If you don’t know who Kirsty Allan is… well, you should. She is the Liberal Democrat candidate for Hampstead and Kilburn (H&K). She’s a bona fide local too; she lives over in Queen’s Park, right on the constituency border between H&K and Westminster North.
She actually stood for Westminster North in 2015 but after the Brexit vote, the Lib Dems moved swiftly to put candidates in place in case of a snap election. Kirsty was delighted to have been asked if she would stand.
Her 2015 Westminster North campaign was clearly a struggle. The result was disappointing with the Lib Dems beaten into fourth place by UKIP with just 1,457 votes (that was a 3.7% share, down from 13.9% in 2010). The constituency was always an unlikely win for the Liberal Democrats and Kirsty said it was great to get the experience and understanding of what it takes to run in an election. She also got a large taste of what is involved from helping Lynn Featherstone in the election. Featherstong was MP for Hornsey & Wood Green from 2005 to 2015.
Kirsty points out that being a Liberal Democrat – especially these days – means there are no such thing as safe seats. She argues that they really have to fight for every vote, attend every hustings, knock on every door. “We have to put the work in to become an MP.”
She claims that she is Lib-Dem bred, rather than having moved into the party. Both she and her sister learned their Lib Demery at the knee of her father, who has always voted for the party since its inception in the late 1980s. This interest in politics and Lib Dem politics in particular led Kirsty to apply to work in Lynn Featherstone’s constituency office, which she did for three years. Kirsty said that having dealt with Lynn’s constituency and parliamentary casework she has a real sense of what it takes to be an MP.
Despite her family Liberal Democrat roots, it was only a year after working for Lynn that she joined as a member.
Kirsty, unsurprisingly, is keen to look back to 2010 in H&K, when the constituency was a true three-way battle. Indeed, Lib Dem candidate Ed Fordham was many people’s favourite to win, though eventually he came a very close third. However, she says there is no denying what happened in 2015, “We really did get swept out with the tide then. But the world changed for us after the Brexit vote. Nick Clegg was the only leader to take on Nigel Farage in the debates. It is obvious to us that is our fight, we want to represent the 48% – indeed in this constituency the 76% who voted for Remain.”
Kirsty’s Labour rival, incumbent MP Tulip Siddiq, has also been vocally anti Brexit. Kirsty respects Tulip’s individual position, but points out that the Labour party’s position is unclear and therefore Tulip is at odds with her party.
In 2015, the Lib Dem’s high profile H&K candidate Maajid Nawaz got just 6% of the votes (down from 31.2% for Ed Fordham in 2010). Does Kirsty accept that she might get relatively few votes if some Lib Dem voters decide Labour has a better chance of keeping the Tories out? Kirsty points out that there is a lot of support for the Lib Dems around here (though of course they lost five out of six council seats in 2015). “At the moment we have a message that resonates. It is important that voters have someone they agree with to put a tick against. That’s what democracy is about.” She accepts that if people want to vote tactically then they will, but does not believe there is much sign of that happening.
The Gospel Oak council by-election on May 4th could give Kirsty and the party some succour. Labour retained the seat with 1,485 votes, but the Lib Dems came second with 587 votes, more than doubling their share from 2014. She suggests that it’s evidence that in Camden, “the Lib Dems are on the rise!”
Despite the battering the party took in the 2015 election, Kirsty believes that the momentum is swinging back to them. “The party had a huge swell across London after the Brexit vote, with more than 1,000 members in the Camden Lib Dems. There’s a 17-year-old girl who helps me every time I’m handing out leaflets – she is very energised. The new influx of members is young, the largest number is in the 18-24 age group”.
“After two years of a ‘pure’ Tory Government after the coalition, a lot of people are feeling warmer towards the Liberal Democrats,” she suggests. National polls would suggest this is true, but not yet as warm as the days of ‘I agree with Nick’ in 2010. Then they took 23% of the national vote, but that slumped to just 7.9% in 2015. Today’s polls put support at around 10%.
