“The important thing to get about this constituency is that it’s very, very, very diverse. It’s diverse economically, it’s diverse ethnically; it’s a real hotchpotch of everything.” Andrew Dismore, the Labour candidate for Hendon, describes the constituency he represented from 1997-2010 and is running for again in 2015. We spoke about the main issues in Hendon, the effect of Labour’s whipped vote on the recognition of Palestine on the Jewish vote in the constituency, and his opponent Matthew Offord, who Mr Dismore will be squaring off with once again after a particularly close and heated contest in 2010.
What are the big issues in Hendon?
The big issues are policing, the NHS, and housing. Policing, because although the incumbent promised more police at the last election, the fact is that we now have 65 fewer police officers in the area than we did in 2010. The present budget proposes another £800 million cut for the Metropolitan Police Service. It effectively means that the police will have been cut by a third.
The NHS has always been an issue in this constituency. When I was elected in 1997, the Tories had closed Edgware hospital on the 1st April and the election was the 1st of May. My new battle then was to get the new hospital rebuilt and I managed to get the money for it in the first term and get it built in my second term. We now see the NHS falling apart, particularly here in Hendon. The emergency services have always been under pressure, that’s a problem with outer London and inner London generally in that the capitation for the NHS doesn’t match the population. We have the worse ambulance times in London. In Barnet only 48% of responses are on target and there are huge waiting times at A&E. The waiting list is so bad that when I met the chair of the Clinical Commissioning Group in the autumn she told me that the waiting lists here were so bad that they were as bad as all the rest of the country put together.
The key issue is going to be housing because if you go to Colindale you’ll see that you’ve got enormous development going on but very little in the way of homes for local people. The impact of the Colindale development on the existing community has been horrendous in that there are not enough parking places, there are no new schools, and there’s a lack of places at doctors’ surgeries. So, the biggest issue is trying to build homes for local people. The Tories on the council aren’t interested in that — there’s a big gerrymander going on — and the chair of the housing committee has gone on record saying that he wants more Tory voters: he wants richer people coming in who pay taxes and don’t use services.
What impact does having served as an MP have on your campaign ? Reflecting on that time, what do you think you could do better if elected again?
Well, people recognise me. If I’m doing phone canvassing and say ‘Hello, it’s Andrew Dismore’, then people know how I am. What I could have done better? I don’t know, the priority is always looking after the constituency and it’s a very demanding area and demands change. When I started in 1997, email was not the way of contacting your MP — whereas now, email is how everyone communicates. Tweeting and Facebook are more important than they used to be, so you have to find new ways of communicating and at the same time don’t overlook the old ways. It’s a very diverse community and the real problem is making sure you represent everybody fairly. Burnt Oak is one of the poorest wards in London, and a lot of people don’t have the same facilities.
What do you think of Labour’s whipped vote on the recognition of Palestine?
If I had been a MP I would have rebelled on it. There is a time to recognise Palestine, but that is part of the peace process. We’ve seen enough unilateral action in the Middle East over the years and know that they amount to diddly squat. In the end, the rest of the world can recognise Palestine, but until Israel does, it doesn’t really matter.
Israel will do it, but as part of a negotiated settlement. It’s just gesture politics. The real problem is that what’s happened is that the Palestinians have diverted attention away from trying to negotiate a difficult peace which needs concessions on both sides, to this sort of PR campaign which doesn’t actually advance their cause at all. They can tick off “well OK this country now recognises us now” but fine, how does that advance the cause of peace? It doesn’t, it makes no difference at all. They think that by doing all these things they will put pressure on Israel — but it doesn’t work. The BDS (Boycott, Divestment and Sanctions) campaign will never work because everyone has mobile phones with Israeli technology in them.
I keep on saying to the Israeli lobby ‘Why don’t you put some adverts on the buses, not slagging off the Palestinians, but saying what Israeli technology means for the UK?’ If you have multiple sclerosis you rely on an Israeli-patented drug for your treatment.
Has the vote on Palestine had an impact on the voting intentions of members of the Jewish community in the constituency?
It’s a difficult question really, because they appreciate my work. The Jewish News wrote an article which said that I was the best non-Jewish friend the Jewish community has ever had in Parliament. I got Holocaust Memorial Day established, I got a bill through on Jewish divorce law reform; all difficult things to do. I was one of the first back in 1998 to expose the extremists — Abu Hamza and that gang. Everyone thought I was a nerd until 9/11, and then the day after I became the world’s leading expert on fundamentalism in Britain, until everyone else caught up about three months later. I’ve got a very good relationship with the Jewish community.
A lot of them do vote for me because Offord talks the talk and doesn’t walk the walk. The real problem I’ve got is to explain why this has happened in the Labour party. It’s happened because in 2010 a large swathe of pro-Israel MPs lost their seats — especially in North West London — which was quite a strong lobby within the Labour party. If we had still been there then I suspect that that vote would not have happened.
I think Labour will be the largest party and win the next election, and if so, who will have the most influence: Offord, who doesn’t have any influence within his own party, or me, who has got quite a good reputation within my party? And even if we don’t win and you want to switch Labour’s position, then you have got to get people like me in there to do that. And you have to remember, what happens in Opposition does not happen in Government. Remember, Cameron called Gaza a concentration camp.
In your losing speech after the 2010 election, you commented on what you saw had been a “dirty campaign” by Offord. Have things improved this time around?
No. He’s a nasty piece of work. Go back to some of the press cuttings, there is some weird stuff.
Offord is very unpopular even within his own party. He doesn’t respond to emails and letters, and he’s got a very bad reputation. He’s actually done nothing but bring embarrassment. Most recently he had a fall out with the neighbouring MP Mike Freer over gay marriage, where Offord compared gay marriage to bigamy and incest.
And finally, with the final countdown to the general election — what stage are you at in the campaign?
Well we never stop really. After the election we didn’t do much in 2010, but in 2011 it all picked up. I’m now a member of the London Assembly so that gives me an opportunity and a platform to promote what we’re up to. Beating up Boris once a month will tend to get me a story, and if I get him to lose his temper then that ends up on the news!