Uxbridge is Metroland, the paradise at the end of the Metropolitan Line. It is a century-old marketing invention selling the fantasy that, if you got on the Metropolitan Line at Aldgate, and stayed on for an hour, you would alight in an E.M. Forster novel but with superb transport links and affordable housing. No one thinks this now. The Tube station might have a superb art-deco frontage and surviving Georgian relics might dot the High Street — Uxbridge is the ancient market town that London ate — but this is sprawl: concrete, cheap goods, bad food. There are surprising numbers of Spanish and French schoolchildren. I thought they were here by mistake — perhaps they think Uxbridge is Oxbridge — but no: they are staying at Brunel university campus.
Uxbridge and South Ruislip is part of the tongue-shaped Tory stronghold in northwest London. It is a land of highly skilled, self-employed non-graduates. It has a Conservative council, was immune to Blairism, and is so Conservative in spirit it still has a Conservative Club whose carpet is the colour of Margaret Thatcher’s suits. It was Boris Johnson’s constituency (a 7,210 majority on 68.5% turnout in 2019) until he resigned from Parliament, rather than face a by-election as punishment for misleading it.
Johnson may be a coward and a fool, but he is still liked here by the people he mirrors: white, semi-affluent, late middle-aged. I think he might have won if he had stood, and it was as good an opportunity for a personal redemption as any. Uxbridge Woman is close to Essex Man: they forgive him Partygate because they would have done the same. “We love Boris,” a woman says, adding: “He just didn’t care.” She laughs. “He’s down to earth. He’s human.” But he baulked, and into the vacuum he made in Uxbridge and South Ruislip — the vacuum that is his legacy, and his mirror — all the oddities floated in.
The numbers are on a whiteboard outside the Underground station courtesy of Star Sports betting. They have sent a political analyst for the day. He says Labour will win this seat, and, in homage, their activists sweep through the high street with their candidate, Danny Beales, 29, a local councillor who grew up in Ruislip, the child of a single parent. They avoid journalists, and then retire to Wagamama. I see the deputy leader of the Welsh Labour Party browsing a charity shop in a straw hat. I am not so sure about Labour: the only certainty is that voters are volatile and emotional, and Uxbridge Person has a problem with Keir Starmer. Voting is a consumer act now — something generated in the subconscious — and they don’t trust him. He doesn’t have Johnson’s fake authenticity and will to drama: a powerful drug when you are trying to avoid reality. The most common responses to questions about Starmer are “I don’t like him” or “I don’t know”. Johnson, one woman says, “doesn’t bother to bury the bodies”.
The analyst is so sure Labour will win, he is now wondering which of the novelty candidates will do best: there are 17 in all, so many that “mainstream” candidates avoid hustings, for fear of looking like attendees at a politicised fancy dress party. There used to be one or two novelty candidates in any by-election: now there is a glut. Now he is calculating Laurence Fox (Reclaim) versus Count Binface (Count Binface Party). Fox is slightly ahead because he did nine series of Lewis and Binface is mostly on Twitter. Novelty candidates fish in the same pool. The main battle is happening off-scene. I do see the Tory candidate Steve Tuckwell — a former postman, a fact that is presented like a jewel on a velvet cushion — in the Three Tuns Pub, but his press man won’t let me approach him. I stare at him as if he is a flamingo while he holds his pint.
The most devoted novelty candidate is Piers Corbyn of Let London Live. He is Jeremy Corbyn’s brother, and he looks like Albert Einstein made homeless. He parks his blue Vauxhall opposite the station. It has a loudhailer on the roof from which plays a song to the tune of “It’s Beginning to Look a Lot like Christmas”. It substitutes the word Christmas with Genocide (“with every jab you take”). Later, he plays conspiracy-theory rap. I can only think: what happened at a Corbyn childhood Christmas? He is accompanied by a press officer who says he is banned from sleeping rough in Westminster. “I am the candidate the Establishment fear,” Corbyn says, which is not true.
He is opposed to Covid lockdowns and Ulez (ultra-low emission zones, a tax of £12.50 a day for non-compliant cars that Sadiq Khan is extending here next month). Corbyn reminds me that he was arrested 16 times for protesting lockdown. He says the Underground is 40 times more polluting than roads. He says that if Sadiq Khan cares about pollution he would shut down the Underground, and that carbon dioxide is not a pollutant: we need more of it. Corbyn is a constant by Uxbridge station, performing his dark carnival, and the council have their revenge at teatime. They give him a parking ticket.
It is obvious that conspiracism, incubated under Covid, has mainlined in British politics, walking from Facebook to life. This is the first by-election where working-class Tory-leaning women tell me it doesn’t really matter who is in charge. If this is Johnson’s legacy, they don’t yet know it. “Rishi is trying,” says one, “but it’s hard to do a job with your hands tied behind your back. Somebody kicks him down. They’ve already got their person to put in.”
