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Written on April 21, 2005, and categorized as Secret and Invisible.
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Update: Emily Thornberry, Robin Cook , Jeremy Corbyn to answer the question “Why Islington residents who opposed the Iraq war should vote Labour.” Five, 25th April 2005.

In these days of spin and brightly coloured language, it is easy for the distracted mind to misread a headline. “TEENAGE PAIR MURDERED BY BABY” shouts the London Evening Standard – until you realise that it actually says, “TEENAGE AU PAIR MURDERED BABY” and drink your double espresso with a hasty, tongue-burning gulp. So you might be forgiven for being defensive and suspicious, especially when expectations are high, the stage is set, and a tough act to follow has just left the building.

Getting to interview Emily Thornberry, Labour candidate for Islington South and Finsbury proved not so difficult. After leaving my number with her agent 2 days earlier I was surprised to get a call at 10pm on a Friday night from Emily herself. Actually I was full of south indian vegetarian curry and beer, standing in the Lincoln, Kings Cross, playing host to two Swiss composers and two gorgeous female friends, and I cut out to stand in chilly York Way and talk. I started badly, and Emily got the wind up.

Who did I write for? Where was I syndicated? What cable channel? Real crossed wires. I found myself on the receiving end of a professional grilling – later when I had done some actual research realising that I had been questioned by a criminal barrister – and my usual unflappable self became a pigeon glued to the pavement. After 10 minutes sincere blather, it sunk in to Emily that I was for real, and she agreed to meet for an interview. I haven’t felt so much on the spot since Deputy Headmaster, Joey Taylor, told me that he knew I was faking it, and that I was simply lazy, when I was in the throes of glandular fever.

My first impression of the local Labour party, via Emily, and the Two Johns – John her agent, and John her assistant – was a strange mixture of laconic, fierce, and friendly. I pointed out to Mr Wyman-White that orange-and-black diamond-shaped Liberal posters had gone up in all the surrounding streets, but I could not see any red-and-yellow Labour posters anywhere. He laughed on the phone, and said, give me your address and you will have one tomorrow. I’m still waiting. Mr Greenshields, a 21 year old graduate who is accompanying Emily on the stump, and to whom the task of sorting me out with an interview was delegated, seemed more engaged, and tipped me the wink on the first controversy in this constituency. He had stopped a man in a van who said he had been paid to erect the LibDem poster-bearing estate agent-style wooden posts. “See, we rely on volunteers,” he said, “But the Liberals have got more money, and they run it like a business.”

I received comments from Cat, a local Liberal saying that this was untrue, that LibDem members and volunteers were involved, which in effect meant they were paying to put up their own posters. Scarcely the death-threat turmoil which Tower Hamlets is experiencing, but not bad for Islington.

John suggested we meet up while Emily knocked on doors, and I agreed. After delay due to Emily being roped in to a Gordon Brown-led Press Conference on SureStart, I finally met Emily and John G. last Friday 15th as they canvassed two blocks from me.

Wearing a neat cream suit and a large red rosette, Emily shook my hand courteously.She apologised charmingly for having given me such a rough ride on the phone. I was given some folded photocopied A4 election literature to carry, and we proceeded to canvass votes in the Samuel Lewis Buildings, Thornhill Road.

Thornhill, Thornberry. The Berry was on the Hill. In fact, the Berry was determinedly making sure she covered all the social housing in the constituency. We chatted as we walked. She’s not tall Emily, but she is blessed with great energy. I asked her about Canterbury, her previous attempt at getting elected MP. What was the Labour selection process like? “It’s not like any other party,” she said, “You have to go and see all the members. I knocked on six and a half thousand doors.” As I saw her writing personal notes in blue biro on every peice of campaign literature that she put through the doors, she admitted that she was obsessive. “I just think you have to really put in the effort. There’s a lot of social housing in Islington, and I am going to knock on every door during this campaign.”

It was wet and raining, and I carried my Mickey Mouse umbrella, with its cartoon emblem shining clearly out white on black, in the streets of Barnsbury. As we walked I also talked to John, who has given up work to campaign. A Labour Party member since 15, he is clearly passionate and committed, and rising to the arduous nature of electioneering, working long hours.

It wasn’t long before we hit paydirt. Alice, a lovely-looking dark-haired woman with a kind clear face and a small impossibly cute blonde child around her legs, opened the door, and said the magic words, “Well, I would normally vote Labour, but I am seriously considering either not voting, or voting Green.” John and I started to chat with her, and then she said, with the most glorious smell emanating from her nicely book-lined and toy-filled hallway, “Would you like a muffin? We’ve just cooked some, and I’ve far too many. You look like nice people – would you like to come in?” I was through the door like a musician, with John loitering more respectfully but hopefully outside.

Alice was a university lecturer who specialised in refugee issues, and like me, a rather disenchanted Labour voter, annoyed by the war, by the right-wing agendas, by the negative campaigning around immigration, not wishing to waste her vote, wondering what other options she had. The muffin was warm moist and full of blueberries, and I returned to the doorway where small child was singing and playing with John and gave him his. We munched happily and chatted for a couple of minutes, and then Emily showed up from the floor below and we spent 10 minutes or more discussing local and national issues and chewing the democratic fat.

