ELECTION 2019: The Brexit-fuelled battle for Kensington - England's most marginal seat

Posted On: 
5th December 2019

Emma Dent-Coad stunned Westminster when she won Kensington from the Conservatives in one of the biggest upsets of the 2017 election. But can Lib Dem challenger Sam Gyimah cause another earthquake as the 12 December poll looms? Matt Honeycombe-Foster reports.

The burned-out shell of Grenfell Tower looms large over the constituency.
Credit: 
PA

Any lingering feeling that Kensington is a place of unbridled wealth and opportunity is dispelled pretty quickly on the walk from Westbourne Park tube station to The Tabernacle, the venue which plays host to the latest in a string of election campaign hustings in the constituency.

Head down a gently sloping street lined with tall trees and the kind of houses that wouldn't look out of place in a Richard Curtis film and you'll notice something grey and green on the horizon. It takes a while for the eyes to adjust before you realise you're looking at the burned-out shell of the Grenfell Tower, where 72 residents lost their lives in a blaze that ripped through the building in June 2017.

That fire raged through Grenfell just days after Emma Dent-Coad made history by becoming Kensington's first Labour MP, snatching the seat from the Conservatives with a razor-thin majority of just 20 votes and making it the closest-run fight in England. And it's a tragedy that the 65-year-old former councillor says still comes up time and again as she fights to hold on to this most unlikely of 2017 gains. 

"They have done as little as they could possibly get away with and it's an absolute disgrace," Dent-Coad says of the official response, which has seen a public inquiry and promises by Boris Johnson to implement its early findings in full. "People who are affected by Grenfell - that's most of North Kensington - want justice for themselves but above all, they want justice for everybody else, so that nobody is faced with a hideous fire like that."

Dent-Coad's work on Grenfell - attending monthly vigils, wading through casework, berating ministers in the Commons - typifies the way she is hoping to fight this election campaign, with a strong focus on local issues including the dire state of social housing and rising concern about air pollution.

"I have been very careful to look after everybody, so literally from Knightsbridge to North Ken," Dent-Coad says, highlighting two parts of the constituency that represent its yawning wealth gap. "I can't think of a ward where I haven't been active in some way or another. And the big campaigns, I've been very very much involved in. I am a campaigner and always have been.

"Even people who may not be sure about other aspects of my politics are very happy to have a constituency MP who works like a dog for them and I don't think they've ever had that before."

This time around though, Dent-Coad faces a dual assault, with the Conservatives hoping to re-establish their dominance in the traditionally true blue seat.

Felicity Buchan, who unsuccessfully stood for the Conservatives in South Shields in 2017 and has lived in Kensington for a quarter of a century, has been picked to lead the fightback. In the evening's campaign hustings, she pitches the battle in national terms. Kensington, she argues, should have the chance to move on from Brexit under Boris Johnson's deal and focus on the big domestic issues: funding the NHS, tackling crime and reforming social care. More than once in the hustings, the Conservative hopeful tries to tie Dent-Coad to the Labour leadership, and a radical tax and nationalisation agenda that may not sit well with the Conservative-leaning seat. 

Dent-Coad tells PolHome she is "not particularly afraid of the Tory threat", but the polls suggest she has a real fight on her hands to hang on here. The hustings takes place the day after YouGov has published its MRP polling, widely seen as the gold standard in election predictions, and which predicts she is on course to cede the seat to the Tories. A DeltaPoll study of the constituency carried out in early November meanwhile has the Labour hopeful in third place.

But she's buoyed by a string of anti-Brexit tactical voting websites, which she believes will boost her in a battle that is also seeing a fierce challenge from Liberal Democrat Sam Gyimah. "As of this morning, there are no tactical voting sites which are supporting anybody else and who are supporting Sam Gyimah," she says. "That's of this morning. There are three who are definitely supporting me. And two who are holding fire. So nobody is saying anymore vote for Sam Gyimah."

'LABOUR'S GUILTY SECRET'

Brexit, though, is the ground on which the Lib Dems believe they can build a major upset. Kensington is a pro-EU stronghold, voting 68.8% in favour of Remain in the 2016 referendum, a factor widely seen as helping to tip the scales against the Conservatives in the following year's election. Gyimah, a former Conservative minister and leadership hopeful who quit the party in opposition to its Brexit stance, believes the momentum is with his new party if they can make this a straight fight about Britain's place in the EU.