A retired bricklayer tells me the Tories have done nothing wrong; that people are greedy for benefits; that the state can’t do everything for people. I meet another who doesn’t know why he votes Tory but will anyway, like a contraction. Another is sorry that Johnson left: “Who’d have a pandemic?” I find no Tory who is happy he has gone.
I meet raging Labour voters. “They [the Conservatives] are for the little people, not the big people,” says one: he can’t afford to go out after he has paid his rent, and is aghast at Sunak’s wealth. Another thinks the Tories “are idiots”; yet another calls Sunak “Fishy Rishi”, but as a former Liberal Democrat alienated by the coalition government of 2010-15, his main complaint seems to be against Jo Swinson’s wardrobe. He has a resentment against her cardigan: “You do have to look the part. And then she just disappeared like a house of cards collapsed. She just vanished into thin air like AI. Like she never was.” Two young men say they will vote Labour when they can vote — they are 16 — as “we are falling apart now”. They are sophisticated, and despondent. “Everything is going downhill. Every year it just gets worse and worse. Imagine what it be like in ten years. Everything has doubled in price. It’s not very safe. Somebody gets stabbed every day.” They never saw Johnson in the constituency. Then one says what I think is the most profound thing anyone has ever said about him, and he says it with great seriousness: Johnson was a meme.
Then there are the apolitical, the non-voters. One calls himself “helpless. It’s all a game. There is no change. It just rolls on and rolls on. The top people stay at the top.” He is functional, but sounds despairing, as if he carries his sorrow in his pocket. A woman in a Little Miss Trouble T-shirt tells me Starmer “is much of the same thing [to Sunak]. Labour and the Conservatives seem to have meshed together.” Inevitably, I meet someone who thinks Johnson is still prime minister.
In the D2o Boardgame Cafe, the man behind the counter says his clientele “are completely disengaged. This is a Conservative constituency, and we are an LGBTQ+ board game cafe. The younger people are red-leaning, but I don’t know if they are even going to vote.” Like many in the constituency, he is against Ulez; it is cross-party anger that the Tories hope to exploit. “I think anything that uses a fine as a method of discouragement is classist,” he says. “If you can afford a flat in central London, you can afford to pay the Ulez charge. All it is going to do is affect the people who need to work in London but can’t afford to live there.”
I walk the high street with the Rejoin EU candidate Richard Hewison; Uxbridge voted Leave, alongside four other London boroughs and the whole of Essex. We meet two repentant Brexit voters in 30 yards. “I got caught up in the narrative, and me and my whole family voted to leave the EU,” says one man, “in hindsight, a terrible mistake.”
David Simmonds, the MP for Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner, is “the candidate’s friend”. He sits in the bar of the Conservative Club, which has a quasi-Italian stone garden: wet, aesthetic Toryism. He looks phlegmatic, calm. The Conservative Council is very popular here, he says and voters are proud that Uxbridge is different from the centre of London (“there are deer in the woods, there are rivers, there are lakes”). Tory voters, he says, are most worried about the tax burden.
I meet Leo Phaure, a business analyst and independent candidate, on the square. His campaign is gaudy. His children are leafleting. “Vote for no-Ulez-Leo,” he tells a man who looks like him. “We send a strong message to the Labour Party that they potentially lose Labour voters in next year’s election. We have got a unique opportunity in this town — no one else has got this opportunity — to send a message to Keir Starmer that we reject Mayor Khan and Ulez. We send a message that if you still support him in next year’s General Election, you are going to lose London boroughs. You can’t have any policy where you [are] persecuting the pockets of the working man.”
He turns to a bystander and says: “I’ve got nothing to hide, I’m not Danny Beales.” (Beales didn’t turn up at the Brunel University hustings on Thursday). They hate Ulez because they think it is unfair: one couple say their daughter had to sell her car and buy a BMW. “And the buses are rubbish,” says a woman. “My seven-year-old grandson says to me: ‘That’s the bus that lies, Nanny.’” Even public transport is deceitful, and in homage to this fear, Beales now says that Ulez should be delayed.
The thing that unites Uxbridge voters is mistrust. If by-elections are a weathervane, this one points to disconnection, to ennui. Five years ago, a car singing about genocide would be an outlier: something bizarre. Now it feels common. Johnson’s danger was always in his precedent. His unseriousness — his sense of carnival — is toxic. Novelty candidates are all his children.
At dusk, the Star Sports betting white board has changed. It is now wondering which minor candidate will get 5%. As I leave, police surround a woman in pink. She has written “Army and Police Traitors” on a pillar under a cross. She starts to shout, holding her Bible in the air: “I am a homeless with a Bible! In London! Hallelujah!” They handcuff her. Corbyn takes his loud-hailer — it seems attached to him — and accuses them of torture as they take her to the van. He identifies with her sorrow: “I have been arrested…”
I ask a policeman: what is happening? “We didn’t arrest her. She is threatening to kill herself. We can’t just leave her.” He indicated his iPad: “I am telephoning her Mum.” This is Metroland. Anything can happen.