Election 2017: Gareth Thomas, 20-year guardian of Labour progress in multicultural Harrow West, has a hard survival fight on his hands

Election 2017: Gareth Thomas, 20-year guardian of Labour progress in multicultural Harrow West, has a hard survival fight on his hands

Factors that shape the marginal constituency of Harrow West can be surveyed from many vantage points, but a spot beside Rayners Lane Underground station on Alexandra Avenue is hard to beat.

The station itself speaks the visual language of the early 1930s, a time when Britain was sinking in the Great Depression but London was spreading out from the smoke of the centre and sprawling into new suburban frontiers. It was designed by New Zealand-born Reginald Urwen and by his mentor, Charles Holden. A son of Bolton, Holden’s functional modernism is a hallmark Underground style, all the way from Southgate to Morden. The Rayners Lane stop, originally opened in 1906, served Harrow Garden Village as it was known, a flagship development of what John Betjeman would immortalise in his 1973 BBC documentary as Metro-Land. It was named after a local farmer.

Across the busy road stands the architectural marvel that was first a Grosvenor cinema, then a Gaumont, an Odeon and an Ace. The names have changed, but the exultant Art Deco edifice has stayed the same. In 1986 the building received a rare Grade-II* listing, and as the new century began the futuristic beauty was colonised by Zoroastrians. The religion founded in Iran 3,500 years ago is still firmly in-house, announcing its presence with bold, blue lettering. Prince Philip visited in 2011. He congratulated the Zoroastrians for their “tremendous contribution” to Britain over 150 years and said he hoped they’d still be making it 2,000 years from now.

There is a powerful urge to cross the street and gaze. But first, observe a shop next to the station. The Wed In Style Asian matrimonial décor emporium, one of three branches in London, beckons the consumer with a tumult of gold fibre pillars and cascades of gossamer drapes. Its website says the shop’s arrival in the area broke new ground. In its window, a poster advertised the recent Tamil Wedding Exhibition held in Wembley.

These layers of north west Outer London’s historical landscape also hint at its political terrain. In party terms, this is closely contested by the two biggest players: Harrow Council is under Labour control, but only just; the two parliamentary seats the borough wholly contains are finely balanced too, with Harrow East presently in Conservative hands and Harrow West held by Labour’s Gareth Thomas.

Two years ago, Labour targeted Harrow East. This time, the Tories are targeting Thomas, who is defending a majority of 2,208. A large Labour poster bearing his name adorns the balcony of an interwar housing block next door to the Zoroastrian mother ship. Like every besieged Labour incumbent, he is endangered by his party’s national standing, but his fate may finally depend on a range of local factors. These reflect that national story in distinctive ways but also have lives of their own. They could save the seat for Labour. They could also bring to an end one of the more revealing stories of Labour political survival this century.

Multicultural Metro-land

Gareth Thomas has represented Harrow West since 1997, swept to unexpected victory in the first Blair landslide with a gigantic swing of 17%. His was a historic triumph: Conservatives had represented the constituency ever since its creation in 1945. It was a shining manifestation of the triumph of New Labour, with its ability to reach new parts of the electorate. It was also a reflection of demographic shifts that, in different forms, have continued to help Labour in many Outer London areas.

Sitcom cliché has long had it that London suburbs are neurotically, eccentrically, pleasantly boringly English and white. Yet the 2011 census found that Harrow borough as a whole had the fourth smallest percentage of white British residents in the country, at slightly less than 31%. Only Newham, Ealing and Brent, three other Outer London boroughs, contained fewer than that. Harrow also has one of the highest proportions of people of Indian descent, put at 26.4% in the census, second only to Leicester.

It is hard to overstate the changes in Harrow’s ethnic composition since the borough was created in 1965. Back then, its population was 95% white British. The largest minority group were Irish. Today, Harrow, whose northern border is with the greenery of Middlesex, is fizzingly diverse, the seventh most so in the capital, according to the Greater London Authority.

Other Asian groups accounted for 11.3% of Harrow’s population in 2011, a category that included Afghans, Nepalese and, the largest number in this group, Sri Lankans. Non-British whites, including Poles, Lithuanians, Romanians and Irish, accounted for 8.2%. Harrow households containing partners from different ethnic groups made up 9.4% of the total, a 20% increase since 2001. About 8% identify as Black African, Black Caribbean or Black Other.

Nearly 45% of Harrow residents were born outside the UK according to the census, the fourth highest figure nationally. Of these, 41% – 43,820 people – had arrived in the previous ten years. That was lower than for both the UK and Greater London overall during the period, but Harrow’s ranking by that measure has been higher in the past. The borough was placed second nationally for overseas migrants who had arrived more than ten years earlier, demonstrating that it became cosmopolitan sooner than might be imagined from Betjeman’s celebrated film.

