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Leicester's divisive election calls for fresh leadership
Hersh Thaker reflects on this experience as a first-time candidate in one of the most divisive elections the city has ever seen.
I joined the Labour Party 14 years ago, inspired by Patricia Hewitt, for whom I worked as an intern at her constituency office as the MP for Leicester West. Seeing the impact of the day-to-day casework her office dealt with to help people triggered my political aspirations, leading me to become a youth councillor and, later, a representative of the youth parliament for Leicester.
I have studied politics as part of my degree and have campaigned for local council, parliamentary and mayoral candidates whilst lending my voice to local and national campaigns.
Armed with some political experience, I hit the streets to launch my campaign.
However, the reality of deeply rooted local concerns among voters quickly became apparent. I and the party would need more time to deliver the political messages on which we wanted to focus the election.
A campaign dominated by local issues
I wanted to talk to voters about crucial issues I knew were important in Belgrave: The need to channel investments into road and pavement resurfacing on the Golden Mile, safeguarding the cherished Diwali celebrations that have long placed Leicester on the global map, bolstering patrols in anti-social hotspots, expanding our tree cover, enhancing cycling infrastructure to render our streets more appealing, and increasing community healthcare facilities.
Unfortunately, the narrative slipped away from us right from the outset.
Three events ultimately dominated the discourse and meant that Labour Party candidates in Leicester East, which I felt were the strongest the party had fielded in many years, started on the back foot.
Firstly, an opposition motion calling to remove the mayor system garnered support from a handful of incumbent Labour councillors. Secondly, the deselection of 19 sitting councillors by the National Executive Committee (NEC) of the Labour Party stirred considerable controversy. Lastly, the backdrop of the disturbances that unfolded in Evington and Belgrave this time last year cast a long shadow over the campaign.
I was aware of and felt the underlying anxiety and anger about the political vacuum that emerged after the troubles broke out in parts of Leicester East. I was also very aware of the reputational damage amongst the British Indian community caused by the previous Labour leadership. Examples included the passing of the motion on Kashmir in 2019, calling for a UN-led intervention, and various interventions by the ex-Labour and current independent MP for Leicester East, Claudia Webb, which were at odds with the views of her constituents.
What I nor the party had appreciated was just how strongly many in the community and from outside wanted to send a message to the Labour Party not to take a historically strong bloc of British Indian and predominantly Hindu voters for granted. Leicester would become the backdrop to deliver that message to the national party. Many of the communities in Leicester East, particularly in Belgrave, live as a close-knit community where information circulates swiftly. Regrettably, our campaign faced an onslaught of misinformation that spread quickly and efficiently, taking advantage of people's genuine concerns.
This issue loomed large, and without effective political leadership capable of rekindling unity, this topic perpetually threatens to dominate political discussions in Leicester East.
Rebalancing power in the city
On a night when Labour gained over 500 new councillors across the country, the Conservatives lost over 1,000. Leicester bucked the national trend with the Conservatives picking up 17 seats, the Green Party picking up three, and the Liberal Democrats winning two. Labour was left with 36 out of 54 seats, down from the 53 seats won at the previous election, but crucially kept overall control of the council.
In the broader context of democracy, it is essential to ensure a robust opposition to maintain a balanced distribution of power, especially in a mayoral system.
Politics is the ultimate leveller. Ultimately, no one owes you their vote or support, and it is on you to earn it. The beauty of democracy lies in this truth; a reset was ultimately healthy for democracy and the city's future.
The result demonstrated disappointment with the Labour-run city's political representatives, including the city mayor, previous councillors, and MPs. This outcome is understandable after the dominance of the same personalities for a long time.
Although a personally and politically tricky result, in the end, I took solace that it would serve as a wake-up call.
It is a wake-up call for leaders in the city, for the national party, and for community groups, the police and other civic organisations to step up and do more to keep out the divisive forces that took advantage of genuine fears and concerns for their benefit.
The opposition parties (including the so-called "independents") focused on a negative campaign attacking the city mayor and the Labour Party, neglecting to present a compelling case for change. Such a campaign can be and was adequate, but it needs to be more sustainable and inspire confidence. It would be premature to predict a longer-term decline in the Labour vote.
The national party keenly observed the events in Leicester and has acknowledged the urgency of regaining the trust of the British Indian community and mending the wounds of past leadership. However, localised leadership is equally essential.
Rebuilding trust within the city and fostering healing necessitate unity and a fresh wave of political leadership. A genuine opportunity for transformation has presented itself – an opportunity for a new generation of political leaders to step forward with a constructive agenda for change.
As attention turns towards a general election, the party needs a Leicester East candidate who understands the community dynamics and brings a sense of dignity and stability back to the seat.
Leicester East requires an MP attuned to the diversity of Leicester's population, capable of advocating locally and nationally for vital investments and economic regeneration. Examples include directing investments to the Golden Mile – the jewel of our city – ensuring better access to community healthcare facilities, improving cycling infrastructure for seamless city centre connectivity, preserving and celebrating our rich cultural diversity, and attracting industries.
For example, considering India already contributes significantly to UK investment, there's no reason why Leicester should not thrive as a hub for Indian businesses to establish themselves here, given the strong cultural ties that already exist.
It was naturally disappointing not to win the seat. Still, I left the campaign not bitter or resentful but instead filled with optimism. I am proud that the community engaged so passionately in the political process. Voters in Leicester East raised their voices and expressed their frustrations; it is now incumbent upon political parties to respond effectively.
I am confident the Labour Party can rebuild Leicester East and across the city. To do this, it must move forward with new leadership and include a new generation of independent-minded and forward-thinking candidates free from the past's legacy.
Leicester is a unique city that deserves the political leadership that reflects this.