Are Green Shoots Starting to Crack the Red Wall?

‘For Labour, I think there’s a massive problem.’

by Craig Gent

28 May 2024

Cllr Mothin Ali, pictured in Harehills, Leeds. Photo: Craig Gent

With minds turning to a Tory wipeout, onlookers could be forgiven for thinking the 2024 general election will see the so-called ‘red wall’ simply fall back in line behind Labour.

Yet a slew of Green gains across the north in May’s local elections suggests voters are finding an alternative to Keir Starmer’s party at a time when it seems intent on cutting back on its promises to workers, its commitment to the planet, and any semblance of solidarity it might once have offered to Muslim diaspora communities. Indeed, the Greens picked up seats in traditional Labour strongholds including Newcastle-upon-Tyne, South Shields, Leeds, Bradford, much of Lancashire, and Kirklees. The latter, which includes the towns of Dewsbury and Batley, saw one Labour councillor run to within 41 votes of losing to the Greens, while – as in nearby Bradford – a whole sweep of pro-Palestine independents gained seats with large majorities.

In Leeds, where the Greens won three seats and came second in a further ten, two of those gained by the party represent especially deprived areas, characteristically thought to be Labour’s for the taking. As it happens, one of them is my own ward, momentarily made famous across the national rightwing media for a much-sensationalised election count video in which the new councillor, Mothin Ali, shouts: “We will not be silent, we will raise the voice of Gaza, we will raise the voice of Palestine, Allahu akbar!”

When I first contact Ali on the phone, he sounds nervous. Since being monstered in the press, he tells me he has been receiving death threats and menacing phone calls, leading to the police increasing their presence near his home.

The viral clip, edited down from a longer video that clearly shows Ali’s exclamation to be in response to some Labour supporters’ sweary attempts to shout down his acceptance speech, has overshadowed a victory that, contrary to the narrative that the Greens’ successes were all attributable to Palestine, was three local election campaigns in the making.

“It was a unifying moment and that’s been taken away from me. It’s heartbreaking,” he tells me. It turns out Ali is a Novara Live viewer – “I’m a big fan of Michael Walker” – so he agrees to meet me for parathas at Aisha’s café, a local institution.

It’s evident from the moment we meet that Ali’s representation as a firebrand is far wide of the mark. Softly-spoken and an avid permaculture practitioner – his YouTube channel ‘My Family Garden’ has a 50k following – we soon get into his fondness for bathtub gardens, which began as a child playing on allotments.

“They’ve made the story about this one little thing. This guy said some words in Arabic; how evil this guy must be, rather than looking at this amazing community that’s come together to say we want change,” he says.

He also feels his image was used as a caricature, noting that his photograph was used on a Telegraph article about ‘mass immigration’.

“I look different … I went through [the pressure to be] clean shaven, wear suits, wear ties,” he continues. “My attitude is I’m 42 years old, my family’s been here since the sixties … Muslims have been in this country as an established population for over 100 years.”

“We’re part of the fabric of this country. This dress that I’m wearing now, this is British dress. It might not be accepted by everyone, but you can’t deny the fact that it is.”

Gipton and Harehills straddles the inner city and more built-up suburbs on the east of Leeds. The assault on Gaza has been intensely salient here, among Muslim voters especially, but it’s also a predominantly poor part of the city, with Harehills in particular noted for its crime rate and low-quality housing. Ali has lived here since 2000, and been involved in community campaigning ever since.

“Both Harehills and Gipton are very deprived areas,” Ali says. “It feels like we’re very much neglected. Because they’ve been traditionally Labour seats, politicians, the council – no one needs to worry about having to work for this seat. So things can happen to us, rather than with us.”

Except for a short period of Liberal Democrat representation around the time of the Iraq war (which the Lib Dems opposed), the area has been solidly Labour with next to nothing in the way of competition. That was until Ali got onto the ballot. The Green party’s candidate for the ward since 2022, before his selection the party had hovered at around 6% of the vote. Year on year, Ali has upped his efforts, with a year-round presence in the ward as a community campaigner. This year, when he won 51.6% of the vote on a 20.4% swing, it felt as though it was a long time coming.

“I think we were ready for a win. We had the momentum, the movement was there. It might not have been as decisive a win [if not for Palestine]. I think it would have been much closer … but I think we were real contenders and looking like we were really going to make a difference. One of the things I was saying in 2022 was that this was the start of my campaign for three years’ time.”

Like many Green voters, Ali used to support Labour. Having originally been an affiliate member through his union, Ali says he was first impressed by the Greens when former leader Natalie Bennett travelled to Leeds to join a conference on the Prevent agenda and Islamophobia – to which the invited Labour and Conservative representatives didn’t show. Ali stayed in Labour through the Corbyn years, but says the breaking point came when Starmer backed out of an iftar meal he had been invited to by the Ramadan Tent Project.

“That was it,” says Ali. “Iftar is that kind of thing where after you’ve fasted, you’re sharing a meal, it’s something that’s so powerful that you’d sit down with an enemy, because it’s not politics, it’s not anything else, it’s a time where even if you don’t like the person sat opposite you, you’re going to share bread with them.”

“When he snubbed that, it just felt like a real slap in the face … a real major insult.”

It’s a point that reflects Starmer’s wider record of alienating Muslim voters, especially over Palestine. In a letter from the Labour Muslim Councillors Network in October, over 250 representatives – including Ali’s predecessor and the other two Labour councillors for the ward – warned Labour’s leadership of the strength of feeling being relayed to them from their constituents.

Down the road from Aisha’s, anti-Labour banners still hang displaying Starmer’s insistence that Israel “has the right” to cut off food and electricity from Gaza. For Ali, the connection to Gaza is in equal parts cultural, religious, political and, he says, “human”. In the past, his Palestine activism has included helping out with a community garden project over video calls.

And yet this is only part of the story behind Ali’s success. The Gipton portion of the ward, a largely white working-class area, also swung behind him. In fact, he says, he won every ballot box in the ward. I point out that if the Greens can win every ballot box in Harehills and Gipton, then there’s potentially a significant long-term problem for Labour in working-class constituencies of every demographic make-up.

“For Labour, I think there’s a massive problem,” Ali tells me. “For so long, there’s never been an alternative for ordinary people, and what the Greens are offering is [the opportunity] to bring up someone, a community champion, who’s going to be the voice for that community, who’s going to stand up and represent that community.”

“This is my community. I spent 20 years just on the street behind you. My grocery shops are in the ward, my mosque is in the ward – everything. My life revolves around this area. How can you not have people who actually care about the ward itself?”

The street Ali is referring to is in the Bayswaters, a densely-built grid of back-to-backs in Harehills. Compact terraced houses largely built during the industrial revolution, they have three internal walls and windows (and a single door) on just one face. Deemed a health hazard, the construction of new back-to-backs was banned in many cities after the Public Health Act of 1875, when Benjamin Disraeli was prime minister. Not so in Leeds, which has the largest number of remaining back-to-backs in the country.

We take a walk there, and I try for a while to get a photograph of Ali by the house that made Harehills home. In the two-minute walk we are stopped by no fewer than six people, well-wishers travelling on foot or stopping their cars in the middle of the street. Ali hands his number out to all of them. “I want people to be able to get hold of me … I have to be accountable to my community, otherwise how do I stay a man of the people?”

“A ten-minute bus ride can add ten years to your life,” he says, pointing out the incredible disparity in life expectancies in east Leeds. “That’s not normal. We can’t accept that.”

Craig Gent is Novara Media’s north of England editor and the author of Cyberboss (2024, Verso Books).

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