A night canvassing in Battersea – bellwether no more?

Charlotte Tosti

Charlotte Tosti, an Account Executive in MHP’s public affairs team, tells of her experience of campaigning for Labour in the traditionally bellwether seat of Battersea.

Being a Labour activist from a constituency in Buckinghamshire means elections are expensive: the last time my constituency, Aylesbury, voted anything other than Conservative was 1923. Throughout this election I have been travelling to campaign in different seats across London, where Labour has a significantly higher chance of making gains or holding onto its existing seats than elsewhere. On Monday night I was out in Battersea, which for thirty years was a ‘bellwether’ seat, reliably backing the party winning nationally, until Labour’s Marsha de Cordova took the seat from Conservative Minister Jane Ellison with a 10% swing in 2017.

Battersea Labour had a strong turnout of activists coming to the canvass (though not quite the numbers enjoyed by Chingford and Woodford Green, where there is a strong effort to unseat Iain Duncan Smith). This canvassing session was unusually warm, both in terms of temperature and response. My group was sent to canvass in two of the newly built blocks of luxury flats overlooking the Battersea Power Station development, boasting glass lifts, panoramic views of the river and the distant lights of Winter Wonderland, and doorbells that rang to the ode of Beethoven’s Für Elise. To be frank, we were braced for a ‘little bit of resistance’ on the doorstep.

To my surprise, the number of Labour-leaning voters was higher than I had anticipated. De Cordova wanted activists to emphasise her pro-Remain stance, yet Brexit didn’t come up as an issue on the doorstep unless I brought it up.

Instead, what united the voters I spoke to (including two individuals who voted Conservative in 2017) was a strong dislike of Boris Johnson. Boris the Mayoral candidate may have gone down well in Battersea in 2008 and 2012, yet his 2019 rallying cry of ‘Get Brexit done’ has tarnished his appeal among many graduate and young professional voters, most of whom backed Remain and have strong liberal instincts. Unlike in the 1980s, gentrification is now moving seats like Battersea away from the Conservatives rather than towards them.

Among voters who were unsure about who to vote for on Thursday, it was Labour’s programme of nationalisation and government spending that was the core deterrent. This was unsurprising, given that Battersea increasingly consists of commuters working in the City, and has the highest proportion of voters educated at degree level in England and Wales. However, scepticism towards the party’s economic programme was not great enough to rule out undecided voters’ support completely.

Equally, the Liberal Democrats seemed not to have retained the support of several of those I spoke to who voted for them in 2017.

Nevertheless, despite the response on the doorstep being surprisingly positive and the polls predicting a Labour hold in Battersea, it very much remains a marginal seat. Those who vote Conservative tend not to admit it, with the few who do break cover choosing not to elaborate on their reasons for doing so. Despite positive omens, nobody is predicting a Labour walkover in Battersea on polling day.

What I continue to learn from speaking to undecided voters on the doorstep as a Labour activist is that canvassing, and canvassing well, will win you the votes that good PR, viral videos and getting your leader to wag newspapers and dossiers at campaign rallies won’t. Momentum continue to do Labour an invaluable service. They have organised volunteers across the country, mainly young students who have had more free time, because of the university staff strike, to support Labour campaigns.

Battersea is a lucky constituency in this respect. But marginal seats that are outside Zone One such as Hendon, Harrow East and Wycombe lack the Chingford and Woodford Green levels of volunteers that could make all the difference.

In short, Labour activists are helping to tighten the Party’s grip on the urban vote, but are failing to turn out in more rural Labour seats, where their help is particularly needed. Keeping Battersea red whilst Bolsover turns blue doesn’t get Labour any closer to entering government nationally.

This concentration of Labour’s activist base is largely a consequence of most volunteers being young students, who aren’t likely to own or be able to drive a car and can’t quite afford to be spending their money travelling up and down the country on trains.

Being part of the digital organising team in Battersea, I’ve seen just how great Labour’s efforts have been to make best use of the free and unregulated resource of social media to get (especially younger) Labour voters to the polls. However, for all the benefits of digital campaigning, the voters who will make the difference between a seat lost and a seat gained are invariably the ones you will end up speaking to on the doorstep, rather than engaging with through their smartphone.

Whilst the changing electoral landscape and a large volunteer base will help Labour in urban seats like Battersea, the Party needs to build up equivalent strength in all the different types of communities across the country if they are to restrict the number of defenestrated Shadow Cabinet Ministers available for future series of Strictly Come Dancing.