Metro-land, which revived a label the Metropolitan Railway had coined in 1915 and dropped 20 years later, included Harrow but also roved much farther and wider, into Rickmansworth, Neasden and Chorleywood. Charmingly preoccupied with warm beer and garden gnomes, it did not encompass one of the more profound social changes taking place in the territory at the time.

In August 1972, the military leader of Uganda, General Idi Amin, gave 60,000 Asians living in the country 90 days to leave. Around half of them, the majority with origins in the Indian state of Gujarat, had British passports. They arrived in the UK unwelcomed by some, including members of Edward Heath’s Conservative government and stripped of everything except the business acumen that had made them crucial to Uganda’s economy, prompting Amin to call them “bloodsuckers”.

Harrow was picked as a place where these “Ugandan Asians” could settle. They did so in large numbers and excelled. With their arrival, Britain was introduced to the corner shop that stayed open all hours and their subsequent successes, and those of their children, make theirs one of the nation’s most heartening stories of refugees. Most were Hindus. Theirs was a major new input into a Harrow faith culture mix that today also includes Jainism, Judaism, Islam, Buddhism and Sikhism, as well as Christianity and those Zoroastrians.

Substantial numbers of ethnic minority voters in any constituency have customarily been helpful to Labour. The same, of course, goes for people who are struggling financially. In recent times Harrow has seen another changes in its human composition. One is rapid population growth, as seen through the metropolis. The other is economic. Along with several other Outer London boroughs, it has seen a rise in the percentage of its residents defined as poor. In 2011, there were nearly 6,000 more Harrow households in poverty than there had been in 2001 according to an estimate in the 2015 Households Below Average Income Survey. In common with nearby Brent, Ealing and Barnet, it’s seen a parallel fall in the percentage in higher occupational groups.

The rise in Outer London poverty rates is often attributed by the Protest Left to displacement from Inner London brought about by high housing costs and what some housing activists distastefully call “social cleansing” caused by regeneration and benefit caps. In fact, the change in poverty rates almost certainly results from a number of factors, including long-standing residents becoming worse off as living costs rise and wages stagnate and newcomers to the capital, both from overseas and elsewhere in the UK, settling in Outer London areas where housing costs are low compared to the prohibitive ones now found in Inner London areas that once were cheap. Harrow has not escaped the general fall in levels of home ownership.

There are grounds for thinking these trends have been of help to Gareth Thomas. The combined effect of more ethnic minority residents and more who aren’t well off would normally provide protection against wider slippages in Labour, as in 2010 when the Tories picked up Harrow East but failed to capture its neighbour. Yet even if that is so, other, more hidden, currents could be moving the electoral tide the other way.

Thomas was helped in 2010 by the effects of boundary changes, which moved three of the more Tory-leaning wards, covering the village of Pinner and its environs, into the new seat of Ruislip, Northwood and Pinner (most of which is in Hillingdon) and brought two Labour-voting ones into his patch. In 2015, when Labour gained seats and vote share in the capital as a whole, the Tory runner-up to drew closer to Thomas, whose majority fell. And all of this preceded the leadership of Jeremy Corbyn. UKIP took 2047 votes in Harrow West in 2015, many of which seem set to move into the Tory column this time.

Strains of suburbia

What are Thomas’s chances of extending his tenure in this London of unsung wonders and grateful escapes that he has served for 20 years?

There’s no question that the going is tough. Conservative candidate Hannah David, back for a secondgo having narrowly lost two years ago, is tweeting that she can #FinishTheJob. She’s had campaign reinforcements in from Aylesbury. She’s had a speech in the seat from Theresa May. She is National Director of the Conservative Policy Forum. She’s a solicitor. She loves cheese.

Gareth Thomas has a cough. He also has a brand new son, who turned up just as the election was called. He says that every Labour leader has been an issue on the doorstep one way or another down the years, but I’ve a feeling he is being polite. What he’s doing in this campaign is what he must: talking up the parts of his party’s manifesto that play well with voters and stressing his endeavours locally.

“I honestly don’t know what’s helped me keep winning here,” he says, when asked if Harrow’s more recent social trends have flowed his way. “I just know I can’t take any vote for granted. People here are aspirational. They all want to live in a nice area. I work with those things in mind: I champion good schools, I champion the police, I champion economic growth.”

He allows, though, that poverty is now a problem for more of his constituents. Born and schooled in this zone of London, with its many green spaces (still) and, tucked inside the southern border of Harrow West, the villagey affluence of Harrow-on-the-Hill and its famous public school, Thomas says the thought of a food bank opening would once have been laughable: “But now we have one.”

