GENERAL ELECTION FEATURE: Hitchin and Harpenden Tory candidate Bim Afolami changing perceptions on the campaign trail in working-class Westmill
- Credit: Archant
“Vote Conservative? You must be joking,” the woman says outside her front door.
The woman has spirit. A proud working-class spirit that cannot be broken by a tough life.
Standing near her is an old Etonian, Oxford graduate, former lawyer turned banker.
He is wearing a Conservative rosette on his blue jumper. He nods imperceptibly.
The woman is dragging a sack into a car parked outside her home. Encouraged by the man’s benign silence, she continues talking while transporting the black bin liner into the boot of her beaten-up car.
“What have the Conservatives done for us?” she says.
“We’re the part of Hitchin everyone else has forgotten. No-one in authority else cares about us here.
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“No-one’s been stabbed round here for a while, but you never saw what’s-his-name ever show his face.”
We are in Hitchin’s Westmill, a residential area built as a pre-war council housing estate.
It is not a high-rise estate, more a series of roads featuring pale yellow houses.
The Lib Dems’ 2015 parliamentary candidate for Hitchin and Harpenden, the formidable Pauline Pearce – better known globally as the Hackney Heroine after courageously standing up to rioters in North London during the 2011 riots – hails from the area.
She told me two years ago: “Westmill isn’t Hackney, but it’s still got its fair share of problems that have been ignored by the Conservatives round here.”
We are on the campaign trail with Bim Afolami, the Conservative parliamentary candidate fighting to win the seat formerly held by Peter Lilley – the politician the woman referred to dismissively as ‘what’s-his-name’.
Public school-educated Bim has all the right credentials to appeal to true-blue Tories. His dad is an NHS doctor and his mother a pharmacist, and he works for HSBC in corporate restructuring in one of the iconic Canary Wharf towers.
Or he did, until he decided to run for parliament. Again.
The 31-year-old adopts a neutral tone and body language which tacitly encourages the woman, who is called Maria Nugent, to continue speaking.
A small crowd of friends gathers near Mrs Nugent now. Her husband walks over and joins in the conversation.
Bim is flanked by district councillor Nicola Harris, a rising star of the local Conservative Party. She is personable but tough – as befits someone who went to the school we are standing near to, Oughtonhead Primary and Nursery School. A second Conservative councillor, David Barnard, is also there.
Mrs Nugent’s husband Keith is a council employee. He has just finished work for the day, is still wearing his luminous hi-vis vest and has the sheen of a man who has recently completed a hard day’s graft.
He speaks with the uncomplicated certainty of a man who knows what is right and what is wrong.
“I haven’t had a pay rise in five or six years,£ he says matter-of-factly. I ask him how he feels about local Conservative councillors voting themselves a 20-per-cent pay rise this year.
Mr Nugent laughs ruefully and adds with withering contempt: “Mate, you couldn’t print what I think about that.”
Councillor Barnard listens with the impassivity of a man who vowed defiantly in council chambers he would not be returning the pay rise he and his Conservative colleagues on North Herts District Council voted themselves. A Tory voice suggests the group should move on.
But then a strange thing happens. Bim refuses to walk away. In fact he continues to listen to Mr and Mrs Nugent. He doesn’t interrupt them – he looks them squarely in the eye and shows as much empathy as he can.
It is a small, instinctive gesture – but an instructive one, for it shows courage of character.
It would be easy to knock on the doors of the large houses of say, London Road in St Ippolyts, where the Tory vote is – to borrow a phrase – strong and stable. But the father-of-two has chosen to canvass in a socially-deprived area, and listen to the concerns of people like the Nugents.
Bim personally invites them to get in touch with him to discuss their specific concerns after June 8 – emphatically emphasising ‘if I’m elected’.
As the conversation is about to finish and we are set to move to the next house to knock on that door, I ask Mr Nugent what he thinks of Bim.
“He’s a brave bloke for coming here,” he answers, genuinely pleased that a possible prominent politician has taken the time to visit Westmill.
I ask him, having met Bim, whether he would consider voting Tory. Mr Nugent thinks before replying: “Maybe, fair play to him for coming here.”
Mrs Nugent is harder to win over, but she too respects Bim’s mettle.
Bim is used to politically hostile territory. He stood in the staunch Labour seat of Lewisham and Deptford in 2015, increasing the Tory vote in a crowded field to come in second.
The shift he put in did not go unnoticed by Tory central office, or the Hitchin and Harpenden Conservatives – who installed him earlier this month as their candidate in spite of local grumbles about him being ‘parachuted’ into the seat following Mr Lilley’s retirement.
