Streatham: The luckiest constituents in Britain?

Streatham: The luckiest constituents in Britain?

Streatham: The luckiest constituents in Britain?

It may not make a pretty picture, but Streatham has candidates who hint at a bright future for British politics.

By Ian Dunt

In 2002, Streatham High Road was voted the worst street in Britain. Walking down it from Brixton to Streatham train station, I found myself sympathising. The traffic is a mess, shops are closed up and the landscape is drab and grey. It’s a tough place to fall in love with.
But Streatham is a lucky constituency. Not just because it was where Aleister Crowley grew up, corrupting the place with his naughty and marvellous sex magic. Not because its bundled-together community of middle-class professionals, asylum seekers and hard working immigrants sum up the charming characteristics of the capital, which tourists usually find so disarming and Londoners secretly know makes London the grandest experiment on earth. No, Streatham is lucky because it has candidates who hint at a bright future for British politics.

Labour’s Chuka Umunna and the Tories’ Rahoul Bhansali might just offer a little hope to those losing faith in British politics. The first impression one gets of them is how similar they are.

“We’re both follicly challenged,” Bhansali jokes. “I was having a conversation with Keith [Hill – the departing Labour MP] and someone asked if I was the young man who was replacing him. I said obviously I was, before Keith informed him I was the Conservative.” Rather disarmingly for an election campaign with a lot of bad blood flowing around the two seem to get on pretty well, as if this were a case of two mates having a political argument all over the street.

“We get on,” Bhansali confirms. “He’s a nice guy. Chuka and I, politically we don’t agree – he’s fairly left wing. We don’t see eye to eye. But on what we do agree: we’re both passionate about this area. We went into politics for the same reason.”

Both men inhabit a meaningful place on the political spectrum, which is a modern and disappointing way of saying that they offer their constituents a choice between left and right without harking back to the bad old days of militant tendency on the one hand and ‘there’s no such thing as society’ on the other.

Umunna has a beefy national profile. He’s wheeled out at Labour conferences as a sign of the party’s vitality, along with predictable and fairly irritating descriptions of him as the British Obama. The phrase sticks in the throat not just for its racial assumptions but because it reflects the dispiriting way British politicos still look to America for their inspiration. But there’s good reason for his constant promotion. He’s left wing but professional, intelligent but genuine, compassionate but logical. If he doesn’t go far, something somewhere is going terribly wrong. His distinction comes from the fact he is left, but not old left. One might even dub him progressive, if the word still had any meaning.

Chuka Umunna, Labour candidate for Streatham

We discuss the Labour manifesto, which he is far more positive about than he should be, so I mention that the third runway at Heathrow is still in there. “Is it?” he asks. “Well I’m still opposed to that, straight up.” He’s uncomfortable with academies and, in a different way, with foundation hospitals. He stood up against the Iraq war well before politicians discovered they could spend most of their career insisting that if they’d only known then what they do now they would have acted differently. There’s no doubting his commitment, but he understands politics well enough to know the limits of idealism if you want to actually change the world.

“You have to accept you’re operating within the context of a political system that requires compromise,” he says. “You have to pick your battles. You’re not going to be able to fight every issue because frankly you’d reduce your impact and the influence you have for local people. It’s part of being a party of government that you have to make hard choices.

“If you were going to vote purely on a conscience basis, there’s a danger of the purity of impotence. Can you actually impact the changes you want? This election, because of the expenses scandal, people will be scrutinising the character of the person standing for their party much more as opposed to just their label. The label is still the main determinate, but they’ll be looking at you, your character and motivations in a way they didn’t do before.”

Umunna leaves and I spent a pleasant half hour in the cafe listening to the two young mothers next to me discuss the TV debate, which took place last night. They like Clegg. He’s very good, one tells the other, who admits missing it because her baby and husband both decided to start screaming at the same time. They don’t like Cameron. Neither of them notice either of their prospective MPs.

Bhansali bounds in wearing a hoodie. He’s the first Tory candidate I’ve ever met who wears a hoodie, and I make a silent promise to myself not to make a joke about hugging. He is charismatic, engaging, and has a way of voicing Conservative opinions in a way that feels entirely inoffensive to lefties and liberals. Even my mum would like him, and she approaches Tories with a National Geographic-level of tribal animosity.

Rahoul Bhansali, Conservative candidate for Streatham

“I joined the Conservative party when I was a spotty teenager back in the early Nineties,” he tells me. “I define my politics by what I believe in: I take responsibility for my own actions. I want personal freedom. I don’t want to be told what to do, but by taking that freedom I have responsibility for myself. I pay my own way. I work hard. And being born of a British Asian family, paying your own way and standing on your own two feet is part of my culture. Family values, the idea you don’t spend what you don’t have, respect for the law, respect for the culture of where you live, looking after your neighbours – these are core Conservative values.”
If my mum were here, she’d point out that ‘standing on your own two feet’ is code for abolishing the welfare state, but that probably isn’t what Bhansali is aiming for. Instead, he voices proper, old fashioned Tory values, with a London-based multicultural bent. Whether you agree with those values is irrelevant. What’s refreshing about Bhansali and Umunna is that both have a clear, coherent philosophical position, and neither shy away from stating it for fear of being put in a box.

The obsession with the political centre which has so reduced debate in this country since 1997 was noticeably shaken by the financial crisis, and one might hope that the stage is set for a new generation of politicians to emerge who occupy a political spectrum without the baggage of the seventies and eighties, even if those were the times that formed them.

But this isn’t France. British voters don’t tend to vote over philosophy. They vote for what Bhansali calls ‘real life’: education, health and the economy. Who will win in Streatham? Umunna will, or his Lib Dem opponent, although that remains unlikely. Labour has a dark night of the soul coming, whether there’s a hung parliament or not, and it would be highly unfortunate for that to take place without Umunna on the front lines of the debate.

The walk up Streatham High Road is slightly better than the walk down. The sun is out and I watch an old man help a woman in a hijab get her pram off the bus. Outside of a dilapidated shop, a man starts painting the window ledge, trying to spruce the place up a bit. Things might just be looking up.