Local elections 2022: Boris Johnson divides voters in Winston Churchill’s old seat in Redbridge

Ahead of the May 5 local elections, Jessica Frank Keyes joins a Conservative candidate on the doorstep in Woodford, part of Winston Churchill’s former Essex constituency.
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“There was more than one partygate going on.”

Retired engineer, Keith, 66, has just been doorknocked by Conservative council candidate for Bridge ward, Paul Canal.

Standing at the door of his home in Woodford, Redbridge, east London, on a sunny bank holiday Monday, he continues: “On the whole, in my opinion, as a political party you’ve done better [than the others].

“I think Boris has had a very good stance over Ukraine.

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“He’s dropped the ball once or twice over stupid stuff - you can’t make rules for people and then ignore them but did they do anything worse than a lot of people?

“I can cut them a little slack there because I think they were under incredible pressure.”

Conservative candidate Paul Canal and wife Karen campaigning in Woodford, Redbridge. Photo: LondonWorldConservative candidate Paul Canal and wife Karen campaigning in Woodford, Redbridge. Photo: LondonWorld
Conservative candidate Paul Canal and wife Karen campaigning in Woodford, Redbridge. Photo: LondonWorld

In a move sure to gladden hearts at CCHQ, just days ahead of the local council elections on Thursday, May 5, Johnson’s supporters are out in force.

We’re in the former seat of his hero, biography subject and Second World War prime minister Winston Churchill.

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At the time, with the local Conservative association then a “mass marriage bureau”, there were more than 6,000 registered party members in the constituency alone.

While times have certainly changed, positive noises today sure to be seen as a sign of better things to come.

And leading the charge to mount a furious defence of the “team captain”, is Paul.

Former Conservative group leader, he’s been a councillor in Redbridge since 2010.

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Along with his “silent supporter” wife Karen, Paul, a technical bid writer, is out pounding the pavements as the government enters the final stretch before the midterms, as he dubs them.

“From 1970 onwards we’ve made a better fist of it than they [Labour] have,” he tells Keith.

“Generally the way he dealt with Brexit and the Covid-19 situation, and latterly Ukraine, I think they should be congratulated for it.

“He does tend to get the big calls right.”

Conservative election leaflets in Redbridge. Photo: LondonWorldConservative election leaflets in Redbridge. Photo: LondonWorld
Conservative election leaflets in Redbridge. Photo: LondonWorld

While it seems to be a view shared by other residents, many of whom are happy to pronounce their support on the spot, Paul says he has also witnessed “visceral anger”.

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One voter, who practically recoils from the leaflet he hands her, tells us partygate has been a “pure shambles, the way they are acting”.

Paul tells her they are “on the same page” about Downing Street’s pandemic antics.

“I stayed at home and didn’t see my dad - who had a heart attack,” he adds.

“You look at the Queen sitting alone at her husband’s funeral.

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“You’ve got Keir Starmer lying about the Durham miners thing.

“We’re right to expect those who lead us to do the right thing.”

It comes as the Labour leader’s campaign curry and beer makes headlines for the seventh day, while the Met Police has said it will not issue updates on fines ahead of election day.

Later, I ask again about the partygate gatherings - and whether the allegations of lawbreaking and the fines issued by the Met bother him personally.

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“My frustration is that Boris and Carrie live and work there,” he says.

“I think they’ve been very badly let down by senior civil servants.

“I think the country feels it as well and it shouldn’t have happened.

“We’re in the midst of a serious crisis in Ukraine which we can’t let Putin win.

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“Now isn’t the time to change leaders - let Boris do the full term and let the country decide.”

Paul Canal and wife Karen at Woodford station. Photo: LondonWorldPaul Canal and wife Karen at Woodford station. Photo: LondonWorld
Paul Canal and wife Karen at Woodford station. Photo: LondonWorld

However, the impact of national scandals on local politics, he tells me, predominantly affects the numbers of voters who make it through the doors of polling stations.

In local elections, the figure is generally thought to be 30-40% of those who are registered, and among those who normally vote Conservative, “it will depress turnout”, Paul says.

One of the ways regional Tory associations have been aiming to combat this up and down the country, is by standing as ‘local Conservatives’.

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Leaflets citing “lingering unhappiness” and asking voters not to “punish local Conservatives for mistakes made in Westminster” have been circulated and shared online.

It’s a stance Paul says he is adamantly not taking.

Chatting over a coffee after the canvassing session has finished, he says: “I’ve always been a team player, my entire life.

“You play for your team and that’s the team I’m playing for right now. You appoint a team captain and you support them through thick and thin.

“I’m very happy to be linked to the national party.”

Letters are dished out, branded with the Conservative party logo, and addressed to individual voters, aiming to inspire a sense of “connection” to their councillors.

