X Factor winner voted “most influential woman of century”

Leona Lewis beats Pankhurst, Thatcher, Lady Di.

That bastion of quality-free newspapers for Londoners, Metro, has shone an unfortunate light on the average demographic of its readership, with a survey asking them to vote for their most influential female Londoner of the past century. The winner? Leona Lewis, the 25-year-old X Factor winner of 2006.

In a poll to coincide with International Women's Day, Lewis beat some reasonably stiff competition, though it was never going to be a fair fight. How could the likes of Emmeline Pankhurst, leader of the British suffragette movement, or even Margaret Thatcher compete with a pop star who's been in the limelight for a solid four years?

To be fair, Leona Lewis is no marketing gimmick. She attended the Sylvia Young Theatre School, the Italia Conti Academy and the BRIT School, where she learned to play the guitar and piano, writing her first song at the age of 12 and releasing her first album at 17. But it was The X Factor and her mentor Simon Cowell who really made her.

With its £1m recording contract prize, The X Factor helped Lewis's debut single, "A Moment Like This", break a world record after it was downloaded 50,000 times in 30 minutes, going on to become the 2006 UK Christmas number-one single, outselling the rest of the Top 40's sales combined. She's since had three successful albums, sold the obligatory perfume and autobiography, and last year unleashed her own fashion label, whose main theme seemed to be a massive pair of lips standing in for some sort of postmodern boob tube.

But let's not forget that voice, of which the Daily Telegraph music critic Neil McCormick said: "Her mezzo-soprano range allows her to take melodies from luxurious low notes to high-flying falsetto, gliding with elegant power and impressive control through all kinds of fluctuations and modulations." A bit like Whitney Houston, then.

Nonetheless, one still wonders just how she came to be voted the most influential female Londoner of the past century. Not the past decade, or past four years – the past century. Besides Pankhurst and Thatcher, Lewis beat, in no particular order, the likes of Diana, Tracey Emin, Martha Lane Fox, Judi Dench, Vivienne Westwood and even – heavens above – the-Krays-are-all-right Barbara Windsor.

But what's this – a fix? It seems that while the headline for the story reads "Leona Lewis wins London's most influential woman vote", the actual poll appears to have asked its readers, "Who is your favourite influential London woman?"

While few outside of what Metro calls its "valuable 18-to-44-year-old, full-time working urbanite audience" would reasonably consider Lewis more influential than the likes of Pankhurst, it's not hard to see why she might be considered more of a "favourite" than Thatcher.

The fact that Leona Lewis left her Hackney home for a million-pound LA pad almost as soon as the ink dried on her lucrative contract failed to deter Metro readers from voting her most influential female Londoner. After all, she has said that while she loves her Stateside mansion, Hackney will always be her true home. Metro reader surveys: what's to criticise?

Jason Stamper is editor of Computer Business Review

India Bourke
Show Hide image

Pegida UK: the new face of Britain’s far-right movement, and how to challenge it

“Let them drink tea,” Birmingham tells Islamophobes.

“Spooky,” is how Pegida UK – the latest branch of a global, anti-Islam, protest group  chooses to describe its silent march on the outskirts of Birmingham. 

“Islam is Nazism incarnate,” announces its new leader, Paul Weston, to a few hundred soggy, sober, brolly-clad protesters waving “Trump is Right” placards. 


Pegida UK protestors march through the rain. Photos: India Bourke

Such numbers are a far cry from the tens of thousands who attended the movement’s inaugural rallies in Germany in 2014, in response to the perceived “Islamisation” of Europe. And they would be derisory if the cheers Weston receives from his supporters weren’t quite so chilling, nor echoed so far.

For Pegida UK is not alone. From Calais to Canberra, thousands marched in the name of the movement’s toxic platform of anti-immigration and anti-Islam last weekend. I went to see the Birmingham rally to find out why such a protest is taking place in Britain.

***

"Today is the first of many European wide demonstrations that will bring people together like never before,” Tommy Robinson, UK founder and ex-EDL leader, tells the assembled crowd. “It's planting the seed of something huge.”

