Katherine Hearst – UK election 2024: How Luton’s independent campaigns are fighting for representation

A positive story about how discontent over Gaza is mixing with discontent over declining living standards, motivating people to back left-wing independent candidates.

Katherine Hearst is a writer, film maker and organiser. After graduating from the Royal College of Art in 2015, she has directed three animated shorts that have featured on the BBC and Sky Arts. Her journalistic writing has featured in Open Democracy and The New Internationalist.

Cross-posted from Middle East Eye

Local lawyer and independent candidate Attiq Malik poses in front of a campaign banner in Bury Park, Luton, 25 June 2024 (MEE/Katherine Hearst)

In Luton’s Bury Park local lawyer Attiq Malik is something of a local celebrity. His face is plastered on shop windows, lampposts and emblazoned across two large billboards.

“These billboards are all booked almost a year in advance, So nobody can get one,” Malik tells MEE.

We stop at a junction. “Look up,” he says. “He let me hang that there for no charge.”

A huge banner hangs from a turret above The Coffee Pot cafe. It reads “Vote Attiq Malik: For Luton, for Gaza, for change.”

The building’s owner waves at us from the balcony above it. “Vote Attiq!” he shouts, jabbing his finger at the banner.

Malik is standing as an independent candidate in Luton South, alongside Toqueer Shah in Luton North. Both are backed by a growing network of grassroots activists. 

They are among a string of independent left-wing candidates who have put Israel’swar on Gaza at the centre of their campaigns.

As we walk down the high street, Malik is stopped repeatedly by supporters. A local vendor even offers him a free mojito.

Much of his appeal is rooted in a long simmering community frustration over the decline in living standards.

The manager of the Coffee Pot, who does not give his name, tells us that he voted Labour once years ago, but rocketing prices are now crippling his business. He’s voting for change, so he’s voting for Malik, he explains.

Everyone we speak to on the high street echoes this sentiment, that they had lost faith in politics, but their familiarity with Malik has earned him their vote.

But there’s no escaping the issue of Gaza.

Accompanying Malik’s face, the Palestinian flag is everywhere on the high street, festooning shop awnings and plastered across windows.

“I had absolutely no interest in standing but I felt like there’s no choice,” Malik says.

Chicken Shop lawyer and cancer survivor

Part of Malik’s local celebrity stems from an appearance on the TV show 24 Hours in Custody – specifically an episode entitled Chicken Shop Wars, in which he represented people charged with participating in a brawl outside a peri peri chicken shop.

This earned him the epithet, the “no comment lawyer”. His popularity, however, is primarily due to his active role in the community.

He is a trustee of a local food bank and offers pro-bono legal advice to locals, garnering him support from unexpected quarters, including the Romanian community.

His TikTok page is peppered with videos in which he offers legal advice.

In 2017, Malik represented survivors of the Grenfell Tower fire under the umbrella group, BME Lawyers for Grenfell.

In November, Malik was dropped by the Met police as an adviser over a video showing him leading chants of “from the river to the sea” at a pro-Palestine rally in 2021.

His neighbour in Luton North, Toqueer Shah, was motivated to stand after being diagnosed with lung cancer. He was hospitalised after his vision began to blur and he lost the ability to walk.

“I was there for about four or five weeks, all types of checks were being carried out on me,” Shah tells MEE. “Whilst I was there, I saw the pressures on the NHS. The doctors were striking… it was being run on a shoestring.”

Shah then began to lose his voice.

“That’s when I made a promise to the Lord Almighty, that if he was to return my faculties, I would stand up and I would speak out against injustices, wherever they may be,” he said.

Despite being in remission and awaiting a vocal chord transplant, Shah decided to run. His campaign’s central focus is Gaza and the NHS.

Local voices

Both Malik and Shah’s campaigns are powered by networks of volunteers, many of them students, who coordinate via WhatsApp groups and run canvassing sessions twice a day, drawing large numbers of volunteers.

“In just over two weeks of canvassing, we’ve hit 6,000 doors,” Malik said, but he is not just gunning for pro-Palestine votes. 

The morning canvassing session begins in Round Green, a sleepy ward home to predominantly white voters. We see the occasional Palestinian flag in a window, but there are also strings of St George flags for the ongoing football European Championships.

“In the white areas… I thought they’d be just saying, ‘Oh, you only stand for Gaza,’” says Malik.

“But we’re not getting that. People are saying we want an alternative, and if it’s a local voice that understands us, we’d rather have that than another political party.”

“Some of them have been saying they’ve never had someone knock on the door… one lady told us it’s been 20 years since someone last knocked,” Shoud Khan, an 18-year-old canvasser, tells MEE.

“A big thing is voter apathy here, a lot of people are convinced that there are only two parties,” he adds.

It’s Khan’s first election, and his first experience of canvassing.

“I enjoy it, I’ve found out a bit more about politics… it’s [beyond] what you learn in class [because] you’re actually applying it to your life.”

Mahin Uddin, a 19-year-old student, was roped into the campaign by Khan.

“I rang him up and I asked him to come and he’s been a frontline soldier ever since,” Khan says.

“It’s my second year voting. I didn’t vote last year. Because I saw that there was no one worth putting my vote towards,” Uddin says.

“For the first time, maybe ever, we have someone who understands us, who [has worked] from the bottom up,” Khan says.

‘Gaza is a catalyst’

Luton has the fourth highest Muslim population in England. In the aftermath of 7 October and the start of Israel’s military campaign in Gaza, the Bedfordshire town erupted in a hundreds-strong spontaneous protest outside Luton Town Hall.

“This is probably the biggest issue that’s affected this community in Luton,” local activist and former Labour party member Fahim Qureshi tells MEE.