"Brexit is a key issue," he tells PoliticsHome as the hustings audience filter out after grilling each challenger on everything from social care to 5G to, inevitably, Britain's EU exit. "It's a 70% Remain constituency. People want a Remain MP, and the Conservatives have a hard-Brexit candidate who's argued for a tough Brexit. And Labour have a candidate who claims to be Remain but Jeremy Corbyn is not trusted on Brexit."

Gyimah points to reports that Labour, dissatisfied with its national campaign so far, is looking to pivot to a position more appealing to Leave voters in its heartlands as the campaign enters its final days. That switch, he argues, opens up space for the Lib Dems to assert themselves as the true voice of Remain in places like Kensington. 

He argues: "It exposes Labour's guilty secret: that they are actually not a Remain party, that the offer of a referendum which Jeremy Corbyn got converted to very late when he really couldn't do anything about, is actually just a general election ploy. And we will be pointing that out to the electorate. Because the electorate deserve to know."

Dent-Coad, who says Brexit is the "top" issue on the doorstep in the wealthier parts of the constituency, believes she too has a good story to tell on her longstanding opposition to the "appalling" impacts of leaving the EU.

But she won't be drawn into criticising the party's national position on the issue, which pitches Jeremy Corbyn as a neutral voice in a future referendum, and says she is willing to defend its stance on the doorstep rather than simply shrugging it off. "I say 60% of Labour constituencies voted to Leave, and it's not for us to say that they're wrong," she says. "That is the reality. So we have to try and bring people together and look at the issues behind those big decisions I think. That's the plan."

And, in a clear dig at Gyimah, Dent-Coad - a political campaigner now for fifty years - adds: "I have not changed party. I haven't changed my mind about things. My politics has been pretty solid for as long as I can remember."

'HARD WORK'

With days to go until Kensington decides, Dent-Coad has been drawing on support from Labour groups across London, with hundreds of volunteers descending on the constituency as she seeks to hold on. "Two-and-a-half years ago we were thrilled to bits to get 15 or 20 people out. We've now had up to 200 so it's kind of managing the crowds. But it has been amazing and incredible to get that support."

The Lib Dems too have been pounding the pavements, with Gyimah - who is brimming with enthusiasm and genuinely seems to be enjoying his time taking potshots at his old party - darting straight from the hustings to his next engagement. 

Before he heads off into the bitter night, the Lib Dem challenger shrugs off suggestions that leaving the Tories, where he lost the whip after rebelling over a no-deal Brexit, was a career-minded move. "There is nothing opportunistic when an MP leaves a safe seat to run in a marginal," Gyimah chuckles. "There's nothing opportunistic about that. And actually voters here are very politically engaged and have followed my political journey. And there are voters who are making the same political journey, either from the Conservative Party to the Lib Dems or from the Labour Party to the Lib Dems. So I haven't had any serious talk about it. Of course I expect my political opponents to try and portray it as something else - but they are my opponents, after all."

He also has no time for claims that his run here will only unseat a fellow Brexit opponent and usher in a Conservative victory for a candidate who has made no secret of her support for leaving the EU. "The issue at the moment is that Labour is splitting the vote," he argues. "The Labour vote is collapsing. The Liberal Democrat vote is going up. Conservative Remainers will not vote for a Corbyn candidate. But they will vote for the Liberal Democrats. And there are also a lot of soft Labour who will not vote for Jeremy Corbyn. 

"So if you want Remain in Kensington and to stop Corbyn, which is what people in Kensington want, actually, the Liberal Democrat standing here gives them a real chance of winning the seat. Otherwise the Conservatives will romp home."

That's a fate Dent-Coad wants to avoid at all costs too - as she makes one more pitch for voters to stick with Labour in a seat few expected her to win the last time around. "Everybody knows me round here," she says. "And I work incredibly hard. Either of the other main opposition parties, they don't have what I have, which is unconditional care and incredibly hard work. They will lose that overnight and they will lose somebody who cares unconditionally and works like a dog."