INCUMBENT: Minister Lynne Featherstone says black voters have been taken for granted
BRITAIN IS facing the most fragmented political scene in living memory. With opinion polls putting Labour and the Conservatives neck-and-neck, and three smaller parties playing crucial roles in determining the overall outcome, the elections on May 7 will be a historic one wherever the chips may fall.
Nationalism, environmental policy, and anti-immigrant sentiment are all fuelling the fire and it is in this heated climate that Operation Black Vote (OBV) director Simon Woolley is determined to get more black voters, particularly young ones, to the ballot boxes with the perennial claim that they hold the keys to Number 10.
In the north London constituency of Hornsey and Wood Green – a microcosm of the wider political map and a key seat – Woolley has a valid point.
The Voice spoke to all of the main party candidates to get an understanding of this constituency poised on a political knife-edge.
Encompassing the majority of the hugely diverse London borough of Haringey where 180 languages are spoken, Hornsey and Wood Green has been a Liberal Democrat stronghold since 2005 and would be considered a huge victory for Labour if the party could return an MP to Parliament as it did in three successive elections under Barbara Roche in 1992, 1997 and 2001.
Black voters will be a big factor in that. At the last election, at national level, 68 per cent of black and minority ethnic voters (BME) voted Labour and 16 per cent voted Conservative.
With Labour feeling the effects of the 2003 invasion of Iraq, the changing demographic and gentrification of the constituency, increasing disengagement with the political establishment among local black voters translated into a groundswell of support for the Liberal Democrat MP Lynne Featherstone – mostly from the more affluent side of the economically divided area.
In basic terms, wealthy Highgate in the west voted for Featherstone while poorer Wood Green in the east stayed red.
“The nearer you get to Muswell Hill the whiter it gets, the further towards Lea Valley the blacker it gets,” says Green Party candidate Gordon Peters. “The Labour council said it wants to do something about it but nothing has really happened.”
Catherine West, the Labour Party candidate who previously worked for David Lammy as a case worker in Tottenham, sees housing and wages as the key issues to deal with economic inequality.
RIVAL: Catherine West has vowed to create more affordable housing and is campaigning for the living wage
The former leader of Islington Council is also concerned about health inequalities and says the NHS – which she calls “an equality statement in which everybody is treated the same” – is at risk under the Tories.
“When you look at the housing waiting list, it’s disproportionately BME families and we need to address that,” says West. “What’s happening at the moment is people are being priced out of the private rental market. Statistics show that if you earn £500 [a week] which is the average wage in Haringey, the average rent is £250 and so half your income is going immediately on rent, which is a ridiculous situation. It’s not much different to Camden or Islington.”
West says that half of all new housing developments need to be affordable, “and by that we don’t mean Boris Johnson’s ‘affordable’ which is 80 per cent of market rate, we mean target rents that you would pay in a council property”.
She’s been involved in campaigning for the living wage of £9.15 per hour to replace the minimum wage of £6.80 per hour.
Earning the living wage (£15,000 a year after tax) combined with council rent, West says, “you could just about survive, depending on how many children you’ve got and if you have a partner and so on.
“Some Londoners on £50,000 a year don’t even understand what it means to live on £15,000. The coalition has been responsible for holding wages down with their one per cent pay freeze in the public sector and we know that a lot of BME workers are in the public sector working in hospitals or local government and the pay freeze has been very painful. Food and bills have been going up but pay has stayed the same and that’s why Labour has been making such a strong case about the cost of living.”
Peters, whose Green Party is differentiated from the mainstream because of their anti-cuts policies, believes “black people in Haringey keep the NHS going, on long hours and low wages” and that an under-funded and partly privatised health service disproportionately affects black people both professionally and as service users.
BLACK AGENDA: Gordon Peters says he backs positive discrimination to tackle jobs and housing inequality
When it comes to employment, Peters says apprenticeships are important but adds: “The big parties talk about them but the schemes don’t give guarantees of jobs. We want to see green jobs such as retrofitting houses with specific training for vocational skills which would help young people with nothing else to do except get zero hour contracts.”
Whilst working as Hackney Council’s director of social services alongside Grenada-born education director Professor Gus John, in the 1980s, Peters supported positive action schemes and he still advocates for them now to support ethnic minorities in the jobs and housing markets.