“In the 50 years I’ve been active in politics here… there’s never been an issue like this… not even the Gulf War was as big as this.”

Following a mass student walk-out in November, Luton Sixth Form announcedthat it would be suspending its partnership with Leonardo, the British subsidiary of an Italian aerospace company that supplies components to the Israeli military.

“This [protest] was the first of its kind at this scale,” Hassan Sajjad, who chaired the student council, tells MEE.

“We gave the students only three days to show up… I thought if we get more than 20 people, I’ll be surprised,” he says.

“But within 30 seconds, all of [our] college was pouring out.”

“Gaza is a catalyst, it’s opened a lot of people’s eyes,” Dr Monjour Ahmed,  a local GP and a campaigner for Malik, tells MEE. 

“Behind Gaza there’s a whole [set of other] issues among people within our town.”

Luton has suffered years of industrial decline since the collapse of the hat trade and the closure of a Vauxhall motors car plant, the largest in the UK.

Today, over a quarter of children in the town live in relative poverty.

“Luton has the fifth busiest airport in England and it’s one of the country’s most impoverished towns,” Shah said.

Opposition to the two-child benefit cap, a policy which Labour has not committed to scrap, is central to both Malik and Shah’s campaigns, as is the NHS.

“When you’re door knocking… there’s a pattern. So many people say the NHS has failed them,” Sadja, another campaigner, told MEE.

Bombarded with emails

Malik and Shah are standing against Labour’s Sarah Owen and Rachel Hopkins respectively. Buckling under spiralling local anger, both Owen and Hopkins resigned from Labour’s shadow cabinet after voting in favour of a ceasefire in November.

“They’d been bombarded with thousands of emails,” local activist Fahim Qureshi says. “But both our MPs… haven’t been very active. You don’t see them speaking at demonstrations. You don’t see them on marches.”

“It was only when constituents like myself and others began to send emails and letters to them that they stood up and voted for a ceasefire,” Shah says. “They are reactive, and they should have been proactive.”

While Malik and Shah’s campaigns are prominent on the streets of Luton, through teams of canvassers or posters, Owen and Hopkins have been markedly absent.

According to local activists, Owen and Hopkins have repeatedly failed to attend hustings held by Muslim organisations, while they both attended one held by a local church.

“I’m in and out of town every day,” Sajjad says, “Never have I once seen Sarah Owen or Rachel Hopkins… you only see them on Twitter when they have to take that one photo.”

On Wednesday, Owen and Hopkins joined Sadiq Khan in a visit to Luton Sixth Form College.

According to the group, Luton Community Action, parents of students at the college raised concerns about partisan campaigning in an educational setting, with some students reporting that they felt pressured to hold Labour placards for a photo on the steps of the college.

Owen and Hopkins were parachuted in as the party’s candidates for Luton North and South, rather than being elected by the membership.

While Owen was Luton’s first Asian MP, she is originally from Hastings. 

“Instead of selecting from all of the potential candidates in Luton, they decided to ship someone in from another area,” says an independent campaigner, who also did not give their name.

For Tariq Khamis, the secretary of the local Palestine Solidarity Campaign (PSC) branch, standing against Owen and Hopkins is “totally the wrong strategy” as both candidates responded to local pressure and voted for a ceasefire.

“Their position on Palestine is good enough and they support the main aims of PSC,” he says.

According to Khamis, despite the independent campaigns, many Muslim community members in Luton are still likely to vote Labour.

“Because they believe that the worst thing could happen… is they could split the vote and the Tories could get in,” he tells MEE.

“How do you get maximum representation in parliament? We’ve got to use what we have,” he argues. “If you split the vote and elect a Tory or a Zionist instead of a pro-Palestine MP, what do you really achieve?”

Khamis adds that the PSC is not endorsing any electoral candidates and asks voters to question candidates’ policy on Palestine.

Labour’s ‘foot soldiers’

But for the independents, their fight in Luton is not just about Gaza, it’s also for representation.

Qureshi recalls that in the 2017 and 2019 elections, much of the canvassing for Labour was conducted by Muslim activists.

“They are the foot soldiers in areas like Luton North and South, the Labour party has relied on them for well over 20 years now,” Qureshi says.

In the current elections, they are notably absent from Luton’s streets.

“A lot of the Labourites of Luton had worked so hard for so long supporting the Labour Party, and I think many of them did it in the hope that one of our own could represent the town.” Ahmed told MEE. 

“They know we can mobilise. They know we can get boots on the ground, but their leader has to be white… we’re good for doing the donkey work but we’re not leaders. The leaders come from somewhere else,” another independent campaigner, Rehana Faisal, tells MEE.

In 2019, Labour’s ruling body put Luton North and South local constituency parties in ‘special measures‘, following claims that members were signing up friends and family to influence candidate selections.

“Because the branch became dominated by members of the Muslim community… we were penalised for doing mass recruitment,” Qureshi says.

For Faisal, and many other Muslim campaigners backing the independents, Gaza has become such a salient issue in Luton because it speaks to their own experiences of marginalisation.

“The language that is being used to justify this extraordinary violence against Palestinians rests on the same racist and Islamophobic logic that shapes our lived experience here in Britain too,” Faisal says.

The independent campaigners are playing to win, but that’s not all. They are building a movement.

“I’m convinced that, you know, we will have an impact in this election. And then our job is to galvanise that moving forward and not let it dissipate,” Monjour says.

“I just hope that at the very least, this is a clarifying moment for people… I guess really, really personally, from my own faith perspective, I want to be able to say that I did what I could,” Faisal says.

Due to the Israeli war crimes in Gaza we have increased our coverage from five to six days a week. We do not have the funds to do this, but felt that it was the only right thing to do. So if you have not already donated for this year, please do so now. To donate please go HERE.

Be the first to comment

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.