Our constituency of Chesham & Amersham boasts the least socially deprived village in the whole of Britain, an MP who has held the seat since John Major’s leadership, a local-made bespoke gin, and a majority of constituents born outside of it. The Conservative majority currently stands at 22,000. In the last election in 2017, Labour took second place and secured a fifth of the vote, securing 7% more of the vote than the Liberal Democrats, who are usually the party of choice for those who are a little bit cross with the Conservative Party but don’t want to be rude. Turnout is high, always around 72% – 77%. The constituency voted 55.02% to Remain in 2016. Local house prices are very high, with large mortgages being bolstered up by predominantly London-based salaries. In the last census, 26% of the residents identified as being in the professional & managerial classes. It’s 34 minutes to Marylebone or – if you have a good book to read – 55 minutes to Kings Cross on the Metropolitan Line. Despite this, the town harbours a distinctly sleepy, out-of-town feel, and there are still cows in the farm at the end of our road. A total of 38,000 people live in the constituency, which takes in Chesham, Amersham and several surrounding villages. Unlike many market towns, Amersham actually has a market, where the high street is closed to traffic once-weekly so the well-styled housewives of South Buckinghamshire can have their fill of Levantine street food and artisan stilton cheese. This is not yet far enough from London to be Toby Carvery Britain, but you can smell it from here.
Or perhaps that is the cows. People move here from London for the usual reasons : more space, a slightly slower lifestyle and excellent state schooling which includes a few outstanding grammar schools. I have never met anyone who was born here. I went for a flu vaccination once and the nurse said she was born in Buckinghamshire and I nearly fell off my chair. The character of the town, the reference points of its inhabitants, as well as the way in which we move to live or work, is vastly London-centric. Every single person my age has arrived here from North or West London: Willesden, Westbourne Grove, Wembley, Hammersmith & Hampstead – as soon as the second baby arrives they up sticks and jump on the tube until the tube stops altogether here, at the foothills of the Chiltern Hills, a EU-designated Area of Outstanding Natural Beauty.
Of course, it won’t be EU-designated much longer. It will be designated by another municipal authority which no one has quite worked out the machinations of yet. But the General Election 2019 is a fierce battleground. This outer-suburban area is not as straight forward as you may think. Labour shunting into second place, beating the Liberal Democrats in 2017, was the result of a fairly long term shift: 2,900 constituents voted Labour in 2010 here, rising to nearly 7,000 in 2015, and rising again to just under 11,500 in 2017 (after the Referendum Vote). During the same period the Liberal Democrat vote has halved. Is there a hankering after 1970s-leftist social policies at The Ladies Guild or the clubhouse of The Amersham & Chiltern Rugby Club? Something appeared to be happening to the Labour Party appeal back in 2017. However, since then, the landscape has completely shifted again: in The European Election of May of this year, the Liberal Democrats came out top with 10,942 votes. Much local press focused on this. But the victory was incredibly narrow, as they only defeated The Brexit Party by 620 votes. (For context, The Conservatives got 4,381, and Labour 1,496). I cannot remember a European vote (or indeed a UK one) in living memory where both the main two political parties got so trounced. Instead, we are left with half the constituency expressing an adamant-Leave scenario, and the other half an adamant-Remain one.
The Labour Party have yet to announce their candidate for the upcoming election, and the local Amersham & Chesham Labour Party website doesn’t have this information yet. I cannot find out who my local Labour candidate is. This morning, the Liberal Democrats were out in force in the town, with a local candidate who lives in the constituency and who, a leaflet proffered into my hand tells us, is “married to Claire”. His name is Dan, but his leaflet doesn’t tell me much more than that he is married to Claire, is staunchly Remain, contains vague promises of “support” to NHS and Mental Health with no statistics or information, and that he is a successful builder. Presumably this last fact is because if his campaign to go into parliament fails I can still book him to build a conservatory. Dan! This an election fought on two political battle lines : Brexit and legitimate parliamentarianism, and both of those battles are being played just outside our constituency. Man up Dan!
Down the road is Beaconsfield, where there is a big Sainsbury’s and a couple of congested roundabouts. Until recently, this was the Conservative seat held for 22 years by Dominic Grieve, QC & MP, until they decided he couldn’t any longer. Astonishingly, his campaign as an Independent MP is being supported by all the opposition parties, as Grieve finds himself in the peculiar position of working to overturn his own 2017 majority : https://www.theguardian.com/politics/2019/nov/09/dominic-grieve-campaign-trail-beaconsfield. The local LibDem candidate has stepped aside, due to the risk of splintering the vote. Bemused former Labour canvassers find themselves doorstepping stockbrokers to tell them to vote for a former Tory MP. Amersham & Chesham’s Conservative MP, Dame Cheryl Gillan – known as Dame Chernobyl to frustrated locals – is putting her energy into drumming up the Conservative Beaconsfield vote, thereby blocking Grieve, an esteemed parliamentarian and a respected authority on parliamentary procedure and legislature, from ever returning to the House of Commons. This is the topsy turvy world of General Election 2019.
