London, United Kingdom – Under normal circumstances, you wouldn’t expect much in common between an Oscar-winning film star, a former Islamic radical and a Muslim scion of one of South Asia’s most storied political families.
But when Britain goes to the polls in 2015 to choose a new government, the fates of all three will be entwined in a political battle that is likely to be among the most closely fought and eagerly anticipated in the country.
It is a battle that could also – depending on which way the votes swing – break new ground by heralding the creation of a cross-border political dynasty.
The scene of this contest is Hampstead and Kilburn, a diverse constituency in northwestern London where enclaves of wealthy actors and artists live alongside low-income social housing.
In 2010, the parliamentary seat was won for the opposition Labour party by former actress Glenda Jackson, but only after a nail-biting recount gave her just 42 votes more than her nearest rival – the tightest margin in the mainland UK.
The narrow victory was to be a swansong for Jackson, whose Academy Award-winning movie credits include “A Touch of Class” and “Women in Love”.
With every last vote likely to count – both nationally as well as in Hampstead and Kilburn – candidates have already begun pounding the streets in search of support.
In Labour’s corner is Tulip Siddiq, a fresh-faced 31-year-old who has worked her way up through the party’s local grassroots. Siddiq is an enthusiastic ally of Labour leader Ed Miliband and is among a coterie of young recruits tipped for future success under his stewardship.
I'm a Londoner, and I've lived here a long time. But there will always be accusations of nepotism, no matter that I did it on my own merit and worked my way up here.
Her selection has garnered international attention – in part because her aunt, Sheikh Hasina, is Bangladesh’s prime minister and her grandfather, Sheikh Mujibur Rahman, was the country’s founding president.
“Members of the same family serving different countries – I can see why that’s quite intriguing,” Siddiq told Al Jazeera, recounting with wry amusement how feverish Bangladeshi media coverage of her rise led one broadcaster to be nicknamed “Tulip News 24”.
According to Robert Mendoza, an associate professor of economics at the Asian Institute for Management who has studied political dynasties, success for Siddiq could be seen as the first example of a powerful family whose official reach has transcended borders.
Siddiq insists her political loyalties lie firmly on British soil. She points out she has independently authored her career through hard work. “I’m a Londoner, and I’ve lived here a long time,” she said. “But there will always be accusations of nepotism, no matter that I did it on my own merit and worked my way up here.”
Allegations that her interests lie elsewhere have already soured Siddiq’s campaign. Ahead of her selection as Labour candidate, an anonymous email was sent to community leaders that contained a photograph of her in Bangladesh alongside Russian President Vladimir Putin.
“Considering I’m a British citizen, I’ve grown up here, I’ve lived here and I’ve served the Labour party for a long time, it was really nasty,” she said. “I was surprised, on a few occasions, at the reaction to being a Muslim woman.”
The attack has not affected potential voters, she says, insisting that most share her concerns about issues like unemployment and housing that will be on the national agenda in the run-up to the 2015 polls.
She also rejects the prospect, raised in one glowing profile in a UK newspaper, that if elected she could help build bridges between Britain, Bangladesh and other largely Muslim countries.
“What I would say if I get elected, I will be a British member of parliament and my first responsibility will be to my constituents, whether they’re from the Jewish community, Somali, or Pakistani. I will campaign on the issues that are important to them.”
Siddiq’s high profile is matched by that of Maajid Nawaz, a former recruiter for the hardline Islamist Hizb ut-Tahrir organisation who has been selected to stand in in Hampstead and Kilburn for the Liberal Democrats.
Nawaz’s unusual life has been well-documented, not least in his recently published autobiography Radical. The British-Pakistani went from being a disaffected youth to a radical proselytiser who became an Amnesty International prisoner of conscience while in jail in Egypt.
After renouncing Hizb ut-Tahrir he founded the Quilliam Foundation, a UK anti-extremism think tank that recently persuaded key figures in the far-right English Defence League protest group to quit their organisation.
Although his credentials as a worldly Muslim moderate have, by his own estimation, made him attractive to all three major UK political parties, he told Al Jazeera the Liberal Democrats come closest to sharing his current views.
“I joined in 2009 not thinking anything of it, not standing, just a card-carrying member. In recent months, a few things have combined – I learned that in my home seat Glenda [Jackson] is standing down, and it’s such a narrow vote margin,” he said.
|Liberal Democrat candidate Maajid Nawaz went from radical proselytiser to founding a UK anti-extremism think-tank [GALLO/GETTY]|
Nevertheless, the quick-witted campaigner sees himself playing a prominent government role in shaping policies on immigration and social integration – divisive issues that have contributed to the recent success of the anti-immigration UK Independence Party.
“There’s got to be a liberal way of approaching this, so the first thing I’d like to do is to bring my expertise to parliament,” said Nawaz. “The symbolism of me winning would itself be part of that healing process.”
He is interested in pursuing foreign policy but, like Labour’s Siddiq, he is wary of being politically typecast as a Muslim of South Asian origin – or as he puts it, “rolling out brown people to talk about brown things”.
Siddiq and Nawaz face another challenger to the Hampstead and Kilburn seat. Conservative candidate Simon Marcus may lack the extraordinary background of his rivals, but he could benefit if the area’s traditionally left-leaning electorate is split by two strong candidates.
Marcus, an affable local councillor who captains a rugby team, has fought his own battle against extreme views, standing against the leader of the far-right British National Party (BNP) in the 2010 elections. Marcus lost the seat to Labour but finished ahead of the BNP’s Nick Griffin.
He describes Nawaz as an “immensely impressive man”, but insists his own campaign is rooted in local issues, and could benefit from a gradual shift by Liberal Democrat and Labour voters towards the Conservatives.
“It’s very subtle, very slow. It may not happen quickly enough for 2015 for me, but the sooner it happens, the better,” he said.
Dr Mark Garnett, an expert on British elections at Lancaster University, said the unpredictability of the race to replace Jackson “added up to a lot of interest in Hampstead and Kilburn”.
“Any seat with a 42-vote majority would be watched closely by the media and political observers in a general election campaign,” he told Al Jazeera, “The fact that the 2010 result in Hampstead and Kilburn was a three-way photo finish makes it particularly interesting.”