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Oh yes, I’ve seen you on Question Time

In a handful of seats, there is a real chance that left and green candidates could be elected as MPs. Andrea D'Cruz went to Birmingham to check up on Salma Yaqoob's campaign for Respect, and to Brighton and Lewisham to assess the Green Party's prospects

May 7, 2010
8 min read

Salma Yaqoob’s latest Question Time appearance – filmed in Wootton Bassett in December and centred on Afghanistan, with BBC balance stacking four pro-war panellists to her lone anti-war voice – is having quite an impact. In the slew of admiring email responses, she was declared ‘our English rose’ and even ‘the Susan Boyle of politics’ by an ex-serviceman who, until she opened her mouth, fully expected her to get hammered. And it’s clear, as I traipse after her canvassing, that the programme is a boon on her quest to become Birmingham New Hall’s new MP.

The King’s Heath neighbourhood streets scheduled for today’s outing are mixed: roughly half white, half Asian – Sikh, Hindu and Muslim. She switches neatly between Urdu and English, depending on who comes to the door, but each time her message remains more-or-less the same. She grew up in a house around the corner and so there are a handful of shared school-day anecdotes. But she is surprised at the wider and warm recognition she is getting, with many more people interrupting her doorstep introduction with, ‘Oh yes, I know you; I’ve seen you on Question Time.’

Yaqoob sums up people’s impressions of Respect, the party she has represented as a Birmingham councillor since 2006, as ‘up until recently: George Galloway, Muslims, war’. Ger Francis, her campaign manager, agrees: ‘Everyone knows we’re anti-war, what they don’t know are the other things we support.’ Other than troops out, the policy priorities on today’s leaflets are investment not cuts, a green new deal and anti-racism. Francis explains the major challenge as overcoming people’s misconception of Respect as the party of the Muslim community, a misconception that excludes 84 per cent of Birmingham’s population. The strategy is simply to explain what they stand for.

This is exactly what Yaqoob is doing on the doorsteps (‘We’re against cutting public services – it wasn’t us who caused the recession, it was the bankers, but they’re the ones getting the bonuses!’) and it seems to be working well. One young white man we bump into becomes an instant on-the-street convert: ‘I want a bit of change. I’ll do that, I’ll vote for you, love. Pleasure to meet you!’

Yaqoob’s doorstep sell includes the Green Party endorsement (the Greens stepped down in this constituency to back her), which she hopes will ‘reinforce our progressive message and reassure voters, stop them putting us in a box’.

The Respect canvassers are also making certain they talk about local concerns. Mohammad Ishtiaq, a local councillor, explains: ‘Last time we spoke too much about international issues and got slammed for not talking enough about local issues, so now we’re trying to get the balance of local/global.’ At the top of the leaflets is a declaration against cuts in council jobs and services, to be paid for by a small council tax increase for the richest. The fight to save Sparkhill baths in Springfield ward is going down well – and so too is Yaqoob’s impromptu anti-litter petition after residents of the street we are doorstepping complain about rubbish from the new takeaways.

At the canvassers’ meeting afterwards the volunteers relay their, mostly positive, feedback. Eugene Egan signed up as a volunteer after seeing Yaqoob on the television. ‘I thought she’d done brilliant; this is someone who can change things,’ he says.

‘My mother didn’t like it, because she’s narrow minded,’ he adds, laughing. He is clearly excited to be part of the action. He reports to the room warm response to Yaqoob ‘mostly from what I’d call the white Christian type people’. This aligns with the experience of a young Asian activist who exclaims, ‘The white people were nicer to us than the Asians!’

The other patterns that surprise the canvassers are the almost absolute absence of people professing other party ties, but at the same time voters’ ‘repoliticisation’ – their eagerness to engage with and talk about the issues.

They plan to step up the canvassing; the goal is to knock on every door in the constituency. Yaqoob ‘doesn’t like how other parties in the constituency have operated, leaving out white working class communities that then don’t get heard’. Nor does she have time for the cynicism of politicians who assume the white working class is racist. Her experience, she says, is one of being warmly received by people who ‘just want to be listened to, to know somebody cares’.

