VENUE: HAMPSTEAD SYNAGOGUE
HOST: WHAT and the West Hampstead Development Forum
THE bills on the door warned against heckling, and the council election hustings were all suitably civil in West Hampstead last night. If the audience was irritated with the large chorus line of contenders in front of them – 21! – they adopted a passive aggressive approach. For as each candidate talked about how much they loved the area or how long they had lived in West Hampstead and their own relevance to it, there always seemed to be somebody in the public chairs who sounded like they had superior NW6 credentials. Questions from the floor would begin: I’ve lived in West Hampstead for 20 years and I’d like to ask… I’ve been here 30 years, any advance on 50?
It all became a bit of a West Hampstead-off to the extent that the closest we got to a flame, beside a snippy exchange on Brexit, was Conservative candidate Axel Kaae’s mistaken assertion that Finchley Road station was step free for disabled users. The last thing you want to do is get a fact wrong about West Hampstead and its environs to somebody from West Hampstead, even if all you are trying to do is pledge to campaign for a lift at their nearest station. Don’t you even know the area, the back row gruffed politely, and he apologised profusely as if he had said something far more offensive.
The Conservative candidates led by David Brescia
In a room choc full of local historians, it’s understandable that some of the less seasoned candidates had a slight whiff of stagefright. We expect everybody who puts themselves forward for election to be slick on their feet, as if they are simply junior MPs, immediately camera ready. The reality at this level is they are, more often than not, locals giving it a whirl and not always realising the demands which will come their way once they have an election agent on their case.
Nazma Rahman, one of Labour’s candidates in West Hampstead
Some of the most confident speakers in the council chamber we see now took baby steps at events like this, so reading scripts off iPads or the text in the manifesto to avoid a mistake can perhaps be excused here. For now. All of the parties were fielding candidates, after all, who had not been through the Question Time experience before.
On the Labour side, Richard Olszewski, a councillor with two separate stints at the Town Hall and Camden’s finance chief, led the party’s new players as they shared out the speaking duties. We were in a synagogue hall, and he sensibly talked about the anti-semitism protests before anybody needed to ask, urging people to acknowledge its rise and vowing to fight it. It was hard for Labour’s opponents to bring the subject back up once he had done that.
The Greens were outnumbered but happily for them had questions about cycling and recycling to play with. We were told that Sian Berry, the party’s only councillor in Highgate did the work of five. The Conservatives, meanwhile, had David Brescia to thank for a captain’s performance, speaking up when some of his colleagues were still getting a feel for having 100 eyes on them.
Adrian Bridge from the Liberal Democrats
This is where Flick Rea, the Liberal Democrat councillor in Fortune Green, has been able to hold her own in the race for the West Hampstead monarchy over all these years. As was the case yesterday evening, she is able to call on a reassuring seen-it-all before anecdote in most situations. There is obvious affection for her from people who might otherwise vote for another party, and maybe this also explains some of the civility to this occasion: The other parties do not want to be seen relishing the chance to finally get rid of her.
She must be one of no more than ten councillors at the Town Hall who have genuine personal votes in their wards, but her fight for survival is set against the churn of people living and leaving in the north west of the borough. West End Lane is ever changing.
In this room, where most people were at least 40, she is able to lift her eyebrows at the upstarts around her. The question is whether this audience are representative of the wider neighbourhood. For those who proudly explain they have lived here before the chains moved in and before it cost £1.5 million for a family house, Cllr Rea is well known and she probably knew the first name of everybody in the hall; expect split ballot papers in Fortune Green.
But whether this local fame stretches to all of the increasing and new population of West Hampstead is not so clear. You get the impression that the parties are not quite sure whether people who have moved into new developments in the area are going to vote at all next month, let alone which way.
Housing in itself was only given a light touch here, as if everybody in room may share a similar lament to London’s uncompromising property market and stock shortage but are wary of suggesting more should be provided here, in the village. The candidates know that tall buildings and crammed pavements are feared.
This is where an evening like this has a politeness to it which you wouldn’t see if they were party leaders slugging it out on TV debates. They all tell us how much they love the area, how they want cleaner air and more police officers on the beat – even if the Conservatives were challenged about whether this was actually what Home Secretary Amber Rudd wanted too. Labour and the Conservatives are split on the CS11 bike route and, of course, weekly bin collections, but when asked about whether more should be done to cut down on coffee cups that cannot be recycled, they naturally give similar answers.
Labour’s Peter Taheri
The Lib Dems must believe this gives them room to argue that it is ok to talk about Brexit at these local elections; an all-encompassing issue that goes beyond whether voters have been around long enough to have heard of Cllr Rea’s famous port wine jelly. The Tories insisted that the public would have to live with four years of the wrong council if people voted simply on where they stood on Europe. But with the overlap in answers on more parochial issues and the next council set to be constrained by straightened budgets whoever is in charge, Cllr Rea’s party must be hoping Brexit could be a tie-breaker for some.
Whenever the subject came up, Lib Dem eyes lit up. Some of Cllr Rea’s new friends only joined the party in the wake of the referendum, and, if they hadn’t lived in West Hampstead for a lifetime, everybody in the audience seemed to have a loved one who was an EU national worrying about their future.
As it happened, it was a man in the second row who did the best work for the Lib Dems and the Greens when he called on both Labour and the Conservatives to make a statement against their national leaderships. The Labour panel repeated more than once that they were all defiant Remainers, but in return were reminded that Labour, nationally, are locked into leaving.
The debate over soft or hard Brexits do not cut through when you are being blasted face-to-face at a hustings with a demand to publicly disagree with the party’s leadership (including one of the borough’s Labour MPs). Sorin Floti, a new Labour candidate, did his best to explain that it affected him more than most because he was Romanian and he really did care while Mr Olszewski reminded everybody that he had an EU flag still flying above his door in Westbere Road. You got the impression, however, they will find themselves having to say the same thing, a lot, over the final weeks of this campaign.
See the New Journal’s website this week for reports on who said what at the West Hampstead hustings