Blue-shirted Remain pushers like a rash over London, four or five at every railway station and on bridges and busy road junctions, with great rolls of stickers declaring ‘I’m in’. Lots of takers, too. Not a Leave canvasser in sight, leaving a free run for thousands of cheerful young students to show London in its virtuous prime. Campaigners tend to step down once the polling booths have opened, partly for a much-deserved rest, but this is no ordinary election, and ordinary rules do not necessarily apply.
The evening before what would become Independence Day, a colleague and I go ‘off piste’. Across the borough, we adorn lamp-posts at major roundabouts with our ‘Vote leave’ placards, drawing approving toots from passing traffic. Someone has beaten us to it on the large council estate to the north, leaving more boards for other strategic positions. But two questions arise. Is this illegal? We aren’t sure, but for a once-in-lifetime referendum, we are prepared to risk it. Secondly, would it make any difference? More on that later, but suffice to say that nobody driving through suburban Sutton on the eve of the vote would have missed the message. For waverers, it might tip the balance.
Our last target is on the approach road to Carshalton station, where we affix a placard to a post on the up slope, and are in the process of doing the same on the down slope, when a figure appears in the fading light. ‘You better stop what you are doing. You’ve been going round the borough. All your boards are being taken down, and I’m reporting you to the electoral officer’. This is Tom Brake, the local Lib Dem MP, who I have met at various community events. I say we’re engaging in democracy, but Tom is really angry, and we make a sheepish exit.
Later I inform our campaign leader that we’d been naughty and caught red-handed, but he tells me not to worry; if challenged, he would apologise and attribute this to the exuberance of naïve volunteers. It is interesting, however, why this MP is out at ten o’clock confronting constituents over minor misdemeanours. David Cameron, on the previous day, had hurriedly arranged a press conference at Downing Street to issue nothing but another reminder to stay in the EU, raising doubts about his confidence in polling data. Similarly, had Tom caught wind of a high Leave postal vote? I haven’t seen him so rattled.
On the morning of the 23rd, flooding has disrupted rail services, so my route is tortuous. Outside Peckham Rye station is a Remain posse led by a man with a megaphone. Having a few Leave leaflets, I offer a brief resistance, urging ‘Vote to leave the EU’. Immediately this aural irritant refers to me as an ‘extremist’. A couple with a pram smile at me, knowingly – you are fighting a losing battle. But then a black woman (I hope she wouldn’t mind if I describe her as a working-class Peckhamite) grabs one of my leaflets, making a point of this to the Remain group. Indeed, all those who took my leaflets were black, while the ‘I’m in’ stickers were being lapped up by the white middle-class from the gentrified Rye.
Entrance to Elephant & Castle underground station, twenty minutes later. A young black man and an Asian friend are firing slightly hostile questions at two Remain campaigners. I exploit the opportunity at this prime location to distribute more leaflets. Several grimaces from passing commuters, reinforcing my sense of deviance. I announce my observation from Peckham: ‘It’s the privileged people who like the EU, not the poor’. A tall, suited black man approached me with finger pointing to my face. ‘This guy is absolutely right’, he says, turning to the blue shirts: ‘You only care about yourselves’. A telling moment.
On my way home, outside Morden station. A troubling experience that makes me so relieved about the final result. Remain campaigners again, with their soppy stickers. I should make use of my last few leaflets as they’re no use tomorrow. ‘Vote to leave’ shouts the lone soldier. This attracts a sinister-looking ‘enforcement officer’ in a black uniform, who stares at me severely, before talking to the Remainers ten yards away. ‘Vote leave’ one more time, and this central casting Cheka type strides towards me. He is clearly going to tell me to get lost, but an old white man has stopped to talk, telling me to keep my leaflet as he’s already voted out. Then I run for my bus. I have heard about Leave campaigners elsewhere being threatened by authorities, while Remain have safe space. Just like on campus.
Needing reassurance I pop into the Railway Tavern, where a fellow customer tells me that all seven of his family have voted to leave. A corrective to my fear of a drubbing in London, but would I be here again tomorrow, drowning my sorrows? After the polling stations have closed, like much of the country I’m sitting up eagerly awaiting news from the counting halls. My other half warns me that Remain is sure to win, judging by exit polls and a celebratory fervour on social media. It’s a long time to wait for Sunderland, and as I’m sensing defeat, I try to get some sleep. Of course I can’t, so I look for some nugget of hope in a river of Remain in spate. A pollster’s four-point lead gets all the attention online, but here’s an intriguing piece hidden halfway down a Telegraph website article: a poll of ten thousand voters by Leave.EU suggests 52-48 in our favour. It’s a glimmer of hope.
The rest, of course, is history. But there’s one particular result to mention. My borough, Sutton, went against the grain in London and voted out – by a margin of eight per-cent. No doubt we will be cast as a backward place, for people escaping from the modern metropolis. If you haven’t been, come to Carshalton and you will find a contented community, with its lovely ponds and traditional pubs.
But here too things are changing, with growing pressure on housing and services. Every day, many mothers are forced to drive several miles in the rush-hour to take children to a school neither of their locality nor their choosing. In nearby Sutton, rapid demographic change is very evident, with headscarves and foreign languages aplenty, and Bulgarian shops and halal butchers on the fringe of the town centre. Looming apartment blocks are being erected, and the voices of men with hard hats show the reality of immigrants building houses for immigrants.
There are so many problems of culture and sustainability that Brexit won’t necessarily solve. But let’s leave that for now and celebrate this amazing victory, from Swansea to Sutton, Camborne to Carlisle. Let the Brexit champagne flow.
(Image: Garry Knight)