UK Election 2024

Independent candidate Leanne Mohamad — Gaza has been an awakening for a new wave of politics

Standing against shadow health minister Wes Streeting in the Ilford North constituency, the British-Palestinian activist wants to make democracy about people, not parties

Independent candidate Leanne Mohamed — Gaza has been an awakening for a new wave of politics
Leanne Mohamad (2nd from right), canvassing in Ilford with supporters. Photo courtesy of Julia Forsman

It’s a Friday evening in early June at a small community centre in Ilford. The room buzzes with the chatter of around 200 people. Elderly men and women, parents with small children and groups of young friends are all gathered to hear from their local independent parliamentary candidate Leanne Mohamad.

Enthusiastic cheers greet Mohamad as she enters the room. Dressed in a striking royal blue two-piece suit, she smiles at the crowd as she makes her way to the front, joined by campaign manager Salma Kalisvaart and Guardian columnist Owen Jones, who has endorsed her bid for office.

“This is a new wave of politics. We need to move on from this two-party duopoly,” Mohamad tells her audience. “We have been disconnected from what real power is — it is not the parties, it is the people.”

Mohamad, 23, is a British-Palestinian activist, born and raised in Ilford. At the age of 15, she won a competition organised by the Jack Petchey Foundation with an impassioned speech about her young cousin, who died because he could not access medical treatment in Palestine. Since then, she has been a regular guest at pro-Palestine demonstrations, speaking alongside figures such as Jeremy Corbyn, Palestinian journalist Motaz Azaiza and rapper Lowkey. 

In the Ilford North constituency, Mohamad is challenging Labour’s Wes Streeting, who has held the seat for a decade. Streeting has served as a key member of the shadow cabinet since Keir Starmer’s election as party leader in 2020 and is poised to become the next secretary of state for health and social care, should Labour win the upcoming general election.

Mohamad was officially selected to stand for election in January. The campaign was led by Redbridge Community Action Group (RCAG), a local organisation that mobilised to find an independent candidate after Streeting abstained from a vote for a ceasefire in Gaza in November 2023.

“No one can deny that Gaza is what has brought us together — it brought about an awakening,” Mohamad said when I met with her earlier this month. “Keir Starmer came out and supported Israel cutting off food and water to more than two million Palestinians. Wes argued that the ceasefire vote was at the wrong time. 

“That’s when so many members of our community resigned their membership. That’s when we decided that it was time to hold this politician accountable. Wes doesn’t represent us, he doesn’t listen to us and he’s invisible, so what’s the point in having him as our MP?”

To secure her selection, Mohamad took part in a process that whittled down 20 hopefuls from the Ilford area, eventually winning a hustings featuring the final three candidates. “I really didn’t think I would get it when I applied,” Mohamad told me. “I thought, ‘Let me just try the interview stage, it would be a cool experience’.”

Mohamad split from the RCAG in April, though the group has said it will continue to endorse her. Her campaign is also being backed by The Muslim Vote, an initiative encouraging voters to back pro-Palestine candidates.

“The RCAG galvanised elements of the community and mobilised people to consider an alternative to the main parties and I commend them for that,” said Kalisvaart. “Not everyone will see eye to eye on how things should be done — that’s an inevitable part of campaigning, but we have the same shared goal.”

A few days before the meeting, I joined Mohamad and a group of volunteers on an evening of canvassing in the Barkingside area. It was immediately clear that Mohamad has become something of a local celebrity.

The owner of a small dessert cafe offered to look after her boxes of supplies while she canvassed, before making her a drink and asking her to pose for an Instagram story. 

Photo-op complete, we were about to be on our way. Then three girls ran up to Mohamad to tell her that they attend her old school, Wanstead High. A car drove by, honked and a young woman rolled down her window: “I’m going to be voting for you!” she shouted. 

“This is what it’s like all the time,” Mohamad said. “It’s really nice.”