“We should have promotional campaigns with black faces on the posters and ask agencies to monitor how many black people are applying for jobs. A lot of that has gone backwards in the last couple of decades.”
“If I was MP, I’d be speaking to David Lammy. Yes he’s from another party and, yes, he lives in the more affluent part of the borough rather than in his own constituency of Tottenham but we need cross-party dialogue within the council. The Greens aren’t part of a whipped party, we’re not trying to be in government but a few seats would make a big difference.”
Suhail Rahuja, the Conservative party candidate disagrees on positive action. “It’s not the right solution to a significant problem,” he says. “The best way is to look at my family. My parents are Pakistani and came here in 1966. My father was the first of his family to go to university and he became a doctor. All three of my father’s children have gone to university. That wasn’t a function of positive discrimination it was a function of attitude.”
Rahuja says the solution is focusing on the barrier that prevents people from achieving their potential. “So in parliament, for example, making hours more suitable for women, or indeed men, who have families and when you apply for a job, if there are barriers that prevent, say, women or black people, then they have to be looked at.”
The Conservatives have fielded a different candidate for Hornsey and Wood Green in every general election since 1992 when ‘One Nation Tory’, Sir Hugh Rossi, who had held the seat since 1966, stepped down. Since then, they have been the third party by some distance, but in 2010 they increased their vote to 9,174 with Labour in second on 18,720 and the Liberal Democrats winning with 25,595.
EDUCATION: Suhail Rahuja says his party will raise standards in schools
“What is clear is the Lib Dems are going to lose the seat,” says Rahuja. “The Evening Standard has made that clear. It’s a two-horse race between the Labour Party and Conservatives and gone are the days of BMEs voting Labour on bloc. Why would they just give their vote away?”
Lynne Featherstone, the incumbent Lib Dem MP agrees with her coalition partner on the issue of the black Labour vote: “It drives me completely mad. What did the last Labour government deliver for BMEs? They are treated like fodder and taken for granted.”
But she disagrees with Rahuja’s prediction for Hornsey and Wood Green, instead quoting a Lib Dem commissioned poll which has them level with Labour on 36 per cent with the Tories on 15 per cent. “The momentum is clearly with us,” she says. “And, yes, there are people who still who don’t like the Conservatives and ask me how could you put them in power and how could you vote for those things and I say I held my nose and voted, it was part of the agreement. I did it for the good of the country.”
The things Featherstone voted for in line with the Tory-led coalition government include health service privatisation, bedroom tax and cuts to local government funding.
She’s not proud of her voting record but is proud of launching the government consultation which led to same-sex marriage, “although that’s not so popular with BMEs”, and her campaign to eradicate female genital mutilation (FGM.)
On housing, Featherstone says: “The Labour council hasn’t built any council housing for 25 years which is why we have a housing crisis. People want social housing but also the cultural shift towards renting in the private sector or buying your own house is beginning to happen in Noel Park or Woodside [two of the poorest wards] partly because of schemes out there. But what we need is more accommodation, particularly social housing. We lost 421,000 social houses under Labour, so our policy is if any council sells off a council house it has to build a replacement.”
She talks about coalition pledges to build 300,000 houses per year by the end of the next term in office if elected, plans to build ten garden cities, to release publicly-owned land for development and the new Rent To Buy scheme for those who “can’t get a deposit together”.
“There’s a pilot scheme which an ethnic couple or individual could benefit from if they can afford the rent. Their rent will count towards buying a house and at a certain point they can cash it in and use it as a down payment.”
Responding to Peters’ comments on employment in the borough, Featherstone adds: “Youth unemployment has fallen from seven per cent to two per cent under the coalition which is a fantastic reflection of turning the economy around and pushing other pathways in life. University is not the only pathway – although after all the fuss over tuition fees we have more people from deprived backgrounds going to university – we have two million apprenticeships of which 5,000 are in Haringey. Traditional trades but also new things like apprenticeships in nail bars, construction, car manufacture…”
Asked whether these apprenticeships are helping young black people, she says she doesn’t have the breakdown but points out that unemployment falling to two per cent indicates there is representation from all backgrounds.
