Will Gaza affect the election? In Ilford, I saw the ways it already has

by Nesrine Malik, “The Gardian” :

Palestine has galvanised the community – and a local candidate is trying to harness that energy and challenge Wes Streeting MP

Last weekend I attended Eid weekend in Ilford, east London, and the festivities were festooned with Palestine insignia. Some children had Palestine heart-shaped flags pinned to their finest Eid threads. The adults wore the Palestinian keffiyeh scarf. At one Eid festival at Goodmayes Park there was Palestine flag bunting everywhere, and a Palestine stall. There I met Najwa, a beaming Palestinian woman from Fairlop wearing a map of her homeland on a necklace. We started the conversation in English but quickly switched to Arabic, in which she is more voluble. She arrived six months ago and still marvels at the local support and solidarity that met her. “People in the west have stood with us more than the Arabs have,” she said.

Ilford North is the scene of one of the sharpest confrontations over Palestine during this election. The sitting MP, Labour’s Wes Streeting, is being challenged by Leanne Mohamad, a 23-year-old Palestinian British woman who left the Labour party and is now standing as an independent. Her top priorities are to bring about a ceasefire in Gaza and implement an arms embargo against Israel. She has a record of local activism that is striking for one so young, and a warmth and ease that many politicians decades her senior in age and experience can only dream of.

She looks like a real contender not just because of these attributes, but because Streeting, the MP since 2015, has a majority of just over 5,000, down from just under 10,000 in 2017. The Muslim Vote, a national campaign that aims to mobilise Muslims to vote around their group interests, is backing Mohamad. It estimates there are about 25,000 Muslim votes, making up more than a quarter of the constituency.

But feeling strongly about Palestine is one thing and getting people to act on it during an airless and uninspiring election campaign is another. The Muslim Vote had a truck just outside the park with a rolling digital-advertising banner urging passersby to channel their frustration and register to vote. The campaign’s challenge is to reconcile two impulses: high feeling about Gaza and low engagement with electoral politics. Palestine has become a political frustration, distancing people from not only the Labour party but also mainstream politics in general. But the issue has also served as a bridge, a way to build solidarity and ties between loosely connected people who share broadly similar minority profiles, living conditions and experiences of precarity.

A charity fundraiser making use of Eid footfall exemplified this merging of interests. They were raising for a mix of global and local causes – for medical care in Gaza but also for asylum seekers who couldn’t work, single mums and their children. One charity worker was open and generous in conversation, but when I asked about the election, the air cooled. She wasn’t affiliated with a party or candidate, she said, and Leanne Mohamad’s name drew no comment. I took the bus back into town with Najwa. She can’t vote because she is not a citizen and seemed vaguely aware of the contest; nevertheless she launched into a detailed breakdown of the council services and challenges that she and other families were navigating. More than anything, she is desperate to be allowed to start working.

That disconnect was clear among others in the community who are electrified by Gaza, left cold by Westminster, occupied with how to support themselves and each other. The Palestine solidarity signs outnumbered election banners for any candidate. Abubakr Nanabawa from the Muslim Vote told me that what I saw in Ilford wasn’t unique to the area. Across the country, many people just don’t feel that anything will change and so don’t see their vote making a difference, even though they are angry with Labour. Economic marginalisation doesn’t help. “Predominantly, Muslims come from working-class communities and see that the political system is serving the interests of a very small, select group of people,” he said.

Like large swaths of east Greater London, and indeed the country at large, Ilford is a place of vacant shops and diminished community areas. A giant hollow Wilko stands outside Ilford station. The high street is home to betting shops, Western Unions and small chain stores in between shuttered retail premises. A small pedestrianised street behind the station is rammed, a small slice of common space, with limited seating and a children’s play area. There, I shared a concrete slab of a seat with 87-year-old Joan as she drew on the last of her cigarette.

She wasn’t voting and didn’t even know who was running or what constituency she was in. All the same lot, she said. She has lived in council housing in the area for more than 50 years and has seen her estate deteriorate in management and upkeep. Most of her friends and her husband had “gone upstairs”. But her pride and joy were the children of a local Sri Lankan woman for whom Joan used to babysit. Now adults, those children still pop in, take her along on their chores and invite her to family events.

Here was something obscured in all the sound and fury about immigration, integration and protests about Gaza – the community that springs up around areas with large minorities, large families and a tradition of neighbourliness. Solidarity with Palestine seems an extension of that, a concern that has forged closer ties between people left behind during years of council cuts and austerity after central government abandoned the role of providing connective tissue – the services and spaces that provide care and that model belonging.

Withdrawal from national politics and an investment in organic local efforts is not only natural but also inevitable as political participation increasingly becomes the preserve of those who have an economic stake. A report last December predicted this election to be the most unequal in 60 years, with those most likely to vote being high earners, homeowners and graduates of higher education.

As I took the journey home – one that took in a large sweep of east London through Redbridge, East Ham, Newham and the Docklands – the same identikit gap-toothed high street rolled by. Towards the end of the trip, Canary Wharf heaved into view. To many, the election feels focused on the country as represented by its clustered towers of investment banks, management consultancies and shopping complexes. They stood tall and silver, catching the last of the evening sun and splintering its rays over the greater low-rise city below.

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