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Thursday 24th November 2011 | 11:46
Shadow Chief Whip Rosie Winterton has just moved the writ for the Feltham & Heston by-election to be held in just three weeks time on 15th December.
Prior to last year’s general election, Feltham & Heston sat 182nd on the Conservatives target list of seats to seize from Labour – by polling day, this put it well within the territory of ‘longshot’. Only Aidan Burley’s upset victory in Cannock Chase saw a safer Labour seat fall to David Cameron. Though local boy Mark Bowen enjoyed a 5% swing to the Conservatives (exactly the UK average, though twice that seen across London), the late Alan Keen still enjoyed a majority of 4,658 votes. Some have suggested the absence of Keen's personal vote provides the Conservatives with an opportunity. I would hazard caution.
This is just the kind of working class suburban constituency that, along with neighbouring Hayes & Harlington, flirted with Margaret Thatcher during her 1983 and 1987 landslides, before reverting back to Labour. That said, however, there is clear Conservative strength among white working class communities in Feltham and, to some extent, in Hanworth – so much so that Boris Johnson and the Conservative GLA candidates were able to top the poll across the constituency. But Boris has an ability to reach out to white working class voters in a way David Cameron’s national Conservative brand simply fails to do; according to recent polling, he gains the support of 1 in 5 national Labour voters, concentrated in areas just like Feltham. At a local level, however, Labour are highly competitive in these wards, holding council seats in Bedfont and parts of Hanworth and Feltham.
The 2007 by-election in neighbouring Ealing Southall, another seat teaming with Heathrow airport staff, is worth comparison. The Conservatives saw the contest as an opportunity to test their new by-election campaign machine, after the party’s near humiliation in true blue Bromley & Chislehurst the previous year. Most importantly, however, they selected an attractive young Sikh businessman with no history of involvement in Conservative politics, Tony Lit, in an overt attempt to reach out to Asian voters. Lit runs Sunrise Radio, the self-styled ‘greatest Asian radio station in the world’. When a cluster of Southall Labour councillors even defected to support Lit’s campaign, there was a sense that ‘something exciting’ was happening.
But when the ballot boxes opened, Conservative hopes were dashed. They remained in third place, behind the Liberal Democrats, with a derisory 1% increase in their vote. The Sikh-dominated ‘real’ Southall wards remained steadfastly committed to Labour’s older Hindu candidate, Virendra Sharma. The Conservatives had seriously underestimated the loyalty of the seat’s Asian community to the Labour Party.
All this explains why Ealing Southall was a snap by-election, called by Labour in the minimum possible time. In Southall, the deep-rooted and communal organisation of the Labour Party in the Asian community meant the party had an excellent idea of exactly who their voters were, their families and how to turn them out to vote. Such factors gave Labour an extraordinary head start – they would be running a Get Out The Vote operation from day one, while the Conservatives would have to go through a lengthy process of Voter ID. If you start a race in such a position, why not exploit your ability to bring the finishing line closer? This seems exactly the reasoning behind the timing of the Feltham & Heston contest, seen in some quarters as 'unseemly haste'.
The seats are far from identical. According to the 2001 census, Asian voters made up 48% of the population in Ealing Southall, compared to 31% in Feltham & Heston – a significantly smaller group, certainly, but one that turns much of the Heston part of the seat into a bulwark against a Conservative campaign. Moreover, the largely white working class communities in Feltham, Bedfont and Hanworth should represent much more fertile Labour territory than the leafy avenues of West Ealing did in the non-Asian parts of Southall. In these parts of Feltham, Labour will be able to mount an aggressive ground campaign against the Coalition government’s record, while ensuring their Asian base in Heston turns out.
As such, whilst they are likely to have collected a large amount of canvass data from the 2010 election, the Conservatives will start the campaign relying on a far smaller base and will have to fight for every vote.
There has also been some suggestion, given the exceptional weakness of the Liberal Democrats in the constituency, that the junior Coalition partner will effectively sit out the contest, as the Conservatives appeared to do in the Oldham by-election. However, the boundary commission’s initial proposals to move two wards from the constituency into Vince Cable’s new Teddington & Hanworth seat, one of which elected three Liberal Democrat councillors until 2010, will mean a full yellow leaflet barrage in these areas. Both wards would have to be solidly in the Conservative column for the blues to stand a chance of winning the seat and even a Liberal Democrat vote of 15-20% in each would be highly irritating. The Lib Dems may also want to avoid being placed fourth (or worse) behind UKIP, a distinct possibility in a seat with these demographics, but this will be of secondary importance to beginning to introduce the Business Secretary to Hanworth.
All in all, reducing Alan Keen’s majority to 10% last year was probably as good as the Conservatives could hope for in a seat like Feltham & Heston – demographics combined with shortened timeline will make it very difficult to overhaul Labour here.
Do not expect anything too exciting.