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The failed Islington local election candidates who went on to become MPs – including Emily Thornberry

PUBLISHED: 16:27 25 April 2018 | UPDATED: 17:28 25 April 2018

Failed Islington Council candidates who went on to become MPs: Conor McGinn, Emily Thornberry and Alex Burghart. Pictures: Parliament/CC BY 3.0

Failed Islington Council candidates who went on to become MPs: Conor McGinn, Emily Thornberry and Alex Burghart. Pictures: Parliament/CC BY 3.0

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More than 150 Islington Council candidates will fail to win a seat in next week’s local elections. But, statistically speaking, at least one of them will go on to become an MP.

Emily Thornberry was back on the Islington Council campaign trail this month... with 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, pictured holding a copy of Islington Labour's manifesto. Picture: Emily ThornberryEmily Thornberry was back on the Islington Council campaign trail this month... with 2016 Democratic presidential candidate Bernie Sanders, pictured holding a copy of Islington Labour's manifesto. Picture: Emily Thornberry

In every local poll this millennium, a failed candidate has gone on to sit in Parliament. And, would you believe, a certain Emily Thornberry is among their number.

In 2002, Ms Thornberry agreed to be a “paper candidate” – someone who stands in an area where their party has low levels of support – in her home ward of Barnsbury.

Then a barrister, Ms Thornberry was working on a major inquest in Telford, Shropshire. It meant she could only go out canvassing on weekends.

She finished joint fourth, with 600 votes, as the Liberal Democrat candidates won the three seats with over 1,000 votes each. That election, the Lib Dems took 38 of the 48 seats.

Recalling the political climate of the time, she told the Gazette: “The Labour Party wasn’t very strong in Islington back then. We were going through a tough time.

“Labour had been in charge of the council for a very long time. It had perhaps lost its way and the people felt it wasn’t listening. There was a phase of backlash and the Lib Dems had very big majorities.

“It was hard to fight back and we had to look at ourselves.”

Ms Thornberry went from losing in the council elections to becoming MP for Islington South and Finsbury three years later.

Emily Thornberry celebrates her 20,263 majority at last year's general election: 15 years after she failed to win a Barnsbury council seat. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PAEmily Thornberry celebrates her 20,263 majority at last year's general election: 15 years after she failed to win a Barnsbury council seat. Picture: Dominic Lipinski/PA

She knocked on 11,800 doors in that campaign. It paid off, but her majority over Bridget Fox was just 484. In a climate where the Lib Dems were at full strength, Ms Thornberry admits it was a hard slog.

“It was a very difficult campaign. The Liberals were completely sure Bridget would win. They even took a celebration cake to the election count.

“It was the time of the Iraq war. Tony Blair had lived in the area. They were telling voters: ‘Send Tony Blair a message and elect a Lib Dem in Islington South.’

“It was an important part of the Islington Labour story. When I was elected in 2005, we had developed our own identity. We were proud to be Labour, but disagreed with the Labour government on issues like Iraq.”

Now, of course, Islington has 47 out of 48 Labour councillors, having wiped out the Lib Dems in 2014. And Ms Thornberry won a massive majority of 20,263 in last year’s general election.

“We obviously have to see what happens in next week’s local elections. But we turned it around. We’re not perfect, but I think we represent people in a way that maybe we didn’t back then.

“We had to look at who we were and change our culture: being on the side of local residents and listening to local residents. When you tell people stories of how it was for Labour in Islington 15 years ago, they find it impossible to believe.”

In the 2006 and 2010 elections, Labour candidate Conor McGinn stood in Mildmay and finished fifth in both elections.

Former Mildmay candidate Conor McGinn in the House of Commons last month, watched by former Islington Council leader Catherine West, right. Picture: PAFormer Mildmay candidate Conor McGinn in the House of Commons last month, watched by former Islington Council leader Catherine West, right. Picture: PA

He went on to become MP for St Helens North in 2015.

Perhaps still stung by his local election failures, Mr McGinn didn’t fancy speaking to his old local paper about his experiences.

Islington Council elections aren’t just a rite of passage for Labour candidates, though.

In last year’s general election, Alex Burghart became MP in safe Conservative seat Brentwood and Ongar, winning 65.8 per cent of the votes and a majority of 24,002.

It was a different experience in 2014, when Mr Burghart stood in Highbury West – a Labour stronghold if there ever was one – in the local elections. He finished a lowly seventh with 869 votes.

“It’s quite fun knowing you’re not going to win,” Mr Burghart laughs. “It gives you the chance to try new things and there’s no pressure.

“With Jeremy [Corbyn] as MP, it’s obviously a very red area, but I always find the voting public respect it when you go out and try hard.

“Some might not change their minds, but they give you credit and that’s what it’s all about.

Former Highbury West candidate Alex Burghart in the House of Commons earlier this year. Picture: PAFormer Highbury West candidate Alex Burghart in the House of Commons earlier this year. Picture: PA

“We were out campaigning in a lot of the new developments around Emirates Stadium. It was interesting because a lot of people there hadn’t been canvassed before.

“Obviously we didn’t win, but I like to think we made friends who also went on to vote Conservative in the 2015 general election, when I came second.”

Mr Burghart won 8,465 votes against the then relatively unknown Mr Corbyn.

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