ELECTION 2019: Rancour in Chingford as Labour tries to take out Iain Duncan Smith
The campaign to unseat Iain Duncan Smith in Chingford and Woodford Green has become one of the bitterest races in this months’s snap election. Alain Tolhurst reports.
Vandalism, Islamophobia and a row over tactical voting are dominating a high-profile campaign by Labour’s candidate Faiza Shaheen to turn Iain Duncan Smith's seat red.
The Tory former Cabinet minister saw his formerly healthy majority trimmed to a marginal of just 2,438 in 2017, sending it to the top of a list of target seats by left-wing campaign group Momentum, which has poured resources into this corner of north east London in the past year.
But headhunting at a general election is a high-stakes game..
At a by-election a party can safely send every activist into a single seat in search of an upset, but when you have hundreds of other constituencies to try and win or defend, it becomes a more fraught endeavour.
It is now widely believed Labour’s ill-fated obsession with taking out then-Lib Dem deputy PM Nick Clegg in Sheffield Hallam in 2015 contributed to Ed Balls losing his Morley and Outwood constituency to the Tories barely 30 miles up the road in Yorkshire.
And while the sheer number of activists turning out week after week to support 36-year-old economist Shaheen is undoubtedly impressive, it has led to some disquiet over the amount of focus on taking out the man known simply as IDS.
With Environment Secretary Theresa Villiers defending a majority of just over 300 in nearby Chipping Barnet, some within Labour think more energy should be directed at that constituency instead.
But Chingford has become totemic of the party’s fight to kick the Tories out of government, not least because legendary Thatcherite Norman Tebbit was the area’s MP for more than 20 years.
Duncan Smith, who took over from him in 1992, even enlisted 88-year-old Tebbit to help him on the campaign trail last month.
While IDS is a hard-right throwback, a former lieutenant in the Scots Guards who had no connection to the area before he first stood there almost 30 years ago, Shaheen was born and raised in the area, the working class daughter of a mechanic father from Fiji and a mother from Pakistan.
And she has focused her ire on Universal Credit, the controversial welfare reform which was the brainchild of Duncan Smith and which has been blamed by Labour for the increasing use of food banks, poverty and homelessness in recent years.
Jeremy Corbyn has said he would scrap it if he got into power, symbolically announcing the policy in Chingford back in September.
There are pictures of him smiling and embracing Shaheen as they address a rally, but the Labour leader has since been conspicuous by his absence in her campaign.
At two rallies this week her leader's name did not pass her lips, nor was there any suggestion that electing her would lead to Corbyn becoming Prime Minister.
She has talked of voters being in the “pro-Faiza-but-anti-Corbyn category” when she knocks on their door, and IDS has claimed there is “distinct dislike” of the Labour leader in the area.
It is one of the difficulties faced by Shaheen as she tries to overhaul the Tory incumbent, in an area which voted almost equally for Leave and Remain in the 2016 referendum.
A week out from the election, she could be found standing outside South Woodford tube station cheerily handing out leaflets ahead of a pair of campaign events with the actor Hugh Grant, who was in the seat to advocate for voters to choose tactically and defeat Duncan Smith.
But as the pair spoke to a crowd outside a housing estate in South Woodford, a group of Jewish activists attempted to drown them out with chants of “Oh Corbyn’s a racist”.
Grant, who earlier in the week had been campaigning for Lib Dem candidates Luciana Berger and Sam Gyimah, was then asked: “Why are you campaigning for an institutionally racist party?”
Shaheen answered for him, apologising and saying the party had not done enough fast enough to tackle anti-semitism within Labour.
But she added: “I am being subject to Islamophobia, it’s been really upsetting actually being a woman of colour running here and being subject to the racism, and being subject to people in IDS’s team who have been done for Islamophobia.”
The comment was believed to have been in reference to John Moss, a Tory councillor in Waltham Forest and the former chairman of Chingford and Woodford Green Conservatives.
He was suspended earlier this year for social media posts, including one which said “every 11-year-old girl” should be scared of Islam.
But it is not the only such row in the seat, after she accused her Liberal Democrat rival Geoffrey Seff of wanting her to “be publicly highlighted as a Muslim” by sending an open letter demanding to know her view on an Islamic charity to which she has no links.
Dr Seff has rejected the claim, and has refused to join the Green Party in standing aside to help her unseat IDS.
He wrote recently that Shaheen has supported Brexit, and "she is hard-left and a darn sight more clever than almost any of the front bench, including and especially its leader, making her far more dangerous.”
The recent MRP poll for YouGov, seen as the most accurate of the pre-election forecasts, predicts Shaheen will not win, scoring 40.79% of the vote to Duncan Smith’s 49.78%.
But the Lib Dems are slated to get 9.43%, meaning if they all switched votes to Labour they could see off the former Tory leader and chip away at Boris Johnson’s chances of a majority.
That is why Hugh Grant was campaigning in the area, telling activists the “country was heading over a precipice” if the PM was returned with a majority and therefore able to force through his Brexit deal.
At a second rally an hour later further north in Highams Park outside a trendy family-friendly cafe and gift shop, the Hollywood star said he wanted to see a hung Parliament on 12 December.
But the hecklers who had disrupted first-time round had followed him and Shaheen, with police officers forced to help keep the peace.
The pair were late after their car was blocked by protesters, leaving Mike, a local Labour party member, to warm up the crowd by laying into IDS, accusing him of being “more responsible than any other Tory for the suffering inflicted on people” in recent years.
But the attacks on the veteran Tory have moved beyond just the verbal, after his constituency office was daubed with the words “Tories Out” and “Tory Cuts Kill” last week.
And police told him he should campaign with bodyguards from now on after he revealed he received a death threat a few weeks ago.
IDS called those responsible “absolute morons” and called it “appalling that some people think they can shut down democracy”.
He is unfazed by the waves of Labour supporters bussed in to the seat, and said the vandalism is simply a “sign of desperation” from an opposition party who “know we are getting more support than we did in 2017”.
Still a short favourite with the bookies at 4/9, his local Conservative colleagues are bullish about his chances of holding on - but there will still be plenty of eyes on Waltham Forest Town Hall in the early hours of next Friday morning for 2019’s potential “Portillo moment”.
The race has a lot of parallels with Uxbridge, another outer London seat with changing demographics contributing to a falling Tory majority in recent elections.
Ali Milani, another Momentum-backed Labour insurgent, is going after the ultimate scalp in Boris Johnson, who has the smallest majority of any sitting Prime Minister for 100 years.
But it seems in Chingford, like in west London, despite a wealth of resources and a top-quality ground game from a local candidate with an engaging personal story, they may just fall short.