The issues that matter – London Living wage – housing – campaign strategy – political engagement and voting turnout – immigration & EU politics – diversity and bias in politics
Can you take us through the top three issues for voters in Brentford & Isleworth?
My patch stretches all the way from Chiswick to Hounslow. London is like lots of individual villages stuck together, and there are different issues in each.
But one of the things that goes across all of them is the shortage of school places – this is the fourth fastest growing school borough in London. We’ve just managed to increase places for primary schools, and now we’re working on the secondaries. But still, it’s continuing to grow: I’ve got 97,000 constituents, whereas most other MPs will have 75,000.
There’s also the Heathrow expansion. A majority of my constituents are against it, so they really do want me to fight that campaign. Interestingly enough, for the coming election here both Labour and Conservative will probably be in the same position on this. And the Lib Dems will be too.
Thirdly, it’s probably crime. Crime levels aren’t bad, but people still want to raise it. Because crime is down 16% overall, I’m focusing more on the issue of domestic violence, which is one of the top issues for my local police. It happens in every community. In the UK, two women are still killed every week by a partner or former partner. Chiswick had the very first refuge in the 70s, so what we’re trying to do is make Chiswick a flagship for London — a city that says ‘no’ to domestic violence.
You mentioned at the start that the areas or villages that make up your constituency have their own distinctive concerns. Could you tell us which issues mark them apart?
In Chiswick, it’s probably the two train stations. They want the Piccadilly line to stop at Turnham Green right through the day. I’ve managed to get Boris to agree to that once the Piccadilly line gets upgraded. But that won’t be until 2022. So, what I’m trying to push for is a few extra stops during the day. If TFL come back and say that they can’t do more stops at peak hours, I’m saying let’s look at off peak, then. Let’s think about weekends. I’m pushing for any movement there. Chiswick would just love it if I could get it through. In terms of Gunnersbury station, we’ve seen a huge increase in footfall there with the new business park, the football club moving. We need an increase in size and exits, which I’ve been lobbying the Mayor for again in the past few weeks.
Chiswick is also full of lots of really independent shops. It feels almost continental – there are these huge queues out the door of the butchers at the weekends. We’ve managed to push for 30 minutes free street parking here, which has been extremely popular. But I was talking to one of the local shop owners yesterday, and he was saying that the rent for shops round here is up to around £45,000 per year. That’s before any other costs are factored in.
How does the increasing cost of maintaining a small business here affect their ability to pay the London Living Wage?
It makes it really tough. That’s one of the reasons I lobbied the Chancellor to reduce business rates, which he did. So we’ve made an impact there. But there are still these other huge costs. I’d love to see all these independent shops staying. We don’t want these streets full of chainstores. And I would love to see them pay the London Living Wage — but some businesses would really really struggle, if they did.
Another issue connected to this struggle with living costs in London is affordable housing. The house prices here are just ridiculous — renting or buying. What I’m pushing the council on is that for every new development they do, they need to provide a decent proportion of affordable housing. But that’s not always happening. With the new football stadium, for example, they’ve built 900 flats, none which are affordable. They’re starting at £400,000, £500,000. Teachers can’t afford that. Nurses can’t afford that.
The redevelopment of the Brentford high street is another case — it’s been going on for 10-15 years. The planning was approved on Thursday, even though it’s not really what the residents want. As things stand, we expect around 10% of the new housing stock to be affordable.
Is there any specific legislative action on housing which you’d like to see in the next parliament?
I am talking to the ministers about it to see what can be done. It’s one of those issues where people like myself need to put pressure on their councils. We have a Labour council, and they really don’t want to be seen as failing to do enough in terms of affordable and social housing. So, what I can do is put more pressure on them by drawing in media attention. That’s what I’ll be building up and working on in the next few months. With the football stadium, for example, the developers argued that they couldn’t make enough on it if they included affordable housing stock. But every developer will say that, if it’s in their interest to. So what the council did was insert a provision saying that if they made more than a certain level of profit, they had to include affordable housing.
Do you think that having the area split between a Conservative MP and a Labour council impedes progress on the local issues you mention, or is it possible to have an effective working relationship?
It depends on the personalities. I spent 20 years in business before coming to politics, so I think that you just have to make things happen and work with people. I’ve had an OK working relationship with my Labour council. But I do need to keep pushing on things — for example I asked them to come up with a plan for the station, and one of the councillors said that they wouldn’t give me that, because they felt I’d take the credit. But I find ways to work around it, I just think that attitude is childish. I just said to him: we can both take the credit, these things aren’t a bid deal — we just want to find ways to do the best for local people. At the end of the day, I wouldn’t be doing this job if I thought I couldn’t make a difference.
We’ve discussed issues which are specific to the constituency, and issues which divide the wards. Few of these seem to be the stuff of national headlines — why do you think that is?
When I go round the doors, people care about what’s happening to them. The things that they can touch and feel, the things that affect their daily lives. It can be the state of the street, the potholes and roadworks. At the same time, they read the newspapers and they’re online. In Chiswick, they’ll open the door and go ‘the mansion tax!!!‘. They really get frustrated about an issue like that. In London, given the rapid changes in house prices, people may have the asset but they may not have the cash. And even in Chiswick, something that looks quite small is getting up towards the £2m mark. It’s not like in the country where that much will actually get you a real mansion. Here, it’s almost a terraced house. Yes, people here are bothered about it; but in Hounslow, they won’t mention it. Because they’ll be bothered about something which they feel touches them directly — the complete redevelopment of their high street, for example.
Do you get the impression that your constituents believe that voting in a national election will change outcomes, and help them get the results they want?
