Published: 13 May 2010
by RICHARD OSLEY
A TOUGH line of Red Rose resistance has been drawn out around north London as Glenda Jackson and Frank Dobson joined a mini-troop of Labour MPs in the capital defying national trends by returning to Parliament.
The punchy performance in Camden also saw the Labour Party retake control of the Town Hall after only four years on the opposition benches.
As the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats hatched a historic power-sharing coalition through David Cameron and Nick Clegg nationally, the painful fall for Labour supporters facing a return to opposition in the House of Commons was broken by a stunning set of results locally.
Ms Jackson – as first reported in print by a New Journal special edition distributed on Friday afternoon – was returned with a narrow majority of 42 votes, repelling the twin threat of the Conservatives and Liberal Democrats.
She celebrated her 74th birthday on Sunday by toasting a result that has been dubbed “The Great Escape”, as for months she has been told that she should expect to lose her Commons office.
Mr Dobson, whose majority was cut in 2005 against the backdrop of the Iraq War, doubled his majority, obliterating the opposition with a win so big that it seemed to surprise even his own backers.
The Lib Dems, in particular, had been confident about making serious inroads in a constituency which Mr Dobson has held for eight terms and 30 years.
Maybe he was surprised too – his voice cracked as he took to the stage on Friday morning for speeches and thank-yous. The closest runner-up, Jo Shaw, although polling more than Mr Dobson did when he won in 2005, was 10,000 votes adrift on a day of large voter turnout.
Labour’s results helped sweep 30 councillors into the Town Hall as thousands appeared to replicate their parliamentary vote on council ballot paper forms. Seats turned from yellow to red in Cantelowes, Kentish Town, Kilburn and Camden Town with Primrose Hill, while a full slate of Tory councillors in Gospel Oak was knocked out by Labour replacements. The Conservatives were banished from Bloomsbury and gains were made in Highgate too, where Labour won two more seats from the Greens, who had a disappointing showing.
It means Councillor Nash Ali will move into the leader’s office at the Town Hall and a fresh Labour-only cabinet will be appointed on Saturday.
Sceptics among councillors who will form the opposition believe it’s a thin majority that will be challenged in four years’ time. They point out more than 50 per cent of voters in Camden’s local elections voted for one or other of the outgoing council coalition parties.
Yet on a night when Labour lost scores of seats in the House of Commons, the party proved highly resistant in neighbouring London boroughs as well. The celebrations were shared in Islington South and Westminster North, where activists had been repeatedly warned to expect their sitting MPs to be defeated, only to see them win.
There are several suspicions as to how Labour polled so well against the odds, but a recurring theme in the analysis – from the Labour and the Lib Dem camps at least – is that for all the debate about Lib Dem surges during the campaign, there was a growing terror among the traditionally large number of Labour supporters in Camden that a cross in any other box might in some way make them responsible for the Tories getting the chance to run the country. Those who stayed away or protested in the past two elections swung back behind the party.
Lib Dems suggest that to really harden their vote new supporters need to vote for them three times before it becomes a habit.
And in the crush of one of the most closely fought elections this borough has seen, Labour just about managed to conquer what has been termed the “progressive” vote, a share of the vote that Lib Dem candidate Ed Fordham had been successful in wooing in Hampstead and Kilburn.
In that seat, the danger for Conservative candidate Chris Philp, the man left just 42 votes from Parliament, had always been that left-leaning voters would concentrate their support for Ms Jackson – or Mr Fordham, who went into the ballot as the bookies’ favourite and was only around 700 votes short of victory himself.
Labour say the Lib Dems locally misread their own spin.
Some Tory strategists meanwhile have wondered whether 42 of the 408 voters who went for UKIP in Hampstead and Kilburn might have been persuaded to back Mr Philp if they had the benefit of hindsight.
The Labour vote certainly hardened in the final days of the campaign and activists believe a message from David Miliband – the former Foreign Secretary who began his bid for the party’s overall leadership yesterday – that a vote for the Lib Dems risked a Tory win in the north of Camden had resonance for residents, particularly in Kilburn.
Those undecided almost right up until they stepped inside the polling booths seem to have come down on the idea of giving Ms Jackson another shot.
Mike Katz, a new Labour councillor in Kilburn who worked closely on Ms Jackson’s campaign, said: “I think we won with good old pavement politics. We didn’t win with leaflets, we won by actually going out to speak to people.”
Ms Jackson – indisputably the great survivor of the night, with a smile to prove it – said: “On the campaign, I heard people give examples of how the Labour government had helped, of how Labour had cared for them over the years and that on this individual level they felt the government had achieved much. I feel very sorry for all those people who in good faith voted Lib Dem to have their trust and beliefs disregarded by their leader. It is very sad. However, I wish them well; we are in serious times.”