Mudslinging and hiding in hedges – what’s going on in Corbyn’s constituency

Jeremy Corbyn addresses the faithful on Newington Green, north London
Jeremy Corbyn addresses the faithful on Newington Green, north London - RII SCHROER

A jolly crowd of smartly turned-out pensioners, hipster midlifers in Birkenstocks, bright-eyed Gen Zs and earnest millennials has gathered by an outdoor cafe in a compact north London park. There are dogs, babies in slings and wheelchair users drinking £3 takeaway lattes – a steal here in Newington Green, where Zoopla reckons the average house price is an eye-watering £1.07 million.

The Saturday morning sun is blazing down and the mood is energetically upbeat. Why, if it weren’t for the Vote Jeremy Corbyn stickers, placards and the Al Jazeera TV crew, you might think it was a community fete rather than an electoral battleground – and Labour’s worst nightmare.

Sir Keir Starmer’s party may be shoo-in everywhere else in Britain. But the constituency of Islington North is very much on a war-footing for it is here that it faces its greatest ideological challenge.

As the Tories attempt to defend the pretty much indefensible, the length and breadth of the nation, and see off Reform, the unashamedly populist Nigel Farage has become the bogeyman of the Right. In this corner of London, the stubbornly regressive Jeremy Corbyn, running as an independent, is the niggling bugbear of the Left.

The 75-year-old has held the seat since 1983, and led Labour from 2015 to 2020, by common consensus losing them the general election in 2019 due to what one of his own candidates described as “his monumental unpopularity”.

Three young Corbyn fans who were following up canvassing by going to see Taylor Swift
Three young Corbyn fans who were following up canvassing by going to see Taylor Swift - RII SCHROER

The following year he was suspended from the Parliamentary Labour Party (PLP) when in response to the Equality and Human Rights Commission report into the party’s handling of anti-Semitism complaints, he suggested the scale of the problem had been “dramatically overstated” by opponents.

What happens in Islington North will have no bearing on the outcome of the general election. It’s not a marginal, it won’t break the swingometer. It has always been Labour through and through. But for Starmer, a Labour victory is all about the optics as it would represent a crucial, highly symbolic break with the awkwardly recent past.

Again and again during this campaign Sir Keir has found himself squirming as his opponents repeatedly skew him over his historical loyalty to old school socialist Corbyn. Whether or not you consider that criticism to be a low blow – frankly most voters don’t care and given the revolving door at Number 10 there are few politicians who couldn’t be lambasted for the company they’ve kept – the Corbyn question won’t go away until the veteran MP does.

Then and only then might Starmer drop his (ill-advised) insistence that Jezza would have made a better PM than Boris Johnson. But given the choice between the communist rather than the clown, the public clearly disagreed. Well, maybe not all of the public.

“Jeremy Corbyn is the best prime minister we never had,” says Dr Jay Ananthan, 37, a paediatric doctor from Cambridgeshire who has taken a career break to home-educate her four sons, aged eight to two. “He is a rare gem of a politician, a wonderful human being and he will be remembered along with the likes of Attlee.”

Judith Woods: 'I find myself thinking it would be no bad thing to have more independents in parliament. What's got into me?'
Judith Woods: 'I find myself thinking it would be no bad thing to have more independents in parliament. What's got into me?' - RII SCHROER

Jimmy and Grace O’Donovan, both in their late 60s, live in the adjoining constituency but have travelled by bus with their terrier, Toto, to canvass on behalf of Corbyn. “We’ve come today to give what little support we can because we think Jeremy Corbyn is a very honest man who has been treated really badly and it’s a shame he’s having to stand as an independent. We left the Labour party when he was thrown out because we just felt we couldn’t remain. He is a very honest man,” says Grace, a teaching assistant.

Her bus driver husband, Jimmy, agrees: “Labour feels threatened by an MP who sticks up for working-class people. We bumped into him in B&Q the other day and he stopped and chatted to us because he’s a real man of the people, not a careerist. The only risk is that people are so desperate to get the Tories out that they might just go into the polling booth on July 4 and automatically vote Labour.”

