The Spirit of Hogarth reviews Chiswick’s local election campaign

Chiswick until now has been a small blue enclave in an elongated sea of red. Far to the west lies Fortress Lampton, Hounslow’s civic centre, an alien stronghold peopled by distant overlords, who seem either uninterested or downright hostile to wealthy little Chiswick-shire. Chiswick perceives itself as a special and fruitful cash cow, giving forth a nutritious harvest of rates, taxes and parking fees purely for the benefit and exploitation of its ungrateful overlords and their impoverished base. Every imposition of a CPZ, every attempted traffic improvement, every over-flowing dustbin, every pothole is taken as further proof of Hounslow’s evil intentions.

National parties not helping

Will 3rd May change all this? Rumbling below these critical local issues is the slow drumbeat of ever-approaching Brexit, an unknown but doubtless disruptive cloud of ominousness looming just over the horizon. Some see sunny uplands and no cloud, but most in Chiswick see turmoil and unhappiness. The sunny-uplanders are keeping very quiet in this election as Chiswick voted overwhelmingly to remain. The other national issue looming over the proceedings is the main parties’ lurch away from the centre ground. Gone are the days when people hunted desperately for a few droplets of clear blue water between them – now the ocean is wide and stormy. While Labour fails to deal with its problem of antisemitism, the Tories are hoist on the petard of their immigration policy. Jews to the left of them, Blacks to the right – the Scylla and Charybdis of national politics at the moment. While neither of these issues this have anything directly to do with local politics, do apparently amiable Tories not carry some blame for their ‘nasty’ party politics? Does the tarnish of anti-Semitism not rub off on Brentford & Isleworth Socialists?

Local issues to the fore. Who will be our local champions?

Chiswick is divided not only by busy main roads, but also by the tube line which splits it into two minority enclaves: Ealing Chiswick in the North, currently run by the Lib Dems in a majority Labour council; and Hounslow Chiswick in the South, run by Tories in a majority Labour council. The Lib Dem Ealing councillors are an amiable, responsive and non-controversial group. Untroubled by the roiling of national politics which has seen their party all but evaporate centrally, their battle lines are clearly drawn out over local policing, tree maintenance, potholes and rubbish collection, and they have dealt with these promptly and efficiently over their past tenure.

In Hounslow Chiswick, however, all is up for grabs. The Tories have held Chiswick for the last two decades with more or less the same councillors. One or two have been famously unresponsive – answering emails not a strong point – six out of the nine saw the writing on the wall and quit. One was ill, one retired, one was not re-selected – perhaps his leadership of the Bruges Group didn’t help – the others became “too busy”. This left a clean slate with only three of the old nine still standing.

The doors were thus flung open for new blood and from all sides they flocked in. Six new Tory hopefuls, nine Labours, nine Lib Dems and six Greens. Along with an intriguing Polish Pride candidate – cavalry sword at the ready, Prince Zylinksi’s local candidate Maria Kempinska plans to “integrate through Arts” and galvanise Polish voters. A policy clearly endorsed by Tory Leader Sam Hearn, his wife and his son, along with Tory chairman Julian Tanner, his wife and his son, who nominated her. Will they vote for the person they nominated? Or do they just hope others will… ?

The Tories are to be congratulated with a big tick on the diversity front. Apart from the three existing candidates, no more old white men. They are putting up a young black guy, an Asian man, a gay man and a young woman, along with a woman of pedigree councillor stock: “the daughter of a borough councillor and a county councillor and granddaughter of a councillor” as she has boasted online. One of these candidates, Patrick Barr, ran into trouble when his carefully crafted CV as a nurse omitted to mention that his main nursing job was actually as a benefit assessor for a private company, with the caring sharing nursing bit now limited to the occasional rare agency session in A&E.

Labour meanwhile has the following. In Turnham Green: a secondary school teacher, a no-nonsense (one assumes!) ex-soldier and magistrate, and a cycling obsessive (sorry, “active travel campaigner”). In Homefields: a global lawyer “committed to social justice and mobility” (if that isn’t a contradiction in terms), an articulate and feminist young student, and an anti-Heathrow campaigning journalist. In Riverside: an experienced NHS manager, a journalist and a Belmont parent whose name isn’t on the original flyers, as the initial nomination for candidate evaporated. No matter how promising some of these candidates might be, they have been much hampered by the absence of a Manifesto, the lack of which until a mere three days before the election, has made them the subject of much mockery. It has to be said that the absence of a manifesto smacks of terrible incompetence. How can they know what to campaign on? How can we know what to vote for?

The Lib Dems have a trainee solicitor, a trainee music teacher and a retired barrister. They seem a nice enough bunch.

The Greens, instead of entering one candidate in each ward, in which case they might well have picked up enough disgruntled voters to make an impact, have three in Riverside and three in Homefields, thereby ensuring they will split their votes uselessly across the board. They have a raft of – unsurprisingly – environmental issues, a couple of which are even achievable.

The issues

So what are the main issues at stake for all these enthusiastic would-be politicians?

Potholes

Yes, it turns out potholes are probably the most important issues to face Chiswick. Who’d have thought it? A pothole is not a pothole until it is 75mm deep, so any experienced road campaigner knows that a judicious tweak with a suitable metal implement can transform a faint indentation of no interest to a road traffic engineer into a dangerous pothole which will be repaired. Not that we are hinting that that’s what the candidates are doing. They are out with their cameras photographing away. Some even bring tiny sofas and chairs to decorate their potholes before photographing. For Tories, potholes prove poor Labour monitoring of the road maintenance contract; for Labour it proves the original PFI contract (a Tory achievement) was unsatisfactory. Both teams always tweet their findings, thereby underlining their commitment to kilometres of canvassing.

Rubbish

It is extremely important that candidates of all parties search out heaps of rubbish to photograph. Before the campaign they never bothered to notice the rubbish, let alone photograph it. Now these photos can be tweeted to the world to prove that the candidate – once elected – is going to clean up the streets. It goes without saying that the candidates don’t actually pick up any of this rubbish, even if there is a bin nearby, but simply use the detritus for virtue signalling. The Tories are particularly excited to see debris strewn around by foxes or flytipped, as they can then remind voters that they will re-instate weekly rubbish collections. It probably helps that they are unlikely to be put in the position where they might actually have to pay for this.

Potholes and rubbish are by far and away the main virtue signallers used to show that candidates have what it takes to be a conscientious councillor.

Heathrow

Social media has been peppered with pictures of candidates of all parties, holding blue signs saying that they are against Heathrow expansion. Each candidate carefully ignores the fact that the Conservative party committed to expanding the airport as part of its last election manifesto, and that the Hounslow Labour party has drawn up plans for a massive Heathrow Garden City in conjunction with Heathrow, while Heathrow is also a regular and major sponsor of Hounslow’s annual trip to MIPIM, the Cannes property developers’ market. Nevertheless all candidates fervently espouse the anti-Heathrow mantra. LibDems and Greens win this one hands down as they have had no chance (yet) to be compromised.

The Chiswick Curve

The Tories claim to have seen off this 32-storey skyscraper on the Chiswick Roundabout and to have led the fight against it. In fact local residents in West Chiswick & Gunnersbury led the initial campaign, and it is coming back under appeal in June. None of the current batch of (Tory) councillors has been in the least bit involved in the appeal preparations, and this issue (although very tall and important visually for all of West London) is completely under the radar at this election.

 

Other issues, eg education, housing, NHS

All criticisms by the Tories of existing local Labour failings lead to ripostes that central government has cut budgets so drastically that all local failings can be blamed on central cuts. Any arguments about benefit cuts, housing issues, NHS problems are bounced from central to local or vice versa depending on the parties. Only the dramatic Labour underestimates of the costs of setting up the new waste disposal depot (about £22 million out) stand up to objective scrutiny. All the manifestos (apart from the still-absent Labour one) mouth platitudes about housing, education, air pollution, green spaces. None have any convincing solutions about to how to actually achieve anything.

The Cycle Superhighway

This has turned into the marmite of Chiswick, the Brexit of dinner parties. Only the Green party has come out unequivocally in favour. Labour side-steps the issue with at least one member desperately praying for it, another worrying about turning circles of Catholic coffins, and the rest hoping it will just go away for now. The Lib Dems hope for some kind of beautiful solution that takes neither roadway nor pavement but miraculously solves the problem; there will be car parking, and single direction protected bike lanes, and bus routes, and wide pavements – unicorns will graze and little butterflies flutter happily.

Meanwhile the Tories have decided to go full-scale hyperventilation in their opposition. CS9 is “The most important thing in Chiswick over the last fifty years.” Its implementation represents the “death of the village.” While claiming to be pro-cycling, in a nebulous, “motherhood and apple pie” sort of way (elsewhere, far from our bucolic tranquillity, preferably in Holland or along the M25 or maybe on a different planet), their record of the last twenty years shows only opposition to any safe space for cycling. Aesthetically, environmentally and financially the cycle lanes will ruin all civilised life as we know it, they cry, as though the lanes were some major structure, rather than an eight-inch high kerb along the side of a road whose pavements in most stretches are some 10-13metres wide. Perhaps this stems from the age of the current Tory leadership: almost all the previous councillors were old, two were too fat to cycle; of the new batch the three youngest ones cycle, but they are timid and inexperienced and cannot yet stand up to their older mentors.

The local village idiots meanwhile are out in force, unrestrained by social niceties they lay into one another online with a ferocity that would have been astonishing in a pre-internet trolling age. Led by a furious American cafe owner, opposition to CS9 has been vitriolic and sustained, with a predictably angry response from cyclists across London. The police have even been called in to protect the cafe owner from a video of a Thunderbirds-style missile shown hitting some Mobikes parked by his café. Most other candidates and residents shake their heads in astonishment that a bike lane could provoke such excitement, but then again, the local Catholic priest announced the potential damage to be worse than the Luftwaffe and the death of Christianity. Meanwhile TfL is re-designing the lanes based on the results of the consultation. The Catholic church will no doubt get its pavement back, Christianity will be saved and the Luftwaffe’s record will remain unbeaten. All elected Chiswick councillors will then discover that they are actually powerless to do anything very interesting, faced by devastating local budgets, polluted air, a powerful international airport, an unsympathetic and weak national government, and an entrenched and distant local government. And we can all go back to our normal torpor.

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