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Star quality in Ilford North

Andrew Murray catches up with British-Palestinian parliamentary candidate LEANNE MOHAMAD who’s taking on shadow health secretary Wes Streeting, with the issues of Gaza, the NHS and the needs of the local community at the front and centre of her campaign

LEANNE MOHAMAD declares herself surprised that she has been chosen as the independent challenger to shadow health secretary Wes Streeting in his Ilford North bailiwick at the general election.

No-one else would be shocked. The 23-year-old British-Palestinian woman came first in a selection process conducted by the local community after the Gaza crisis pushed Labour loyalty far beyond breaking point.

It is easy to see why. The candidate is charismatic, poised, fluent and sharp, with a megawatt smile almost permanently glowing. Streeting, classic representative of corporate Labour, as omnipresent in Keir Starmer’s ready-for-state-service line-up as he is invisible on the streets of Ilford, should be worried.

And people are noticing. Out of Ilford station, hang a left and the first person the Star bumps into is famous campaigning journalist Owen Jones, an old friend, and his cameraman. He too has come to this town, an Essex borough long absorbed into east London’s devouring sprawl, to catch a bit of the Mohamad phenomenon.

So it is that Jones, the Morning Star, Leanne Mohamad and a heterogeneous collection of canvassers, belying any notion that hers is a single-community challenge, bowl along through the streets of Ilford catching snatches of interview, interaction with voters and sideways observations as we go.

The first thing to say is that our posse outnumbers anything that Streeting has managed to field on the streets in this election so far. This is a people’s campaign with lots of — people.

But not lots of sleep. The Star gently remonstrates with Mohamad that all the messages received from her appear to be sent at around two in the morning, when all sensible candidates should be asleep. “I am only sleeping three of four hours a night,” she earnestly avers. “There’s only 27 days to go.”

Her campaign is making every one count. One enthusiastic canvasser reports that about half the doors he knocked on were opened, and that all but one of the inhabitants pledged for Mohamad.

Her very focused and very firm campaign organiser Salma Kalisvaart says Mohamad has the support of at least 80 per cent of the constituency’s Muslim vote, itself, after boundary changes, over a quarter of the total.

Mohamad adds that over a thousand local people have donated to her campaign, “showing so much hope.”

This is broadly down to three things. One is her undeniable star quality, and her persuasive pitch as a local woman with her own community front and centre in her political perspective.  

The second is Streeting’s decayed local reputation — there seems to be a shortage of the kind of “Wes really helped me with my problem” stories of the kind that are thick in the air of, say, Islington North.

And the third, of course, is Gaza. Mohamad herself only left the Labour Party last October, after Starmer’s notorious endorsement of Israel’s genocidal denial of the necessities of life to the Palestinian people.

So, Mohamad herself is, like everyone, the product of many people and processes. Her grandparents fled their home during the Nakba and her father was born in a refugee camp in Lebanon. Dad met Mum in Britain, and she herself is Ilford to the bone.

The Palestinian cause is in her DNA, and political engagement came along with Corbyn’s leadership of Labour. “Palestinians were heard under Jeremy’s leadership, now we are not heard at all,” she says.

But Mohamad herself is certainly going to be heard, even if Labour sticks fingers in both ears. She won the endorsement of the Redbridge Community Action Group (RCAG) at their hustings, before there was a falling out.

“The committee were men who wanted to control a young woman, and give me no autonomy. I needed to be in control of my own campaign, and I was not going to be a puppet.”

Grudgingly, RCAG has come round and is now recommending a vote for her. It would be absurd not to, given that their feed on X appears to endorse every pro-Gaza independent candidate across the country other than the one in their own backyard.

Autonomy seems to have worked. Her videos have gone viral online. Leaning on her front wall, one Muslim grandmother says she will vote for the first time since the 1980s on July 4, for Mohamad. “I saw your videos,” she says. “I have been looking at videos a lot because of what’s going on in Gaza.

Mohamad is “in touch. Labour have let me down, that is why I will vote for her,” the first-time for 40 years voter says, nearing tears. The depth of distress that so many feel about the Palestinian issue and the role of British politicians is raw and near the surface.

A car pulls up and the driver, Sadia, who turns out to be a lawyer, is excited to see Mohamad and almost overcome to recognise Owen Jones who, she points out, is properly famous. Her vote is in the bag.

She is scornful of Keir Starmer, not least on professional grounds. “He’s a human rights lawyer, he has no excuses for saying what he did, he knows what the law is. It’s very hurtful, it makes me ashamed to be British.”

Mohamad herself says that “Gaza is coming up more than I expected,” and not just within Ilford’s Muslim community. “They are not just talking about the NHS, but about people actually being bombed.

“People are traumatised by what they have seen in Gaza. They have seen the unfiltered suffering of a people living under settler-colonialism.”

But the NHS is an issue, because Streeting will likely be in charge of it by July 5, and funded by private healthcare firms as his office is, those do not feel like safe hands. Is the privatisation of the NHS actually a doorstep issue?

“When you go to the hospitals and engage with the doctors and health workers it certainly is,” she says.

Another door, an elderly white woman who perks up when she’s told that the charming young candidate before her went to the same school as her own children did. Mohamad delivers an accomplished “I will put this community first” pitch. The Star observes that it sounds like she’d been delivering it for 30 years.

The Star has turned towards the station when Sadia screeches to a halt again. “Where is Leanne,” she asks your reporter. She now has her daughter in the passenger seat, and the girl wants a picture with the candidate. Star quality.
 
Can Streeting be taken down? Perhaps. Are seeds of the future being sown, here in Ilford and across the country, in this election? For sure.  

What next then — independents only get so far.

“I hope we can come together as a movement,” Mohamad says, “with an identity.” Mass movements generate their own new leaders and Mohamad, who has spoken at several of the national Gaza demonstrations, is one who will shape the future.

Her personal qualities are imposing, but it is the cause, of support for the Palestinians and opposition to the Stramers and Streetings who casually collude in their oppression, which translates potential into phenomenon.

Leave the last word to Mohamad: “This is where the hope is, this is where the excitement is.” In an otherwise dismal election campaign, that is palpably true.

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