Walthamstow, a quiet working class community in North-East London, is as safe a constituency as they come. Labour control the local council, and the party has held the seat consistently since the 1990s, and has only lost one election since 1972. In the 2010 election, Stella Creasy—widely touted as a possible future party leader and the current Shadow Minister for Crime Prevention—commanded over 50% of the vote with a nearly 10,000 vote majority. It’s perhaps not surprising, then, that the community has not heavily featured in the media’s election coverage.
But Walthamstow is a community at a crossroads. Gentrification has pushed more and more people from central London to the area, at the terminus of the Victoria Line, which is in turn pushing up housing prices and pushing out residents who for decades have called this area home. According to the Financial Times, property values increased 22.3% over the course of 2014. A new development, known as The Scene, has seen the demolition of social housing to make way for a brand new cinema, restaurants, and flats which are now priced at £500,000, according to local resident Sarah Wrack. These businesses “are not aimed at the poor people of this area,” but rather “the people they’re trying to attract,” she says.
“It’s not for the people who live here at the moment, it’s to move people in and literally move people who used to be in that social housing out.”
Sarah Sachs-Eldridge agrees, another Walthamstow resident, agrees. “It’s impossible to get a decent home in this area. All of us have difficulties with housing.”
She blames the cutting of council tax benefit and housing benefit for forcing residents out, something Ms Wrack also believes is making Walthamstow unaffordable for many of its residents. Ms Wrack grew up in Tower Hamlets, in Inner-East London, which at the time “had the highest rate of child poverty in Europe,” she says. “It was a poor place.” The redevelopment of Canary Wharf forced Ms Wrack out, something she sees being repeated now in Walthamstow. ““In an area like this, almost everyone is poor,” she says. The same process which brought her here is “being repeated, as people are forced out further and further.”
Both women were out on Monday campaigning alongside Nancy Taaffe, who agrees with their assessment of the housing crisis in the constituency. It “is an expression of accumulation of loss of council homes that have come together in a sort of economic crisis of not being able to get a job or not being able to get enough money to buy,” says Taaffe, the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition candidate challenging Ms Creasy for the seat.
TUSC was formed weeks before the 2010 general election “to enable trade unionists, community campaigners, and socialists to stand candidates against the pro-austerity establishment parties,” according to its website. They are standing in 135 parliamentary elections across the country. Bob Crow, the late National Union of Rail, Maritime, and Transport Workers (RMT) leader, was one of its founders.
“Historically the socialist party which is part of TUSC was inside the Labour party,” Ms Taaffe says, noting that the Socialist Party left Labour “just before the ascendency of Tony Blair,” a time she claims Labour was “expelling all trade unionists (and) good socialists.”
Ms Taaffe: “They purged organisationally, they pushed socialists out and then they reconstituted themselves as a neo-liberal party.”
She stood for the seat in 2010, winning less than 250 votes. But she felt it was important to stand again. “The working class is disenfranchised. It doesn’t have a socialist voice,” she says, noting that “the Labour Party is no longer a socialist party.”
Ms. Taaffe’s comments, and indeed her candidacy, are part of a broader story that has dominated this election. Britain was, for nearly a century, a largely two-party system, with the Liberal Democrats a smaller but ever-present third party. Over the past decade, though, more and more voters have become disillusioned with what they felt were false choices between the Conservatives and Labour, and have migrated to smaller parties, including UKIP and nationalist parties such as the SNP in Scotland and Plaid Cymru in Wales. In England, where nationalism lacks the cache on the left, the Green Party has largely picked up the progressive slack, with parties like TUSC emerging to carry the banner of the traditional, if dwindling, socialist agenda.
“Allegiances to Labour are fragmented,” Ms Taaffe says, “and you can see that in Scotland,” where the SNP look poised to completely wipe out Labour, which may lose more than 40 seats in the country tomorrow.
“The austerity cuts have been absolutely devastating for women and the public sector. A million jobs have gone. So in Scotland where these jobs are going, on top of its history of losing manufacturing jobs, the betrayal — I mean all around Scotland now they’ve got stickers saying ‘Red Tories,’” she says. “It’s like a perfect storm of 30 years.”
According to Ms Taaffe, it’s the same across the country, including in Walthamstow. “Labour completely controls this area. £65 million pounds worth of cuts. We’ve lost 1000 jobs to those cuts.” One of those jobs was Ms Taaffe’s. She worked for years at the local library, but was made redundant in phase 12 of the cuts.
Ms Taaffe: “When I debated with Stella, I said to her ‘I was a single parent with two children. And you call yourself a feminist… and yet you wouldn’t make a statement about us losing our jobs at the hands of your party?”
“The least you can do if you stand in the tradition of the suffragettes is to speak for the thousands of women who are losing their jobs, the women who rely on public service for social care for their families, who have been pushed back into the home. It’s been like, we would argue it’s regressive what’s happening to women, because we rely disproportionately on the services that are going. So if you’re a feminist, you’ve got to fight the cuts.
“She said ‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’. Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.”* Mr Pickles, the Conservative Secretary for Communities and Local Government, led the coalition’s efforts to slash the budgets of local councils over the last parliament.
Earlier this year Ms Creasy, along with the majority of Labour MPs, voted with the Coalition for an additional £30 billion in cuts to benefits and services, a move which fellow Labour MP and London mayoral candidate Diane Abbott at the time called a “great disservice” to the working class.
While it is extremely unlikely Ms Taaffe will defeat Ms Creasy in tomorrow’s vote, she is looking ahead to the next battle. “We’re going to be fighting for the existence of our local hospital,” she says. “Stella (and) the local councillors are not being honest…. our local hospital is in debt to the tune of £90 million. The plan and the details of the cuts won’t be released until June, which is a month after the general election.
“It’s just an outrage. 340,000 people use the hospital.”
And though Ms Taaffe and TUSC hope that Ms Creasy and her party will fight alongside them, she is not optimistic.
“The fight now is outside the Labour Party.”
(The Curious American reached out to Stella Creasy for comment, particularly on the allegations she said she and Labour did not want to stand up to Eric Pickles, but as of the time of publication has not received a response. However, Ms Creasy did address the issue of housing with the Walthamstow Guardian: “The price of housing is driving many out of our area and leaving others in overcrowded accomodation… Only Labour is committed to building the homes that we need and ending unfair agency fees to provide a city fit for all.”)
Updated 2/12/2015: Last month, Stella Creasy responded to this piece on Twitter, asking us to remove the following statement made by Nancy Taaffe: “She said ‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’. Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.” The Curious American wishes to to clarify this statement. Ms Taaffe repeated a quote she alleges is from Ms Creasy (‘we can’t stand up to Eric Pickles’.) This was in inverted commas and followed by a full stop, indicating an end to the alleged quote. Ms Taaffe then went on to offer her on analysis, which is that “Eric Pickles is a bullying conservative man.” Because this statement was made by Ms Taaffe, and because The Curious American reached out to Ms Creasy for comment on this specific alleged quote, we will not remove it. However, Ms Creasy has denied the comment on Twitter: