‘WHEN’S the boss coming down?’
It became a bit of a catchphrase whenever I saw Conservative Simon Marcus on the election campaign trail. Nag, nag, nag, I kept on at him and his colleagues, asking for the date that David Cameron would descend on Hampstead and Kilburn. For if the constituency really was target No. 1 for the Conservatives at the general election, as we had been told so many times, why would the Prime Minister court other constituencies, and not ours? On it went: When’s the boss coming down? Ummm, not sure actually.
He didn’t come. And then it got to the final laps of the campaign and Cameron was suddenly, sleeves rolled up, in East Finchley, Enfield and Hendon, all places not a million miles from Hampstead and Kilburn. He would probably have had to drive through the area to get to these events, and yet not once was a press push arranged with Simon and the local campaign.
You’d forgive this lack of interest if the constituency was a northern outpost in the grip of a five-figure Labour majority, but this was meant to be a target seat – moreover, the main target seat – where victory and defeat had been divided by just 42 votes. For a second election in a row, Cameron stayed away.
One theory has it that once he had mugged Ed Miliband as a ‘Hampstead socialist’ early in the campaign, he became more wary about visiting the area. Local Tories had mildly criticised his choice of phrase. Labour supporters put it more crudely, insisting that he knew victory was actually unlikely in Hampstead and Kilburn and had committed to staying away.
Cameron’s absence, an absence which was matched by the other big Tory figures in the short campaign like George Osborne and Theresa May, invited us to re-evaluate how seriously the party centrally was taking the task locally. It led people to buy into the Ashcroft polling and the bookmakers’ odds which had Labour’s Tulip Siddiq already in the sunset. Over the course of the final weeks, we more or less had to settle for two visits from Boris Johnson from the Tory side, although in a way, as mayor of this city, he was simply striding through his own constituency.
In the end, Chris Grayling sort of stumbled into a question and answer session at the JW3 Centre because, oh aye, Grant Shapps was suddenly called away to a parents meeting. Without any time for a briefing about the lie of the battlefield, he slipped into a shaky old busk about how billboard advertising at this election had been reserved for marginal constituencies, which translated to the audience as… i.e. not here.
The Conservatives insisted they had worked out a different strategy to fight the seat, but when you looked at the final result and the trends from the general election as a whole, it’s fair to wonder what might have happened if the party had gone on the same kind kitchen sink offensive which we saw in Hampstead and Kilburn in 2010. Chris Philp was also denied the pleasure of Cameron’s company back then too, but he brought just about everybody else down, and drew every last bead of sweat out of his campaign team. It’s notable that his efforts last time were rewarded with a safe seat, in Croydon, this time.
Of course, Simon didn’t lose simply because Cameron didn’t come down and I was partly asking when’s the boss coming down all the time because, selfishly, I wanted to interview the PM. It would probably have been one of those beat the clock, two quick questions and no supplementaries routine, which Gordon Brown and Tony Blair before him used to provide. Even so, the chance would have been welcome.
Simon, and I may be wrong, seemed less bothered than me though that the boss wasn’t coming down, every time I asked him when’s the boss coming down. In fact, he never seemed to revel in any of the press work or the walkabout set pieces in the same way that other candidates do. When they happened, they seemed duty, rather than fun – a distraction. The impression he gave was that he didn’t really see votes in walking around town with secretaries of state, and that he was disbelieving that people would see a picture of him marching around Hampstead, or Kilburn, with a front bencher and suddenly be so starstruck that they would resolve to mark their cross for him.
It’s true, the picture in the paper is not a vote winner on its own. But that’s not the point. It’s more a cumulative effect. By bringing Cameron, or other big names, to the constituency, it publicly underscores how serious everything is being taken. This on a simple level may help to get someone off the sofa and doing something more proactive than voting for you in a booth once every five years.
If they see there’s something to be a part of, they might want to be a part of it too, even if that just means planting a stakeboard in the garden outside their homes, or sticking a poster in the window.
It’s about momentum.
The high profile visits are also a reward for the politics-enthused volunteers knocking on doors every night after work (or uni lectures) for you, the people who give up their weekends to campaign and like the idea of meeting leading politicians. By bringing the boss down, you energise the people already on side, there is an excitement to it all, a buzz. The volunteers no longer think they are shoving leaflets through letterboxes without anybody up the tree noticing, or to put it bluntly, caring.
Every weekend, Labour’s Tulip Siddiq, in contrast, seemed to bring a Labour heavyweight or endorsing celebrity to the patch, and you could see how it enthused people who were giving up all their spare time to help her win.
Given the size of the majority in Hampstead and Kilburn and its immediately-accessible London location, it’s almost an insult to these hard workers on the Conservative side that Cameron’s battle ‘copter didn’t pass by for just one moment.
You know, despite the congratulations that have been poured on Tulip in these last three weeks, there are a fair share of people involved in Camden’s politics who believe the Conservatives should be kicking themselves at a missed opportunity, that given the trend of election night, the seat could have been theirs.
True, Tulip’s campaign was one of the best in London, strong on numbers and imagination, with a candidate who generated her own buzz across the national newspapers. But the often-forecast 2,000-3,000 margin of victory never came, and there was a glimpse of panic when the votes were counting.
The joke doing the rounds, of course, is that the panic at this stage was actually on Simon’s face, as he contemplated the fact that he might actually win. If the difference is more than 100, I won’t ask for a recount, he was quoted as saying on the night. This in itself followed the tone of his gentlemanly campaign. But if you’ve been a candidate for two and a half years working towards this night of nights and, when all the votes are all counted there is a difference of just 101, surely you are going to have the figures checked rather than slip out the side door. Just in case.
