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Inside the Saif house: Laurie Penny pays a house call

The UK home of Colonel Gaddafi’s son is in the hands of Libyan exiles. This is what it’s like from within.

"My family had to leave Libya just to survive," says a young bearded man in spectacles, perching awkwardly on a white leather sofa. We are in the front room of Saif al-Islam al-Gaddafi's mansion in Hampstead Garden Suburb, recently expropriated by activists working in alliance with Libyan exiles. An hour earlier, I had passed through an open window near some ugly imported ferns belonging to Muammar al-Gaddafi's son, having been invited to meet the members of the new Free Libyan Embassy.

We drink stewed tea from Saif's best china and eat cheese sandwiches using his silver cutlery, while the young man, Abdulla, tells me about how his uncle was "disappeared" by Saif's father. "In Libya, people disappear all the time. There was a prison massacre where 1,200 people died. They poured cement over the bodies." Abdulla nervously adjusts his glasses. "It's important that people know we're not creating a civil war for no reason."

Nearly every room in this enormous house boasts a large, flat-screen television. The occupiers have set each one to al-Jazeera, for rolling coverage of the people's revolutions that are sweeping the Arab world. Televised gunfire echoes in the marble hallway as Jay, 25, explains how activists from the London squatter movement took over the Gaddafi mansion, moving in secretly and putting up notices declaring their intention to hold the empty house under English common law. "We wanted to show our solidarity the best way we know how," he says.

Protestors on the roof of Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's Hampstead house.

“It's a symbolic and practical reclamation of private property that belongs to the Libyan people. It's about their struggle, which is why the place has been handed over to the Libyans as a place to organise and a safe space for refugees," Jay says. "People have been arriving in support from all over the UK." The tabloids have portrayed the occupiers as drunken anarchists but this is, in Jay's words, "total bollocks". "On the first night, people came down thinking there would be a squat party and we turned them away. They didn't seem to realise how seriously we're taking this," he explains.

“At first, we were elated that we'd managed to pull it off. Then the Libyans turned up and they were elated. But once they started to get reports about family and friends being killed, the atmosphere changed. We were watching Zawiyah burning on al-Jazeera and someone saw his own house. It was terrible."

Jay takes me on a tour over four floors of hushed opulence, each several times the size of an ordinary London flat. "It's worth nearly £11m," he says. Under the kitchen is a cosy entertainment complex, complete with pool, Jacuzzi, sauna and a private cinema done out in suede, the pews so thick and warm you could sleep on them – which people have been doing. On the corner of one aisle a bare duvet lies, neatly folded. Everything here is white, bright and glistening: white leather sofas, marble floors, silver candlesticks adorning pristine white walls. The only note of colour is in one of the guest bedrooms, where a Libyan flag has been draped over the TV.

Fuelling anger

Fearing the spectacle of bailiffs dragging Libyans out of the private property of a Gaddafi, at a time when the UK government is desperately downplaying its erstwhile support for the dictator, the authorities have kept their distance. But that doesn't mean that there have been no attempts to get the occupiers to leave.

“Last night, at about four in the morning, someone came to the door," Jay says. According to Abdulla, "It was a well-dressed Arab person, [wearing] nice clothes and gold. When I asked him what he was doing here so late, he said, 'I want to make you an offer.' He told us: 'I have £40,000 in cash. You can have it if you leave immediately.' No amount of money could make us leave this house. It's not a financial issue."

Libyan exiles inside Saif al-Islam Gaddafi's house.

On the sofa opposite, a quiet man called Ambarak suddenly speaks up in Arabic. "What's a life worth?" he says, as Abdulla translates softly. "What are 100,000 lives worth?" Ambarak perches on the edge of the sofa, looking out of place in his keffiyeh and scuffed trainers. "I'm talking about people being shot by snipers in the street. I'm talking about family members selling dry bread to live.

“They ask what the west should do, but they've known about [Muammar] Gaddafi for years," he continues in broken English. "They did nothing. The petrol . . ." – he rubs his fingers together in a "money" gesture, grinning without humour. "My brother has disappeared in the fighting. We haven't heard from him, we have no way of contacting him." Ambarak goes very quiet. "Excuse me, please. I must go and pray."

"The resources that come out of Libya should belong to the people but that petrol money goes somewhere else," says Abdulla. "All those close to Gaddafi have places like this to live. There are some who are heartless and will do anything for a comfortable life."

Ambarak's family is in Misurata, where fierce fighting continues. "They say on the phone that they can hear shooting and tanks are coming down the street. My cousin has died, [as have] my friend, my neighbours."

An influx of neighbours bearing food terminates the interview. A young man wearing a Libyan flag like a cape takes the cups politely to the sink. He is a long way from home. "We all want to go home," says Abdulla. "But not to Libya as it is now."

The Libyans involved in this article wanted their names to be known; other names have been changed. Anyone wishing to support the Free Libyan Embassy can send a donation to wmclibya.org

Laurie Penny is a contributing editor to the New Statesman. She is the author of five books, most recently Unspeakable Things.

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Who will win in Copeland? The Labour heartland hangs in the balance

The knife-edge by-election could end 82 years of Labour rule on the West Cumbrian coast.

Fine, relentless drizzle shrouds Whitehaven, a harbour town exposed on the outer edge of Copeland, West Cumbria. It is the most populous part of the coastal north-western constituency, which takes in everything from this old fishing port to Sellafield nuclear power station to England’s tallest mountain Scafell Pike. Sprawling and remote, it protrudes from the heart of the Lake District out into the Irish Sea.

Billy, a 72-year-old Whitehaven resident, is out for a morning walk along the marina with two friends, his woolly-hatted head held high against the whipping rain. He worked down the pit at the Haig Colliery for 27 years until it closed, and now works at Sellafield on contract, where he’s been since the age of 42.

