When I met Rob Dyke outside Willesden Green tube station in the Brent East district of London this morning, he had the wild eyes and mile-a-minute jabber of a freshly fixed addict. It was the exquisite high of a politics junkie on Election Day. It was only 9:15, and he was chatting with his second candidate of the morning. He’d already watched Sarah Teather, the Liberal Democrat, cast her vote, and now he was exchanging banter with Labor hopeful Yasmin Qureshi as she made a last-minute vote-for-me pitch to commuters.
Qureshi has been all over the national media during the campaign, mostly because of her religion and gender—if elected, she would be Britain’s first female Muslim MP—but also because she’s fighting for Labor pride. In September 2003, the 29-year-old Teather won the seat in a huge upset widely seen as a protest vote against the Iraq war. Before Teather’s victory, Brent East had been Labor-held for three decades. In 2003, Labor had been handicapped because Brent East’s Labor MP Paul Daisley had been dying of cancer as the other parties selected their candidates.
This time, Labor has more than leveled the playing field. Qureshi is a formidable candidate. She’s a Muslim of Pakistani descent in a constituency that’s 28 percent Asian and 13 percent Muslim; she’s a barrister; she’s a human-rights adviser to London Mayor “Red” Ken Livingstone, who represented Brent East from 1987 to 2001. On paper, she’s astonishing enough. But in person she’s astounding. Charismatic, chatty, cheeky, she’s a natural extrovert. She described herself as “a gobby candidate”—that’s “outspoken” in American—which is one way of saying that she disagrees with a good chunk of current Labor Party policy. Over the last four weeks, she’s run an anti-war campaign that stresses the government’s economic strengths. She has distanced herself from Blair and invited in “old Labor” stalwarts like Livingstone (“former Labor” in his case) and Tony Benn to campaign for her.
As Qureshi button-holed another potential supporter, Rob Dyke gave me the 10-minute tour of Willesden Green’s political attractions—two polling places, a defaced election poster, and the Conservative and Lib Dem party headquarters. Rob is a blogger who’s been chronicling the local campaign at “Brent East Campaigning,” where he posts scans of campaign materials, writes up hustings and other public events, and reports on his encounters with the candidates.
An hour in closely contested Brent East transformed my view of the election, but back in my “home” (at least for the last two weeks) constituency of Cities of London & Westminster, things were much more sedate. Walking past a polling station, I thought I’d found the best-dressed trainspotter in Britain, but Ann Wild, a Conservative volunteer, explained that she was collecting polling-card numbers as voters left. Back in party headquarters they’d be compared with the canvassing records, and anyone who had stated an intention to vote Tory but hadn’t yet shown up would be contacted and offered a ride to the polling place. But where were the other parties? “They don’t really bother here,” she told me. “This is a Conservative area.”