The Tories are keen to take Sadiq Khan's old seat—but they've got an uphill battle ahead of themby Katharine Quarmby / June 6, 2017 / Leave a comment
As children broke up for half-term at the end of May, parents all around the UK gathered to march to local parks and protest about proposed cuts to school funding. In South London’s Tooting constituency, parents and children did likewise, marching in their hundreds from 16 local schools, carrying homemade banners to gather at Tooting Bec Common.
Under the blazing sun, they held up posters and blew whistles. Children added their handprints to a long paper petition. Schoolgirls rehearsed a specially composed song about the cuts. As the ice-cream queue snaked out of the park café, I asked the Labour candidate, Dr Rosena Allin-Khan, what issues most concerned local people.
Allin-Khan, a local hospital doctor and parent, was elected last year in a by-election following Sadiq Khan’s successful mayoral campaign. She got nearly 60% of the vote then, adding over 8% to Labour’s 2015 share. Her Conservative rival Dan Watkins, a local parent and a business expert in legal technology, is fighting for the seat for the third time. The Conservatives are working hard to win: media reports that Allin-Khan has had lukewarm support from the Labour leadership may have encouraged them to go all out. Her election leaflets, in turn, make much of her support from Sadiq Khan.
Allin-Khan, for her part, told me that she was running a positive campaign, largely about combating austerity. “I’ve hit the ground running on protecting the NHS, the savage cuts to school budgets, more affordable homes to buy and rent, supporting local businesses on business rate rises and working so hard with the local community.” She is far from complacent, however. “People know me but it’s going to be very tight; a really close election.” She gestured to the families behind me. “This government is robbing our young people of a great start in life. My daughter’s pre-school is having to ask parents for money. These are savage cuts—over £7m in Tooting alone.”
A day later, news emerges of a local primary school headteacher, in the Furzedown ward, saying that children were hoovering their own classrooms, as the school had no money for a cleaner. The school is not alone in this: although the national budget for education continues to increase, rising costs and pupil numbers mean that schools are having to cut around 8% from their budgets in relative terms by 2020. A new schools funding formula means that many urban schools will be even harder hit. The Institute for Fiscal Studies confirms that, in real terms, school funding is falling.
Despite Allin-Khan’s fighting talk on the cuts to public spending, Professor Tony Travers, director of LSE London, is cautious about austerity as a key factor in the election. “There is no doubt that cutting the deficit and indeed austerity has played a surprisingly small role in the election,” he says. “However, below the radar, there will be some form of response to promises of higher public spending.” (He concedes, however, that London has “suffered bigger cuts than elsewhere.”)
Instead, he suggests looking at wider issues. “Labour has been doing relatively better than the Conservatives in London since 1997; it is a long-term shift. The Conservatives under-perform in London. Looking at the figures, you could easily see Labour picking up the odd seat in London.”
He adds that other large cities, such as New York and Paris, have also become left-leaning. “London is another country, and as another country, it performs politically differently.”
The Remain vote, he says, is also correlated with voting Labour. Travers concludes: “If Brexit and the Leave vote helps Tories in Bolsover, the Remain vote will affect inner London the other way. Seats like Tooting, Westminster North and Hampstead may well be helped by the strength of the Remain vote.” The local Leave vote in Tooting was only about 25%. This, rather than austerity, may prove to be the crucial factor in whether Labour holds on to the seat.
Watkins, for his part, voted Remain in the EU Referendum and therefore has had to perform some nimble footwork to justify the Conservative negotiating stance thus far. He has also faced local criticism: the Wandsworth Fair Funding for Schools group claims that he has blocked them on social media. Watkins may also have been damaged when a local imam, Suliman Gani, who he had reportedly courted in the 2015 general election, was accused subsequently by the then Prime Minister, David Cameron, of supporting IS (an allegation which Cameron later withdrew and apologised for).
Conservative Home, a popular blog for right-leaning thinkers, had tipped Tooting as a possible win some weeks ago. This week, the blog published a damning survey of Conservative party members, concluding that many were not enthused by a poor national campaign. The latest YouGov London poll, for Philip Cowley at Queen Mary, University of London, has brought more woe, with Labour on 50% of the capital’s vote, compared to a reducing Conservative share of 33%. These factors combined—Tooting’s strong Remain vote, the Labour London swing and a popular Labour candidate—suggest that the Conservatives will fail to dislodge Allin-Khan this time around.