The new African leaders and their unlikely British pasts

Recent elections in Tunisia, Zambia and Liberia have thrown up unconventional politicians.

All truly competitive elections ought to produce a few surprise results, and Tunisia's first democratic elections after ousting long-standing dictator Zine Al-Abedine Ben Ali was no exception. The surprise came in the form of London-based businessman Hashmi Hamdi, whose previously obscure Popular Petition Party initially won 19 seats (some were later revoked amid allegations that the party had broken electoral rules.)

Hamdi has lived in London for 22 years, where he owns an independent satellite TV station. He won on a populist campaign promising half a million jobs, which he publicised on his TV channel. He did especially well in his hometown of Sidi Bouzid -- the working-class town where frustrated vegetable seller, Mohamed Bouazizi, set himself on fire in January 2011, sparking anti-government protests in Tunisia and across the Arab world.

There are a number of reasons why his success is so improbable, not least the fact that his support for Ben Ali continued well into the revolution and there are reports that he has no plans to leave London.

One thing that shouldn't count against him, however, is his rise from relative obscurity in London, because he is one of several African politicians that share a unlikely background in the UK and have gained prominence in recent months.

In early September, staff at Newman Catholic College in North London were surprised to receive an email from learning support teacher Mohamed Ibrahim, announcing that he was resigning from his post to become deputy prime minister in Somalia's transitional government. Ibrahim had spent two years teaching at the college, but accepted the position after visiting the troubled and famine-stricken country during the school holidays. The Western-backed transitional government is still fighting Islamist group Al-Shabab for control of the country and Ibrahim may yet yearn for the comparative calm of a classroom filled with rowdy teenagers.

A couple of weeks later, on 23 September, Michael Sata was elected president of Zambia. The 74-year-old populist politician once worked at London's Victoria Station as a cleaner, and boasted to an interviewer that: "I never got any complaints about my work. I want to sweep my country even cleaner than I swept your stations."

And a familiar face popped up during Liberia's presidential election in October when former footballer George Weah became running partner to presidential hopeful Winston Tubman. Weah played for Chelsea, Manchester City and a number of other European clubs before making an unsuccessful bid for the Liberian presidency in 2005. On 8 November, Tubman, flanked by Weah, will be facing Nobel Peace Prize winner Ellen Johnson-Sirleaf in the run-off elections.

These politicians provide an interesting contrast to the scores of post-independence leaders who have passed through Britain's more conventional training centres -- the parliamentarians, monarchs and despots who have been whipped into shape at Sandhurst or who have passed through British universities.

Politicians of all political persuasions have been drawn from a small pool of British universities. Nelson Mandela and Robert Mugabe may have proved very different leaders, but both are law graduates from the University of London external programme. India and Pakistan rarely see eye to eye but have historically favoured Oxford graduates as prime ministers: India has appointed two Oxford alumni as prime ministers, Pakistan four. A shared education needn't lead to shared political values, it seems.

So while it would be great to conclude that these African politicians with new and unusual backgrounds could be a sign of a new politics, this probably isn't the case. It would also be unwise to draw too many conclusions from four separate anecdotes.

What can be said, however, is that in the often murky, nepositic world of politics, the introduction of a few outsiders is usually a good thing. It's just a shame that Hashmi Hamdi is neither a genuine outsider, nor a credible candidate.

Sophie McBain is a staff writer for Spear's. She previously lived in Tripoli.

Sophie McBain is a freelance writer based in Cairo. She was previously an assistant editor at the New Statesman.

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Why are boundary changes bad for Labour?

New boundaries, a smaller House of Commons and the shift to individual electoral registration all tilt the electoral battlefield further towards the Conservatives. Why?

The government has confirmed it will push ahead with plans to reduce the House of Commons to 600 seats from 650.  Why is that such bad news for the Labour Party? 

The damage is twofold. The switch to individual electoral registration will hurt Labour more than its rivals. . Constituency boundaries in Britain are drawn on registered electors, not by population - the average seat has around 70,000 voters but a population of 90,000, although there are significant variations within that. On the whole, at present, Labour MPs tend to have seats with fewer voters than their Conservative counterparts. These changes were halted by the Liberal Democrats in the coalition years but are now back on course.

The new, 600-member constituencies will all but eliminate those variations on mainland Britain, although the Isle of Wight, and the Scottish island constituencies will remain special cases. The net effect will be to reduce the number of Labour seats - and to make the remaining seats more marginal. (Of the 50 seats that would have been eradicated had the 2013 review taken place, 35 were held by Labour, including deputy leader Tom Watson's seat of West Bromwich East.)

Why will Labour seats become more marginal? For the most part, as seats expand, they will take on increasing numbers of suburban and rural voters, who tend to vote Conservative. The city of Leicester is a good example: currently the city sends three Labour MPs to Westminster, each with large majorities. Under boundary changes, all three could become more marginal as they take on more wards from the surrounding county. Liz Kendall's Leicester West seat is likely to have a particularly large influx of Tory voters, turning the seat - a Labour stronghold since 1945 - into a marginal. 

The pattern is fairly consistent throughout the United Kingdom - Labour safe seats either vanishing or becoming marginal or even Tory seats. On Merseyside, three seats - Frank Field's Birkenhead, a Labour seat since 1950, and two marginal Labour held seats, Wirral South and Wirral West - will become two: a safe Labour seat, and a safe Conservative seat on the Wirral. Lillian Greenwood, the Shadow Transport Secretary, would see her Nottingham seat take more of the Nottinghamshire countryside, becoming a Conservative-held marginal. 

The traffic - at least in the 2013 review - was not entirely one-way. Jane Ellison, the Tory MP for Battersea, would find herself fighting a seat with a notional Labour majority of just under 3,000, as opposed to her current majority of close to 8,000. 

But the net effect of the boundary review and the shrinking of the size of the House of Commons would be to the advantage of the Conservatives. If the 2015 election had been held using the 2013 boundaries, the Tories would have a majority of 22 – and Labour would have just 216 seats against 232 now.

It may be, however, that Labour dodges a bullet – because while the boundary changes would have given the Conservatives a bigger majority, they would have significantly fewer MPs – down to 311 from 330, a loss of 19 members of Parliament. Although the whips are attempting to steady the nerves of backbenchers about the potential loss of their seats, that the number of Conservative MPs who face involuntary retirement due to boundary changes is bigger than the party’s parliamentary majority may force a U-Turn.

That said, Labour’s relatively weak electoral showing may calm jittery Tory MPs. Two months into Ed Miliband’s leadership, Labour averaged 39 per cent in the polls. They got 31 per cent of the vote in 2015. Two months into Tony Blair’s leadership, Labour were on 53 per cent of the vote. They got 43 per cent of the vote. A month and a half into Jeremy Corbyn’s leadership, Labour is on 31 per cent of the vote.  A Blair-style drop of ten points would see the Tories net 388 seats under the new boundaries, with Labour on 131. A smaller Miliband-style drop would give the Conservatives 364, and leave Labour with 153 MPs.  

On Labour’s current trajectory, Tory MPs who lose out due to boundary changes may feel comfortable in their chances of picking up a seat elsewhere. 

Stephen Bush is editor of the Staggers, the New Statesman’s political blog. He usually writes about politics.