#branded goods abound: Cameron's not the only one running a slick campaign

#branded goods abound: Cameron’s not the only one running a slick campaign

You’ll be hard pressed to find any writing about the constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn that doesn’t caricature it as a tale of two cities — Hampstead, home to an uneasy entente between champagne socialists and investment bankers; Kilburn, a less than glamorous appendage of Brent with historic Irish and Caribbean populations.

I met with Tulip Siddiq, Labour PPC for the constituency, over breakfast in her offices on Kilburn High Road. It’s a busy street, populated largely by grocers, cafes and chicken shops. It’s also, more controversially, home to the storefronts of 16 payday lenders — many of which sit side by side with betting shops. Siddiq tells me that it’s a hot topic on the doorsteps, and something on which she campaigns locally. It’s also a world away from the leafy streets which run close to Hampstead Heath.

A Tale of Two Stations

A Tale of Two Stations

But Siddiq is skeptical when asked about the portrayal of Hampstead and Kilburn as two areas united only by the name of a constituency. “It’s something journalists like saying because it sounds good. I spent my teenage years living in Hampstead, and my parents married in Kilburn in the 70s. I know the area, and it’s not a picture that really reflects the reality”.

This is particularly true, Siddiq says, with reference to Labour support. There are actually more Labour party members in Hampstead — over 1000 — than there are in Kilburn.

But, Hampstead Town and Belsize Park are represented only by Conservatives on Camden Council; while Kilburn — and, it’s true, West Hampstead — are represented only by Labour.

Even though, as Siddiq says, people vote differently at a local than at a national level, there are clearly regional divides in Hampstead and Kilburn. Hampstead might, surprisingly, breed more Labour members than Kilburn, but this is likely a function of atypical levels of political engagement, as well as of political leanings.

 

Local council wards in Hampstead and Kilburn by political party

Local council wards in Hampstead and Kilburn by political party

While different wards have different histories and varied local politics, the street-by-street disparity in appearance and housing is also marked. The biggest distinctions within the constituency don’t run on pure Hampstead/Kilburn lines, and there are many areas within each which don’t fit their respective stereotypes.

Walking from Queen’s Park to Kensal Rise in Kilburn takes in carefully curated green spaces, an independent cinema and self-conscious cafes; though South Kilburn houses what was the largest social housing estate in Europe.

And while Hampstead is home to some of the most expensive streets in the UK, there are also areas within West Hampstead which are higher on indices of of multiple forms of deprivation than the national average, and one small area within the ward that falls in the top 20% of the most deprived nationally.

Glenda Jackson MP's endorsement of Siddiq, taken from campaign literature

Glenda Jackson MP’s endorsement of Siddiq, taken from campaign literature

It’s undeniable, though, that the Labour party membership in Hampstead and Kilburn is unusually glitzy. Comedian Alan Davies opened Siddiq’s new constituency office, and actress Emma Thompson and writer and presenter Melvyn Bragg are known local supporters. The current Labour MP is Glenda Jackson, Oscar winning actress — and though she doesn’t mention it during our interview, Siddiq is the grand-daughter of the first President of Bangladesh Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, and niece of Prime Minister of Bangladesh Sheikh Hasina.

Standing and campaigning in a relatively central London constituency has its perks, too: personal networking and engaging volunteers is easier if you can attend central party events with ease. When Tulip Siddiq can’t make interesting Labour-affiliated events, she gives tickets to her volunteers — two of them recently got to go to a fundraiser with Patrick Stewart, of Star Trek fame.

The volunteer team are a resource which Siddiq cultivates with care. She tells me that she wouldn’t be able to run the campaign without them. All of her campaign funding comes from local Labour party supporters; she doesn’t get central funding, as Labour already hold the seat. Some local supporters doubtless have deeper pockets than the national average; but despite this, Labour won’t be able to match the Conservatives’ spend.

“The Conservatives send out letters with first class stamps, which we just can’t afford. Even sending 2nd class letters to every constituent in Hampstead and Kilburn would cost in the region of £25,000. We don’t have those kinds of resources, so we deliver everything by hand.”

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Handcrafted countdown on the wall fo Siddiq’s offices – see clock for evidence of early(ish) start on a Sunday

 

Siddiq is very proud of her volunteer model. She describes how there’s always food and music playing back at HQ, which is a recently converted wine shop — a source of useful shelf-space, incidentally. The team meet and debrief after sessions, regularly go out for dinner together, and Siddiq tells me that she always texts them to thank them for coming if she can’t do so in person. The group of activists I meet at breakfast have the lowest average age I’ve seen so far on a campaign team — and this is at 10am on a Sunday.

The impression from within the team and local party is one which benefits significantly from strong personal relationships with one another, and a smattering of high profile connections. But the reasons Siddiq sees Labour support rising in the wider constituency is issue based, and related to the party political context.

