The northwest London constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn was the tightest three-way marginal seat in the 2010 general election. Given the fact that the 2015 campaign is so closely-fought with none of the parties enjoying a clear path to outright victory, this should – on paper – be a fascinating local campaign to watch as general election 2015 approaches and Labour (minus current incumbent Glenda Jackson MP) attempts to hold and increase their wafer-thin majority of 44 votes.
But by and large, both the sense of anticipation and the bad tempered name calling or “low skulduggery” of the national campaign are entirely absent here. Local journalist Richard Osley attributes this to a form of “Stockholm syndrome” among the candidates, who have now appeared on stage together so many times that to begin tearing chunks out of each other a la Cameron and Miliband would somehow feel unseemly, and acutely embarrassing.
Says Osley, in a report from a previous hustings in the constituency:
The fact each candidate knows they have another set of evening dates ahead of them in the next month, events at which they will have to share tables together and say hello and goodbye nicely, means they have become all very pleasant to each other. It’s as if they don’t want to bring the big weapons out, because they know the person they are bazookering will be sat next to them again 24 hours later.
Last Wednesday saw the candidates participate in hustings organised by the local West Hampstead Life blog. I attended to watch and conduct interviews, and was struck by the quality of the local candidates (ideology aside, all have the potential to be good constituency MPs) but also the differing degrees to which the candidates were willing to deviate from their approved national party talking points.
The overall effect is one of a constituency expecting a Labour hold, but with all candidates willing to criticise the compromises and trade-offs of the current coalition government, and in some cases (particularly Simon Marcus, the Conservative challenger) quite happy to jettison fairly central policies and beliefs in pursuit of a more liberal but less overtly tribal local vote.
My interviews with the candidates, and thoughts on their respective campaigns, are shown below.
LABOUR – TULIP SIDDIQ
Tulip Siddiq displayed her command of local issues (she is a local resident of Kilburn) when responding to my question about gentrification in the area and its implications on affordable housing, though she did not offer any concrete policies to hold back the tide. Her proposal, the creation of a national register of landlords, has the look and feel of a big power grab by the state, with nothing done to tackle the main underlying problem (a chronic lack of housebuilding in London, the southeast and throughout the country).
When asked to look back at Labour’s most recent thirteen-year spell in government, Siddiq highlighted “the NHS” but again did not give any real detail. Though she is clearly passionate about the subject, referencing the treatment that her father received on the NHS as her inspiration to join the Labour Party, Tulip Siddiq’s response mirrored the tendency within Labour to look back with satisfaction on the fact of having created the NHS in 1948 rather than looking forward to consider how best to deliver healthcare in 2048.
Surprisingly, Siddiq is Labour’s sole ethnic minority candidate in a currently Labour-held seat, though her chances of election are strong and (as this recent profile in The Independent suggests) she is quite likely to rise up the ranks of any future Labour government, especially having been an early supporter of Ed Miliband.
CONSERVATIVE – SIMON MARCUS
In some ways, Simon Marcus remains very faithful to current Conservative Party orthodoxy – when asked to name the current coalition government’s finest accomplishment he said “changing lives”, and made reference to the economic recovery and welfare changes which Conservatives say have increased opportunities and life chances for many people. This evinced some real passion; when Marcus spoke about people who had been out of work for months and years finally receiving the counselling they need from Job Centre staff – “they’re in the business of turning lives around” – one wonders why the Tory party machine is unable to make the same positive case so effectively.
On the NHS, Simon Marcus was eager to defend his left flank, insisting that a state owned and operated healthcare service is still sustainable and financially viable in the twenty-first century – “there’s no question whatsoever, but you have to make efficiencies”. Marcus said that “free at the point of use is here to stay”, which of course is what most voters want to hear, but when he spoke of his commitment to the NHS – “my children were born on the NHS, my dad was an NHS doctor, it’s in my blood” – one can only wonder how much better it might be if we were able to really debate healthcare, not just “our NHS”, at election time in this country.
Simon Marcus drew most attention for opposing several key elements of government policy. He stated his firm opposition to the bedroom tax (interestingly, only the Liberal Democrat candidate Maajid Nawaz referred to its correct name, the spare room subsidy) but also to the renewal of Trident, the UK’s independent nuclear deterrent. In his remarks, Simon Marcus suggested that there was no need for the UK to remain a nuclear power since we would be protected by the United States in any nuclear crisis or conflagration, but he did not address the reduction in UK’s influence and the undermining of an independent foreign policy that would be the result of unilateral disarmament.
LIBERAL DEMOCRAT – MAAJID NAWAZ
Maajid Nawaz is by far the most high profile of the candidates standing for election in Hampstead and Kilburn, perhaps befitting the seat currently held by Labour’s Glenda Jackson. But Nawaz was adamant that his high profile and personal causes (such as the Quilliam anti-extremism think tank, which he founded) would dovetail closely with his work as a constituency MP, not distract from it. It is absolutely the case that “community cohesion and bringing people together” is urgent business for Britain, and Maajid Nawaz offers a refreshing perspective here, avoiding both the sometime parochialism of UKIP and the head-in-the-sand approach to multiculturalism often shown by Labour.
