VENUE: HIGHGATE LIBRARY
HOST: CROFTDOWN ROAD RESIDENTS ASSOCIATION
IN an election where the broad, boroughwide result is essentially already known, Highgate ward piques some interest as Labour and the Greens slug it out, without a huge chasm of disagreement standing between them.
Here is one of only two wards where a sitting Labour councillor, Oliver Lewis, has a prospect of losing their seat, albeit possibly to one of his own colleagues given the quirks of three-vote ballot forms. Valerie Leach lost her place in such circumstances, even though Labour came back with two councillors four years ago.
It’s also a potential trapdoor for the Greens, and a serious one. If they cannot at least hold onto their seat in Highgate with the party’s most high profile politician in London, Sian Berry, then it will probably feel worse than losing their general election deposit in Holborn and St Pancras last year.
The contest has grown a little tetchy – there have been Twitter mutings and legal warnings – but you get the impression that both sides would rather be up against a Conservative candidate, as at a hustings like this they are saying things which would appeal to voters from a roughly left-wing base and it’s harder to get the edge.
When the subject of youth knifings came up, for example, Labour candidates and the Greens wanted to talk about how austerity kills, rather than a suggested need to simply fill the streets with police. Sadly, this was actually one of the few moments when a debate threatened to break out in front of the 30 or so people sitting on fold-up chairs, again, a little like the hustings Swiss Cottage earlier in the campaign, partly made up of WAGs, HABs, and obvious supporters of one side or another.
More time had already been eaten up by a marathon introductory session in which the candidates tried to out-Highgate each other while explaining who they were and how they had come to be standing for election; they were born here, or they loved it here, they appreciated how special it is.
In Labour’s Maddy Raman’s case, he told us how he and his future wife would gambol across the Heath from Highgate to their home in Hampstead, a romantic setting where one day he proposed to his wife. Don’t forget the kids, family man! He then stumbled into a defence for having three children, aged five, three and one, even though nobody had frowned at him.
“I sometimes get a reaction to that because they are quite close together,” he told us. “But we’d rather get them close together because it’s easier going forward. I’m not trying to justify having three children, well I am trying to justify having three children but so…” His fellow Labour candidates, Cllr Lewis and Anna Wright, then stood up and explained they too had three children. It didn’t seem to be a problem.
Maddy Raman, Anna Wright and Oliver Lewis
It’s an awkward job interview. Ms Wright explained she had been shot at in war zones as a charity worker but before we could say ‘you’ve been what??’ she was back onto the traffic in Chetwynd Road and the fact she was once head girl at Camden School for Girls.
“What can I offer you as your candidate for Highagte?”, she asked aloud. “I’m really sensible. I am sensible.”
Mr Lewis looked across at the slightly underwhelming attendance and perhaps influenced by a distracting thought that he was missing the chance to watch his beloved Liverpool football club in the Champions League semi-final, gave us some Shankly: “The great Liverpool manager said that his kind of socialism was where everybody worked for a common goal and everybody shared in the rewards.”
Cllr Berry also aimed to be relatable, telling us about she usually lived with cats. But they had recently died. She will be getting another one soon, and spelt it out to the audience that “I just thought I’d tell you that to show a human side to someone you may see running around all over the place, at City Hall, sometimes on the TV.” She explained how Greens could make a difference as opposition councillors, and that she was so active that her boots always needed re-healing.
Her running mates include John Holmes, the co-chair of the local Greens. It’s intriguing to hear somebody explain they joined this party on housing issues, rather than something explicitly eco.
Kirsten de Keyser
Kirsten de Keyser, however, perhaps spelt out how people in a defiantly lefty area like Highgate can end up in the Greens, or perhaps sharing their vote. She described herself as a political “chameleon”, admitting she had been a Labour member and a Liberal Democrat in the past.