It depends on what kind of seat you’re in, and the kind of things you want to change, What I’ve started doing is making my literature much more specific, focusing on the things that I have changed over this parliament. Where it is a street issue, we try and write to them about it, but in terms of general literature we target it by ward. What people really want to see is concrete evidence of what we’ve done for them.
In terms of the difference between the parties, given that it’s a marginal seat I’m always telling people people that every vote counts. The bookies are saying that Labour will win this seat in 2015; but last time I was fighting a 4000 vote majority, and I turned it around. I believe that I can do it.
What strategies do you think are most effective for bringing about a seat change — or fighting one off?
Partly it’s about focusing on issues people care about. It’s also about showing that you can actually make things happen. People do see if you work really hard, if you focus on things they really care about. If you’re not being too party political, if you’re trying to make things better for the local community, they recognise that.
Some constituents know a lot about what I’ve done as an MP. But we don’t assume that everyone does. We still do leaflets, we do social media, I do meet your local MP in the supermarket. So in terms of strategy I try to be visible, accessible and responsive. Being visible means being out in the supermarket at the weekends for a couple of hours meeting and greeting; it means going round doors every week; it means holding public meetings; it means responding to every single case file.
We now have 18,000 constituents who have written to us in the last 4 years. People need to see that you’re there, working for them. And that’s really how I do it – if people wanted something and I delivered it during this parliament, they’re more likely to trust me with the next one.
Immigration and the EU are currently top of the national agenda for Conservatives — partly, some observers say, in response to the threat from UKIP. How concerned do your constituents seem about these issues?
In London the whole Europe issue is slightly different. Lots of people work in global firms; coming out of Europe is not their biggest priority. On the doorstep, I rarely get European policy. I do sometimes get immigration. But I get it more, interestingly, in my Asian communities — nowadays, mostly second generation. They’re worried about the pressure on public services. I empathise with some of their concerns, but on the other hand, you’ll find people working here where Brits won’t do the job. The nail bar down the road is full of Polish girls, because they work hard, they’re good. They all got a job within 2 weeks of coming to the UK — they’re making a real economic contribution.
So what do you think, come May, will be the real dividing lines between the major parties?
I think that Labour will go on the NHS, and they will go on living costs –I’d say that’s their platform, in a nutshell.
I actually think that there is a good story to tell here as regards the NHS, both in terms of the amount of money that’s going into it and what we’ve done with that money. My NHS priorities here tend to be around TB, diabetes and childhood obesity. We have good outcomes, but they can be improved. I just had someone coming to me on diabetes, saying that the results aren’t as good as they should be. That’s something I’m now prioritising. The other area I need to look at is dementia — the aging population is creating significant pressures on the system, and we need to adapt.
This constituency isn’t unusual in terms of the national trend, but having 40% of people not voting in such a close election is concerning. Why do you think turnout is this low?
I do think that in that past it has been apathy. They don’t like politicians, they don’t see the relevance to them, and sometimes they don’t think it makes any difference. And it’s up to the politicians to say to them “well yes, it does – and here are the real differences between the parties”. I say to people, so you want David Cameron or Ed Miliband? But then it’s also about stances issues. In the build up to the election there are lots of hustings, and I will try to make my pledges, and the differences between myself and the other candidates, as clear as possible.
On the street, people are generally quite aware of headlines. With the internet, blogs and Twitter and so forth, there is much more of an exchange of views, and I think that more people can and do inform themselves. But generally speaking, there is still a heavy reliance on perceptions, and on emotive responses to issues. So what I need to do is to try and change those perceptions. And that’s why I place so much importance on communicating my position — even if I’m doing a really good job, if I don’t tell my constituents they will assume I’m doing nothing.
That’s the real challenge for an MP: how do you get across your message, and in what way? Even now, the physical going round, knocking on doors, is still so important. We certainly don’t have emails for everyone, and not everyone uses Facebook politically.
One way that we get people engaged politically is by holding community meetings on issues. For example, Labour did one on the NHS recently which I went to in Chiswick. That was totally packed out. It’s better to do it on issue, because it’s obvious why the meeting is relevant to them. That’s part of a politician’s job – to draw people in, show them what politics can do for them, and to get the message home that particularly in a constituency like this, every vote counts.
When it comes to getting people engaged, I think back to the US presidential elections when Obama was first voted into office. I really believe that five years earlier, the country would not have elected an African American president. But he made people forget about race. He won because he gave the whole country hope that he could make America a better country — because he inspired people to believe in themselves again.
I’m not sure that being an aspirational figure for voters was, though, so divorced from Obama’s background and from his being African American. Do you think that British party leaders, and politics in general, are lacking in diversity?
I’m less bothered about background — we had Margaret Thatcher, she was a woman and she didn’t go to Eton — though she did go to Oxford. The number of women in politics is slowly increasing.
I think in terms of inner circle, the people you work with most closely and those you trust are those you have known for the longest. I came from a comprehensive school and went to Glasgow University, and then came down to London to work in the City. I’m not bothered about people’s background, about which school anyone went to, or where they came from: I don’t care. It’s all about what you’re doing with it.
Most politicians, good politicians, are constantly in our communities, listening to constituents. I am always in our housing estates, our mosques, our Sikh temple. I probably spend more time in areas which are different to where I came from, because I know I need to learn more about them. And you can find amazing and inspiring people in every part of my constituency.
I hate that whole rhetoric that Labour has, of pointing at the rich or the successful. Just because David Cameron went to Eton and to Oxford, does that mean he can’t aspire to be the best in the country, or hold the highest office in the land? Of course he should aspire to that. My attitude is: let the best person win.
But what do you have to be aware of are your own unconscious biases. We naturally tend to promote or recruit people in our likeness, because we are often comfortable around people who are similar to us. That’s where you have to question your decisions. I always say to candidates of any background, just be the best. If you go and you deliver, people will vote for you based on your ability.