In the first of a series of profiles of constituencies in the Eastlondonlines area on the run-up to May 7, we look at Hackney North and Stoke Newington, where long-serving Labour MP Diane Abbott hopes to defend the seat against both the “fresh, local voice” of the Conservative candidate and the Green “surge”.
Of the three major party candidates standing in Hackney North and Stoke Newington, Labour’s Diane Abbott was the only one whose office did not respond to Eastlondonlines’ requests for comment. Could this be an indication of her confidence that she will retain the seat she has held for almost 18 years?
Among the safest for Labour
A Labour stronghold bordered on all sides by Labour strongholds, Hackney North is considered a very safe Labour seat. Labour MPs have represented the constituency since it was created in 1950. Abbott has served as MP since becoming the first black woman to be elected to the UK parliament in 1987. She was re-elected for the fifth time in 2010 with more than 50 per cent of the vote and a majority of 14,500, almost doubling her 2005 majority of 7,400.
Liberal Democrat candidates have finished second in the last two general elections with 23-24 per cent of the vote on both occasions, beating Conservative candidates into third place with 14-15 per cent. The Green Party saw its share of the vote more than halve from 9.9 per cent in 2005 to 4.6 per cent in 2010. UKIP is fielding its first parliamentary candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington in this general election. The constituency has been affected by only minor ward boundary changes since 1992.
Bustle masks systemic problems
The constituency incorporates the districts of Stamford Hill in the north and Dalston in the south, as well as Stoke Newington and Clapton. As of the 2011 census, it was the second most densely-populated constituency in the UK after Westminster North.
Hackney North is home to a large population in the 25-44 age group, as well as one of Europe’s largest Hasidic Jewish communities in Stamford Hill – a recent source of ethnic tensions in the area. Despite comparatively high rates of professional and technical occupations among its workforce, the constituency experiences high rates of unemployment: the number of people reporting that they have never worked – 1.5 per cent – is more than double the national average of 0.7 per cent. Levels of deprivation also remain high.
All the candidates we spoke to agreed that the main issue facing Hackney North is the lack of affordable housing. Though it ranks among the lowest in the UK for rates of home ownership, a higher-than-average percentage of employees in the constituency work in real estate-related industries and property prices continue to follow a steep upward trend. These and other indicators reflect the scale of the gentrification pricing locals out of home ownership, particularly in Stoke Newington and to the west in Lea Bridge.
In clear recognition of the gentrification affecting her constituency, Abbott has been a vocal opponent of Prime Minister David Cameron’s proposed “starter homes” programme, arguing that it would be “a disaster for Londoners” and equating it to “the social cleansing of London”.
We need to unblock the system and get building” – Amy Gray, Conservative candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
“The big issue everybody brings up with me on the doorstep is housing”, said Conservative candidate and former schoolteacher Amy Gray. “The most important thing is to build more homes. There is brownfield land that has been left [as] empty eyesores for nearly decades. We need to unblock the system and get building”, she said.
Gray accepts that she sees a significant role for the private sector in addressing the housing issue. She said: “I want to see a building programme that responds to the needs of people in Hackney. That means, yes, we need some one- and two-bedroom flats, but we also need a considerable number of three-, four-bedroom family homes, and we need to see a mixture of private rent, affordable rent and social housing.”
Unsurprisingly, Liberal Democrat candidate Simon de Deney has other ideas. He said: “One of our flagship policies is to build 12,000 social homes for rent in Hackney. People respond incredibly positively to it. We’ve got a petition calling upon Hackney Council to build the homes, and when we went out on Chatsworth Road market, for example, we were getting 100 signatures an hour.”
de Deney, a writer and actor, sees the housing situation in Hackney more in human terms. “There is an issue about community. Whether people think it’s immigration or the fact that they can’t afford to live because of the rising house prices – either way, they’re feeling the pressure that they can’t [afford to] live or their neighbourhood is changing, and that sense of community is being destroyed”, he said.
“If we can build these homes, we can keep the settled communities that live happily side-by-side. Otherwise we’re just at the mercy of the market, and that’ll change Hackney drastically.”
If you want to create a fairer society, you have to have a coherent set of joined-up policies” – Simon de Deney, Liberal Democrat candidate for Hackney North and Stoke Newington
de Deney takes a similarly holistic view of the economy – and society – more broadly. He explained: “Inequality is a huge issue, particularly in Hackney. There are all sorts of issues in terms of social mobility, and the causes are quite complex.
“For example, I’ve got a friend who’s a midwife at Homerton, and she talks about the way in which a lot of births are quite complicated because we’ve got quite a lot of health issues – young people being overweight, for example. That kind of issue is a health issue, it’s a social mobility issue, but it’s also an education issue as well.
“There’s no point trying to compartmentalise and say ‘this is about the NHS’ or ‘this is about education.’ What you have to do is step back and look at the whole picture. If you want to create a fairer society, there are a number of things that work together to be able to achieve that, and you have to have a coherent view and a coherent set of joined-up policies that address those.”
Gray is as pragmatic as de Deney is idealistic. She said: “Supporting small businesses [is] the engine of growth and jobs. We need to keep helping our small businesses – our corner shops, our internet start-ups, our restaurants, our kebab shops. All of these are part of the economic recovery. If they succeed, they grow and they create jobs and that’s beneficial for everybody in Hackney.”
It is difficult to imagine that Abbott will experience an upset come May 8. Though her openly stated 2016 mayoral ambitions may give some of her voting base pause for thought, it is likely to take something substantially more impactful than that to overturn her 31 per cent 2010 majority.
Gray, however, is undaunted. On Diane Abbott’s 28 years as MP, she said: “A lot of people say to me that they feel like its time for a change. When you say to people, ‘what has your incumbent MP done for you?’, quite a lot of people can’t really point to anything. They feel like it’s time for a change, time for a fresh, local voice.”
Diane Abbott – Labour
Amy Gray – Conservative
Simon de Deney – Liberal Democrats
Keith Fraser – UKIP
Keith Fraser Twitter
Heather Finlay – Green
Hackney Green Party
Jon Homan – Animal Welfare
Jon Homan LinkedIn
Jonathan Silberman – Communist League
The Communist League (Britain)