Does the influx of young people to the party mean they see it as best-placed to tackle the broad challenges we face today? It is notable that for a party that preaches inclusivity, the few MPs it has are traditional ‘men in suits’, bar the recent addition of one woman. Yet the party strives to “reflect its diverse membership”.
When questioned further on this, specifically about Tim Farron’s recent poor handling of the issue of whether he thinks homosexuality is a sin, Kirsty does indeed become uncomfortable trying to explain his stance (he initially refused to answer the question, several times, before deciding to positively assert that he did not – perhaps trapped by trying to adhere to a philosophically robust “liberal” position, without realising that the electorate generally isn’t that nuanced). Kirsty herself is far more unequivocal. “One of the main reasons I applied to work for Lynn [Featherstone] was that I was so impressed with her work on the same-sex marriage initiative”.
Given that no party reflects an individual’s personal beliefs perfectly, what Lib Dem policies does Kirsty struggle with? “I was never a massive fan of the mansion tax, but I am in favour of reassessing the council tax bands. At the moment it is ridiculous that a house worth £7 million pays an amount calculated from 1991 data and values. ”
Warming to the housing theme, “the problem in this constituency,” she argues, “is that the average wage is £33,000, while the average property price is over £700,000. So owning a home is becoming a pipe dream. Increasingly, I see people priced out of the market, and even ‘affordable’ rents are extremely high. I do feel we should be doing more to make sure London is affordable. First of all you stop selling council houses and if you do, use that money to reinvest and build more council homes. It’s logic.”
She say is “seems bizarre” that the Conservatives don’t get more flak for failing to act on the housing crisis. “We are living in a city that will exclude those earning under £130,000 from buying anything in this area of London, and that’s absurd.”
From national, to London, to local issues. Kirsty is running into some familiar grumbles on the doorsteps of H&K. “On the Camden side, there are a lot of problems with the rubbish collection. We are in favour of people doing more recycling but the introduction of the new bins and system does not seem to be working yet. Everybody is concerned that foxes get into their rubbish. When I was helping in our Gospel Oak campaign, rubbish was second only to Brexit as the main issue.” Though of course it didn’t stop Labour from holding the council seat.
“The NHS is also worrying people, and education, and to some extent crime.” In a cruel twist of fate, at the very moment we were discussing crime my wallet was being pinched from my rucksack in Costa.
“But Brexit comes up in every conversation. The first thing people say is that they’re very upset about it.” Presumably about 25% are not, but Kirsty doesn’t mention that. “A lot of people are also worried that all the other issues will be drowned out by the Brexit chorus. If we end up on WTO rules that’s not good for the economy and if the economy is weak it puts further pressure on funding for services.”
If she was to be elected on June 8th, her priorities are health and education – she has friends who are teachers and they don’t have enough money to do the things they want to do in schools. “I don’t think there can ever be an over-funding of education – we have to make sure that children get the best possible start. I’m very much about defending those social liberal values and believe feverently in equality.”
As for being a constituency MP, “I think I learned quite well at Lynn’s knee – she was always out meeting people, attending events and as a Lib Dem MP you need to be visible and have an open door, always being responsive, holding surgeries, talking to people face-to-face.” Some would argue that Tulip has done a good job of this in her brief tenure as our MP. “I respect Tulip – I think she been a good local MP – but I’m standing so that people have a chance to vote for a Liberal Democrat candidate.”
What has surprised her most about her second tilt at Westminster? “The reception on the doorstep,” she says emphatically. “I campaigned in 2015 and it wasn’t an easy time to be a Liberal Democrat. It’s very different this time around. I knew that we had a message that resonated on Brexit but I didn’t realise quite the level of support.”
The final question: Why should I vote for Kirsty Allan? “This is a constituency that really, really wants a voice that is going to resonate with them and I am entirely pro-European and will respect the will of the 76% of people that voted for Remain. And it is not just about Brexit, I want to be an MP that will work hard for Hampstead & Kilburn.”