Yet, these South Buckinghamshire towns seem to be places where local efforts by MPs are recognised. Dominic Grieve’s constituents laud and admire him, speak highly of his surgeries over the years and recognise him as a politician who appears to have a moral centre. This conventional section of the British electorate, the Tory heartland-ers of Rotary Clubs and bicycle routes; the anti-HS2 campaigners in thrall to the Buckinghamshire countryside, the affluent, educated middle classes who read their newspapers and are beginning to get cross by the bully boy tactics emerging on both sides of the House, should not be underestimated. They are local campaigners, Womens Institute members, flower planters and freemasons, civic movers and shakers. Dominic belongs to them. I would not be surprised if they return him to the House.
Our MP, unlike Dominic, has not had her right to represent her party taken away from her. She is a highly conventional, standard Conservative in both the old and the new guard. She advocates against anything that threatens the Union, but also wants to destabilize the actual unions. She’s pro-bedroom tax and anti-gay rights, although so far no one has suggested she marry these two beliefs and tax gay people who want to have sex in bedrooms. She voted for making local authorities responsible for those constituents in need of financial support should they find themselves unable to make their council tax payments, and has consistently voted against raising disability payments for those unable to work through illness or disability. She has always voted for fewer MPs in the House of Commons and against a wholly elected House of Lords. I think she must be a medieval hologram rather than an actual person as I find it hard to believe someone is basically this mean. If that’s not enough, she has consistently voted for higher taxes on alcohol sales and aeroplane flights, an extremely foolhardy gesture when your ruddy-cheeked constituents are drinking lots of gin and holidaying abroad during every independent school half term holiday. If I wanted to end it all via euthanasia, she would be no help to me at all as she has even voted against that. She has, however, consistently voted for something called a “transparent Parliament” which may explain why her constituents can now see through her.
She has generally voted against public money to help create guaranteed jobs for young people who have been in long term unemployment, a move which seems highly at odds with the enterprise spirit of traditional one-nation Conservatism. But then, one of the many carcasses that we have seen washed up on the Brexit Beach these last two years is that of one-Nation Conservatism. Instead, we seem left with one-Notion Conservatism, or – as many of us jaded people name it – The Brexit Party. This is a sort of mish-mash collection of motley people who really ought to be working on one of those TV Channels devoted to selling you gold-plated taps where they can talk shit all day. But the problem with the front benches of both sides is they talk shit all day and we are all compelled to watch their spurious wafflings on a vast selection of news outlets. Either it’s the bovine Shadow Front Bench, ripe with the rotten stench of institutional anti-semitism, stonewalling questions about how they are going to pay for the vastly lunatic economic promises they are flattering the electorate with, or the terrifying apparition of HM Government itself, who are so busy whipping each other, removing the whips from each other, stabbing each other in the well-tailored back, Faraging their way intricately through the sodden, dreadful moshpit of Cabinet life whilst shouting spittle over the rest of us as they tell us that “Brexit means Brexit” which does not in fact mean anything at all. “Let’s get Brexit done!” they chirrup from underneath Jacob Rees-Mogg’s fourth double-breasted suit of the week. No one has a clue what they are on about. Sadly, we deeply suspect they don’t either.
This is an election where life-long voter loyalty is breaking down; where a disaffected, frustrated Brexit-tired country is dismally depressed at being asked to vote for the third time in four years, where the positions of the two main parties have shifted so violently that many decent moderate MPs have been needlessly annihilated on both sides of the House, where Labour voters are switching to the LibDems, where anti-Brexit Conservative voters are also, where the Brexit Party stands shadily in the wings waiting for their deal to end all deals so that Nigel Farage can finally re-introduce smoking into the House of Commons bar, where a Labour Party currently under investigation by the EHRC waves their £3billion increase in adult education at a woefully, gullible youth vote as a deluded sweetener, and where pre-2015 notions of what it meant to be a Conservative voter, and what it meant to be a Labour voter have vanished. Every MP of a seemingly safe seat may well be feeling more jittery than ever; not just because an electorate threatens to splinter away from them, but because their political systems are seismically shifting too. It’s not impossible that we are observing the swansong of the two party system. Dame Cheryl Gillan is the Trustee and Hon Treasurer of the Parliament Choir. She may have to start singing for her supper.