Local hustings for Harrow East organised by the Muslim Forum of Middlesex (MFM) generated lively debate. On November 29, the hotly contested battle for Harrow East began as Parliamentary candidates clashed in a bid to secure the vote of some 9,000 Muslims in the area.
The incumbent Conservative MP for Harrow East, Bob Blackman, was present, alongside Labour Prospective Parliamentary candidate, Uma Kumaran, and the prospective Liberal Democrat candidate, Ross Barlow. Channel 4 news reporter, Fatima Manji, chaired and moderated the event.
Held at the Shi’a Ithna’ashari Community of Middlesex (SICM) premises in North Harrow, the event was organised by the MFM, a diverse coalition of mosques and Islamic associations in Harrow, who packed the hall and quizzed the candidates primarily on local issues.
A crucial issue for Harrow residents, the state of Northwick Park Hospital’s A&E department, dominated much of the debate. On health, Blackman acknowledged the long waiting times; from his own personal experience in February 2013, he recalled that he had to wait from 4pm to 2am to be seen and agreed that “there need to be more beds” and that waiting times were “unacceptable”. However, Kumaran responded by noting that after five years and running up to a General Election, “Bob cannot just say what is wrong”; this constituency, she added “needs someone who would take decisive action.”
Local GP registrar Dr Rasha Mezher-Sikafi expressed her frustration on the political approach to healthcare: “What politicians need to realise is that building a shiny new wing at Northwick Park Hospital with no increase in capacity six months before the general election does not fix the underlying problem caused by the closure of other A&E departments within North West London. They need to listen to doctors who work on the front line and understand the facts.”
On education, Blackman acknowledged that the media was vilifying “schools that have a fundamental Muslim ethos – and this is completely wrong.” Kumaran went further, noting that OFSTED “really is unfairly targeting Muslim communities” and Barlow joined in, attacking OFSTED for “not showing the same level of tolerance and respect that they are expecting of schools.”
In response to Blackman’s analysis of the problems in education, Anjum Peerbacos, an experienced teacher argued that the recent reforms in education have made things much more difficult for teachers: “We are overworked; Michael Gove’s reforms have taken us back to the 1950s. Fifty percent of teachers want to leave the profession. Unlike the previous government, who listened to the teachers, this type of reform was top down and our concerns were just ignored.” As governor of a local school, Kumaran agreed that she has “seen first-hand the effect that Michael Gove’s disastrous reforms have had” on schools, and Barlow expressed that he wished he “could tell Michael Gove where to go.”
The debate came to a head when Blackman accused Kumaran of “lying to this audience” when referring to the £75m cuts required of the Local Council; in a raised voice, he asked whether a Labour government would reverse the cuts. Kumaran, clearly startled by the tone taken, responded: “you can talk to me and not shout at me”, considering his approach “ridiculous”.
The event also generated a passionate discussion on the issue of Palestine. On the one hand Kumaran and Barlow supported the recognition of the state of Palestine. Kumaran expressed that she understood “how important the freedom movement is” and “that recognition and statehood is not a gift to be given but a right to be recognised.” Barlow went further saying that the UK Government should threaten to “hold weapons hostage” and not let British weapons be used as a “constant stream of aggression to their neighbours.”
However, after Blackman’s unwillingness to acknowledge a state of Palestine at this moment, and a statement that of the approximately 2,000 people killed in Operation Protective Edge, “75% of the people killed in Gaza were men between the ages of 18 and 30”, there was surprise expressed from the audience. His implication that people could and should be deemed legitimate targets by virtue of their age and gender without further investigation, drew disbelief from the crowd. One member retorted that even if this were factually correct, “this does not make it right to kill them” extra judicially and later expressed that “Blackman really needs to do his research before making such factually incorrect statements that contradict official UN statistics.”
In addition to this, the audience found it particularly amusing when he said that his tweets on the issue had been “balanced”. Local resident, Kosar Pedram, asked Blackman why he used social media to re-tweet views that suggested that Palestinian lives were less valuable than the lives of non Palestinians, and noted afterwards: “It seems like he thinks that the life of a Palestinian is not worth the same as that of others. I am not sure that a person with such views should represent such a diverse borough.”
Following the end of the debate, SICM Executive Committee member and MFM co-ordinator, Miqdaad Versi, emphasised the importance of community organisation in the run-up to the General Elections: “We all need to work together, educate the local residents about the political process, understand their concerns and ensure they are put to the candidates. Only through political participation, engaging the candidates and volunteering to make a difference, can we make our MP be truly representative of the diversity of Harrow.”
Those unable to make it in person joined the discussion using #HarrowHustings with tweets displayed on screen display for all to see.