18 April 2015
On Saturday 18 April, parliamentary candidates for the marginal seat of Harrow West were quizzed by the mainly Muslim audience at the Sri Lankan Muslim Cultural Centre primarily on local issues. With a majority of just above 3000 and a Muslim electorate of over 9000, the views of the Muslim community play an important role in this constituency.
The incumbent Gareth Thomas was present alongside the Liberal Democrat prospective parliamentary candidate Chris Noyce at the third hustings organised by the Muslim Forum of Middlesex (MFM), a diverse non-partisan coalition of mosques and Islamic associations in Harrow with attendees of over twenty thousand people.
The most controversial aspect of the evening was the absence of the Conservative prospective parliamentary candidate, Hannah David, whose seat remained empty despite elaborate attempts by the Muslim Forum of Middlesex (MFM) to organise a suitable date for her diary. Attempts began several months ago, and a “yes in principle” was provided by Ms David in front of William Hague. The Conservative candidate was also offered the opportunity to choose a date that suited her schedule, and when a date was finally chosen, the time was even changed to accommodate her prior commitments but she was unfortunately still not able to participate.
The MFM co-ordinator and chair for the day, Miqdaad Versi, emphasised the importance of engagement with the Muslim community: “We are bitterly disappointed at the absence of the Conservative party at today’s event and we hope all candidates in our local area will engage with all communities so they can be a representative of all, not just a few.” The chair noted that the pledges to the Muslim community from the main candidates for both Harrow East and West, including Hannah David, were available on the MFM website, providing the opportunity of all to understand her views even though she was not present.
After a customary recitation of the Qur’an, the debate began – the issue that generated the most debate was that of education: from tuition fees, the efficacy of free schools, support for faith schools, Islamophobic bullying within schools and hourly rates paid to nurseries providing childcare whilst the minimum wage forces up costs.
Noyce made clear his opposition to the Coalition and many of its policies, and when it came to tuition fees stated: “It’s clear Nick Clegg has learnt his lesson” when asked why anyone should trust his promises.
Both candidates present pledged to put the needs of their constituency above the views of the party by voting against the party line and risking potential future ministerial positions if they had a strong view on an issue.
On health, in response to a doctor in the audience about the performance of Northwick Park hospital, Thomas highlighted his experience at Northwick Park, on the one hand praising the surgeon who helped with the delivery of his young girl, but on the other hand, critiquing the post-natal care received by his partner. He assured the audience that he was already in talks with the Chief Executive of the hospital, and believed that the extra £2.5bn funding pledged within the Labour Manifesto would help solve the immediate needs within the health sector.
Islamophobia was also a hot topic for discussion after the chair highlighted key facts demonstrating the very real local threat of the growth in Islamophobia, as well as its socially acceptance within broad swathes of the British community. The two candidates expressed a keen interest in working with local and national Muslim organisations to develop cross-government strategies to combat the increasing anti-Muslim hatred, including in social media and amongst the political class.
The event also generated a passionate discussion on the issue of Palestine. Noyce was very concerned about the actions by Israel in Gaza, and supported a two-state solution. Thomas highlighted the view of the Opposition Leader Ed Miliband that the attack by Israel was “disproportionate”, and confirmed that he would not be supportive of exporting arms to a nation where their actions could be in violation of the strict rules in place.
At the end of the debate, Thomas suggested that voting for Noyce might open up the seat for the Conservative party, to which Noyce highlighted that for him, the Liberal Democrat party best reflected his views and he was proud to be a candidate for the party. Whilst promoting tactical voting in Harrow West to support his candidacy, Thomas pointedly refused to promote the same idea in seats where the Liberal Democrats were the opposition party to the Conservatives.
Following the closure of the session, Junaid Mubarak, the Chairman of the Sri Lankan Muslim Cultural Centre, said: “What was great was seeing such a huge turnout of people who wanted to raise their views and hold the potential parliamentarians to account. And I could see that Gareth Thomas enjoyed the samosa we provided afterwards!”
The co-ordinator of MFM commented: “It is fantastic to see the candidates being challenged on their record and on their views on issues that affect their constituents, and we hope that by working together, we are able to help create a stronger Harrow.”
Those unable to make it in person joined the discussion using #HarrowHustings with over 100 tweets displayed on screen display for all to see.
Photos: see here
Video: see here