East Finchley

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.

Before he became an MP, Freer was the leader of the Barnet borough council. And while no one mentions it on the doorstep, this fraying semi-suburb, with Kosher Paradise just down the street from the Hormuz Iranian supermarket, might not be the easiest base for an openly gay gentile Tory—even if he is a stalwart member of Conservative Friends of Israel. His opponent, Sarah Sackman, is a local girl whose parents still live in the neighborhood; she’s also a Cambridge-educated human-rights lawyer with a master’s degree from Harvard who represented campaigners fighting—successfully—to keep the Tory-controlled council from closing the local library. And at least in this target seat, the Labour Party’s ground game is a model of well-funded efficiency: The supply closet at party headquarters overflows with literature on school funding, the threat to the National Health Service, the lack of affordable housing, and Miliband’s promise to freeze electricity and gas bills until 2017. Most homes in the area have been visited at least once, and all those identified as Labour supporters will get a reminder to vote on election day.

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But no matter how well labour does in East Finchley, the party is unlikely to win outright. Nate Silver’s most recent FiveThirtyEight column shows Labour winning 273 seats, a gain of 17 from the last election, but still behind the Conservatives, who are expected to drop from 302 to 284 seats. With the Lib Dems plummeting from 56 to 26, and with 326 seats needed for a majority, that leaves the current coalition 16 seats short—which is why the period after election day is going to be so interesting.

Throughout the winter, it looked as though the right-wing populists in the United Kingdom Independence Party—anti-Europe and anti-immigration, though not, officially at least, racist—would be the main beneficiaries of a Tory collapse. That might still happen, though the way UKIP voters are spread out makes it hard for them to win more than a handful of seats. So why, after five years of a flatlining economy, and with the Tories even less loved than before, isn’t Labour rebounding into power?

Partly because Miliband and his lieutenants chose a “one more heave” strategy of caution and waiting to capitalize on Tory mistakes, instead of putting forward a clear alternative to austerity. In recent weeks, Labour’s sound track has been more populist—promising to close the tax loophole that lets wealthy Britons with roots overseas avoid paying taxes on their worldwide income, and abolishing the hated “bedroom tax” that cuts housing benefits for tenants with a spare room—but the whole package remains wrapped in the plain brown paper of austerity lite. There are also persistent doubts about Miliband’s ability to connect with ordinary voters.

Yet the main source of Labour’s difficulties lies several hundred miles to the north, in Scotland, where former Prime Minister Gordon Brown’s final gift to his party—the defeat of the referendum on Scottish independence in September—turned out to be booby-trapped. By entering into a scaremongering coalition with the Tories, the Labour Party ceded both hope and change to the Scottish National Party, which in the months after the referendum’s defeat went from 25,000 to more than 100,000 members. Though SNP head Alex Salmond resigned afterward, his successor, Nicola Sturgeon, was the star performer in the party leaders’ debate on April 2. Arguing that “none of us can afford more austerity,” Sturgeon also slapped down UKIP leader Nigel Farage when he complained about the cost of treating “health tourists”—foreigners with HIV. “When somebody is diagnosed with a dreadful illness my instinct is to view them as a human being, not consider what country they come from,” Sturgeon said. Miliband remained silent. If the polls are right, the SNP will win 43 seats in the next Parliament—up from six in 2010, with most of that gain at Labour’s expense.

For progressives, a Labour-SNP coalition would be close to an ideal outcome, with the Scottish party—to Labour’s left on most issues—keeping its partners honest. Indeed, Sturgeon has said she would welcome such an arrangement. (The SNP might even provide political cover for Labour to rethink its insistence on replacing Britain’s outdated Trident nuclear submarines—which are based in Scotland.) And though much campaign coverage has focused on Labour’s pledge to put “controls on immigration” and other equally dispiriting concessions to the right-wing press, the party’s manifesto itself is a mix of tough talk—“Everyone who works with the public in our public services must be able to speak English”—fiscal rectitude, and genuinely radical proposals to ban “zero hours” contracts (which commit workers to jobs with no guaranteed minimum of employment each week), provide free childcare for all 3- and 4-year-olds (paid for with a tax on bank profits), and remove carbon from the electricity supply by 2030.

But the outgoing prime minister is always offered the first chance to form a new government, and if, as current polls also suggest, the Tories emerge as the single largest party on May 8, David Cameron could himself approach the SNP, which might be willing to trade Tory domination in England for another referendum on independence. Even if he can’t put together a majority, Cameron might still hold on to power in a minority government under a “confidence and supply” arrangement with the Lib Dems and several of the smaller parties. And all of this horse-trading will take place under the glare of an overwhelmingly anti-Labour media that has spent the past four years caricaturing Ed Miliband as a backstabbing geek who can’t even eat a bacon sandwich like a normal person. But then the presumption of a right to rule has always been the Tories’ secret weapon.

Late in the afternoon, I catch up with Sarah Sackman as she stands outside a primary school talking to parents who have come to pick up their kids. She tells me that while she wouldn’t have voted to recognize the state of Palestine, as Miliband did last fall, such differences are really “a matter of tactics,” and that she is a firm believer in a two-state solution. “Besides,” she says, “the so-called Jewish vote is a lot more diverse than people think.” Pivoting easily between local scandals—such as the Tory council’s attempt to close a nearby hospital emergency room, or to cut funds paying for respite breaks for parents with severely disabled children—and wider concerns like overcrowded schools and the shortage of affordable housing, she seems cautiously optimistic.

“What I’m trying to do here is to use a local approach to get at national issues,” she says. Tip O’Neill would approve—especially when a poll released later that evening puts Sackman ahead for the first time in the campaign.