Final hunt for votes in battleground borough


Labour and the Liberal Democrats have been bitter rivals in the wards of Islington for years, writes MARK HENNESSYLondon Editor

ARMAGH-BORN Labour council candidate Conor McGinn was yesterday treading the streets of Islington in north London, along with outgoing Labour MP Jeremy Corbyn, in a final hunt for votes.

For years there has been strong competition for votes between Labour and the Liberal Democrats in the borough’s wards, with voters in recent times happy to sway the Liberals’ way in local elections and Labour’s in national campaigns.

“[Liberal leader] Nick Clegg hasn’t impacted as much here as elsewhere, because people here already know about the Liberals,” says McGinn, from Camlough, Co Armagh.

The borough illustrates the often-bitter rivalry between Labour and the Lib Dems, away from the white heat of general election leaders’ TV debates.

The Liberal Democrats took control in 2001, after Labour lost one council seat by 21 votes; although the same authority is currently hung after Labour pulled back some ground in 2006.

Labour is now running younger candidates, including McGinn and his south Wales-born wife, Kate Groucutt, and it hopes to take three Liberal Democrat-held seats in the Mildmay ward.

National issues have rarely intruded into the local campaign, Groucutt says. “I didn’t pick up “bigotgate” [Gordon Brown’s meeting in Rochdale with voter Gillian Duffy] at all. Just one comment, and that was a witty one.”

In the party’s local ward office on Ferntower Road yesterday, hurried meals of pasta were served to party workers before they headed off again to encourage Labour supporters to go to the polls.

“It’s like a family at times like this, everyone gets involved,” says McGinn. “My aunt, Eileen McGeeney from Bessbrook, has taken the day off work as a social worker in Tower Hamlets to come out and canvass for me.”

Corbyn, who is on the left of the party, has had a long-standing interest in Irish issues and has worked for the Irish Commission for Prisoners Overseas. He has been an MP for 27 years and is immediately recognisable to locals of all persuasions.

He is reluctant to call the election, even though the polls have been open for five hours. Turnout is up, although many “are people who would normally have voted on their way home from work, but who have chosen to do it beforehand now. It shows interest is up,” he says.

While he should be safe in Islington North, his fellow outgoing MP Emily Thornberry in Islington South and Finsbury has had a major battle with the Liberal Democrats’ Bridget Fox to hold on to a seat that Thornberry narrowly won in 2005.

Tony Blair lived in the constituency, a mix of leafy middle-class streets and council estates, before he and his family moved to Downing Street after Labour’s 1997 triumph.

Just 500 votes separated Thornberry and Fox in 2005, although Thornberry argues that the smaller party’s support was boosted by opposition to the Iraq war, which has been less of an issue in the years since.

The Liberal Democrats have suffered because of their role in the council where they have been accused of privatising services and favouring increases in local council tax.

Arsenal Football Club is also an election issue. “We have parking restrictions here on match days when Arsenal are at home, even though we are 2½ miles from the Emirates [stadium],” says McGinn.