“I was a very long time member of the Labour Party, but left in 2003 at the outbreak of the Iraq War,” she explained. “In 2010, I joined the Lib Dems to fight the tuition fee battle and we all know the car crash that became of that, so I left.”
She went on, explaining that she had been tapped up by former Green councillor Maya De Souza and adding: “It was just a time when the Labour Party, the Tory Party and the Lib Dem were mired in scandal. I don’t know: cash for questions and sexual transgressions and god knows what. The only quiet area was the Green party. I really liked what I saw, and this is where i am now.”
The records show that she is not the only in chameleon in Highgate, where Labour voters can be rebellious and confusing. Going 2:1 Labour/Green seems to have been a way of saying, yes we’ll support you but don’t take us for granted, particularly at times such as foreign wars. The ward has been all Labour, all Green, a split, there was briefly a Conservative councillor; only the Lib Dems haven’t broken through, even at the height of their powers in 2006.
You haven’t mentioned the Lib Dems, or the Conservatives! Well, at these hustings both parties were outnumbered by independent candidates, Constantine Buahyer and Emily O’Mara standing here on a housing ticket. The suggestion that not going full throttle here is part of an acceptance that if people are serious about foiling a Labour wipeout, then it might be counterproductive to brake the Greens. We’ve discussed on these pages before that while the Tories will always have a residual vote in Highgate, the arithmetic may lead to some Conservatives handing one of their three votes to Cllr Berry for the only reason that it could prevent another Labour councillor being elected.
So while Ben Seifert batted away valiantly on the night, explaining how he had worked pro bono to help save Stoly Jankovic, the health food shop worker who was saved (with a little help from the CNJ too) from a sudden deportation last year, it was hard for him to break into the conversation. Given the chair allowed each candidate, rather than each party, time to introduce themselves, he had to listen to an awful lot of Labour and Green life stories before it was his turn.
The same went for the Lib Dems, who could not raise any of the three candidates actually standing in the ward to attend. Matthew Kirk, who is running in neighbouring Gospel Oak, abandoned all the Highgate chit-chat and dived into his speech about the importance of using the local elections to send a message about… you guessed it… Brexit.
For a lot of the next hour, he looked a little crestfallen, could be wrong, that nobody brought up the European Union again and that the public were instead determined to know more about management plans at the Mansfield Bowling Club and extensions to Parliament Hill School instead.
Of those independents, it’s hard to miss the curiosity among the Greens as to why their former candidate, Mr Buhayer, is standing here and against them in their main target ward.
“I’ve spent most of my life in Gospel Oak within sight of the station and my community is here in in Highgate,” he said, explaining that his church was in the ward. His story was also of a journey. “I’m grateful for the Labour Party for giving me a voice in the 80s and 90s to be able to stand in politics, and not just to be that foreigner. I’m grateful to some friends in the Green Party for giving me the tools to speak to people,” Mr Buhayer told us.
He did not expand on why he had left the Greens but said it was now vital to campaign for secure housing for all. Cllr Berry and co are being very polite about it all, but imagine if they lose a seat by a margin smaller than the number of votes collected by the independents.
And that’s how close it could get in Highgate, if you believe the word of doorstep canvassers who pivot endlessly between ‘Labour are doing well’ and ‘the Greens are doing well’ to the extent predictions seem futile. Both parties are certainly not afraid to knock on the door of a home with a rival poster in the window, asking for one or two votes if not all three. At some homes where Labour can guarantee a vote in the general election, canvassers are not always successful in breaking down the view that ‘one for the Greens’ won’t hurt, particularly in an age where everybody has finally agreed that the air is too toxic.
The most frustrated feel Cllr Berry has a goody-two-shoes image, a crowd-pleaser who doesn’t have her policies scrutinised as much as theirs. With a 24-seat majority already in the chamber and power firmly in their hands, maybe it’s understandable that Labour’s plans are more often under the microscope in the press each week. They didn’t get too much of a test here either, but then neither did Labour’s.