. He was woken up by it smacking the pavement at 1.30am, followed by choruses of ‘Oh, Jeremy Corbyn’.

As we’re heading down the hill, people shout ‘Tories out!’ from a passing car. They even spin it around to have another go, throwing up the middle finger and shouting ‘murderous cunt!’ as they drive past. IDS waves at them. ‘See, they’re not from around here’, he says. ‘Probably all public-school kids.’

Chingford was split down the middle at the EU referendum. But IDS says the ‘vast majority of the Remain voters in this constituency have bought the fact that it’s over, and it’s time to move on’. As a prominent Hard Brexiteer, the EU issue might still work against him, but Jeremy Corbyn has clearly been a gift.

A man hops out of his van, gesturing to IDS. He says, ‘I can’t stand him, but you’ve got my vote anyway’. ‘He’s a rogue that man’, IDS tells me. ‘He built a bloody great big bungalow out the back of his house and said it was a stable. Then he built a swimming pool and said it was to bathe the horses.’ It turns out his animosity to IDS had a lot to do with planning-permission battles.

But the scepticism of Corbyn is certainly palpable, even among those equally not so keen on Duncan Smith. I break off from the door-knockers and wander over to Friday Hill, an area of former social housing built after the war. I bump into Carole Pope, 60, who is out walking the dog with her mother, Patricia.

Friday Hill.
Friday Hill.

Carole is a lifelong Conservative who has broken with the party over its stance on pensions. ‘But I can’t vote for Corbyn, either’, she tells me. ‘He’s a liar, he’s anti-Semitic, none of the things he’s offering add up… I’ve never found it so hard to find someone to vote for.’

Shaheen is hoping her personal brand and story will overcome such suspicion. And it is a compelling one: a local girl, the daughter of a Fijian mechanic and a Pakistani lab technician, who made it to Oxford and wants to give back to her community. She refused the offer of a safe seat to stand in her hometown.

In the Bancroft’s car park, as she is about to be whisked off to the next campaign event, I ask what her final pitch to voters is. ‘I guess, to give me a chance. We’ve given Iain Duncan Smith 27 years, and he never knocked on my door, my mum’s door, that whole time’, she says.

‘It’s time that we do have a local representative, someone who you’re going to bump into, someone who would send their kids to the same schools as you’, she goes on. ‘I just hope that they can go to the ballot box and think, do you know what, let’s give Faiza a go.’

This is line you hear a lot from Labourites here: that Duncan Smith is an aloof outsider who spends most of his time living in a country house on his father-in-law’s estate in Buckinghamshire. Back in the pub, IDS says this is ‘absolute crap’ and that he spends most of his time in the constituency. ‘It’s been my life.’

Indeed, though Duncan Smith – born in Edinburgh into a well-off family, the son of decorated airforce pilot and a ballerina – may not reflect the backstory of many of his constituents, he does reflect something of their values, which have kept this far from wealthy seat blue for decades.

‘The thing I love about this constituency is that the people, really, are so completely straight… They’re patriotic, they believe in getting on and working hard’, he says. ‘But my general view is that they’re not dyed-in-the-wool anything… I’ve never taken them for granted.’

Chingford and Woodford Green, it turns out, is a 50-50 community in more ways than one: as divided by values as it is divided by class and Brexit. And whoever wins in the much-watched race tomorrow, that will remain the case for some time to come.

Tom Slater is deputy editor at spiked. Follow him on Twitter: @Tom_Slater_

Pictures by: Tom Slater, except where otherwise stated.

To enquire about republishing spiked’s content, a right to reply or to request a correction, please contact the managing editor, Viv Regan.



17th December 2019 at 9:58 am

Thank God for Hugh Grant.If it hadn’t been for him Labour might have got in.

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12th December 2019 at 2:28 am

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Neil McCaughan

11th December 2019 at 9:34 pm

“star-studded rallies …….. from shadow cabinet ministers Keir Starmer and Emily Thornberry to pro-Labour journalists Owen Jones and Paul Mason”

So no actual stars, just some tired old deadbeats mouthing the same old crap?

