Britain Decides: Can a Conservative Muslim win Labour hearts?
Counter-terrorism expert Imran Khan returns to his home city in a bid to reclaim the Conservative seat
With just two weeks to go until the UK election, the ruling Conservative Party is poised to win seats in historic Labour strongholds for the first time in nearly a century.
Deprived former coal mining cities in the north of England are now key battlegrounds as the traditional working class heartlands of the opposition Labour Party seek an alternative voice.
One of these seats is Wakefield, which hasn't been an electoral battleground for 90 years.
The West Yorkshire city was identified in two polls last week as a pivotal seat that the Conservatives had a chance of winning.
Victory here would be a historic turnaround for a seat that last had a Conservative winner in 1931 and even his tenure was shortlived.
The last time the blue flags flew was after local doctor George Brown Hillman won the seat from Labour with 4,107 votes.
Within five months Mr Brown had died suddenly and a by-election then saw the return of his Labour opponent to the seat.
Imran Khan, the would-be conqueror of the Labour bastion, made a spectacular entry into the contest by parachuting into city.
The Wakefield-born Muslim has spent decades working for the British government and the UN on the frontline in the fight against the threat of ISIS and other terror organisations. His career took him to war torn countries around the world, including Afghanistan and Syria.
The counter terrorism programmes he worked on helped to bring peace and democracy to impoverished areas.
He is the youngest of four siblings, his eldest brother Khalid is a leading lawyer in Dubai and his brother Karim is the United Nation’s Special Adviser and Head of the Investigative Team supporting efforts to prosecute members of ISIS.
Until recently he was living out of a storage container in Somalia on security work but with the impending election he chose to bring his skills back home.
“I have never stood for office in my life,” the 46-year-old told The National.
“But I’m worried about the threat to democracy in my own city.
“I have supported democracy across the world and other people’s struggles while working for the UN and UK government’s efforts against terrorism almost all my adult life.
“But after promoting democracy over the years I never thought I would have to come from Somalia and Afghanistan to bring democracy to the streets of Wakefield where I grew up.
“If the referendum result of 2016 is not upheld and the wishes of the people of Britain are not fulfilled it will be the first time that a democratic vote has been ignored.”
The issue of Brexit is key to Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s election campaign after having repeatedly being thwarted in his attempts to see it delivered by Parliament.
Areas which predominantly voted to leave the EU are prime hotspots for the Conservatives.
The incumbent Labour MP for Wakefield, Mary Creagh, is originally from Islington, London, and voted against Brexit.
She has faced criticism from some of her constituents, 63 per cent of whom voted to leave the EU, over her stance.
It makes the city ripe for the picking in Mr Khan’s eyes.
“Wakefield has not always been a marginal seat, it should be a Labour stronghold,” Mr Khan said.
“But Labour has taken people for granted for far too long, it has treated people with such distain over Brexit that people are fed up. For almost 90 years the people of Wakefield have been returning a Labour MP to Westminster but now they are now asking ‘what have they done for the folk round here? Nowt’.
“There is anger, upset and distrust on the streets because a lot of people are losing trust in our parliament, there is a general loss of confidence in all our institutions. In order to heal the country and put trust back we have to first deliver up the Referendum result.
“The people are frustrated, I’m frustrated. It’s time for things to change.”
His sentiments are resonated across the city.
Former servicewoman Carrie Whitworth, 41, grew up in a working class family on one of the city’s council estates and has always voted Labour - but not anymore.
“My family and I have always voted Labour because we thought they would be better for people in our situation but we are fed up,” she said.
“My dad and I are voting Conservative this time. Jeremy Corbyn is too on the fence for us. Boris Johnson is the only one with any backbone who will get the job done and get Brexit done. We’ve voted to leave the EU and are sick of having our vote ignored.”
Shop assistant Amy Sanders, 49, reiterated her comments.
“I have voted Labour all my life but I won’t be this time,” she said.
“I voted for Brexit and I want to see it happen. I do not think Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn is a fit leader for the country. I will be looking at voting Brexit Party or the Conservatives. I think the Conservatives are the only party offering us a valid choice.”
Mr Khan is no stranger to the plights of people in the city, his parents saw first-hand the poverty in the area having worked in the medical sector for decades, his British mother was a midwife in the city’s hospital and his Indian-born father the area’s first consultant dermatologist.
Despite his background and the excitement in the polls, there are still some in the city yet to be convinced.
Playwright Steve Williams, 33, said: “I live in Eastmoor, a place notorious as being a poorer area, and we want a candidate that will address the poverty that we see here and more widely through Wakefield.
“Our Labour candidate’s stance on Brexit is different to what people voted here but we want the candidate who will do the best for the city. I feel the Conservatives targeting Wakefield is a rather cynical attempt to capitalise on feelings around Brexit.”
Poet Simon Widdop, 29, has been part of the Labour campaign trail in the city.
“For me Jeremy Corbyn has brought the party back to its grassroots and what it should be,” he said.
“I can completely understand people’s frustration here, we are three years down the line after the Brexit vote and we need a decision on it. But we just cannot trust Boris Johnson or the Conservative Party.”
The scales may presently be tipping in favour of the Conservative Party, but internally it is still facing a number of challenges.
As the opposing Labour Party is being consumed by accusations of inherent anti-Semitism so the Tory party is facing similar claims of Islamophobia by members.
As a British-born Muslim, Mr Khan is quick to admonish his party’s culpability in any such scandal.
“I’m a Muslim, my father was born in British India,” he said.
“We are not an Islamophobic party, I’m their candidate here.”
His comments come as mounting pressure on the party to address the issue saw Mr Johnson vow on Wednesday to have an independent inquiry into the issue starting next month.
"Obviously whenever we have an incident of antisemitism or Islamophobia or whatever in the Conservative Party we take a zero-tolerance approach,” Mr Johnson said.
"We are going to have an independent inquiry into Islamophobia, antisemitism, every manner of prejudice and discrimination and it will start before Christmas."
It comes as Mr Johnson was himself forced to apologise for saying Muslim women wearing burkas "look like letter boxes".
Earlier this year it was revealed 15 Conservative councillors who had been suspended over Islamophobic posts had been reinstated.
A large critic of the abuse within the party has come from its former chair Lady Warsi, the country’s first female Muslim cabinet minister.
She has criticised her party for the delay in tackling the issue.
The former politician, who lives in Wakefield, this week tweeted: “It’s a shame that it’s taken four years and a leadership contest to finally drag my colleagues kicking and screaming to address this issue.”
The issue does not seem to be hampering the party in the polls however.
On Thursday a poll by YouGov, the group which accurately predicted the 2017 election result, predicted that the Conservatives are set to win 359 seats out of 650, which would be their best result since former Tory Prime Minister Margaret Thatcher's victory in 1987. It also named Wakefield as a key seat.
It followed an earlier poll by analysis company Impact Social which identified Wakefield as the area likely to predict the overall outcome of the election.
Overall victory would give Mr Johnson a mandate to take the country out of the European Union by January 31 and finally end the political deadlock over Brexit.
Updated: November 30, 2019 05:47 PM