Bill Clinton was nicknamed “the comeback kid”, yet even in the US President’s roller-coaster career, he can never lay claim to having been once at the levers of power, to try to return after breaking his neck and almost losing everything that he had built up over a decade.
Yet that will be what Faz Hakim will have managed if, next Saturday, Labour party members in Croydon North select her from the shortlist to be their candidate for the forthcoming parliamentary by-election. The previous constituency MP, Malcolm Wicks, over 20 years had compiled a 16,000-vote majority, a cosy inheritance to his political successor.
The Labour shortlist, announced this week ahead of a probable November 29 by-election, is weighted towards delivering Croydon’s first woman MP, with only two men among the five. The five include the leader of Lambeth Council, Steve Reed and leading Brighton figure Simon Burgess, plus two local Labour women, Louisa Woodley and Val Shawcross. And then there’s Hakim.
It is 15 years since Hakim was called in to 10 Downing Street to be part of Tony Blair’s advisory team in the inner sanctum of the first Labour government in three decades. Since leaving the Prime Minister’s employ, she says she detached herself from the political mainstream, although spells with policy organisations such as the Commission for Equality and Human Rights indicated that she was still in some ways in the orbit of the Blairites.
Yet with her consultancy apparently thriving in advising businesses and local authorities on race issues and public relations, in 2010 Hakim nearly died. To this day, she cannot explain exactly what happened. She only knows that she was in her bathroom when she fainted, and broke her neck in three places in the fall. Being self-employed, her period of recovery left her without income and saw her life savings spent. She nearly lost her home. Yet she says, “I’m lucky to be alive.”
So matter-of-fact is Hakim about her accident, she almost forgets to mention the life-changing episode. “I must have hit my head on a wall as I fell. I’ve never fainted before or since. I did go to A &E, but after ruling out a heart attack or brain tumour they sent me home.
“I was in a huge amount of pain – I was on four types of painkillers and kept going back to my GP. Eventually, I was referred to a neurologist who sent me for a scan as he thought it might be a slipped disc. Three scans later, they realised what had really happened.”
That process took nearly two months, “in which time I was advised to be as active as possible”. That, clearly, did not help. She actually needed major surgery, and might have ended up unable to walk. “Complications meant that one of my vocal chords is now paralysed – another operation and vocal therapy means I can pretty much talk normally again but I was whispering for 18 months.
“Because I work for myself, there was no sick pay and I couldn’t work for 18 months so lost all my savings and income. All a bit of a nightmare and I did think I was going to lose my house at one point and was very lucky to have a good friend who helped out.
“I thought I would never be able to take part in politics again,” she said this week, before heading off to do some canvassing in Croydon. “That’s why I call myself an ex-politico on my Twitter profile.”
Appearances and associations are everything in politics: so just as Ed Balls sometimes finds his role in the Treasury up to 2010 awkward to explain, for Hakim, being a Muslim yet an insider in the Blair government that went to war in Iraq is potentially very uncomfortable. Unsurprisingly, she is keen to put distance between herself and the political chattering classes, saying that her experiences over the past couple of years give her a closer connection with ordinary voters.
“I still struggle to pay the mortgage every month and I know how completely stressful it can be to have that kind of instability.”
She is also very clear that she left Downing Street a year before the dodgy dossier and a desire to please George W saw Blair take Britain to war in Iraq, an issue sure to be highly sensitive still on the doorsteps of many households in Croydon.
“I left the year before 9/11 happened,” Hakim says, “so I wasn’t there for the Iraq War. But I knew from the start that it was absolutely wrong and made my views very clear as much as I could from the outside.”
Massive class difference
Hakim says that she left Downing Street unimpressed with the West Wing lifestyle of being a young advisor to the Prime Minister. “I left because I realised that I had gone straight from education to working in politics and I wanted to understand more about the city and business, and not just be a political hack going from one political or
voluntary sector job to another,” she says.
“It’s hard to explain but for someone from a fairly humble background who joined the Labour party to help people like me, government seemed to be full of people who went to Oxford or Cambridge and who spent their whole time showing off about how clever they
“I never really felt part of the team because there was such a massive class difference between us and was never impressed by all the glamour of Downing Street because for me it was never about that, it was about helping people and I think we lost our focus on that at times.”
After Downing Street, other political jobs – and controversies – did follow, including her five-year spell as a principal adviser to Trevor Phillips; Hakim was accused of being appointed without an interview, something she says was “completely false” and which she resolved in writing with the parliamentary committee that looked into the matter, “confirming that I had indeed gone through a rigorous selection procedure to get the job”.