James Danter

11th December 2019 at 9:32 pm

Writing as someone who actually lives in the constituency, prior to the election campaign Shaheen’s leaflets’ only reference to Brexit focussed on the ‘mess’ the Tories had made of it. No mention of her own position – when I pointed this out to the labour canvasser who unwisely knocked on my door I was told “she’s remain – of course”. If it’s so “of course”, why be so coy about mentioning it ?

But what her literature does like to remind us is that she ‘studied at Oxford’, as if this somehow gives her greater credibility. Oh, and by the way her literature never refers to Faiza Shaheen, it’s Dr Faiza Shaheen I’ll have you know ! Dr Faiza this, Dr Faiza that. A title she can of course use legally as she did do a PhD….. So I guess the idea is that we should all show respect and gently tug our forelocks because she’s – wait for it – a Doctor !

For the last twenty years or so in this constituency I’ve marked my ballot paper “I don’t wish to vote for any of these candidates”, since I’ve long regarded all politicians as tossers, serving their own or the establishment’s interests (with the last 3 years proving rather confirmatory in that regard !). But on Thursday I shall grit my teeth and vote for IDS, as the best way to get us out of the EU, and to start the process of refashioning and reforming this country……..

But it definitely will be tight, boundary and demographic changes have definitely worked against the Tories here (as per the rest of London). You should have a look at what’s happening in nearby Ilford South, a constituency retained for Labour by Mike Gapes with a 31k+ majority in 2017. He of course resigned from the Labour Party this year but subsequently declared that he wouldn’t stand in the next election. But then did an about turn, and is now standing for Change UK. Cue the abuse and rather nasty stuff he attracts on Twitter – from people who seem to be (white) ‘local’ Labour types. Interestingly, how is it that the Labour Party in Ilford South (a constituency with at least 80% Asian ethnicity) has managed to select a white male – Sam Tarry – as their candidate, preferred to any of the other 4 candidates (all of South Asian ethnicity) ? Helped no doubt by the fact that a strong local candidate Jas Athwal (Leader of Redbridge Council) was suspended from the party just before the selection process. Could it have helped that Tarry is backed by every union under the sun, every known member of the Corbynista glitterati. Oh yes, and Momentum. He is also President of the CLASS think tank. I should mention here that one of Shaheen’s real world ‘jobs’ is……..Director of CLASS.

Steve Gray

11th December 2019 at 8:35 pm

The last thing an old-fashioned paternalist like Mr Duncan-Smith wants is Brexit, as this would enfranchise and empower the kind of people he has a track-record of criminalising. Time he was sanctioned, for a change.

Not that I’m in any way supportive of Labour’s faux-cialist approach… They also have a track-record of criminalising the kind of people that Brexit would enfranchise and empower. They just do it in a Che Guevara tee-shirt.

So it’s a choice between the age-old prejudices of yesteryear, or Version 2.0.

Alex Ander

11th December 2019 at 5:49 pm

Little known fact, but Faiza Shaheen was actually the inspiration behind Catherine Tate’s “am i bovvered tho’ character Lauren. Watch any interview with Shaheen on You Tube and you’ll see exactly what I mean….

Marvin Jones

12th December 2019 at 2:23 pm

Did she learn to speak English and the pronunciation of the language in Oxford?

Filbert Flange

11th December 2019 at 5:37 pm

My inclination has been to do my level best to keep my big Canadian schnoz out of your current election fiasco, but I shall allow myself a shortish drive-by outburst — just this once. (Sure thing bubb, says the voluble little troll at my left ear)

The tone of your election, at least from the distant perspective of someone residing on the westernmost fringes of the civilized world, has clearly been the construct of a media that has gone all in on advocacy. I do not think it is a coincidence that the tenor of the campaign only just recently concluded here in the people’s republic of canuckistan so closely resembled yours as to make no difference.