Independent candidate Leanne Mohamed — Gaza has been an awakening for a new wave of politics
Leanne Mohamad on the stump in Ilford. Photo courtesy of Julia Forsman

Since January, more than 500 people have signed up to volunteer on Mohamad’s campaign. Many are local residents, others are from further afield. While I was on the trail, some had come from Crouch End and Barking. Mohamad told me that one woman travels from Southend-on-Sea, nearly 30 miles away. 

Among the local canvassers was Amina, 23, a political campaign novice. She also attended Wanstead High and signed up as soon as she heard Mohamad was standing.

“For a really long time, it felt like there was no one to represent me. This is an opportunity to be heard, to have someone who won’t just be there for a party, but be there for us,” Amina said. “It’s made me realise that we have a voice, and that we can do something with it and actually make a difference.”

Streeting won the Ilford North seat in the 2015 general election from the Conservative candidate Lee Scott by 589 votes. In 2019, when Labour lost 60 seats across the country, Streeting’s majority grew to more than 5,000 votes.

Though it is a sizable margin, Labour’s refusal to condemn Israel’s bombardment of Gaza has resulted in longstanding Labour voters withdrawing their support. One volunteer, Naeem, 69, who has lived in the area for 32 years and previously canvassed for Labour, said this is the first time he will not be voting for the party. 

“I had written to Wes a few times about Gaza, so I was deeply disappointed when he abstained from the ceasefire vote,” Naeem said. “I felt so strongly about it that I actually took part in demonstrations outside of his office. I’ve decided that this time, I’m going to do everything I can to make sure he doesn’t get in again.”

Recent polling by Hyphen suggests that the crisis in Gaza has bolstered support for independent candidates. Among Muslims, 21% rank it as the policy issue most important to them, while 44% said it was in their top five concerns. Of these, 86% said they would consider voting for an independent candidate running on the issue, given the choice. Though the issue was less pressing for UK voters at large, of the 12% who put it in their top five priorities, 64% said they would consider supporting a pro-Palestine candidate.

“From the doorstep conversations we have had, a lot of people are very amenable to the idea of an independent,” Kalisvaart said. “There’s a general disillusionment and disenfranchisement with the two-party system. A lot of people are fed up. Our job is to get in front of every single resident and make sure they know about Leanne and what she stands for.”

Boundary changes ahead of this year’s election mean the local council wards of Cranbrook and Valentines now fall within the Ilford North constituency. Kalisvaart believes that puts Mohamad at an advantage, as census data shows that Cranbrook has one of the highest proportions of Muslim residents (36.6%) in England. 

“People who are most upset by what’s happening in Palestine are Muslim, and the two wards that have come into the constituency are very heavily weighted towards those communities,” said Kalisvaart.

She added that Labour’s local canvassing does not appear to be focusing on areas with large Muslim communities. “We are touching every single ward, and I think that worries them. We are in their spaces, but they aren’t in our spaces.”

Aside from her pro-Palestine activism, Mohamad is well known in Ilford for her work with young people. As a teenager she regularly attended Frenford Youth Club in Cranbrook. Later she became a leader and manager of the club’s youth council, hosting workshops on public speaking. 

The club’s chief executive, Irfan Shah, believes that early experience is at the heart of  Mohamad’s understanding of the community. 

“It’s been a huge part of who she has turned out to be today. It gave her a sense of belonging, but it also gave her an insight to the challenges that young people face,” he said. 

Speaking at the community centre, Mohamad said she had been meeting with local teachers and NHS staff at Ilford’s King George Hospital. If elected to parliament, Mohamad’s pledges to her constituents include protecting the NHS from privatisation and raising wages for staff, an immediate ceasefire in Gaza and an arms embargo on Israel. She has also promised to advocate for more affordable housing and increased funding for youth centres and community programmes.

“Our campaign is about humanity and having morality,” Mohamad said. “Right now we have a very special, rare opportunity — to have an MP who represents the community, not a political party agenda — that’s why we are trying to make Ilford North independent on election day.”

Hyphen has contacted Streeting for comment.

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