Parliamentary candidate Dr Rod Abouharb fights for Labour in London’s Kensington constituency
by Susannah Tarbush
[An Arabic version of this article appeared in Al-Hayat newspaper on 22 April 2015:
The campaign for the 7 May British general election began officially on 30 March, the day parliament was dissolved. But for Dr Rod Abouharb campaigning had begun in November 2013, after the Labour Party chose him as its parliamentary candidate in the London constituency of Kensington. By the end of March Dr Abouharb and his Labour team had knocked on over 30,000 doors in Kensington and had had conversations with more than 5,000 residents, in their “listening to Kensington” initiative. Now they are in the middle of the hectic final period of campaigning.
Abouharb, who is 40 this year, is the son of a Syrian father and English mother: his first name Rod is short for the Arabic “Rodwan”. He was born in Cardiff, capital of Wales, and spent the first five years of his life in Syria. He is a senior lecturer in International Relations at University College, London.
Kensington’s inhabitants include many voters of Arab and other Middle Eastern origin, ranging from the Moroccan community – located around Golborne Road in North Kensington –to wealthy Arab bankers and business people.
The constituency has extremes of wealth and poverty. Dr Abouharb points out that in some areas of deprived north Kensington men have a life expectancy of only 63 years; while in parts of the affluent south of the constituency it is 92 years. Abouharb is determined to promote fairness and equality and pledges that as an MP he will make sure the needs of vulnerable and less affluent Kensington residents are represented in parliament.
Kensington is generally regarded as a safe Conservative seat. In the 2010 general election, the former Foreign Secretary Sir Malcolm Rifkind won the seat for the Conservatives by a majority of 8,616 votes. He got 17,595 votes, 50.1 per cent of the total, while Labour got 25.5 per cent and the Liberal Democrats 19.6 per cent.
However, these are unpredictable times in British politics. And the Kensington Labour Party points out that around a third of Labour supporters generally do not vote on election day. If every Labour supporter in Kensington were to vote on 7 May, and if there is also a swing towards Labour from the Liberal Democrats and some others, then it would be possible for Abouharb to win the Kensington seat
The 7 May election is taking place at a time when public trust in politicians and MPs is very low. And there is much criticism of the fact that an increasing number of MPs are “career politicians” who have spent all their working lives inside the “Westminster bubble” around parliament. They are felt by many voters to be out of touch with the issues facing ordinary people.
Abouharb told Al-Hayat that he decided to stand as a Labour candidate because he was frustrated with the way career politicians behave. “I got tired of yelling at the television, and of saying ‘well, I can’t do worse than any of this lot.’ I thought I had something to offer.”
He thinks there should be more candidates like him, “a normal person who actually has a career and is more than happy to buck the status quo and say what he thinks.” And he wants to change how decisions are made in the UK. “We must make choices based on evidence, not ideology, that improve the lives of hardworking families in all our communities.”
Abouharb did his first degree in Politics and Modern History at Brunel University in London. He then won scholarships to attend two New York State universities in the USA: he did his MA in Political Science at University at Buffalo, and got his PhD in 2005 from Binghamton University.
While doing his first degree at Brunel he went to the US to work for Senator Spencer Abraham as part of an exchange internship programme. “He was the only Arab-American senator in the US Senate at that point,” Abouharb says. “He was actually a Republican, but the fascinating thing was that all the Arab issues –all the Palestinian, all the Israeli issues – came through his office.” At the time Abouharb was writing his undergraduate dissertation about finding a just solution for the city of Jerusalem. In his second year at Brunel he gained experience working for an MP when he did research for Gwilym Jones , a Conservative MP in Cardiff. “He was a Welsh Office minister at that point, and it was very interesting to see what was going on.”
Dr Abouharb visits a food bank
Abouharb’s expertise in international relations, and his concern for human rights and social justice, are reflected in his election campaign. He says: “Kensington’s diverse population is especially concerned with international issues. An equitable and just solution for Palestine is a lynchpin of broader peace in the Middle East. A Palestinian state based on the 1967 ceasefire lines would be an important first step.”
He told Al-Hayat that the UK government should to do more to help with the “very fluid and very complicated” situation in Syria. “The United Kingdom has a responsibility to protect civilians, as do all other governments, and I think there is much more we could do, not only by properly funding refugee camps and helping neighbouring countries cope with a huge influx of people but also by re-settling Syrians, in much higher numbers than we have done so far, here in the UK.”
In what Abouharb describes as the “shocking and heartrending” response of the UK government, so far only 143 Syrian refugees have been resettled in the UK – far behind the figure of 30,000 in Germany. Asked whether British airstrikes against ISIS should be extended from Iraq to Syria, he says “I think the options about whether we engage in airstrikes against ISIS in Syria should be done with our regional and international partners if there is a military need to do so.”
Rod Abouharb with Labour politician Rachel Reeves, Shadow Work and Pensions Secretary
When Abouharb applied to be considered as a Labour Party candidate, he had been a member of the party for just over the one year that is necessary to qualify to apply. After he applied he was shortlisted for several constituencies; hewas chosen for Kensington after being interviewed against two other shortlisted candidates.
