December 17, 2017
Friday, June 16, 2017

How Labour scored a shock win in opulent Kensington

By Isaac Stanley-Becker
The Washington Post

Corbyn’s stunning rise in one of the richest areas of London is just one notable tale from UK general election

LONDON — When Jeremy Corbyn launched Labour’s general-election campaign in May by casting the race as a “chance to take our wealth back,” he meant from people who live in Kensington, a neighbourhood in West London where the average home sells for £1.4 million, the equivalent of nearly US$1.8 million. It is the most affluent electoral district in the country.

In a turnaround, however, Kensington backed Labour in last week’s general election, embracing the party of a man who promises “socialism of the 21st century” and rides his bicycle to work.

The upset, marking Labour’s first victory in Kensington since the district was drawn in 1974, boosted the opposition party’s surge across the capital. The outcome in London, where Labour snagged several districts from the ruling party, helped deny the Conservatives a majority, sending the country toward a hung parliament, in which no party can govern alone. But the result was especially startling in Kensington, an enclave of extreme opulence within a city generally familiar with displays of conspicuous consumption.

Luxury-car dealerships and designer stores line Kensington’s streets. The mansions of well-to-do bankers sit in the shadows of the private palaces owned by Russian government ministers, whose imprint has lent the nickname “Red Square” to one of the neighbourhood’s most sumptuous tracts of land. The air of royalty is thickest on the west end of iconic Hyde Park, where Prince William lives with his wife, Kate Middleton, in Kensington Palace.

But the rise of Labour, here of all places, suggests that the country’s political divisions have left many votes unsorted. And with Britain uncertain about its looming departure from the European Union — and with anger over the condition of public services mounting — political moods continue to frustrate expectations.

“It’s a very unexpected swing,” said Mike Savage, a sociologist at the London School of Economics. “It appears that going to the left can be a popular strategy, especially in cities where you see these big inequalities and the need for public services.”

Kensington oozes Conservative power, home to some of the most prominent members of the party, past and present. These include Michael Gove, who famously declared Britain tired of experts as he stumped for the country’s split with Europe, and George Osborne, a former chancellor of the Exchequer and now editor of the Evening Standard. The paper shares headquarters on Kensington’s main commercial street with the powerful right-wing tabloid the Daily Mail. The backyard of the headquarters is Kensington Square, where Amber Rudd, the home secretary and a possible replacement for May as Conservative leader, lives.

Anne Carey, who also lives on the square and counts Rudd a friend, voted Labour, abandoning the Conservatives, whom she had backed in 2015. She said she voted in solidarity with the youth, who came out in unexpected numbers to support Labour in its crusade against austerity. Sarah Joynt, 28, said young people have observed the right-ward turn taken by US President Donald Trump and feel compelled to demand something different.

In Kensington, hostility to May’s plan to pursue a severe version of Brexit was pronounced. The Conservative incumbent, Victoria Borwick, broke with her constituents, 68 percent of whom voted to remain, and cheered Brexit. That almost led Lorna Ghali, a 52-year-old artist, to vote Labour, though she chose not to because she said she distrusts Corbyn. Conservatives supporters say it was the foibles of their incumbent that cost the Conservatives the seat, as Borwick squandered the 7,000-vote majority she enjoyed in 2015.

But Labour’s Emma Dent Coad, the local council member who unseated her by a razor-thin margin of 20 votes, said her victory owed to the mobilisation of forgotten residents of Kensington.

“The Conservative government has pillaged people’s lives,” said Dent Coad, who managed an 11 percent swing to Labour. She held up her win as evidence that Labour did not need to move to the centre to win traditional Tory seats, pledging, “If I can do it here, there is a way forward in future elections. We’re not a microcosm, per se, but we do have all types of voters here.”

Kensington is a spectacle of great fortune. But it is also a study in contrasts — an illustration of how inequality works in London.

Just steps from a stylish Kensington café frequented by David Cameron, the Conservative prime minister felled by Brexit, sits Trellick Tower, a 31-storey, brutalist housing complex. Many of the units are subsidised by the state.

One of Trellick’s residents is Ed Davis, 38, who voted for the first time — for Labour. Pollsters said an even greater factor in Kensington than people who switched parties may have been non-voters who chose to enter the fold for the first time.

Davis declared himself part of the “disenfranchised generation” — arriving at political consciousness under the premiership of Tony Blair, the Labour politician who fell into disfavour by supporting the war in Iraq.

With Corbyn, Davis said, he saw “a glimpse of something genuine.”

“I never felt like I had something to vote for,‘ said Davis, who owns a moving company. ‘But I saw the connection that Corbyn was having with the mass population, and I also got pretty offended by the Conservatives.”

— Herald with Bloomberg, Reuters



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