Reaching beyond the muesli eaters

Some 200 miles south, Brighton Pavilion, with its bohemian culture and penchant for the alternative, is an obvious choice for Caroline Lucas’s parliamentary bid. A specially commissioned ICM poll in December gave her Green Party an eight-point lead over the Tories and ten over Labour. And when I visit for their weekly action day a couple of months later, the volunteers are quite giddily excited with possibility, chirpily recounting the positive feedback they’ve been getting from voters.

A more recent, controversial poll told a different story, putting the Greens in third place, so unhatched chickens certainly shouldn’t be counted. But there’s a real chance, if the election campaign goes well, that Lucas could be Britain’s first Green MP.

Paul Steedman, a councillor for Brighton’s Queen’s Park ward and the Greens’ general election campaign manager, is keen to emphasise what he calls the ‘Brighton factor’: a sense of independence, a desire to try something fresh and exciting, wanting to be the first. The key to success, though, will be reaching out beyond Brighton’s centre – all quirky, independent shops and middle-class muesli eaters – and mobilising working class support.

Steedman doesn’t see a barrier here. He says the party has shown that it can get support from all sections of society (it now has 13 councillors in Brighton and Hove) once people see that it isn’t just interested in abstract issues, such as peace and the environment, but is ‘delivering real things to real people’.

Lewisham Deptford doesn’t have its equivalent of Steedman’s ‘Brighton factor’ and its demographics are vastly different: it’s a lot more working class, a lot less white. Still, the Greens began to make inroads here by mobilising ‘the white middle-class Guardian readers in the conservation areas,’ as parliamentary candidate Darren Johnson puts it. It took five years for him to become the first Green councillor in the borough and begin to amass support among working class and ethnic minority voters.

‘I’m not from a middle-class Guardian reading household,’ Johnson tells me. ‘I joined the party aged 20 and as a working class boy it was a culture shock. I was intimidated by these well-spoken posh people with very big beards.’

With this in mind, he is meticulous about avoiding ‘high-falutin language and the jargon that has grown up around the green movement’. He’ll often cross words out in drafts of local party literature to make sure it is ‘accessible to everyone – not everyone has had the benefit of university education’. The ‘Green New Deal’ is one phrase he found had ‘no resonance, was just jargonistic waffle. Instead, I’ll explain what it actually means, the types of jobs it would create: plumbers, engineers, care workers.’

As well as jobs, the Greens in Lewisham and in Brighton have been prioritising opposition to public spending cuts and NHS privatisation. They’ve also been demonstrating their social and economic policy credentials on the local level, having helped secure a living wage for everyone employed through Lewisham Council and convince its mayor to overturn some £1.8 million cuts in services for the elderly and disabled.

The response has been positive, sometimes surprisingly so. Johnson tells of Dean Walton, his partner and fellow councillor, remarking of the canvass cards: ‘Was there a mistake filling in the forms? It says all these people on the estates are putting up “Vote Green” posters!’ And as I follow him canvassing council estate blocks in his Brockley ward, we encounter regular and new supporters. One black woman is very pleased to meet him, announcing ‘I always vote Green,’ while a young Muslim mother listens to the manifesto priorities and replies, ‘My auntie votes for you, I’ll definitely do it!’

The simple practice of knocking on doors is key. The Greens have been maximising communication with the Lewisham electorate: sending out regular newsletters and attending all sorts of meetings. They are regulars at tenants’ meetings and later in the evening Johnson is off to a Latin American community event.

In terms of breadth of representation, the Greens have certainly come a long way since Johnson joined, some two decades ago. But they still have some way to go. Johnson concedes that this is especially the case with their members and volunteers, who don’t yet reflect Lewisham’s demography, but he is pleased that they will be fielding ethnic minority candidates in winnable council seats at the local elections on 6 May.

Ultimately, whether the Greens make a breakthrough on polling day will probably come down to the same factor as with Salma Yaqoob and Respect. As one of the residents of Brockley’s Syringa House estate put it, ‘I’ll think about it but I’m Labour born and bred, and it’s hard to kick the habit.’

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