Danny Finkelstein has written an interesting piece in this morning's Times about the apparently rotten borough of Erith and Thamesmead, but I feel I must correct him on something, or at least point if not correct point out something anyway. In the piece Danny says,
It just so happens that in the modern Borough of Bexley lies one of the safest Labour seats in the country. Labour will hold Erith and Thamesmead at the next election even with Gordon Brown as leader, that's how safe it is.This is, both true and not true in my view. Yes, its certainly true that E&T has traditionally been a rock solid Labour seat. John Austin's current majority is 11,500 which seems like a sure fire winner for them, hence Danny's comment.
However, there are some important considerations that you have to take into account with the new boundary changes. They are minor changes but could be quite significant and make that majority, in theory, less from the starting point.
The seat is actually split between the London Borough of Greenwich, and the London Borough of Bexley, and the changes to the boundaries have meant that the solidly Labour ward of Glyndon on the Greenwich side has been lost. Meanwhile, at the same time, wards that are solidly Tory on the Bexley side have been added to the constituency, I'm thinking here of Northumberland Heath, Belvedere and Lesnes Abbey.
Effectively, and using the last council election results, of the eight wards that make up the constituency you have a notional Tory majority in the four wards on the Bexley side and a Labour majority in the three wards on the Greenwich side. At the same time as this, the Greenwich side, specifically Thamesmead has seen a massive increase in owner-occupied property that is experiencing negative equity since 2005. The point here is anger toward the Government. Additionally the Tories scared Labour in Plumstead ward and polled strongly into second *cough that was me*.
Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying that the Tories are going to romp home in Erith and Thamesmead. However, as I said the other day, I will not be surprised to see the seat become marginal after the election, nor would I be surprised if there was a "rogue swing" against Labour. It's worth noting as well that in Thamesmead there is a solid community party as well that polls well in local elections and could easily squeeze the vote at the expense of Labour.
The point that Danny was making was of course much wider than this, and was essentially about the fact that in safe seats the local party, not the people, choose the MP. In fact, the argument reminds me of something Sir Humphrey once said,
"The argument that we must do everything a Minister demands because he has been 'democratically chosen' does not stand up to close inspection. MPs are not chosen by 'the people' - they are chosen by their local constituency parties: thirty-five men in grubby raincoats or thirty-five women in silly hats. The further 'selection' process is equally a nonsense: there are only 630 MPs and a party with just over 300 MPs forms a government and of these 300, 100 are too old and too silly to be ministers and 100 too young and too callow. Therefore there are about 100 MPs to fill 100 government posts. Effectively no choice at all."It's not just the Labour selection in Erith and Thamesmead that's worth watching in my mind, because the election itself will actually be much closer that it is instinctively thought.