“Largely because of what’s happened with the coalition, the Lib Dems won’t have a chance of winning here — they’ve lost all but one of their local councillors, and they’ve collapsed in the polls”. Her confidence in this statement was not just evinced in her remarks to me — it’s an argument the Labour team is making on the doorsteps.

During the breakfast briefing, Siddiq told campaigners that wannabe Lib Dem voters should be met with the tactical voting argument: if they want a progressive government, and if they want the Conservatives out for sure, her message is that they have to vote Labour in a marginal as tight as this.

Siddiq delivering a breakfast briefing to the campaign team

Siddiq delivering a breakfast briefing to the campaign team

Labour has its own challenges as a party, though. One of them is undeniably Ed Miliband’s public image. In November, YouGov reported that the Labour leader’s approval ratings had sunk to an all time low at -55 points — that’s one point below Nick Clegg.

Siddiq worked for Miliband on his leadership bid, so she is well placed to defend him. I asked whether voters in Hampstead and Kilburn raise concerns about the prospect of Miliband as PM, and how she deals with the doubters.

“People do talk about Ed on the doorstep. And I’m not saying that there haven’t been perception problems. But I do say to people ‘you want a slick PR man? You have Cameron. Do you want integrity and values? Then that’s Ed.’ ”

“I think that we have shifted more towards personality politics in recent years. I worked for Obama in 2008, and I see more similarities now than before.”

“Another thing I say is that, when David Cameron was asked why he wanted to be Prime Minister, his answer was that he would be good at the job. When asked the same question, Ed Miliband’s answer was to reduce the gap between rich and poor. You have to ask yourself, how much do you care about the odd bad photo?”

YouGov Poll - https://yougov.co.uk/news/2014/11/02/ed-milibands-approval-rating-sinks-all-time-low/

YouGov Poll – Source

On national policy issues, it’s the NHS and education that are relevant across across the constituency and predominate on the doorstep. The Royal Free, one of the biggest hospitals in the country, is in Hampstead.

“It’s one of those issues that cuts across demographics. Even if you’re not currently suffering from health problems, people think about it in terms of their own futures and in terms of others who do need the NHS now. Doctors and nurses have never been under as much pressure as they are under the current government”

With regard to education, Siddiq tells me that Camden has the best state schools in the country. But “the 2010 cuts to Labour initiative Building for the Future has left a marked difference between those schools that managed to benefit from the programme, and those that didn’t get their turn”.

Brent schools aren’t rated as highly as those in Camden, but concerns across the wards focus on the same issues: quality of teaching and facilities, and school places. Many children and parents end up traveling long distances because of the capacity of, and variation between, local schools. As for any London constituency, quality and availability of state education is highly contested and comes high on parents’ agendas.

Keats House in Hampstead, where Ode to a Nightingale was written. Would have been a likely target for Labour's mansion tax, unless Keats were asset rich and income poor.

Keats House in Hampstead – now a museum – where Ode to a Nightingale was written. Would have been a likely target for Labour’s mansion tax, unless Keats were asset rich and income poor.

Further hints of local disparities came through when discussing policies on property. The bedroom tax is one of the most oft-mentioned subjects in Kilburn, but Siddiq says that “it’s not really raised in Hampstead”.

By contrast, when Siddiq briefs her volunteers she says that that the Mansion Tax is unlikely to come up in Kilburn that morning; but it’s frequently mentioned in Hampstead. If it does come up, she asks her volunteers to say that she is for it, but with limits. In line with party policy, both pensioners and the income poor/ asset rich should be protected.

A local unifier is resistance to HS2. At a national level there’s cross-party support for the project, which would create a high speed rail connection between London and Birmingham. But Siddiq told Ed Miliband that she’d rebel on the vote in Parliament. “He looked more nervous than ever”, she laughs.

With a serious turn, she speaks about the houses in the constituency that would be knocked down, with some areas nominally left intact suffering permanently from vibrations. “The plans to build a vent for the project in South Kilburn will ruin a very settled community”.

When I ask about the consultation process, she has a short verdict. “A shambles”.

“There were lots of fights between residents and the organisers, and it became clear that they just didn’t know the area. I wouldn’t trust them to paint my house”.

Siddiq and the campaign team (plus Claire)

Siddiq and the campaign team (plus Claire)

I gathered with the Labour team for a photo outside Siddiq’s newly painted offices — which luckily had nothing to do with HS2 — before going our separate ways. With a margin of 42, and only 800 votes between the first and third party in 2010, Hampstead and Kilburn was the closest won sea in England. The polls now have Labour firmly in the lead; but as a rare genuine three-way marginal between what were until recently the three leading parties, it’s an interesting one to watch.

The conversation here reflects the issue-based narratives of Britain’s traditional parties in the capital; but it doesn’t represent the story of fragmentation, brought on by small disruptive parties, which has recently dominated national debate. It looks likely that this constituency, often characterised by division, will deliver a more solid majority than last time. In this sense, despite a dose of local glamour, Hampstead & Kilburn is a symbol of the political mainstream.