Local elections 2022: Inside the Labour Party’s campaign in Brent - the most diverse local authority in the UK
Ahead of the May 5 local elections, Jessica Frank Keyes meets the Labour Party candidates in Brent, hoping to hold onto longstanding voters in the most diverse borough in the country.
Canvassing in the Labour stronghold of Brent, north-west London, stops before the sun sets.
During the holy month of Ramadan, door knocking voters breaking their fast would be “like interrupting someone in the middle of Christmas lunch,” candidate Thomas Stephens says.
“It’s Iftar, so they have to cook and eat and - quite rightly - they’ll be grouchy,” he adds.
One of the most diverse boroughs in the capital, more Brent residents were born outside of the UK than anywhere else in England and Wales, and hail from 215 different countries.
Two thirds of residents are from black, Asian or minority groups; one in five are EU nationals - the highest number in London - and close to 40% use a main language other than English.
The area has been predominantly Labour-held since its creation in the 1960s, with the party most recently regaining control of the council in 2010, after a period of Liberal Democrat rule.
Changing demographics, younger residents and a new mixture of different communities have seen off the blue and yellow challengers.
But former councillor Mary Daly, who is stepping down from her Sudbury seat after 12 years, tells me she wasn’t in fact over the moon to take over the former Lib Dem leader.
“I felt a bit sorry for him actually - he’d stood for years and this was his life,” she said.
Boundary changes mean the ward, historically part of Harrow-on-the-Hill and a Lib Dem target, on the far west edge of Brent, will now have two, rather than three, representatives.
The polling station has moved too, a fact party activists fear could impact turnout.
Retired health visitor Mary - dressed for door knocking in a vibrant neon yellow animal print coat - is leaving to be able to spend more time in Galway, Ireland and with her grandchildren.
At most houses that she’s helped over the years, with housing problems or issues with anything from parking and rat infestations, to benefits or anti-social behaviour, ask her why.
“Because I’m very old!” she repeatedly jokes, exhibiting more energy than a 20-something.
“I hate campaigning,” she insists.
“I’m glad I’m not asking them to vote for me this time.”
But her seal of approval seems like a badge of honour for her successors: Thomas, a councillor of four years, who was cabinet lead for education, employment and skills, and new candidate Teo Benea, who would be the borough’s first ever eastern European councillor.
Originally from Romania, Teo moved to the UK aged 19, in 2009, and has since worked for Labour in Harrow, and for the Bethnal Green and Bow MP Rushanara Ali.
During the pandemic, she tells me, she worked closely with the council delivering mutual aid and collected two entire lorries of food and medical supplies for Ukrainian refugees in just the first weekend of the invasion, even extracting donations from Brent MP Barry Gardiner.
“She’s a force of nature,” Thomas adds.
London’s Romanian community, Teo says, is concentrated in Brent, and nearby Barnet and Harrow, and is often underrepresented in local politics.
“People come over to work and think they won’t stay long and will go back,” she tells me, meaning efforts to engage people often start with letting them know they are entitled to vote.
“Harrow has the most Romanians. They often work in the construction industry in central London but can’t afford to live there.
“Some don’t speak the language and want to be close to familiar people.”
Since Brexit, life has become more difficult for EU arrivals, an issue she says is affecting those fleeing war in Ukraine, who are “waiting and waiting” to be partnered with British hosts.
“It is more difficult to come here now,” she says, adding that it will have an “impact on Ukrainian refugees and the services they can access as they are not from the EU”.
I join Thomas, Mary, and her husband, door knocking around Butler’s Green park, a mix of Right to Buy, social housing, and private rental properties, where they point out wooden flower planters and rejuvenated patches of grass that were fly-tipping hotspots.
“We’re calling on behalf of the Labour Party reminding residents about May 5 elections - do you normally vote? Can we count on your support?” they say.
Dividing the street between three, they start by asking everyone who answers the door if they’re having any problems or issues, before handing out leaflets with their phone numbers, emblazoned with the deadline to register for a postal vote.
“Don’t call the council, call us - call your councillors directly,” the group tell everyone.
Most people, even if they aren’t registered yet, sound aware that the elections are coming up, and most are happy to at least say they will pledge their support for the party.
At the moment, activists are speaking to everyone in the ward, but closer to election day will focus on reminding confirmed supporters to get out the vote.
“Sudbury is Labour if people turn out for us,” Thomas says.
“We’ve got a strong Lib Dem challenger [but] people are instinctively Labour.”
Nationally, Keir Starmer’s party currently has around 400,000 members, a far cry from the heights of the 1950s, when a million Brits were affiliated to the official opposition.
The party only started using an electronic data gathering system in 2018, and for electoral purposes, all political parties are supplied with a list of the electoral roll, Thomas explains.
“It’s a very British thing but people are quite happy [to see you],” he says.
“For us, it’s part of the nature of the party, like the Democrats in the US, it’s all about turning the vote out, whereas with the Conservatives - or Republicans - their voters are more likely to turn out anyway.”
A final conversation comes when Mary and Thomas stop to speak to Roy, a HR worker and dad-of-two, staying with his mum in Sudbury.
He doesn’t typically vote for Labour, but says the ward councillors have helped him stop the council from charging residents for parking their cars.
“There needs to be more representation,” he tells the group.
“There needs to be a movement of more Caribbean and black British involvement in politics..
“It sounds like something difficult, with a lot of rigmarole and paperwork but it’s not hard.”
They agree, and as we leave, tell me they hope he considers standing himself in the future.
“I think in Brent from conversations on the doorstep, the response has been really positive,” Teo says.
“But there is no room for complacency - all is still to play for.”
Nationally, she believes ‘partygate’ shifted support to Labour - but that doesn’t apply here.
But it’s Mary who has the final word, telling me emphatically: “You only have to look at the Tories to know Labour is the only choice for working people.”
Local elections 2022
- Local elections for every council in London - apart from the City - will take place on May 5.
- In order to cast a ballot, you have to be registered to vote at your current address. The deadline for this is April 14.
- For full details about how to register to vote and what the local elections are for, see our full guide to the May 5 council elections.
- Click here for more stories on the upcoming local elections.