On the LibDem’s performance in coalition, Maajid Nawaz very much followed the party line, emphasising the “stabilising effect” that the Liberal Democrats have had, softening the “harder edges” of an outright Conservative government. The LibDems have been “a moderating influence on some of the more ideological elements of the Conservative party”, says Nawaz, but ultimately one wonders whether it is enough for the Liberal Democrats to define themselves and their own ideology by the effect they have on other parties.
Maajid Nawaz spoke most passionately on the subject of mental health, a key focus of the Liberal Democrat campaign which does credit both to Nawaz and party leader Nick Clegg. Nawaz said that the LibDems have introduced measures to ensure that “people who go to a hospital complaining of anxiety or depression are treated exactly as somebody who complains of a physical ailment”.
UKIP – MAGNUS NIELSEN
UKIP candidate Magnus Nielsen is perhaps best known for his eyebrow-raising comments on Islam, proposing that mosques should only be able to hire imams from a government-approved register of non-extremist preachers. When I challenged Nielsen about his commitment to freedom of religion (and indeed the separation between church/religion and state), he said that he was in favour of peoples’ right to practice religion freely, so long as it does not “intervene on the human rights of other people”, which creates a significant grey area and rather sidesteps the issue.
Nielsen also attempted to defend UKIP from what the party sees as media obsession with the misdeeds and wacky opinions of some of their “loose cannon” candidates, pointing out that “UKIP is the only party which will not allow you to become a member if you have been a member of the BNP. That is not true of the Labour Party”.
On the mechanics of a British secession from the EU, Nielsen was rather vague, floating the unlikely idea that the Greek crisis could cause the whole edifice to come crashing down without Britain having to do anything other than sit back and watch. Nielsen reiterates that it is entirely plausible for Britain to once again operate as a sovereign nation, citing the example of Singapore, but as UKIP gain in national prominence it would be good to see a more structured plan for secession beyond Nigel Farage’s talk of holding David Cameron’s feet to the fire on the timing of an EU referendum.
Interestingly, Magnus Nielsen did not take a firm position on TTIP, declining to say whether he was for or against the trade deal currently being negotiated between the European Union and the United States until he had researched the issue further. Since the very fact of TTIP being negotiated at a super-national level within Europe – and the creation of further international institutions that it would entail – directly affect the continued relevance and viability of the nation state, one might have expected Magnus Nielsen to have a firmer opinion. Why, after all, seek freedom from Brussels if not to take back control of the terms of trade and relations with other nations?
GREEN PARTY – REBECCA JOHNSON
When interviewing the Green Party candidate, Rebecca Johnson, I was keen to understand whether the party a) recognised, and b) had any proposals to mitigate what would inevitably be the huge transitional costs involved in moving the British economy from its current state to a radically different, more “sustainable” footing, particularly if the rest of the world did not immediately follow suit. Johnson talked about “growing different kinds of jobs, community based jobs, community based shops, localised, community based industry to supply the sustainable, renewable energy” and vowed to “change the architecture of how energy is produced”, but quite how this different society would fit into a world of global supply chains and Apple iPhones was not really explained.
The closest that Rebecca Johnson came to admitting that Green Party policies might involve higher taxes or unemployment was when she said: “There will be transitional changes. I see those as opportunities. With every opportunity there will be different ways in which jobs and industry and community responsibilities will change and will grow … I believe that very very quickly, people will find that they are happier, healthier, they have better communities and better living standards, they have better education and health which means better security”. Some of this may be so, but it is likely to be of little comfort to any workers who lose their jobs as Natalie Bennett, Caroline Lucas and Rebecca Johnson build their New Jerusalem in England’s green and pleasant land.
Rebecca Johnson continued: “I believe that the transition can be done in the lifetime of one parliament”, which seems very ambitious, especially when one thinks of the monetarist and supply-side reforms of Margaret Thatcher, which were left unfinished even after three terms.
Ultimately, the hustings were good-natured (save some anti-austerity heckling at the very beginning, when Simon Marcus was making his opening statement) and reasonably enlightening. But one could not help but notice the lack of spark or excitement about the campaign here in Hampstead and Kilburn.
Whether this is due to the expected Labour victory (the Conservative candidate, Simon Marcus, admitted that despite changing local demographics, the “votes might not come quickly enough for me” in 2015) or the aforementioned Stockholm syndrome among the candidates is difficult to say.
But it feels very much like this campaign needs an injection of energy – perhaps an outside intervention or a visit from one or more of the party leaders – to really take off and capture the public interest.
Meanwhile, for as long as things stay as they are in Hampstead and Kilburn, every passing day brings Labour’s Tulip Siddiq one step closer to taking Glenda Jackson’s old seat at Westminster.