Among the Independents

Taran Khan

Last Saturday I went to Valentines Park in Ilford to hear Leanne Mohamad speak at an election rally. Mohamad is a 24-year-old British Palestinian standing as an independent candidate in Ilford North. To a crowd of around eighty people, Mohamad talked of how she wants to be the ‘first outspoken British Palestinian to enter Parliament’.

Mohamad’s policy platform includes calling for an immediate ceasefire in Gaza, alongside protecting the NHS, safer streets and tackling the cost of living crisis. She resigned as a member of the Labour Party in late October, after Keir Starmer appeared to support Israel’s ‘right’ to cut off water and power to Palestinians in Gaza. Wes Streeting, Labour’s shadow health secretary, has been Ilford North’s MP since 2015. ‘In November, we implored Streeting as a community to vote for a ceasefire, but he didn’t,’ Mohamad told me after the rally.

The previous day I had followed a group of volunteers as they knocked on doors around Gants Hill. They were led by Cristian Parrino, who works for a cancer charity and commutes to the campaign every day from his home in Sussex. He found Mohamad’s campaign while searching for candidates who don’t accept donations from healthcare companies. ‘She has got a lot of local issues on her agenda, and gets support because she is local,’ he told me. Passing motorists honked their horns in support. A man across the street raised his fist and yelled: ‘Go Leanne!’

I raised the question of antisemitism. ‘You only have to look at her volunteers who are from every community, ethnicity and background to know that isn’t true,’ Parrino said.

In the neighbouring constituency of Chingford and Woodford Green, Faiza Shaheen’s campaign has also had a focus on Palestine. Shaheen had been preparing to stand as Labour’s candidate against the former Tory leader Iain Duncan Smith, who has represented the area since 1992. In 2019 Shaheen came within 1300 votes of winning. But in May she was abruptly deselected as the Labour candidate, in part for allegedly liking a post on X that perpetuated antisemitic stereotypes. Shaheen has since released a statement that says:

My strong support for Palestine is a key reason why I was blocked from running in Chingford and Woodford Green for the Labour Party. Tweets that were used against me included retweeting what goods to boycott, and another where I had tweeted an article which said I think Israel is an apartheid state.

Around fifty local Labour members quit the party in protest after her deselection.

I joined Shaheen’s campaigners near Chingford’s Overground station, on a quiet road of large houses. Beatrix Roudet, who left the Labour Party with Shaheen, told me they had had to put together all their information about voters from scratch: ‘All the data we had created with Faiza is now being used by the Labour Party.’

A Labour member from Coventry who had driven down in secret to campaign that afternoon told me that ‘anyone who doesn’t fall in, who is even the smallest bit socialist, is purged from the party.’ He spoke on the doorstep with a Labour voter who was wavering in his support: ‘I don’t know who I will vote for, to be honest. I’m angry at Labour, and I’m angry at her. She should have been more careful with her social media,’ he said, because ‘she knew they were just looking for an excuse to get her.’

A few doors away, a man said he would vote for Shaheen ‘only if she can guarantee that Iain Duncan Smith won’t win’. Her campaign was causing disagreements with his wife of 35 years, he joked. But speaking with me later, he was more serious in his criticism of Shaheen. ‘She shouldn’t have liked the post,’ he said. ‘If a Nigel Farage did it, that would be different. But someone like Faiza who is smart, local, aspirational, all the things we want from a leader, does that, well, it’s frightening.’ I asked if he disagreed with her stand on Gaza. ‘It’s not about Gaza,’ he said. ‘You can have your opinion on that. I have my own opinion, but she saw that trope and she just clicked past it. That’s frightening.’

I heard the concern over the need to ‘get the Tories out’ in both constituencies. In Valentines Park, after Mohamad’s rally, I spoke to a couple who had been listening to proceedings from their spot on a sunny bench nearby. They had already voted Labour, they said, because their priority was to get rid of the Conservatives: ‘The right-wing press talk of a supermajority is trying to make voters complacent. There was a lot of wisdom in what was said there’ – gesturing towards Mohamad – ‘and Labour could have done a lot more for Palestine. But in this particular election, I don’t think Labour is the villain. In this election, it’s important to vote tactically.’

Campaigners for both Shaheen and Mohamad assured people that their candidates had the potential to win. They offered numbers and polling forecasts, and tactical voting recommendations from various sources. Most of all, they talked of the leap of faith required to vote for a person rather than a party.

I asked Shaheen’s media co-ordinator, Helen Watson, if it’s curious that Palestine isn’t one of the big issues on her campaign trail. ‘It does come up,’ Watson replied, ‘and Faiza has supported the issue for over ten years.’ But local issues were also important, like the closure of Broadmead Road Bridge, close to where we were sitting. ‘Faiza has been fighting for this area since 2018, it’s bound to be more than a single issue campaign for her.’

Towards the end of the afternoon I spoke with Samea, who had gone to school with Shaheen and now works as a private tutor, as she leafleted a street with Roudet. ‘When we refuse to play along with the stereotype of submissive brown women, like Faiza did with Labour, we get the same kind of treatment,’ she told me. ‘That’s why we have empathy with Faiza, because we are Faiza.’

Across both campaigns, I found the swell of anger at the Tories undercut with disenchantment with Labour: ‘two sides of the same rusty coin’, Mohamad called them. ‘They are not reliable’, a 22-year-old teacher in Ilford said. ‘They are not true to their word.’ There is also apathy, as a teacher from Walthamstow told me, and a sense of disenfranchisement among traditional Labour voters who feel they don’t know where to go.

I also found a sense of solidarity across both campaigns that went beyond electoral politics. In Chingford, outside a large council estate, I spoke to Alexia, who had joined Shaheen’s campaign through an anti-racism group. ‘I was born here but never really felt like I belonged,’ she told me. ‘Iain Duncan Smith has been in power since before I was born. I had left and found my people elsewhere. This campaign is the most I’ve ever felt at home in Chingford.’ Appalling though Labour’s treatment of Shaheen was, she said, ‘selfishly, I was pleased because it let me support her without having to support a party I didn’t believe in.’

During Mohamad’s rally, someone said to me: ‘Before we found Leanne, if a donkey had stood against Streeting, I would have voted for the donkey. That’s why I was happy we found a wonderful candidate in her.’