I am convinced the degraded left throughout the western world takes all their marching orders from the high clerics at the Guardian disinformation directorate. It’s all the same ugly, divisive and hateful tactics being deployed in a very centrally coordinated way.

M Blando

11th December 2019 at 6:17 pm

My assessment is similar, though I don’t buy the centrally coordinated thing. I think instead there is some sort of hive mind, but where the blind follow the blind. The usual definition of ‘hive mind’ includes the word intelligence, hence my clarity that this hive mind has none that I can decern.

I’ve also come to the conclusion that the only explanation for Corbyn’s strange stance on Brexit is that he is a cut-out front for someone else. This may appear to contradict my statement above. However, there’s an awful lot of useful idiots here, so it may only be the ‘one’ individual who will then exercise whatever limited power they gain. That ‘limited’ power will be more than they have right now and will be focussed around some agenda that will reveal itself once in place.

Filbert Flange

11th December 2019 at 8:54 pm

… “though I don’t buy the centrally coordinated thing.”

Ok then, half price? No? How bout a nickle? Free? I’ll give you a loonie but, no more!

Alright, tough crowd in here… Last offer, a double sawbuck, 2 tickets to a trump rally, one slightly used tin of sardines in castor oil and a big wet kiss? Going once…

On the subject of the hive mind. It’s kinda like artificial incompetence or, AI. 5 miles wide but only a quarter inch deep.

M Blando

11th December 2019 at 11:53 pm

Nearly clinched it with the Sardines Filbert, but blew it by offering a big wet kiss….

M Blando

11th December 2019 at 11:54 pm

I’ve also never found incompetence to be artificial…. if only.

M Blando

11th December 2019 at 11:59 pm

… I think you must mean the Arrogant Incompetence version of AI – the worst kind, unless you know more than you think you do.

Garreth Byrne

11th December 2019 at 5:17 pm

Politics is a dirty game. Keep politics out of politics. And Happy Christmas.

Danny Rees

11th December 2019 at 3:16 pm

Fuck these leftist wankers.

Don’t they know that all IDS was doing was trying to uplift poor people by slashing their benefits and sticking them on the streets for an empowering night behind the bins at Tesco?

Jonathan Marshall

11th December 2019 at 4:02 pm

Oh dear; Fifth Form politics at best.
Do grow up.

Jerry Owen

11th December 2019 at 4:42 pm

Danny Rees
My my … fearing a drubbing come Thursday ?

Jerry Owen

11th December 2019 at 12:55 pm

Interesting article, but describing IDS as a ‘hard Brexiteer’ is sheer nonsense and I am surprised to read that lame duck description in Spiked.
It is clear that the nastiness is coming virtually all from Momentum, these are the people that would happily copy Stalin’s actions if they ever got a whiff of power.
I cannot vote for a party headed by Johnson, however I wish IDS the best of luck. He always comes across as well mannered and well considered. Indeed I remember him dismantling LBC’s James O’Brien with great ease some years ago. I still laugh at the memory of JO spluttering away with indignation at having his self righteous and pompous ego handed back to him on a plate.

Jerry Owen

11th December 2019 at 12:56 pm

Another post under mod, is it the time taken to write them?

Ven Oods

11th December 2019 at 3:43 pm

They’re probably just checking for libel if you’ve used names. With all the Russian bot activity we hear about, there’s a chance that even Stalin might sue!

Jonnie Henly

11th December 2019 at 5:29 pm

“It is clear that the nastiness is coming virtually all from Momentum, these are the people that would happily copy Stalin’s actions if they ever got a whiff of power.”

Calm down Jerry, that’s hysterical nonsense and you know it.

Jerry Owen

11th December 2019 at 6:51 pm

Little Jonnie
There you go again . Recite word for word what someone posts.. then blow a raspberry . You are so pathetic boring and fact free.

Neil McCaughan

11th December 2019 at 9:35 pm

Poor dim Jonnie. Nothing to say, but has to squeak, all the same.

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