'I'm a socialist, darling': What it's like for a Tory to campaign in Jeremy Corbyn's Islington North stronghold

James Morris
Senior news reporter, Yahoo News UK
James Clark and Jeremy Corbyn at the 2017 Islington North count (Jack Taylor/Getty Images)

James Clark is posting Tory leaflets in a leafy residential street in Finsbury Park, in the heart of the north London constituency where Jeremy Corbyn’s is standing.

A woman, having seen the leaflet, opens the door to her Victorian terrace. “Hello,” Mr Clark cheerfully pipes up, “I’m the Conservative candidate for Islington North.”

She offers him a sympathetic smile. “I’m a socialist, darling. Sorry.”

For the second time in two-and-a-half years, Mr Clark has been given the thankless task of taking on the Labour leader in the stronghold that has sent him to Parliament in nine elections since 1983.

Ahead of Thursday’s general election, Yahoo News UK joined him on the doorstep to see what it’s like for a Tory to campaign in a constituency which gave Mr Corbyn an enormous 33,215 majority over Mr Clark in 2017.

James Clark, the Tory candidate for Islington North, outside Highbury and Islington station ahead of a leafleting session in nearby Finsbury Park (James Morris)

First, Mr Clark wants to make clear, and not entirely convincingly, that “there’s lots of support” for the Tories in Islington. There is an “engaging” local party with “lots of young people”.

But then he refers to “the Jeremy Corbyn element”.

“People aren’t willing to engage when they see a blue rosette,” he says. “They are surprised and say something like: ‘You’re brave to be here.’

“On the doorstep, it’s quite difficult. There are a lot of people who are vehemently pro-Corbyn and vehemently pro-Labour. This is a Momentum heartland and it can be a bit daunting and a little bit intimidating, certainly for canvassers who haven’t done this before.”

For a Tory canvasser, this can sometimes manifest itself in far more testing exchanges than “I’m a socialist, darling”.

James Clark and Jeremy Corbyn at the 2017 Islington North count (Niklas Halle'n/AFP via Getty Images)

He claims: “There are some people who get over-excited, too passionate about what they believe in.

“I’ve been chased down the street. I’ve had people shout abuse at me. ‘Tory scum.’ I’ve had people accuse me of racism. I’ve had people tell me I should be ashamed of myself. They have sworn at me.

“That is not down to me, personally, it’s down to them and how passionately they feel about their beliefs.

‘I’ve had people shout abuse at me’

“But screaming abuse at someone on the street isn’t going to get you anywhere or do anything. It’s sad that we live in a society where people feel so disenfranchised that their only recourse, politically, is to shout vile abuse at people or take to Twitter and make unkind remarks.”

Mr Clark, a 34-year-old army veteran who has completed two tours of Afghanistan, added: “One of the things that concerns me most is the way people treat each other on the doorstep.

|As someone from a military background who has done some very difficult, horrible things, it’s very difficult to intimidate me if you’re a person on the street.

“That’s not true of young women, older women, older men, men my age. There are a lot of people out there wanting to have a fight with someone. They meet me and I’m bubbly, courteous and friendly - and clearly not a wimp.

“They calm down straight away and I think it’s a sad indictment of society that people want to pick on somebody who they think is weaker than them, particularly if you’re a Conservative in Islington.”

He makes clear such behaviour is in the minority: “If I’m speaking to people, one in 10 is hostile to the point of it being socially awkward, but there’s nine in 10 who aren’t.”

That is reflected by the responses he receives from people walking past in Finsbury Park.

One mother, pushing her child’s pram, says she usually votes Conservative “but I’m worried about the NHS”. A couple of Labour voters politely tell Mr Clark they won’t be voting for him: “I wouldn’t vote Conservative, that’s just my personal opinion.”

Mr Clark, who finished second in 2017 with 6,871 votes, admits it will be a struggle for a pro-Brexit party to retain second place in a constituency which voted Remain by 79 per cent in the 2016 referendum. The anti-Brexit Liberal Democrats have a willing audience.

To demonstrate the task in hand, Mr Clark says he hasn’t even given out “vote Conservative” window stickers this time round. In 2017, he had 250. Only one sticker was taken up.

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Of Mr Corbyn as Labour leader, he refers to his record over anti-Semitism claims in the party and blasts: “There’s got to be questions asked. As someone who’s been in leadership positions in extremely difficult circumstances on the battlefield leading 30 soldiers, I know the people at the top set the culture. That is a fact.”

Asked about Mr Corbyn the MP, he concedes that having been in the job for longer than Mr Clark has been alive, it “implies he has been doing something right”.

Just the 33,215 votes to make up, then. Darling.

— What is a hung parliament? —