John and I listened to the interchange between the women. This is the person you need to vote for you, Emily, I was thinking – female, intelligent, left-wing. Remaining to be convinced. Like me a fan of the outgoing MP Chris Smith. Emily took but a small bite of her muffin, and despite a bored child running around her and two men eating behind her as if they had not eaten in a week, she proceeded to give a good account of herself, discussing local schools, private and state education, the local Liberal authority and their failings, the Iraq war, without preaching or avoiding issues, and in a warm, direct and intelligent manner.

As the child started doing the Okey-Cokey across the threshold beneath the two women’s legs, I noticed she was putting her “left leg in, left leg out – in out in out shakeitallabout”. Perhaps this was a good omen. Alice asked me what I thought about a local school becoming a “performing academy”. All to do with scandal, I said, they are trying to get away from the child abuse story. As we left, she told me to stay cynical – “It’s very healthy!” she beamed healthily. I felt healthy, fortified. Right to be sceptical. Democratic.

As we moved block to block, we met a range of doorstep responses from “Always Vote Labour” to “Never Again” to “Haven’t Made Up My Mind”. A couple of people filled out postal votes on the spot, and Emily grasped these like the prize-winning essays they were, glad of every one. She acknowledged that Chris Smith would be a hard act to follow, even with a 26% majority, but told me that she had attended all his surgeries for the past year, that 80% of the problems were to do with immigration. And we talked about the war. Yes, she had been against it. Yes she understood that people were pissed off. But, there were still good people in the party. Robin Cook, she pointed out, had ensured that Parliament had the debate, and governments are not renowned for allowing votes on wars.

Having been nervous beforehand, I found myself warming to Emily and John, getting a glimpse of the hard work, Emily engaging with voters, saying, “I am your local Labour candidate and if you have any questions for me…” again and again.

After two and a half hours, we decided that the back room of the Albion pub was the best local option, so we retired there to record the interview. I am not going to provide a transcript – you can listen to the audio.

Emily waxed lyrical, described herself as a “mad-eyed conviction politician” and talked fluently about her background (single-parent, benefits) having established her anti-war credentials, she even mentioned – just once – a real old-fashioned socialist word – skipped past like profanity in the nursery – collective – there it was, there like a quick comet, blink and you’ll miss it… What was that about work-life balance? and another… redistribution of wealth – – almost too fast to notice. We must be more vocal about what we want to achieve and how we want to change society, she said, without once mentioning the revolution. I put to her at the end of the interview that she seemed rather “Old” Labour, which was her cue to say no, not old, not new, just Labour. A perfect ending. She was really impressive, will do well on TV.

Should she win the vote, I found myself deciding in her presence, Emily will make an excellent MP, and a worthy successor to Chris Smith. A good talker with a big heart, a nice mix of posh and street, Emily fits the New Labour mold perfectly, although that might count against her with some voters, she is smart friendly and good with people. She treads a good path between toeing the Party line and being a REAL lefty. The problem is convincing voters that she is going to make a difference, when on many issues – “terror laws”, imprisonment without trial, ID Cards, students fees, her “socialist” party Labour are being very authoritarian, and whatever Emily’s personal position, the Liberal Democrats’ claim to be more progressive is hard to counter.

UK politics, as Emily pointed out, was dragged to the right during Thatcher’s years in power, and the Labour Party with it, and the most zeal she expressed was for politics to be re-aligned and move left once again. The problem with achieving that is politics has fragmented and changed, so even if you can move parts of it, it won’t all be conveniently shunted.

In in a Borough where the Conservative vote is negligible, and the Green vote likely to be high, the Liberals scent their best chance in 20 years. But Emily is a real heavyweight contender, she isn’t just relying on charm and voter loyalty to defend the large Labour majority – her determination is to enter Parliament, and when she gets there I get the feeling she will do very well.

But if she does win, as part of the next Labour government, can Emily and her kind take Labour back to being the trusted party of the people with the current leadership in place? This I doubt very much. Tony Blair was on television again last night, talking to Paxman, refusing to admit his lies or apologise for the war, and although he is toughing it out well enough, he is continuing to turn people away from Labour, especially progressive voters in marginal constituencies.

Here in Islington, occasionally derided as trendy North London Borough, there is also poverty, deprivation, drug and crime problems, high council tax, and people whatever their circumstances are crammed eleven and half thousand per square kilometre. Although my vote is yet undecided, and I wouldn’t bet against Emily Thornberry winning, it will be close here. The Liberals are quoting The Times and Guardian newspapers stating that message in their direct mail, and their candidate Bridget Fox has the strongest local profile of all the candidates. Bridget Fox has a 26% majority to overturn, and Labour star Emily Thornberry to contend with. But with Chris Smith gone, to the great number of swing, tactical, floating, random, or just plain bored voters in Islington South and Finsbury, a rose by any other name could smell as sweet.

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