Robinson hopes to exploit a gap within Britain’s far-right. Traditional groups are fractured: the British National Party was decimated at the last election, standing just eight of a previous 338 candidates. In its place, a swell of smaller, extremist bodies – from the Sigurd Legion to National Action – are pressing an ever more militant agenda. Pegida hopes to scale back the hooliganism in order to garner a wider appeal, but it shares these groups’ confrontation with Islam, and each may spur the other on.

“With Pegida we’re seeing the rise of a seminal new threat,” says Birmingham MP Liam Byrne. “In the rise of Isis and politicians like Donald Trump, you have forces determined to promote a clash of civilisations between Islam and the West. Pegida is trying to surf that wave and make sure it crashes on our shores.

Opponents hope the movement will suffer the same implosion that felled the BNP and EDL, with both leaning  too much on their leaders’ personal brands. Robinson certainly seems as adolescent as ever: laughing as he swipes away a photo of a scantily-clad blonde on his iPhone screen to show me the international Pegida leadership’s “hidden” Facebook group.

Their new apparently "suited and booted" middle-class following is also less than wholehearted. One pin-striped IT executive I speak to seems embarrassed by the whole affair: “I’m just a cowardly family man who can’t see a solution being offered by mainstream politicians. I’d be sacked if they knew I was here,” he says, declining to give his name. 


A Pegida protestor poses in front of the main stage.

As long as such hesitation prevails, Pegida UK will struggle. Still, there’s a sense more needs to be done to ensure its demise.

Matching protest with counter-protest is the traditional leftwing response, and this weekend saw thousands of Pegida opponents take to the streets across Europe. Yet, in some cases, direct confrontation can risk drowning out – even alienating – the very voices it seeks to win over.

“Smash the facists into the sea,” instructed the Twitter account of the North London Antifa group ahead of last weekend’s far-right, anti-immigration protest in Dover, where injuries were sustained by demonstrators on both sides.

***

Instead, many now believe a better answer begins with that most British of pastimes: tea and a chat.

On the day before the Birmingam march, hundreds of the city’s cross-party leaders, religious figures and citizens gathered together at Birmingham Central Mosque to share their concerns over shortcake and jalebi.

“Groups like Pegida are parasites on the real concerns people have,” says John Page from the anti-extremism group Hope not Hate. “So we have to listen to these issues to close the cracks.

Initiatives around the city will attempt to take this approach, which sets a welcome lead not just for the UK, but Europe too.

The blanket smearing by groups like Pegida of Islam as a religion of sexist, homophobic Jihadi Johns places the burden of action disproportionately on the city’s Muslims. “It is our turn now to suffer these attacks,” says Mr Ali, Birmingham Central Mosque’s 42-year-old administrator. “It was the Irish, then the Jews, and now it is the time for us. But we are proud to be British Muslims and we will do what we can to defend this country.” 

A permanent visitors gallery, Visit-my-Mosque events, and publications that condemn Isis, are just some of the ways the community is challenging demonisation. It is even hosting a documentary crew from Channel 4 – a bold move in a city still reeling from Benefits Street.


Birmingham resident, Luke Holland, at a peaceful counter-protest in the city centre.

Mr Ali says: “The extreme right know nothing about Islam, but neither do many Muslim extremists.” The mosque is therefore in the process of formulating a “code of conduct”, making clear that hate speech of any kind is unacceptable.

"We have to help young people become the next Chamberlains and Cadburys and Lucases of this city," regardless of background, says Labour councillor Habib Rehman. Instead of letting them slip into despair and extremism of any kind, "we have to tell them: 'Yes You Khan!’”

Tea and talk is not the most dramatic response to Pegida’s claim it will have “100,000 decent people on the street” by the end of the year. But, in Birmingham at least – the city of Typhoo, where bhangra is as familiar as Bournville, and “No dogs, no Irish!” still sits heavy on the collective mind – tea, for now, means hope.

India Bourke is the New Statesman's editorial assistant.