This is what the Newington Green gathering – and several more over the weekend – is all about. The aim is to make history by knocking on every single door in Islington North, explaining why they should jettison political loyalty for personal loyalty. It’s a shrewd tactic.

The race in this north London constituency is so tight that YouGov have called it a “toss up”; their last poll put Labour’s Praful Nargund on 41 per cent, with Corbyn on 36 per cent. A few doorstep conversations have every chance of tipping the balance. You don’t have to be a psephologist to conclude this constituency is Corbyn’s to lose.

Speaking of Nargund, I did try to get in touch with him by phone but was told he was very busy and that maybe I could email? I declined. The Corbynistas tell me he hasn’t not been out and about on the stump but none of them have come across him.

Dr Jay Ananthan thinks Corbyn 'is the best prime minister we never had'
Dr Jay Ananthan thinks Corbyn 'is the best prime minister we never had' - RII SCHROER

Nargund, 33, who is already a councillor in Islington has kept a low media profile amid accusations his selection was “undemocratic” after Labour members were denied a vote on a two-candidate shortlist put forward by party bosses.

Corbyn claims that Cllr Nargund has been instructed by Labour’s regional party not to attend candidate hustings. And if he ever does call me back, I shall ask him if that is true.

Meanwhile in Islington North, the excitement was building. The warm-up speaker cried “it’s time to change the face of our political representation!” which made no sense whatsoever, given Corbyn has been the MP for 41 years, but this was no moment for nitpicking. And then Corbyn himself took to the mic. Dressed in a navy shirt, he looked fit and dynamic. As he laid out his pledges a cheer went up every time: free school meals, affordable housing, world peace. Something for everyone.

When Keir Starmer dubbed the Conservatives’ general election manifesto “Jeremy Corbyn-style”, because it promised “anything you want” with uncosted policies, it was clearly not a compliment. A bit rude, in fact.

But independent Corbyn, Corbyn 2.0 is all about hope. Hope and nationalisation. And it was a message his people wanted to hear. Not just his people either; Labour’s people too.

Jimmy and Grace O'Donovan left the Labour party after Corbyn's expulsion
Jimmy and Grace O'Donovan left the Labour party after Corbyn's expulsion - RII SCHROER

Last week Hedge-gate added to the gaiety of the nation when the Labour chairman of Islington North constituency was forced to resign after allegedly being caught campaigning for Corbyn.

Alison McGarry, a Labour member for 50 years, is said to have hidden behind a hedge when she was rumbled. Then, aware it would lead to expulsion, she effectively jumped before she was pushed.

“She was seen carrying a leaflet with my name on it, which is a criminal offence in the Labour Party,” Corbyn explains, mildly. “Alison is a great friend and I hope she’ll continue canvassing for me. I’ll give her a big hug and a glass of prosecco once the election is over.”

I find myself smiling, which is odd as I absolutely decried his leadership of the Labour Party. Today, I find myself thinking it would be no bad thing to have more independents in parliament. What’s got into me? I suspect it’s the mollifying effect of that common touch everyone keeps banging on about.

The soundtrack of election 2024 is a far cry from 2017 when the Glastonbury crowd repeatedly chanted “Oh, Jeremy Corbyn”, belting it out from the alternative hub of Shangri-La to the Silent Disco and even the Pyramid Stage during Radiohead’s headline performance.

But he still has the youth vote well within his grasp and he remains hugely popular across the generations. Waiting in the crowd to do their bit were Freya Sproull, 25, Caitlin Burns, 24, and Ariane Scanlon-Jennings, 24, who all work in finance.

“We are all Labour supporters and if we weren’t in this constituency we would vote Labour,” said Sproull. “He is right up there with Tony Benn. He fights for the common man and he’s all for taking away the two-child benefit cap, which we really believe needs to be abolished.”

Caitlin announces it is her birthday. I congratulate her and wonder aloud if there might not be a more exciting way to celebrate. She looks astonished.

“Are you kidding me? Here we are seeing Jeremy Corbyn today and then we’re off to the Taylor Swift concert tonight. I can’t believe I am meeting two of my absolute heroes on the same day!”

When I tell him this, Corbyn grins in delight. “An endorsement from Taylor Swift would be great!” he says. Watch this space, here in Islington North, anything can happen...