“Whatever happens, a change has got to happen,” he says, hands stuffed into the pockets of his thick fleece. “If I do vote, the Bootle lass talks well for the Tories. They’re the favourites. If me mam heard me saying this now, she’d have battered us!” he laughs. “We were a big Labour family. But their vote has gone. Jeremy Corbyn – what is he?”

The Conservatives have their sights on traditional Labour voters like Billy, who have been returning Labour MPs for 82 years, to make the first government gain in a by-election since 1982.

Copeland has become increasingly marginal, held with just 2,564 votes by former frontbencher Jamie Reed, who resigned from Parliament last December to take a job at the nuclear plant. He triggered a by-election now regarded by all sides as too close to call. “I wouldn’t put a penny on it,” is how one local activist sums up the mood.

There are 10,000 people employed at the Sellafield site, and 21,000 jobs are promised for nearby Moorside – a project to build Europe’s largest nuclear power station now thrown into doubt, with Japanese company Toshiba likely to pull out.

Tories believe Jeremy Corbyn’s stance on nuclear power (he limply conceded it could be part of the “energy mix” recently, but his long prevarication betrayed his scepticism) and opposition to Trident, which is hosted in the neighbouring constituency of Barrow-in-Furness, could put off local employees who usually stick to Labour.

But it’s not that simple. The constituency may rely on nuclear for jobs, but I found a notable lack of affection for the industry. While most see the employment benefits, there is less enthusiasm for Sellafield being part of their home’s identity – particularly in Whitehaven, which houses the majority of employees in the constituency. Also, unions representing Sellafield workers have been in a dispute for months with ministers over pension cut plans.

“I worked at Sellafield for 30 years, and I’m against it,” growls Fred, Billy’s friend, a retiree of the same age who also used to work at the colliery. “Can you see nuclear power as safer than coal?” he asks, wild wiry eyebrows raised. “I’m a pit man; there was just nowhere else to work [when the colliery closed]. The pension scheme used to be second-to-none, now they’re trying to cut it, changing the terms.”

Derek Bone, a 51-year-old who has been a storeman at the plant for 15 years, is equally unconvinced. I meet him walking his dog along the seafront. “This county, Cumbria, Copeland, has always been a nuclear area – whether we like it or don’t,” he says, over the impatient barks of his Yorkshire terrier Milo. “But people say it’s only to do with Copeland. It ain’t. It employs a lot of people in the UK, outside the county – then they’re spending the money back where they’re from, not here.”

Such views might be just enough of a buffer against the damage caused by Corbyn’s nuclear reluctance. But the problem for Labour is that neither Fred nor Derek are particularly bothered about the result. While awareness of the by-election is high, many tell me that they won’t be voting this time. “Jeremy Corbyn says he’s against it [nuclear], now he’s not, and he could change his mind – I don’t believe any of them,” says Malcolm Campbell, a 55-year-old lorry driver who is part of the nuclear supply chain.

Also worrying for Labour is the deprivation in Copeland. Everyone I speak to complains about poor infrastructure, shoddy roads, derelict buildings, and lack of investment. This could punish the party that has been in power locally for so long.

The Tory candidate Trudy Harrison, who grew up in the coastal village of Seascale and now lives in Bootle, at the southern end of the constituency, claims local Labour rule has been ineffective. “We’re isolated, we’re remote, we’ve been forgotten and ignored by Labour for far too long,” she says.

I meet her in the town of Millom, at the southern tip of the constituency – the opposite end to Whitehaven. It centres on a small market square dominated by a smart 19th-century town hall with a mint-green domed clock tower. This is good Tory door-knocking territory; Millom has a Conservative-led town council.

While Harrison’s Labour opponents are relying on their legacy vote to turn out, Harrison is hoping that the same people think it’s time for a change, and can be combined with the existing Tory vote in places like Millom. “After 82 years of Labour rule, this is a huge ask,” she admits.

Another challenge for Harrison is the threat to services at Whitehaven’s West Cumberland Hospital. It has been proposed for a downgrade, which would mean those seeking urgent care – including children, stroke sufferers, and those in need of major trauma treatment and maternity care beyond midwifery – would have to travel the 40-mile journey to Carlisle on the notoriously bad A595 road.

Labour is blaming this on Conservative cuts to health spending, and indeed, Theresa May dodged calls to rescue the hospital in her campaign visit last week. “The Lady’s Not For Talking,” was one local paper front page. It also helps that Labour’s candidate, Gillian Troughton, is a St John Ambulance driver, who has driven the dangerous journey on a blue light.

“Seeing the health service having services taken away in the name of centralisation and saving money is just heart-breaking,” she tells me. “People are genuinely frightened . . . If we have a Tory MP, that essentially gives them the green light to say ‘this is OK’.”

But Harrison believes she would be best-placed to reverse the hospital downgrade. “[I] will have the ear of government,” she insists. “I stand the very best chance of making sure we save those essential services.”

Voters are concerned about the hospital, but divided on the idea that a Tory MP would have more power to save it.

“What the Conservatives are doing with the hospitals is disgusting,” a 44-year-old carer from Copeland’s second most-populated town of Egremont tells me. Her partner, Shaun Grant, who works as a labourer, agrees. “You have to travel to Carlisle – it could take one hour 40 minutes; the road is unpredictable.” They will both vote Labour.

Ken, a Conservative voter, counters: “People will lose their lives over it – we need someone in the circle, who can influence the government, to change it. I think the government would reward us for voting Tory.”

Fog engulfs the jagged coastline and rolling hills of Copeland as the sun begins to set on Sunday evening. But for most voters and campaigners here, the dense grey horizon is far clearer than what the result will be after going to the polls on Thursday.

Anoosh Chakelian is senior writer at the New Statesman.