On the campaign with… Iain Duncan Smith
Labour has made no secret of its plan to unseat former Conservative leader and minister Iain Duncan Smith in favour of Corbynite candidate Faiza Shaheen. Hundreds of the hard-left Momentum group’s activists have been diverted into Chingford and Wood Green in the past few weeks in the hope of claiming such a recognisable scalp — that of the poster boy for Brexit, universal credit and the chairman of Boris Johnson’s leadership campaign this summer
At the start of November, pollsters told City A.M. he should be “looking over his shoulder” with the seat — a marginal of around 2,400 — looking very risky.
But a month on, Labour’s plan seems to be backfiring. Polls suggest Duncan Smith will cling on. So is the quiet man of British politics feeling confident? “Never confident, just determined,” he says, voice just audible over the jaunty Christmas music in one of Chingford’s cafes.
“I take nothing for granted. This is a fight right to the end. But I am up for a fight. I’ve been fighting all my life… whether it’s against my own party or government, or the other side. This is nothing more than a continuation of my political life.”
Duncan Smith stands firmly behind the PM on the need for an election — “to get this damned thing done”— and he says that view is shared by voters on the doorstep, even Remainers who see the need to break the impasse. However, the tone of this campaign is very different.
The former Scots Guards lieutenant has received numerous death threats and his constituency office was recently vandalised, resulting in him being given police protection for election night. “This is the nastiest campaign I’ve seen in my 27 years,” he tells me.
“What am I supposed to do? Stop campaigning? I’m not going to do that. I am pretty well recognised around the country so that comes with a certain amount of risk, but I have dedicated most of my working life to public service. This is what I do.”
Duncan Smith acknowledges some of this is down to politicians of both sides, saying the Commons debate in which Boris Johnson rubbished a Labour MP’s death threat fears was “unseemly”. But he believes the media, and social media, have created a “toxic” political environment.
Local well-wishers, who come up to us in the cafe to shake his hand, tell us how they feel “intimidated” by the sheer number of Labour activists on the doorstep.
One of Duncan Smith’s team says they’ve been told Shaheen’s team have been arguing with residents on the door. “That’s not how you win votes,” he says.
Labour is attempting to position Shaheen, who was born and raised in the constituency, as a change candidate. She has been likened to the charismatic young US politician Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, who unseated an older white male incumbent in a shock primaries midterm election last year.
But IDS believes the new Prime Minister is bringing in enough changes to fend off this attack. He points to the end of austerity as one example, which IDS resigned over in 2016 because he thought the cost-cuts were political rather than necessary.
He advocates “a little dose of Keynesianism” to nudge inflation in the right direction. “The trading environment needs growth, but it’s got to be affordable growth. Corbyn is just walloping money at the public sector and you know what happens —productivity goes out the window.”
Far from being a boon to Shaheen, who did not respond to requests for an interview, her proximity to Corbyn could be what keeps Duncan Smith safe. The Labour leader “runs like a thread through all of this” — his name acts like “a galvaniser”.
It certainly seems to be galvanising a number of Tory voters who stayed away in 2017, but promise to vote this time for fear of letting in what one person calls “the red ants”. We meet a self-described socialist, a man who after 15 minutes on the doorstep Duncan Smith thinks he has persuaded, although I am not so sure.
But there’s more — a voter who says he once marched with Corbyn but now will be voting Tory. Another voter says she is switching from Labour for the first time. By this point Duncan Smith is fist-pumping, last seen in the Commons when George Osborne hiked the minimum wage in the 2015 budget.
The shift in sentiment is partly down to Labour’s “Brexit mess”, Duncan Smith says, but more usually it’s concern about the scope of the party’s tax and spend plans. Despite the shifting demographics, which mean Chingford has become home to more traditional Labour voters, he believes Momentum has miscalculated in focusing so heavily on his seat.
“We are not Hackney, we are not Islington — this is not a Momentum seat. We don’t have champagne socialists here. We have families who are making decisions for different reasons. There are some ideologues, but they are few and far between. Most people just get on with their lives here.”
Image credit: Getty