Hammersmith and Shepherds’ Bush: The candidates speak

By Kaye Wiggins

It isn’t often that politicians have to hit the doorsteps and humble themselves in front of the voters, and I wanted to see them in action on the front line.

Hammersmith and Shepherd’s Bush, in west London is a good place to do so.

The seat has been redrawn, with some parts previously represented by Conservative Greg Hands, and others by Labour’s Andy Slaughter. Had the new boundaries been in force in 2005, Labour would have taken the seat with 42% of the vote to the Tories’ 34%. But this time around, it’s a crucial marginal.

So I arranged to follow Andy Slaughter, who represents Ealing, Acton and Shepherd’s Bush and is fighting for the new Hammersmith seat, on the campaign trail on Saturday. Liberal Democrat candidate Merlene Emerson invited me to go canvassing with her on Sunday afternoon.

I wasn’t able to follow Bailey on the doorsteps, but he let me interview him while he was canvassing near Shepherd’s Bush tube station early one morning.

Bailey has a prominent role in the Conservatives’ national campaign: a video of him was shown at the party’s manifesto launch and there’s a full-page picture of him in the manifesto itself.

And locally, he’s fighting hard. He has been known to call Slaughter “an idiot” and warn that “if he wants a mud-slinging match he wants to be careful I don’t join in.”

As I stood with him on a residential street just opposite the station, most of the commuters who walked past seemed to like his approach: they came over to say hello, or shouted across the street that he had their vote. In the half hour while I was there, not one expressed disapproval of either Bailey or the Conservatives.

His responses – typically “what’s happening bro” and “cool, cool yeah” – were not what you’d expect from a Tory politician, but they fitted neatly with the party’s depiction of him as a new type of Conservative. And on the street, they went down well.

I asked him about his stance on local issues, chiefly Slaughter’s claim that the Conservative-run council was planning to knock down social housing in Shepherd’s Bush.

The claim was “one of the most hideously corrupt political manoeuvres I’ve seen in some time,” he said.

“They [Labour campaigners] have been trading on a set of facts that are simply not true,” he told me. “It’s one of the things that I’m really, really excited about fighting them on.”

I asked whether commentators were right when they speculated that, if elected, Bailey would be quickly promoted within the party and play a prominent role in a future Tory government.

“I’d hold off on that because I’m brand new to politics,” he said. “I’m quite pushy, so after a while I might even ask for a place in a senior role, but right now I’d like to get into Parliament and learn the place.”

Bailey’s clearly ambitious – so how is Slaughter trying to fend him off? I joined him for a day to find out.

We started on a muddy field at a fun day at the Wormwood Scrubs recreation ground. Slaughter chatted to members of local campaign group Friends of the Scrubs before buying a bar of soap from their bric-a-brac stall.

When the campaigners smiled, I was expecting them to make a joke about him cleaning up politics, but instead one said, “Trying to buy our votes, are you?”

I asked the group which issues would influence their vote. Immigration was high on the list and so, too, was the controversy over H&F news, the local newspaper run from the Conservative council’s office.

“You’d think it was paradise around here if you only read that paper,” Susie Gratz, a member of the group, told me. “And worse than that, it’s a waste of our money. I’ll be voting Labour.”

After a short stint running a stall on the busy King Street in Hammersmith, Slaughter and his team moved to the council-run Roseford estate in Shepherd’s Bush to knock on some doors and hand out leaflets which, he said, had been printed in time for the election-that-never-was in 2007.

He nearly came unstuck when he was ambushed by a group of protesters outside the BP petrol station on the way. Slaughter did his best, shaking their hands and expressing sympathy with their right to demonstrate (after checking with police officers that it was under control.) But he couldn’t avoid frowning at the protester who jeered at him, “You should be ashamed of yourself.”

Once inside the block of flats, his message was largely anti-Tory. He asked residents about their bad experiences under the Conservative council, which he said – as Bailey so vehemently denies – was planning to knock the building down.

A lot of residents said they wouldn’t vote Tory, but most seemed undecided. Surprisingly, not one mentioned Bailey, who champions his upbringing in social housing at every opportunity and who told me he had been canvassing in those same buildings.

But they didn’t mention Merlene Emerson either. The Liberal Democrat candidate for Hammersmith, a former City lawyer who was born in Singapore but moved to London in 1979, said when we met in a local pub the following day that she was playing the long game.

“I’m hoping to turn this into a three-way marginal seat,” she said. “In this campaign, we’re focussing our energies on winning council seats, but we’re hoping that we can raise our profile enough so that next time there’s a general election, it will be a three-way contest.”

When we headed out to knock on doors, in the sympathetic Askew ward in which the party fell 26 votes short of winning a council seat in the last local elections, Emerson found plenty of supporters.

Faced with floating voters, her arguments were clear. “We’re the only truly reformist party,” she told them. When a resident laughed at the idea of Vince Cable as chancellor, she drifted slightly from the party line. Going against Nick Clegg’s reluctance to be seen as a kingmaker, she told the voter: “In a hung parliament, the Liberal Democrats could have a lot of influence.”

In the wake of Clegg’s success in last week’s TV debate, Emerson could be right, but Hammersmith still feels like a two-horse race.

And the local campaign is as personality-driven as the national one: voters contrast the suit-clad, authoritative-sounding Slaughter with Bailey’s banter and jeans. In a climate of distrust of ‘typical’ politicians it could be this, rather than national or local policy, that nudges Bailey ahead.

Kaye Wiggins is a reporter at Third Sector magazine.