Hakim makes much of her humble origins and rags-to-not-quite-riches backstory of coming from a hard-working Asian immigrant family. In 2012 Britain, it is a story that could readily fit in with David Cameron’s “aspirational” Tory party as easily as it does with Ed Milliband’s “One Nation” Labour party.
Hakim’s parents arrived in London in the 1960s with just £3 10s in their pockets. “They had no education but managed to set up their own local shop where my dad worked seven days a week for 30 years. I didn’t come from a political background, didn’t get any help but through sheer hard work managed to end up working for the Prime Minister.
“Over the past 12 years I have worked to build up my own small business and also with local communities both to bring them together and make sure their voice is heard nationally. That is what I think Croydon North needs from its MP.
“What I bring is a complete understanding of how hard it can be if you’re not born into a privileged background and therefore can’t get the support that those who were have. I also bring years of experience of having battled my way through national politics, an understanding of how to change policy, how to influence both politicians and government
departments and how to use the media to bring attention to an area that has been ignored for too long.
“My work in the private sector means I have the contacts and experience to know how to get business support and investment into the area and start to turn things around,” Hakim says.
Increasing community tensions
Hakim is not a local candidate, but she does demonstrate that she has done some homework about the area she is seeking to represent in parliament. “When I talk to people, the issues they constantly raise are fear of crime, lack of jobs, lack of anything for people to do or to go to locally, feeling that the north of Croydon has been ignored for decades while the centre and south have prospered and had the lion’s share of any regeneration money, and a lack of interest from the council.”
Hakim’s research with the people of Croydon North confirms what many locally fear is still bubbling under the surface, a year on from the riots of 8/8. According to Hakim, locals “talk of increasing community tensions which are not being addressed but which could explode at any point”.
She tries to play the “I’m not really a politician” card, which differentiates her from the four others on the Labour shortlist, but which only a savvy politician could really pull off. “Politicians don’t understand how difficult the recession has been for normal people,” Hakim says. “The local council spends most of the time fighting amongst itself and playing politics while real people are suffering.
“I want to give people like me a voice. People who want to work hard but may have had setbacks, who contribute to the economy through running a small business and get absolutely no support from the banks or the council and who are tired of hearing warm words about how people understand and want to help them but do nothing.” It is a message which will not be unfamiliar to Inside Croydon‘s regular reader.
Hakim’s Achille’s heel as far as her candidacy is concerned is her lack of local connections.There is a sense when she’s asked about this of the lady doth protest too much, as she rattles off where her step-granddaughter goes to primary school, that her brother lives in Croydon South, and how she visits Croydon “on an almost weekly basis”. The fact is, Hakim has never lived in Croydon, and her home is in Battersea.
This weakness is highlighted when she is asked who, locally, is supporting her campaign. For while Croydon may be twinned with Arnhem, it does not mean that locals always appreciate people who are parachuted in (look at Richard Ottaway). Shawcross and Woodley have good connections with local Labour party members, even Reed has the support of at least one Croydon councillor (who is understood to have a teaching job in Lambeth).
But asked who locally is supporting her candidacy, Hakim is unable to name anyone. “I have been out and about talking to local people for the past few weeks and have already got some support,” she says, adding, “but the campaign is just starting so watch this space.”
She has been encouraged by the reaction she has received from the people of Croydon, though. “When I tell them that I am standing, they start to get really excited about the campaign because they see that there may be the opportunity for some real change and to elect a candidate that really reflects the make up of the constituency and who really understands the issues they face and can do something about them.”
But without political support in next Saturday’s meeting from Labour’s Croydon members, such responses may count for nothing for Hakim.
Like her party colleagues, though, she pledges not to hold any other political jobs if elected as MP for Croydon North, and she would move to live in the constituency. “I will dedicate my life to making sure that Croydon North is no longer neglected,” she says. “I will do everything I can to get some real development funds into the area, to help all those hundreds of small, independent businesses get the support they deserve and to get communities to talk to each other about some of the issues which have been swept under the carpet so far.
“There is something very humbling about asking people to believe in you and to trust you to represent them. Like most people I’ve always had those doubts about ‘am I good enough?’ What I’ve realised is that it’s not about me, it’s about the issues and about using what I have learned and the contacts I have made to represent people like me at a national level.”
Faz Hakim has warmed to her theme. The woman that once worked at No 10, broke her neck and nearly died, really does think that Croydon North is on her route to a political comeback. “I am confident that out of all the candidates from all the parties, I’m in the best position to really make a change for the people of Croydon North.”
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- Cross-party tributes to late MP (bbc.co.uk)