He tells me: “During my selection I focused on my professional experience as a lawyer, then working at HSBC, and then I talked about my political experience – the most significant of which was when I stood in the General Election two years ago in Lewisham and Deptford for the Tories, where we had a really good result.
“We got together a really good team in what was fair to say a ‘challenging’ seat for the Conservatives. We got our best increase in the vote since 1979, and our best result full stop since 1992.
“I think that was part of the reason why [local Conservatives] thought I could represent them and the people of this constituency.
“I don’t go for this ‘parachuted’ in – or you could have used ‘helicoptered’ in. I don’t go for that. Ultimately what is important is that I was chosen by the local party in a fair process. I put forward my ideas, my background. It was all open, it was all clear.
“In terms of living here: My wife and I are not from here, but we are currently looking – if I’m elected on June 8 – to live here permanently. So in that sense we are very, very keen to be part of everything in this community.”
But how can his experience – as an old Etonian, an Oxford graduate and a banker – make him relate to people on the doorstep in Westmill?
He responds passionately: “This is a really important question. What I would say is relating to people isn’t about where you’ve come from, it’s about where you’re going and what your ideas are.
“One of the reasons I think we had a good result in Lewisham and Depford – areas that are much more deprived than here, many areas of real deprivation – is because I made a real point of taking the Conservative message to areas that hadn’t heard it before. So I think that’s something I would seek to do here.
“Specifically on your point about how I relate, I think my background has taken me to lots of different places. I grew up in Berkshire, my dad’s an NHS doctor, my mum was a pharmacist. I went to a very posh school, but I worked very hard to make the most of it.
“I then went to a very good university and made the most of it. I then got a good job, and worked very hard and made the most of it.
“And if I were the Member of Parliament for Hitchin and Harpenden I would work very hard and make the most of it for people – including here in Westmill.”
It is end of the school day, and Bim stands outside Nicola’s former school. He is affable and empathetic, charming mums, grandparents and children alike.
You can argue that ‘kissing babies’ is part of every politician’s job, but Bim seems to have that special something money can’t buy – that ‘X-factor’, charisma.
But is there substance behind the style?
He replies: “It’s deeply unfashionable these days but I’ve always had a passion for public service. I’ve always had a passion for serving people in the local community.
“I think part of that came from the fact that my grandfather was a vicar and my dad was a doctor, and they were both clever people. They could have made more money but they chose to do jobs that helped people.
“I want to be part of helping to build Hitchin and Harpenden for the next generation. I’m 31, I hope to live a while.
“My wife and I have got two small boys who are just before school age. I want to help build a community that they want to live in and that their children want to live in. And I’m really excited about that and I want to be part of it and help deliver that on a long-term basis.
“I’d be over the moon if elected, because I could get to work immediately on helping to build that. So in terms of what makes me tick, it’s a passion for public service, a real willingness to help people, and a real desire to build for the long term rather thank thinking in the short term.”
Outside Oughtonhead school, Bim talks to Jean Deller, who is there to pick up her two grandchildren – Michael, who is 11, and seven-year-old Maya.
Jean echoes Mrs Nugent’s concerns, telling Bim: “We feel like we’re forgotten here. Westmill always get a ‘raw’ deal. No-one pays us any attention.”
Her concerns are the lack of funds being invested into education despite the hard work and dedication of teachers, both locally and nationally.
Bim listens and tries to reassure the woman that Tories are committed to education. She nods but you can see she is unconvinced.
It is not surprising, considering secondary and primary school heads in Hitchin, Baldock, Letchworth and Stevenage have sent open letters to parents slamming the government for funding cuts that they say could seriously damage the provision they offer pupils.
Bim – who has been busy studying local issues to get up to speed – plans to learn more about this issue. He also wants to visit as many local schools as he can, in both Hitchin and Harpenden.
He has acted as a mentor to youngsters elsewhere and hopes to do the same in our area.
“One thing I have been involved in up until being selected is mentoring young people who are young entrepreneurs,” he explains.
“I see the difficulties they’ve faced. They don’t need my help to be good entrepreneurs – they’re much better than I am at that. But sometimes they just needed a bit of guidance around legal issues, around structuring businesses, dealing with councils, some of the basic accounting issues – and these are things I have been able to help with.”
With only four days to go until the window closes for registering to have your say in the General Election, Bim is also a passionate advocate of encouraging people to vote – especially young people.
He says: “I wrote something on my website on why it’s important for young people to vote.
“The core message is that by voting you choose your future. By choosing your future you take ownership over that. You can’t have your parents and grandparents make all the decisions for you.
“That’s the message I want to take to schools [in Hitchin and Harpenden] and to young people. I’m very keen to reach out to as many schools as possible on that.”
