Community Resistance, RA Vol 4, Issue 4, Dec '99/Jan '00

North London, Islington,
By-election Contested

CLERKENWELL, has now become synonymous with New Labour’s trendy Islington and rebranded as the new cultural sector of ‘Cityside’, with Exmouth Market at its hub where most of the traditional market stalls and shops are being forced out to make way for the cafe/bar cappuccino and trendy trainer brigade.

Living side by side to this Clerkenwell is another Clerkenwell; where sprawling estates are home to some of the most impoverished people in Britain. This has created what the local branch of the Independent Working Class Association has described as a state of “social apartheid”.

This area suddenly became the focus of atten­tion recently when the high-profile Liberal Democrat Councilor, Baroness Sarah Ludford, resigned her seat, in order to join the gravy train in Brussels as a newly elected MEP, prompting a snap by-election for 28 October. 

After discussions with local activists, Helen Cagnoni, a well respected and veteran campaigner for the rights of local working class tenants and residents, declared her intention to stand as an ‘Independent Tenant-Resident’ candidate.

The announcement of the election date coincided with the distribution of 6,000 copies of a four-page issue of the IWCA’s Islington Independent newsletter, especially produced for Clerkenwell and neighbouring Finsbury. The newsletter dealt with a whole range of issues, from Labour and the Lib-Dems, from council house privatisation to local democracy, from youth facilities to an in-depth article on the Finsbury Estate. Local activists reported the newsletter creating a “buzz” on the ground in the area and immediately prompted a number of calls to the IWCA phone line. As the electioneering began in earnest, the newsletter also brought a heated phone call from a Labour Party official incensed by the branding of their candidate, Tim Clarke, as “Tim - Nice but Dim!” and demanding a response within 24 hours or else he “would be contacting HQ”!

In a desperate attempt to make up ground, the Labour Party began issuing a blizzard of leaflets making wilder and wilder promises, with thousands and thousands of pounds being promised to provide repairs, a concierge, security, a youth club and worker on the rundown Finsbury Estate. Afterwards, tenants joked that had the election campaign lasted another week, they would have each been promised jacuzzis with gold taps! Of course the tenants weren’t fooled and the news that accompanied a feverish spate of cleaning by council workers, that Government Minister Glenda Jackson would be arriving on the Estate with the Labour team was to prove a provoca­tion too far. The following morning, the recep­tion that Labour Party officials received was so hostile, they had to leave the Estate and cancel their PR stunt,

Meanwhile, it was suggested that early canvassing returns in what was a safe seat for the Lib-Dems had forced them into fevered door-knocking and a flurry of leaflets as they sought to distance themselves from many of the Labour Party policies they had supported. The party leader was seen canvassing tower blocks, on his own, late into the night.

Of the other candidates, the Tories could only mount a token challenge while the Greens occupied the ground normally reserved for the fringe Left, with their candidate proclaiming that “I will support victims of abuse, exploita­tion, violence (including the long-oppressed people of Vietnam) and hate crimes”.

The independent candidate and her supporters clearly set the agenda, wiping the floor with the other candidates at a hustings meeting as well as distributing two leaflets to all homes in the ward and canvassing all the estates at least once.

However, when the result of the election was announced, the biggest story was one of apathy, with less than one in four turning out to vote. While there was obviously widespread disillusionment with the establishment parties, the vast majority of the working class residents had not been convinced to actually come out and vote for ‘their’ candidate. Still, while campaigners were disappointed with their tally, from an objective view, 12.5% must be seen as a very credible effort, with their candidate taking 1 in 4 of the working class vote in what was a ‘mixed’ ward. Especially when on the same day a Socialist Labour Party candidate in the London borough of Kingston-Upon-Thames, while on admittedly less fertile terrain, polled 16 votes (0.7%) on a higher turnout of 40%. The final Clerkenwell result was:

Lib-Dem: 1127 (55.4%; -4.7%), Labour: 536 (26.4%; +0.7%), Independent Ten/Res: 255 (12.5%), Conservative: 82 (4.0%; -1.5%), Green: 33 (1.6%; -7.l), Turnout: 23.7%

The percentage of the Labour vote held up due to the support of the middle classes, campaigners commented that the bigger the house, the bigger the Labour poster. And while the Lib-Dems lost ground, they still succeeded in trading off the line that not having held power, they should be given a chance.

IWCA activists consider the campaign to be a small but important step to rebuilding working class politics in the area.

Reproduced from RA Vol 4, Issue 4, Dec '99/Jan '00