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Paul is relentless in asking what their issues and concerns are, offering to organise a smaller wheelie bin for one resident, and to find out about proposed changes to a nearby cycle path.

“The best part of the job has been case work,” he says.

“Less than 1% of the population need my help but that’s where you can make a real difference.”

Conservative campaign materials. Photo: LondonWorldConservative campaign materials. Photo: LondonWorld
Conservative campaign materials. Photo: LondonWorld

A Woodford resident for 35-years, Jenny, who organises the annual neighbourhood street party, answers the door in her Marigolds.

While she won’t tell Paul who she votes for, she’s keen to chat about her new grandson, born April 2020.

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A pandemic baby, she and her daughter strictly self-isolated for two weeks so she could go round and meet him.

“We didn’t get to hold him for months,” she says.

“Getting to see a doctor around here is hard. People aren’t working in GP clinics.”

And she wouldn’t be swayed by national issues, not in a local ballot, she tells me.

Another voter also won’t confirm or deny he’ll be voting for Paul - but admits his favourite colour is blue.

“That means he’s a Chelsea supporter,” Paul jokes.

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Overwhelmingly, the mood is one of forgiveness, tempered with mild disapproval.

“I’d never vote Labour,” one man tells us. “I still like Boris - he’s made a few mistakes but who hasn’t?”

Redbridge Council after the 2018 election. Credit: By The/WikimediaCommonsRedbridge Council after the 2018 election. Credit: By The/WikimediaCommons
Redbridge Council after the 2018 election. Credit: By The/WikimediaCommons

Paul, standing alongside fellow candidates Has Ahmed and Sheree Rackman, is confident about his party’s chance, but admits: “If they won’t tell you, they haven’t voted for you.”

He believes Wandsworth - famously Margaret Thatcher’s favourite council, and a steadfast flagship Tory borough - will change hands, despite the “great job” keeping council tax low.

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“If we had a small number of seat reversals, that would be a victory,” he says.

“The challenge Labour has is other than complaining about partygate they have absolutely no ideas.

“If we held Barnet that would be great. It would be good to hang onto Wandsworth and I think we could do it if people come out and vote on the day.

“Governments always do poorly in the midterms. I wouldn’t expect us to make gains.”

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When it comes to his own ward, he says the count will be “tight” - making every vote vital.

“In Redbridge, I’d expect us to pick up a couple of seats because Labour have made some disastrous decisions around low-traffic neighbourhoods,” he says.

The controversial policy has proved remarkably divisive - and Paul’s views on “the anti-car zealots” are clear.

“A car is the single thing that gives people the freedom to make life choices that make their families life better,” he says.

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“I think we’re sleepwalking into accepting the radical green agenda that cars are evil.”

Another issue affecting the area is high levels of renting, as opposed to home ownership.

“If you’ve got a mattress in your front garden, and you’ll only be there for six months, you’re not going to care as much,” Paul says.

Does he think London - and Redbridge - have been hard done by plans for levelling up? Partly, yes.

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“Within every London borough there is an area of need where people are also left behind,” he says.

“It isn’t just BAME groups, we have a massive issue with white working class boys and girls being left behind.

“We need to level up within boroughs and level up nationally.”

The cost of living crisis is also an issue for residents in Paul’s area, he says, describing families left unable to heat their homes as “unacceptable in a modern democracy” and higher charges for power prepayment metres as “morally wrong”.

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He adds: “I think they’ll [the Treasury] come back with some better ideas later in the year.

“We need to increase the level of support in the short term to support the most vulnerable.

“For some, it’s about eating out less often, but my parents went through worse when rationing ended in the 1950s.”

Paul also dismisses the risk from far-right parties, despite Conservative councillor Alex Wilson who since switched to Nigel Farage’s Reform UK Party and is now standing in Bridge ward.

“Every constituency has extremes on both sides,” Paul said.

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“Reform is essentially a far right party wearing different overcoats to convince people they aren’t racists - in my view they are.

“It’s people who are disgruntled and disenfranchised and it’s a protest vote and they take 1-2% of the votes nationally - irritating but pointless.”

Labour became the majority party in Redbridge in 2014, after periods of Conservative and no overall control.

And, in Paul’s “honest” view: “There’s some things they’ve done very well.

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“There’s some they could do better, and some they’ve done very badly.

“I thought their Covid response was magnificent.”

However, he’s still determined to take as many voters from them as possible.

“Keir Starmer was a very radical left wing lawyer but he’s chosen to hide the wolf in this Blairite sheep’s clothing,” he quipped.

“Angela Rayner in my view is nothing more than a gobby Marxist.

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“In 2019, it was Boris Johnson or Jeremy Corbyn and the country made the right choice.”

Whether that’s still the case for Boris and his supporters, it remains to be seen.

Local elections 2022