Feltham And Heston By-Election Preview - Could Labour Lose?
Christmas has come early for the voters in Feltham and Heston. For the first two weeks of December, this corner of West London has been littered with politicians.
David Cameron, Vince Cable, Ed Miliband, Nigel Farage, Norman Lamb and Sadiq Khan have all visited to support their candidates ahead of Thursday’s by-election.
The reason? This by-election on the outer fringes of West London matters. The result will show whether the national opinion polls, which see Labour and the Tories jostling for slender leads, really mean much. For the Tories it's a crucial test of whether the more affluent south east of England remains supportive.
For Labour it's the first substantive test of both Ed Miliband's leadership, and of his claim that there's another way of clawing Britain out of economic stagnation.
If Labour loses this seat next Thursday then the internal mutterings about Ed Miliband's leadership will step up a significant notch. For the Tories there is less to lose - it's a Labour hold, they'll say. But for the Conservatives a seat like Feltham and Heston is just one of dozens of mixed, suburban seats they should have won at the general election last year.
They didn't, and now they have to give ground to Liberal Democrats on all sorts of things. If they can't make inroads here, isn't it indicative of an electorate which still thinks the Tories don't understand the workaday sort of patch they claim to be gunning for?
That's the line from Westminster punditry, at least. Yet on the ground, underneath the glidepaths towards Heathrow, not that many residents have realised. Drive through the constituency, and there are more signs warning against door-to-door salesman than posters promoting political parties.
And as the parties admit, not everyone in Feltham has even realised a by-election is even happening - nor noticed its trigger, the death of their Labour MP, Alan Keen, who passed away in November, aged 73.
Labour’s candidate Seema Malhotra may be leading the seat in some polls - but retaining the constituency isn’t a sure thing . Party sources say a poll which put her 22 points ahead, commissioned by former Conservative chairman Lord Ashcroft, is about trying to paint the election’s outcome as a foregone conclusion. Inside the party’s campaign headquarters, they’re not so certain.
Feltham Labour club has been transformed into a war room for the duration of the campaign. On the walls are three large sheets of paper, littered with the signatures of VIP visitors, including David Miliband and Harriet Harman, alongside former ministers and half the shadow cabinet. Next to that are maps of the constituency, with different wards highlighted. Another poster screams ‘DAYS UNTIL BY-ELECTION’ in large black letters.
The floor is littered with bags of campaign literature, ready to be delivered at the weekend by one of the 100 volunteers the party has managed to amass.
But something’s missing among Labour’s campaign literature; pictures of their leader, Ed Miliband. Although Labour promise that Ed will be on the next round of leaflets by Saturday, Conservative wags were gleefully pointing out he had not yet appeared.
Seema Malhotra promises that she has “pride of place in the next one”, insisting it’s just about “print deadlines.”
So, does she feel lucky? “We're not taking anything for granted. A by-election is a completely different environment to a general election. You've got to really fight, particularly in a winter by-election. A lot of people who we do meet may not have realised Alan Keen has passed away. It's been quite an emotional election.”
The one thing politicians can’t control is the weather. So Ed Miliband better hope the Met Office's warning of a "strong risk of gale force winds and heavy rain" in London on the day of the by-election are wrong.
Outside Labour HQ is another reminder than the by-election isn’t a foregone conclusion - a house with a poster supporting UKIP candidate Andrew Charalambous.
Charalambous is the wildcard candidate, a mutli-millionaire night club owner who’s described himself as a “tantric master” and stood for the Conservatives in Edmonton in 2010. Currently third favourite to win at Paddy Power, he says the people of Feltham and Heston want “real change”.
But on the streets, the people say they couldn’t care less. James is not exactly excited about next Thursday’s by-election. The 28-year-old engineer knows exactly what he wants from politicians - “If they can’t fix the construction industry, I’m not really interested."
For him, none of the candidates in Feltham and Heston can offer that. His friend Tom, 20, is planning to vote but won’t say who for. What does he think of the candidates? “They’re all the same standard crap”.
Feltham has been a Labour seat for 20 years. The official Conservatives line is that they aim to challenge that with their candidate, local Tory councillor Mark Bowen. David Cameron has promised his party are "fighting hard for every vote". His campaign blog offers a dizzying account of just how much one candidate can cram into a day in a two week campaign.
But will it make a difference? Last year the Conservatives polled 34% of the vote in the constituency, against Labour’s 43.6%, and gained a 4.8% swing. A year on and Labour are saying the by-election is time to “send a message” to the Tories on the economy.
But what about the Liberal Democrats? Roger Crouch, the party’s 35-year-old candidate, will admit to “a little bit of media training” but refuses to claim he will win the seat.
Crouch is used to losing elections, after missing out on becoming a councillor, twice.
Not that missing out on elections matters much to Lib Dems - Crouch says he was reassured by a visit from Nick Clegg’s adviser Norman Lamb, who said it took him about 11 years to be an MP.
Perhaps it's this previous history of slog and upset that makes Crouch think his party have the capacity to surprise: “I think we’re going to do much better than anyone is expecting.”
With 13.7% of the vote in 2010, the test for the Liberal Democrats is if the vote share can hold up - particularly given his party’s decision to go into coalition with the Tories, a move it’s his job to delicately defend on the doorstep - while pointing out that one Tory MP, Colonel Bob Stewart, has claimed the seat is unwinnable for them.
Crouch’s name, however, doesn’t ring a bell with one constituent who says she’ll vote Lib Dem regardless of the candidate - “because I always do”.
For all parties in Feltham and Heston, there’s still all to play for during the frenzied campaign.
The Feltham And Heston By-Election takes place next Thursday, 15th of December. See below for a slideshow of the candidates.