Why does he think Kensington selected him? “One of the things that got reported back to me was my willingness to tell them the things I disagreed with in terms of Labour Party policy,” Abouharb says. “I listed quite a few.” He and the Kensington Labour Party currently disagree with Labour’s policy of introducing a “mansion tax” on homes worth more than £2 million. The money raised would go the National Health Service (NHS).
Until recently, Sir Malcolm Rifkind had been due to stand again in Kensington as the Conservative candidate. But on 24 February he resigned as chairman of the parliamentary Intelligence and Security Committee, and withdrew as the Kensington candidate. This was after he was secretly filmed by Channel 4 TV and the Telegraph newspaper offering a bogus Chinese company personal introductions to his high-level contacts, such as ambassadors, in return for a fee of £5,000 to £8,000 for half a day’s work. The affair became known as the “cash for access” scandal. Rifkind claimed he had done nothing wrong although he admitted making an “error of judgement”.
Rod Abouharb with Kensington Labour Party colleagues
There was anger that Sir Malcolm told the supposed representatives of the bogus Chinese company that he was “self-employed” and that no one paid him a salary – when in fact taxpayers were paying him the MP’s salary of £67,060 Sterling a year, plus a further £14,876 as Chairman of the Intelligence and Security Committee. Rifkind also told the fake company representatives: “you would be surprised how much free time I have”, and that he spent a lot of time reading and walking.
Even before the “cash for access” scandal Abouharb had attacked Rifkind over his private business interests. “Ever since I’ve been a candidate we’ve been talking about Rifkind’s multiple jobs and how much money he was bringing in with these non-executive directorships,” he told Al-Hayat. “It was clear that his office was a money-making scheme.”
Abouharb wrote on his blog that Rifkind admitted to earning around £262,000 a year in non-executive directorships and consultancies and was spending a “vast amount of time on non-executive directorships”. Abouharb added: “Many believe this is a clear conflict of interests, particularly on issues of security and healthcare, and detracts from his responsibilities as an MP.” He described Rifkind as “the invisible MP".
After Rifkind’s withdrawal as Kensington’s Conservative candidate he was replaced by Lady Victoria Borwick, who was deputy mayor of London Mayor Boris Johnson. If she is elected as an MP she intends to remain a member of the Greater London Authority, with a salary of £53,439 a year in addition to her MP’s salary.
Abouharb is sharply critical of her decision to stay as a member of the Greater London Authority even if elected as an MP. He says the residents of Kensington “deserve a full-time dedicated MP who has only one job.” He has arranged with University College to take unpaid leave from his job if elected, “so that I can act as a full time representative for all the residents of Kensington .“ And he has promised not to take any paid company directorships. He pledges: “I will be a visible and accessible MP with a full-time staffed office in Kensington.” And he will hold regular surgeries across the constituency.
Abouharb’s parents met in northern England in the mid-1960s when his father was doing his PhD in civil engineering at the University of Manchester and his mother was doing a degree at Nursing School. His father then taught at Birmingham’s Aston University for a time before the couple went to live in Syria. Abouharb’s mother was one of very few British people living in Damascus at that time.
After Abouharb was born in Cardiff in 1975 his mother flew with him back to Damascus when he was six weeks old. “Apparently I ended up going first class because the stewardesses liked me so much ,” Abouharb says. He remembers going to nursery school in Syria, and speaking Arabic and French as well as English. But his parents got divorced and in 1981 his mother returned to Cardiff with Rod and his brother.
While the two boys were growing up, their mother often cooked favourite dishes from Syria. “We would spend time making tabouleh from scratch, hummous, babba ghanough, and lots of lamb dishes with garlic, and Kufta kababs. We would find shops that sold Arab pastries and sweets; I remember a particular Persian supermarket in Cardiff had a wonderful selection."
Abouharb’s father died in Syria around 18 months ago.“We’d actually been trying to get him out of Damascus, but it was effectively impossible when the embassies closed”.
Abouharb describes himself as coming from "a modest background” and says “my mother worked hard as a nurse to excel in her career, put food on our table and create a warm and supportive family environment.” He believes that this background gives him “a keen understanding of the challenges faced each day by individuals and families in this country, and this really helps me to understand and to represent our diverse and mixed communities in Kensington.”
Many voters are extremely concerned by the deteriorating state of the National Health Service (NHS) after five years of the Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government. He pledges that if he is elected as an MP “I will campaign to prevent the backdoor privatisation of the NHS.”
Abouharb’s passion for supporting the NHS is at least partly due to the fact that many members of his family have worked in it. “My mum was an orthopaedic nurse, my uncle on my mum’s side was a geneticist, my brother and sister-in-law are both general practitioner doctors working in Essex,” he says. In addition, “On my father’s side of the family I have two uncles living in Vienna who are also both general practitioners.”
He says: “I very much had a first-hand experience of the NHS growing up with both my mum and uncle working in the local Heath hospital in Cardiff. I could see the importance of both what my mum and uncle did in helping many people especially babies.” He says the NHS is an amazing institution which provides wonderful care for so many people. “We do, however, need to fund it properly and that is critical as our population ages, and new and expensive drugs that improve the well being of patients become available.” He thinks there is money to fund the NHS long-term, for example in the form of the many tens of billions of pounds in avoided, evaded and uncollected tax.