It was the morning the Labour Party released its election manifesto, and the papers were full of spin. So with three weeks to go before the polls opened on May 7, I decided to take a look at the ground campaign here in the constituency that once sent a young Margaret Thatcher to Parliament, but has been what the British call a “marginal seat”—held by a relatively small majority—for the past 20 years. The current member of Parliament, Conservative Mike Freer, won by 5,800 in 2010—in a race where the Liberal Democrats got more than 8,000 votes.
That won’t happen this time. After five years of propping up the Tory-led coalition, Lib Dem leader (and former Nation intern) Nick Clegg will be lucky to hold on to his own seat, while his party faces an electoral wipeout. And though East Finchley can’t exactly be called typical—for one thing, it has more Jews than any other constituency in Britain—it is crucial to Labour’s hopes. Signs in Arabic, Polish, and Farsi are common; there are sizable Greek Cypriot and Somali communities. It is also among the most economically polarized places in Britain, including both high-rise projects and the Bishop’s Avenue, London’s “Millionaires’ Row”—a whole street of houses liable for the mansion tax that Labour has promised on residences worth more than £2 million (about $3 million). According to the 2001 census, more than 6 percent of homes in the area still lack central heating or a private bathroom.
Tagging along with Arjun Mittra, a Labour member of the Barnet borough council, and a team of three young volunteers through street after street of two-story 19th-century brick row houses nowhere near the mansion-tax threshold, I watched as they checked in with voters who had previously been tallied as “Labour-leaning” and visited residents who had so far evaded the party database.
“I don’t trust any of them,” said Stella, a white-haired woman who took the proffered leaflet reluctantly, but added that “years of habit will probably see me voting Labour.” One man, identified as a loyal Labour supporter, said he “just can’t see Ed Miliband as prime minister.” However, he was easily outnumbered by those who, citing a range of local issues from library closures to dog mess to planning disputes, expressed an eagerness to see the Tories defeated. Because it was also here that the Tories pioneered the radical outsourcing of services—dubbed “easyCouncil,” after the no-frills airline easyJet—that saw legal matters handled in Harrow, on the other side of London, and pension queries shunted to a call center 200 miles away in Darlington. One private company, Capita, was awarded £474 million for managing everything from tax collection to road construction.