She says the pupil premium (a policy that gives extra pots of money to schools for every child on free school meals) has delivered £13.5m to the constituency and plans to raise this from £300 per pupil to £1,000. Free school meals, currently available to five to seven-year-olds, will be extended to all primary school children. And parents of children aged three and four who are currently entitled to 20 free hours of child care “enabling parents not to lose their place in the jobs market” will be extended to children aged between nine months and two years old under the party’s manifesto.
The undercurrent to all political issues in 2015 is immigration and the rise of UKIP. In Hornsey and Wood Green, the anti-EU party has selected the enigmatic Clive Morrison – one of many black candidates the party has fielded.
He is the only black candidate and one of only two ethnic minorities standing in the diverse constituency.
Born in Jamaica, Morrison emigrated to Britain in 1969, aged ten. He’s a former Labour and Lib Dem councillor who left both parties when he perceived that his colour, radicalism and popularity became an issue. He was also a member for the Christian Party.
IMMIGRATION: Clive Morrison says UKIP is pro-Commonwealth
“They said ‘we don’t want another Bernie Grant’,” Morrison charges.
The early days in Britain were frightening, he says. “If I’d been given the choice when I came off the plane I would have simply turned back.”
Does he feel British now? He says yes, despite initial resistance to obtaining a UK passport after experiencing racism while growing up.
“Our parents fought the racists. When they were confronted it was fist to fist. I’m an anti-racist. That’s where I started in my political struggle.”
So, why is he standing for UKIP? “UKIP is a patriotic party,” he says. “They’re proud of being British. After I came here in ’69 the drawbridge was pulled up on the Commonwealth. We were all British subjects, so if you understand what Ukip stands for, we all should be fighting their corner. The mainstream parties are treasonous, they’re not defending us. Commonwealth citizens should have first choice. We fought for this country and the empire and made the NHS what it is today.”
Morrison does admit that the rise of the Far Right in Europe is a danger. “If we don’t control our borders we’re creating a new fight with new migrants who don’t understand us as Caribbeans and Africans. There was a time in some areas of London where Afro-Caribbeans were the majority. With this latest influx, we’re now ethnic minorities again.”
He says all political parties are institutionally racist but that what black people need is representation.
But does Nigel Farage care about black voters’ issues? Morrison believes he does and that pulling out of the EU would open up trade with the Commonwealth.
Given the troubled history of Britain’s economic relationship with its former colonies, does he think such trade would be equally beneficial? “That all depends on black representation. We can’t expect Europeans to fight our cause.”
Does he think Britain will ever have a black prime minister? “It may take another 50 years,” he says, resignedly but, perhaps, realistically.
There’s a certain irony in a black candidate campaigning against economic migration while the white candidates in the field fundamentally disagree with him, but that’s the reality in this fascinating north London battle.
“I’m really disappointed Clive is no longer a Labour Party member,” says West. “I haven’t given up hope on him. We must stand up against the right and against racism. In this borough we must ensure they don’t become a threat and where Ukip tries to spread its ideas about certain communities we have to be vigilant.”
“We’re all immigrants in this borough, practically every culture, race, religion,” adds Featherstone.
“UKIP stand for polarisation and a race to the bottom against people who don’t look like they were born here. The greatest danger here in this country is people starting to suspect each other. We need to be friends.”
BLACK VOTER IMPACT
BME voters in 2015: 26,406
Total BME population: 36,080 (23.7 per cent)
Largest BME group: African (12,154)
BME impact: Very significant
Source: Operation Black Vote
Lynne Featherstone (Lib Dem)
Clive Morrison (UKIP)
Gordon Peters (Green)
Suhail Rahuja (Conservative)
Marc Vandal (Class War)
Catherine West (Labour)
Lynne Featherstone: 25,595 votes (46.5 per cent)
Karen Jennings: 18,720 (34)
Richard Merrin: 9,174 (16.7)
Pete McAskie: 1,261 (2.3)
Stephane de Roche: 201 (0.4)
Rohen Kapur: 91 (0.2)
Lib Dem majority: 12.5 per cent (6,875)
Turnout: 68.9 per cent (55,042)