THE morning after the Whittington march, I had a knock at the front door. It was two Haringey Liberal Democrats who I hadn’t met before. They had no doubt seen the New Journal campaign placard outside the house and wanted to talk about the demonstration.
I asked them why Hornsey and Wood Green MP Lynne Featherstone had not spoken at the rally outside the hospital on Saturday. That had seemed the best place to explain to everyone where the party stood on the issue and she had, after all, been on the platform three years ago when we all campaigned against the planned closure of the hospital’s Accident and Emergency.
They repeated a claim by Lynne in a tweet last week that she had simply not been invited to speak. “Some people put politics on top of the march and try and use it to attack the Tories,” an experienced-looking activist told me as I stood in my pyjamas at the front door. “This shouldn’t be about playing politics”.
Without any sense of irony, they then asked me to sign a Lib Dem branded petition over the hospital’s future. If no politics are being played, you might think there only needs to be one petition and it doesn’t need to have anybody’s political emblem on the top.
This exchange on the doorstep reminded me of a few irritated voices who felt parts of Saturday’s demonstration had been too political for a cause with a natural broad-based support beyond party politics. Lynne is adamant that she was not invited to speak. She still marched, but rather than stand at the front of the march as she had done in 2010, she was nestled quite a few rows back. There was a low-key tweeted picture of her with a yellow banner. The cheekiest Labour members salted the quarrel they have with her by suggesting she was hiding under an umbrella.
Her opponents say the ‘I didn’t get an invite’ explanation is a convenient excuse and that politicians, especially ones with ministerial experience, don’t usually wait to be asked. If they want to be on the main stage, they find a way. They put themselves in the middle of the fight.
There was certainly no visible protest over the lack of opportunity for her to speak on Saturday. There was no attempt to negotiate with the people with the microphones on the day. In fact, the absence of a fuss seemed to be a very polite acceptance that an MP who represents a large share of the hospital’s patients would not speak at an event aimed at galvanising communities whoever you vote for. You might have thought there would be kicking and screaming, demanding a place in the running order.
The cynics say it would be much better from Lynne’s perspective to be the victim of the day, appearing as the wronged woman unfairly frozen out of giving her views on the stage. This, if you must be sceptical, being a preferable option than being pictured at the forefront of a campaign which has a connecting path which eventually leads back to potential criticism of her government. There was possibly a risk of heckling.
David Lammy and Emily Thornberry faced similar stickiness in 2010, particularly Lammy who had deeper footprints into government circles, when they seemed to be protesting against a hospital A&E closure that their own Labour ministers could have halted at their will. Both marched regardless, next to Lynne, and Terry Stacy, the former Lib Dem leader of Islington Council. The unity on that day three years ago had great vitality.
While Labour MPs delivered fiery speeches in defence of the NHS on Saturday – there’s free rein to do that in opposition – Lynne’s tone has been a touch more conciliatory. She has expressed concerns for what’s happening and held a public meeting of her own, but she has also shown more understanding for the board’s thinking and has certainly lacked the thrusting, vehement anger of Lammy and Jeremy Corbyn towards the proposed changes. At one point the board mistakenly thought they had won an endorsement for her (a claim they later apologised for). On Twitter, she recently directed people to a “well worth reading” piece by Richard Vize, the former editor of the Local Government Chronicle, in the Guardian which fairly critiqued the Whittington’s efforts at communicating its proposed changes, but also ultimately concluded: “Its latest plans are another step towards delivering excellent, community based care. How sad that local people now think it is going backwards.”
This all makes it a greater shame that we didn’t hear from Lynne on Saturday. She has blogged away on the Whittington’s future, but here was a chance to talk to the crowd and arguably those who are most fearful of the changes. It will be interesting to find out what happened with her invitation. It goes against the spirit of fairness if she was deliberately excluded. It sits uncomfortably with the spirit among people I saw marching on Saturday.
A risk arises here: if there are disagreements about who is allowed to speak when, if there are different petitions when one non-partisan one would do, the unity across political allegiances which proved so valuable to the campaign in 2010 could be sacrificed. Many were marching on Saturday simply for a hospital they value and in pride at the NHS, not to make a political point.
But others did so with something that has been lingering in the background of north London’s politics since the formation of the coalition government at the last general election. From that day, she became a critical target for Labour strategists looking to recapture territories considered left-leaning at the next election.
She is on lockdown when it comes to Labour’s guns. Confident of unseating her, they will not give her an inch until now and polling day, even if it is two years away. As Catherine West, the Islington council leader, got up to speak on Saturday, a party hack whispered in my ear: ‘Here comes the next MP for Hornsey and Wood Green’. (Kate Osamor is the only other person I’ve heard linked with that selection issue and that apparently depends on how she first gets on when they choose who stands in Harrow).
It’s the electoral battle in Haringey that lies ahead which explains why when Lammy gave one of his rasping speeches (see the film at the top, note how he bizarrely gives us permission to ‘continue’ at the end of his speech), he was naturally programmed to ask ‘where’s Lynne Featherstone’, a cheap but jagged score on a crowd who in the main would have no idea over whether she had been invited or not, nor the slippery to and fro behind the scenes.
It just goes to show it’s going to be bloody and bitter over in Haringey in the next two years, a real war of an election. Given that, it’ll be interesting to see if activists from more clear cut seats, say Holborn and St Pancras, are posted there in the final weeks of battle.