There were times when you wondered whether Simon was wondering what he had got into, a campaign of greater demands than his previous anti-BNP run in Barking and a schedule of hustings which were a near nightly engagement.
He began his campaign six months before anyone else, but by the end of it looked like the extra mileage had been a weight rather than a motor. He had set out a long course for himself. The Evening Standard met him during the campaign and described him as ‘visibly tired’, which seemed harsh considering how struck on Tulip that paper appeared to be with its three double page spread features on her. It didn’t mention that he and his partner had two babies during the course of the campaign. How many people have won an election with that extra responsibility without looking ‘visibly tired’?
Simon is a stand up guy. He cares. I’ve never seen an ounce of malice in him. If he is a schemer, he is so good at it that it passes undetected. You could see why he appealed as a candidate, even if looking back it is a surprise that there wasn’t a bigger queue of would-be contenders at the original primary in which he was selected. He’s the opposite of someone who the Left could target as a Nasty Party Tory. He spoke out against the bedroom tax and HS2, and seemed to hate everything about the excesses of the Westminster bubble.
But his cricket pavilion wholesomeness seemed to mask a lack of killer instinct. There was a nicey-niceness at the hustings, rather than a will to aggressively debate Tulip head-on. She escaped unscathed from every session, allowed to sit on the fence on issues such as Trident. With the Tories holding onto seats targeted by Labour in places like Harrow East, Hendon and Finchley and Golders Green, the landscape was not as rough for the Conservatives as all the predictions had suggested. They were certainly outnumbered on the ground in Hampstead and Kilburn, but Labour’s London constituency victories hide how hard fought some of them were and what they were up against. Maybe individual Labour candidates were having to compensate for a poorly drawn national campaign, where the party’s supporters were let down by silly ideas like the stone tablet in the car park and other mindless pursuits, and an absolute panic about being suddenly handcuffed to the SNP by the Tory campaign team. But the idea that London wholly voted for Labour camouflages the city’s hard mayoral elections ahead.
Simon always said that it was the mansion tax which had brought the two campaigns closer as polling day approached, and the Tories, seeing the opportunity, hammered the point at every crossing. This may have played into the concerns of voters in Hampstead and West Hampstead where properties were most likely to be affected by Labour’s proposed levy, but at times it felt like this tactic was simply reinforcing support they already had rather than making gains in areas like Kilburn where the mansion tax really wasn’t the chief priority among residents. They’d laugh if you suggested it was.
London is changing, quickly, it’s a tough city, but £2 million is still a high bar and those facing the extra bill were still more likely than not to be living in affluent areas which have traditionally voted for the Conservatives anyway. A bit more diversity to the lines of attack, and some positivity around their own policies, may have been a more profitable approach.
Maybe the Tories were lured a little into following the press, local and national, print and broadcast, which leapt on the story as if the mansion tax could decide the constituency alone. It was an easy ‘game-changer’ headline, an easy story – for our paper too – but it was too simple a shortcut in trying to read the constituency as whole. Of all the worries people ring the CNJ newsdesk with each week, nobody once rang up to chat about the mansion tax. There were letters on the letters pages from familiar names, but nobody called up in the way we might have expected on this apparently hottest of topics. Nobody told us that they were already making plans to move to Yorkshire, as Conservative front bencher Philip Hammond once suggested they would be.
There was the Conservative call that the housing market was slowing down because of the threat of the policy on potential buyers, grinding to a halt, according to the most theatrical. But it has always slows down just before a general election. This wasn’t a unique feature.
In less well off areas across the country, Labour has been accused of not offering enough convincing policies to reassure low to modest income voters that they really could improve their week to week headaches. But similarly the Tories in Hampstead and Kilburn were going to make few advances telling people who live in properties worth less than £1.5 million – i.e. nearly everybody – that: yes, times are tight, but at least you won’t have to pay for the mansion tax under us. They were not going to pay the mansion tax anyway. They wanted to hear something more.
Even if you appreciate that the mansion tax was ill thought out, or at the very least poorly explained – a view offered by many Labour supporters post-election – it could not be the be-all and end-all to the local Conservative campaign.
And then there was Cameron, or the lack of Cameron, the boss who never came down.
A couple of times during the campaign, Tory voters came up to and me and accused the New Journal of having too many pictures of Tulip in the paper. The response was honest and simple. I’d say: ‘Let me come and take a picture of Simon at a campaign event and he’ll be in there too’. But there were hardly any invitations, to the extent that I was ringing their campaign office on press day to see what they had been up to, seeking that balance. It’s usually the other way round. Election campaign teams usually plague the local press with story ideas and interview opportunities in those final weeks before voting.
On one occasion, I was sent little more than a mobile phone picture of Simon and possible mayoral candidate Ivan Massow leafleting outside a farmer’s market in Queen’s Crescent.
It’s ironic then that over the course of the longer campaign. when Shapps or William Hague did make visits to the area, they would say this was a constituency which the Conservatives would simply have to win at all costs if they wanted to form a majority government.
The flip of that, is that the common view from most pundits before the election was simple: if David Cameron was to be found settling back down to life in Downing Street with a majority government, then it would be a given that his party would have conquered Hampstead and Kilburn. What a twist, then.
With that in mind, it can’t just be one or two Tories who have wondered, on a night of national success, whether the party could – or even should – have won here.