Much of his energy in recent months has been invested in the parochial matters that are the bread-and-butter of MPs for whom ejection from the Commons is just a public mood swing away. On a bright note, he can report helping to inaugurate the first Harrow Half Marathon, to be run in September. He’s pleased to have contributed to a university fair recently held at Whitmore school, with Oxford and Cambridge among those attending. But school funding is a worry, as well it might be in view of Tory plans. So are A&E waiting times at Northwick Park hospital. There are fears too that South Harrow police station might be closed and sold to raise funds when the Met has to cope with the next round of budget cuts.

And there’s some bother with the Northolt RAF base. It doesn’t lie in Harrow West, but some of its residents live under its flight path. Its runway is already used for civilian flights, which have been allowed to increase in frequency since 2012. Thomas suspects that works scheduled to take place there next spring are designed to enable commercial flights in and out of the base as well. He complains that Northolt’s military designation is being used to avoid a proper consultation of the public.

Street by street, vote by vote. Harrow West is a mosaic as ornate as any other piece of London, Inner or Outer, north of the Thames or south. From Harrow-on-the-Hill station, awaiting the upgrade Transport for London has in mind, walk from the town centre along Station Road through a consumer polyglot – an Afghan bakery, a Turkish grocery, an Islamic bookshop, a Punjab Grill.

Tony Travers’s invaluable London’s Boroughs At 50, published 18 months ago, tells us that another cinema building in Thomas’s seat was first called The Dominion and then became The Safari, screening Asian movies and doubling as a bingo hall. Already, that seems changed. The cinema side looks tatty but it’s still in business. The other brightly proclaims that it’s a community church, “Where Jesus Christ Is Lord”.

Further on, a mosque. And then, the pre-cast concrete cliff face that is Harrow civic centre, a classic example of its kind, put there in 1972. It’s soon to be knocked down. Major redevelopment is to take place along the Station Road corridor connecting central Harrow with Wealdstone, a 177-hectare space which Travers tells us was described in the 1950s as “the capital city of Metroland”. The new civic centre will be a fifth of the size of the current one. Harrow Council is becoming “a smaller and more agile organisation”, its chief executive has declared.

From Rayners Lane station I walked down Rayners Lane itself past classic interwar semis, all bow windows and pebble dash, and resplendent mock-Tudor piles. The rebuilt Rayners Lane council estate communicates in New London Vernacular. All seemed tranquil in mid-morning sunshine. Bird song was the loudest noise until someone behind a hedge revved up a strimmer. Rayners Lane Football Club peeked through trees, a sylvan idyll.

Then, into South Harrow, where the landscape alters again. High street traffic flows past a shopping parade of Afro hair salons, halal butchers and moneygram bureaus. South Harrow market, tucked under railway arches opposite South Harrow tube, is a intricate global microcosm.

Thomas has fixed his mark on this place of churn and change while the fortunes of others have ebbed and flowed. The council has changed hands between the two bigger parties during his time as MP, with Labour notably losing control between elections in 2013 when nine of its councillors formed a breakaway group and went into coalition with the Tories.

It was led by Thaya Idaikkadar, who’d stepped up to become council leader when the previous one resigned only to resign himself in protest to the election of a different leader of the Labour group. Most of the nine rebels were Asian. Idaikkadar claimed, to strong denials, that there were “elements of racism” behind the move.

He’d described himself as Britain’s first Sri Lankan council leader. But his Independent Labour Group did not prosper and all its candidates were defeated in 2014, when Labour regained control. A by-election held in May in the Roxbourne ward in Harrow West produced a big Labour hold in part because there was no Independent candidate to erode the party’s vote. Whatever happened in the past, though, Idaikkadar seems to have a good opinion of he local Labour MP. He’s lately praised Thomas for “a brilliant speech” to an audience of Tamils.

It’s not a theme Thomas takes up, but the votes of ethnic minority groups are obviously vital to the outcome on 8 June. His Conservative rival’s Twitter timeline sings with greetings to Muslims, Tamils and Hindus. Their support can be expected to break in different ways, some more predictable than others.

For example, it seems likely that Harrow’s Tamils will back Labour. When Zac Goldsmith crassly targetted selected Asian groups in Harrow and elsewhere in the north west suburbs during his disastrous London mayor campaign against Labour’s Muslim victor Sadiq Khan last year, it was striking that the leaflets he sent to Tamils made no mention of Jeremy Corbyn, who figured prominently and negatively in those sent to Indians and Sikhs. That was because Corbyn has long backed self-determination for Tamils within Sri Lanka and an independent inquiry into war crimes committed during that island’s vicious civil war. There is a Tamils For Corbyn Facebook group.