As a dad of two, Bim charms Mrs Deller’s seven-year-old granddaughter Miah, who genuinely warms to him. Councillor Harris echoes Bim’s zeal.
District councillor Harris is a perfect representation of politics engaging a young adult so much that they choose to become a politician.
Councillor Harris – tipped by many within the party to be the face of the next generation of local leaders once the existing crop eventually retire – represents the Hitchin Highbury ward.
She adds: “It is so vital for young people to engage in the democratic process by registering to vote so that they can cast their vote in June’s election.”
One problem all parties face is voter apathy. It was perfectly illustrated moments later when Bim knocked on the door of a nearby house.
A young mother answered the door. Bim introduced himself and asked if she would be voting. The woman’s reply encapsulated the argument given by many in this country: “No I won’t be voting. Never have done. [Politicians] are all the same. Nothing changes if you vote.”
Undeterred Bim patiently again underlined the reasons why people should vote – and the benefits accrued from voting – to the woman. She remained unmoved.
Bim wished her well, charming her into a smile – but her changing her apathetic stance, and the apathy of thousands in the constituency and millions more around the country, is crucial to winning this election.
A third of unregistered voters chose not to exercise their democratic right at the last General Election – the ‘Unheard Third’ as they’ve been labelled.
If silent section did enter the ballot box on June 8, the result in Hitchin and Harpenden – with an electorate of 74,189 from the last available figures – and throughout the land could be very different.
With Jeremy Corbyn’s poll approval rating rising steadily, despite failing to take part in last night’s televised debates – or field questions from the Fifth Estate during his trip to the new town this morning – it could be argued the pollsters are incorrectly calling Theresa May’s lead.
Conjecture apart, based on Mr Lilley’s 2015, 20,055 majority, Labour need a swing of around 18 per cent, with the Lib Dems looking at around 24 per cent based on the 74-per-cent turnout two years ago.
And even in Tony Blair and New Labour’s annus mirabilis, 1997, the Labour candidate was still a whopping 4,000 votes short of Lilley in the Hitchin seat. But with that sort of cushion and history does Bim even need to get out of bed and campaign hard?
He is quick to dispel any suggestion of complacency – not that his vigorous campaigning gave any indication that he is taking this battle anything other than deadly seriously.
He says: “You can’t take anything for granted. There are some parts of the country that have very big majorities like Glasgow.
“Not so long ago Glasgow was run by the Labour Party – nobody other than Labour had run Glasgow, they were all safe seats.
“And now they are still safe seats – but for the SNP.
“So you can never take anything for granted. And that’s why I’m working every day from morning to night, trying to put myself across to the members of this constituency.”
As he knocked on more doors the issues people raised on the doorstep concerned education, health, poverty and benefit sanctions. But no-one mentioned Brexit – certainly not in Westmill. It has become a forgotten issue.
Bim, who voted Remain in the fractious political civil war that was last year’s EU referendum, says: “I want to be clear on this. I voted Remain but I don’t think we should be trying to undo the referendum. I don’t think we should try and ignore the will of the British people.
“I think democracy isn’t just the House of Commons, it’s also sensible referendums – which is what we’ve had across the country with many millions of people voting making a very high turnout. We’ve got to respect that.
“But now – I’ve been honest with you in terms of how I voted, but to be honest I don’t think it’s relevant whether you voted Remain or Leave.
“I think the focus should be on what’s the best focus for Britain, what’s the best deal for Hitchin and Harpenden.”
As the Comet withdrew and let Bim continue his canvassing, the feeling he left with many was that this man with a gilded past may just have a gilded future too.
But what are his plans? Does he envisage in a decade or two becoming a Conservative Prime Minster?
The former athlete dismisses the notion out of hand with the practiced air of an up-and-coming sportsman batting away a question about being a future England captain, saying: “At the moment I’m looking no further than June 8. What I hope to be on June 9 is the new Conservative MP for Hitchin and Harpenden.”
And if he is elected, what will be the first thing he does on June 9? Bim shoots, with a nod to his energetic style of campaigning, ‘sleep’.
Bim is also promising to pay a visit to the Hitchin Beer Festival scheduled for that weekend – and if his natural exuberance and charisma increases Lilley’s former majority of 20,000, he may well be toasting his success with an ale or two.
If voters in an area that would have traditionally gravitated towards Labour are openly talking of transferring their vote to Bim and the Tories – and that is replicated in the polls in large numbers – then supporters of the party led by Jeremy Corbyn may well visit the popular event too.
To drown their sorrows.
See the Comet newspaper and online next week for our exclusive interview Labour candidate John Hayes.