Matthew Maxwell Scott is Chairman of Sutton Conservatives and Conservative Parliamentary Spokesman for Carshalton & Wallington. He was Chairman of Tooting from 2007 to 2011, and Councillor for Earlsfield Ward in the constituency from 2010 to 2014.
For years, Tooting Conservatives longed to see the back of their Labour MP. Well – mission accomplished. On Monday night, Sadiq Khan took the Chiltern Hundreds and so ended 22 years as a local representative, first as a Wandsworth councillor and then as MP. Granted, he claimed a rather bigger prize to become the third Mayor of London and he still lives there, but we can gloss over these details and focus, instead, on the June 16 by-election he has triggered.
I know the place very well. My parents moved to Tooting Bec during the mid-1980s, when people were starting to chortle less about nearby Balham being ‘the Gateway to the South’ and talk more seriously about it being ‘up and coming’, the favourite refrain of many an estate agent shark.
After unsuccessfully contesting Khan’s old council ward, also called Tooting, in 2006 – where we nonetheless gained two of the three seats for the first time since 1968 – I was constituency chairman from 2007 to 2011, by which time I had become councillor for its Earlsfield Ward.
We have come close to winning the seat before. In 1987, Martin Winter came within 1,500 votes of beating Labour’s Tom Cox. Then, as in 2015 when Dan Watkins lost to Khan by just 2,842 votes, it was largely a two-horse race – the straightforward red-on-blue battle which typifies Wandsworth as a whole.
In the more complicated 2010 campaign, Tooting was the most-canvassed constituency in the UK, and we delivered three million pieces of literature and saw about 80 per cent of our pledges turn out to vote.
The problem was that we never had quite enough pledges, hence Labour holding on by 2,524 votes. Although Tooting is very smart indeed in parts and is gentrifying elsewhere, this is a generational process. As a whole, it is different but not completely transformed from the mid-1980s. Equally, the changes in the more Labour-inclined parts of the constituency around Tooting Broadway are often cosmetic. Vastly improved pubs and surprisingly posh chicken shops reflect changing tastes and higher disposable incomes, not a political metamorphosis.
So can the seat be won this time? The absence of Khan is a boost, but Labour won the Merton & Wandsworth Greater London Assembly seat last week. Detailed breakdown of the voting figures will be available soon, and will paint an exact picture of what happened on May 5, although the choice there was essentially between Khan and Zac Goldsmith. On June 16, it will be between the rival visions for Britain of David Cameron and Jeremy Corbyn as well as between two local candidates.
The candidate the Conservatives have chosen is the right one. Dan Watkins more than deserved the chance to fight the seat again after an excellent showing in 2015 (one for the geeks: he won more votes against an incumbent MP than any other candidate in the UK).
The constituency has suffered somewhat for being Khan’s springboard over the last decade. Meanwhile, Dan has been doing the groundwork – and, in the case of his Tooting Voluntary Force, literally the spadework. He’s been winning campaigns to protect green spaces, save pubs, keep a nursery open, conserve Tooting’s Victorian heritage and stop commuters from Earlsfield Station being treated with casual indifference by South West Trains. And as well as being an entrepreneur and family man he is affable, thoughtful and loves Tooting. He will work with and not against Wandsworth Council – still one of the best Conservative local authorities ,and not just because it charges the lowest average council tax.
Labour are selecting on Saturday, but whoever they choose will be an unknown, and they have lost their talisman in Khan, so while the bookies make them favourites, in reality there is all to play for.
The Conservatives have nine of the local councillors to Labour’s twelve. A big turnout for Dan in the strong wards of Wandsworth Common and Nightingale and a solid performance in both Earlsfield and Bedford wards, as well as in parts of what you might call Tooting proper might just do it.
Expect to read a lot of cliché about the constituency’s diversity and vibrancy. It has both, but it is a mistake to think that the area’s BAME population is all for Labour. Dan wouldn’t have polled over 22,000 votes last year without strong support from this group. A better cipher might be the fairly high proportion of public-sector workers, not least at the behemoth of St George’s Hospital.
The spectre of Brexit is unlikely to loom all that large over this contest, since the area polls well for ‘Remain’ and UKIP have yet to come close to holding on to their deposit. London activists who have shifted their thoughts to the referendum might be advised to turn to Tooting instead for a few weeks, because on June 24 there will still be a country to run and a new, hardworking Tory MP would help. One way of getting there is on the 44 bus, which runs 114 times a day – and so almost as often as Khan mentions his father used to drive it.
Spare a thought for the locals. Living in a marginal seat with marginal wards means they get far more attention than almost anyone else in the country. Over the next four weeks, they will be flattered and stalked by politicians of all persuasion – the good, the bad and the Galloway.
This is not a contest the Conservatives must win, but it is one we can win and have the candidate to do it. That, plus the terrific curry houses (try Mirch Masala, Nazmins and Sree Krishna to name but three) and pubs (I could almost list them all) should get activists from across London and the South East flooding in and coming back for more. Wandsworth Conservatives run a great ship, and will have a laser-like focus on effectively using every bit of volunteer time they can during May and early June.
For Labour, there is little to gain and a lot to lose. I will be back in my old manor working hard to help ensure they do and that Dan Watkins becomes the first Conservative MP for Tooting.