Harrow contains more Tamils than any other local authority in Britain, but there aren’t very many of them: fewer than 3,000 of all ages identified themselves as such in 2011. By contrast, Indian Londoners there numbered over 63,000 and Conservatives across Harrow have fought hard and sometimes controversially for their support. In 2015, Tory Bob Blackman held off the challenge of Labour’s Uma Kumaran in Harrow East with the help of tactics Kumaran has described as “bringing the worst politics of the sub-continent” into the election.

Kumaran, of Hindu background, had in mind the sensitive issue of caste, India’s ancient system of social stratification. A tweak to the Equality Act 2010, made in 2013, made caste discrimination potentially illegal in Britain, but it has yet to be put into effect. The move, instigated in the Lords, has triggered fierce debates, not least among Hindus, about how much caste prejudice exists in Britain, whether it is a true feature of Hinduism at all and whether the move to outlaw it is itself discriminatory and would cause more problems than it solved. Blackman, not a Hindu, but chair of the All Party Parliamentary Group for British Hindus, argues that the legislation is poorly framed, unnecessary due to existing protections in employment law and should be repealed. He voted against the Equality Act change in the Commons.

Kumaran has condemned the 2015 campaign as “deeply personal” and is not running this time, saying it would not be fair to subject her family, which lives in Harrow, to a repeat ordeal. Leaflets distributed by a multi-culturalist pressure group backed Blackman and urged against voting for her. She has also called Blackman’s approach a trial run for Goldsmith’s tilt at City Hall. It seems to have worked better, though – the MP increased his majority. It therefore might not help Gareth Thomas that Jeremy Corbyn remains a long-standing supporter of legal measures to combat discrimination against Dalits, the lowest caste, known as “untouchables”.

Swing time?

The above form just some of the more submerged stories of Harrow West that could swing clumps of voters either way. But there is still the bigger picture to consider. Unlike 2015, when reserve Labour doorstep capacity was deployed in Harrow East, Thomas has reinforcements on the knocker this time. I spoke to one drafted in from a safe Inner London seat, who turned out to have canvassed on the Rayners Lane route that I had walked.

The brief had been to talk about hospitals, schools and Thomas’s record locally. People listened, but there was lots of resistance to Corbyn. Doubters cited his leadership credentials, especially on defence. A Jewish voter, of which Harrow has a significant number, said she could not back Labour this time because of him. A few past Labour voters were flirting with the Lib Dems. Several Indians seemed keen on the Conservatives, which should not come as a surprise: a survey by think tank British Future after the 2015 election found that, nationally, the Tories had secured an 8% advantage among Hindus and Sikhs combined, the first time they’d been ahead with those BAME groups. Tories have long believed they are natural party of those minorities, noted as they are for strong family values and business enterprise. The wooing had begun paying off.

Thomas, though, went into the campaign saying he felt upbeat and the most recent national developments can only have heartened him: Theresa May’s flapping and faltering; Corbyn’s improved TV performances; Labour’s ongoing improvements in opinion polls. The shock YouGov “new model” survey for The Times, pointing to a hung parliament and Labour gains, looks strange at constituency level: in London, Boris Johnson’s solidly Tory Uxbridge and South Ruislip is judged only “likely Conservative” and knife-edge Harrow West, “likely Labour”. Yet YouGov has a good record for calling London results right, the Labour vote in the capital has form for being more resilient than elsewhere, and resistance to Brexit in the 60% Remain City could fortify it further (Harrow West was 58% Remain). Thomas was not among the several London MPs who voted against triggering Article 50, but he has a firmly pro-European track record and is one of six London candidates defending marginal seats backed by Gina Miller’s Best for Britain tactical voting campaign.

Hannah David has good grounds for optimism, but underestimating Thomas would be unwise. In his time as an MP, he’s been a minister of state for international development under Gordon Brown, a shadow minister for London under Ed Miliband and a shadow local government minister under Corbyn. Since 2001, he’s chaired the Co-operative Party, whose values he promoted in a surprise bid to become Labour’s London mayoral candidate for 2016. He finished sixth and last in that contest, but deserved to come several places higher. His pitch, combining localism, bold devolution and vigorous measures to promote economic growth – he favoured, for example, the expansion of both Heathrow and Gatwick airports – was original and philosophically sound. It was also a cry for greater recognition of the suburbs, which he believes have suffered from underinvestment compared with Inner London for too long.

Thomas was one of the 35 Labour MPs whose nominations, charitable in his case, enabled Corbyn to enter the party leadership contest after Miliband stepped down. If he is defeated next week, some will say he brought that fate upon himself. A fairer verdict would be that he did better than most as a guardian of the electoral high watermark Labour achieved under Tony Blair. And don’t bank on him failing to make it last for five more years.

Categories: Analysis


    1. Dave Hill says:

      Hi Mark. Thanks for your comment. I’m really pleased you enjoyed the article, especially as you know the area well.

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