Feltham and Heston byelection – it's Labour's to lose

Labour has a reported 22-point lead in the west London seat dominated by ups and down at nearby Heathrow airport

There are more estate agents' boards than byelection posters dotted across the west London constituency of Feltham and Heston. Labour has moved hastily (it saves money in the campaigns kitty) to stage what is only the fourth Westminster byelection of the coalition era next Thursday, barely a month after the death of Alan Keen, the sitting MP.

More people know this corner of London than realise it. Those who do not speed past it along crowded M3 and M4 corridors fly over it to land at Heathrow airport, whose eastern perimeter fence is virtually the constituency boundary. Aircraft noise from the close jets is – depending on the time of day – a permanent reality in voters' lives and their not-all-double-glazed homes, most of them solid semis, council and private, built in every suburban style the 20th century embraced.

Now that even Labour has joined its main rivals in abandoning support for a third runway Heathrow is not top of the local agenda except in a negative sense. Voters dislike pollution, but don't want the British Airports Authority (BAA), which seems to be the nearest thing here to a feudal lord of the manor, to be allowed to modify the "runway alternation" policy which makes noise levels bearable ("we can even use our garden") for some of most days.

They tell candidates: "We don't want Heathrow to expand, but we don't want to lose it either." One way or another the airport is the largest employer and blue-collar job-generator in hotels, warehouses and support systems. So talk of the airport moving to "Boris Johnson Island" in the Thames Estuary should scare people in a seat which is neither poor nor prosperous and where jobs have become harder to find.

It doesn't, not yet, and London's celebrity mayor will be canvassing here before polling day, as a string of Tory cabinet ministers, plus Vince Cable, Liberal Democrat MP for neighbouring Twickenham ("Hullo Ming," say voters), have already done their duty in a contest Labour will be hard-pressed to lose. With Ukip and the BNP both hoping to grab disaffected votes from the bigger parties the order of the runners-up may be more instructive, especially if the Lib Dems' first-time contender, Roger Crouch, gets squeezed into fourth place as coalition whipping boy.

It seems unlikely, but turnout is hard to predict in byelections, no longer the media circuses they were in unhealthier times with 20 byelections a parliament instead of a handful. A private poll in Feltham for the Tory plutocrat, Lord Ashcroft, this week gave Labour a 22-point lead over the Tories, 52% of the vote to 30%, with the Lib Dems trailing on 10%.

In 2010, Keen – easy-going and likeable, he died of cancer at 73 on 10 November – had 43% of the vote to Tory challenger, Mark Bowen's 34%, down from his personal best (60%) in 1997, burdened with Labour's unpopularity and his own share of the expenses scandal. Keen's would-be successor, Seema Malhotra, a second-generation immigrant, who grew up around here, is more of a Labour high-flyer, a well-connected management consultant. "Ministerial material," her handlers predict.

Harriet Harman dropped by on Wednesday. But earlier this week, Malhotra braved a biting wind with Ed Miliband (no overcoat) to pursue votes outside the Feltham shopping centre, close to the area's least famous transport link, the train to Clapham Junction. A clutch of party activists waved banners and red balloons and – in the Facebook fashion – young voters asked to be photographed with them on their mobile phones. Older voters remembered Keen with evident affection.

It is all very low-key. Outside Vijay's Convenience Store on Market Parade, south of Hounslow Heath where the highwaymen once loitered, only older voters – the ones most likely to vote – have the time to stop and express an opinion. "A lot of people are swinging away from David Cameron, especially over public sector workers having to do more for less. A contract should be honoured," says one pensioner in a baseball cap who confides that Keen was "a nice guy".

Labour's core fact is that the constituency's long-term unemployment among 18- to 24-year-olds, those out of work for six months, has risen by 147% since 1 January. A lanky young man called Jason tells Miliband he lost his agency warehousing job in mid-2010 and is now back at college learning computing skills. "There's nothing out there." Six people are chasing every local job.

The Labour leader uses such stories in his stump speech. Malhotra, whom the Mail on Sunday has accused of living in a £3m house in Chelsea, is "deeply committed to Feltham and Heston and will be a fantastic MP". Electing her will also "send a message to the coalition that its policies aren't working". Labour's five-point plan for recovery demonstrates it has learned the lesson of the 1930s. "We are not powerless to act," he explains.

The candidate stands up well and sticks to the party line: this is about local jobs and local businesses, about fairness for pensioners and families hit by coalition cuts, police cuts and the ending of EMAs. But it is clear she has not had enough time to become well-known or establish name recognition.

Labour's problem is that Hounslow council is usually Labour, although it lost overall control between 2006-10. Rivals say the constituency has been "taken for granted" for too long and Tory candidate Bowen, a Welsh father-of-three and IT project manager at Heathrow, can point to his own achievements as councillor for Feltham North.

"I got those white lines painted for your parking," he reminds Rowna Collison outside her home in Sparrow Farm Drive. "We'd also like a disabled bay," she says. "This is real politics," he says.

Backed by visiting cabinet members, Bowen is fighting his third campaign here, aware that Patrick Ground QC, who took the seat from Labour in Margaret Thatcher's heyday, fought four unsuccessful campaigns. He lost his seventh to Keen in 1992.

Bowen, by general consent a decent chap, argues that New Labour's loss of support in core working-class constituencies such as this is central to current political dealignment and that complaints about excess immigration – "sensible, logical and moderate" complaints, too – have been the No1 ex-Labour grievance in all three elections. Miliband and Ed Balls are also getting the politics of the deficit wrong "especially among working-class voters".

Among the nine candidates (including the Bus Pass Elvis party) such sentiments find an echo, albeit with an anti-European gloss. The BNP's candidate, David Furness, is keen to tell reporters "Labour has abandoned the white working class'' and that it gives its taxes and jobs to foreigners and immigrants.

Harrying Labour on the fringe of Milband's group he boasts that the BNP beat Ukip last time and hopes to do better. A few yards away, Ukip's leader, the ever-unabashed Nigel Farage, promises that his candidate, colourful ex-Tory Andrew Charalambous (he stood in Edmonton in 2010 and only defected after a falling out last summer) will beat Crouch. Canvassing in Butts Close, Crouch retaliates like a veteran. "Nigel Farage is a bit like Jeremy Clarkson, he does not always engage his brain," he says, rattling off the coalition's apprenticeships, pupil premium money and pension increases that benefit Feltham and Heston.

If there is going to be any kind of upset it might happen if David Cameron gets into serious negotiating trouble at this weekend's crisis EU summit in Brussels. Nicolas Sarkozy and Angela Merkel may not be thinking much about the Feltham and Heston byelection. But the candidates will all be watching them.


Michael White

The GuardianTramp

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