Could Danny Beales be the man to unseat Boris Johnson from his west London constituency? Image: Danny Beales
“My sense in the country is that people feel there’s been 13 years of the Conservatives in charge and there’s not really anything they can point to that has progressed, that’s got better,” says Danny Beales, a bright-eyed Labour councillor in Camden on a sunny spring morning. “And they’re fed up.”
There is certainly something in the air in British politics. A sense of stagnation and coming change. Food prices and energy bills have gone through the roof while a seemingly endless stream of political scandals and self-imposed economic crises put the Conservative Party on the floor in the public polls.
Labour had their biggest lead in 20 years when Rishi Sunak became PM in October. He has spent six months clawing back some sense of parity, but Labour are still 14 points ahead as we approach May’s local elections, widely seen as a portent for the general election due in 2024.
That’s when Danny Beales will be standing for election in his home constituency of Uxbridge and South Ruislip, in west London. It’s also the seat Boris Johnson has held since 2015.
“I think we’re so far from a general election that it’s so hard to say,” Beales says of his chances against a man often referred to as an election-winning machine. “My sense is that people are frustrated, they’re fed up, they feel worse off, fundamentally. That’s the general feeling, I think, of the constituency. And probably the country.”
Beales had a difficult upbringing in the area. The only son of a single parent, his mum suffered repeat redundancies during his childhood, meaning they were homeless twice in his teenage years.
The first time, like so many families in similar situations across the country, they applied for homelessness support at Hillingdon Borough council only to be told there weren’t any homes available. They were added to a waiting list but decided to move in with his grandparents in Northampton.
“It’s the traditional story of single parents or single earners on a low income,” he says. “As soon as you get a bit of an economic shock or unexpected events, that can knock you off course, quite considerably.”
Once mum TIffany was back on her feet financially they were able to move back to Hillingdon, into a privately rented home. But it wasn’t long before another redundancy and they were made homeless a second time. After living in a bed and breakfast for a while, the pair were moved to more secure temporary accommodation and then, eventually, a council house back in Northampton.
“It had a massive effect on our emotional and mental health,” Beales continues, matter-of-factly. “My mum suffered quite significantly during these periods, and my own well-being too. But I was always very fortunate, I was quite a good student and very lucky to get good grades.”
The education maintenance allowance (EMA), which gives financial support to young people aged 16 to 19 to stay in school, meant he could carry on to get his A-Levels rather than drop out. By that point he had already joined the Labour Party, frustrated by the injustice of his mother working two jobs and still struggling to make ends meet, inspired to help find solutions for working people.
He studied politics and social policy at the London School of Economics before embarking on a joint career in campaigning and communications for health charities and progressing in the Labour Party.
Without the support he received from his mother, teachers and support services as a teen, his life could be completely different, he says. But the opportunities to get such support have vanished since.
The EMA was one of the first things cut in England by the coalition government in 2010. University fees have sky-rocketed as government support has been rolled back. Housing waiting lists are longer, inflation has hit its highest in 45 years, wages have largely stagnated, child poverty has risen steadily, millions use food banks to get by.
Almost all the services which gave Beales, his mother and people like them the support to dig themselves out of a difficult situation have disappeared or deteriorated. And that is a political choice, not an economic one.
“The government can find the money in the budget to help millionaire pensioners, it can find very significant amounts of funding for PPE contracts for their mates,” he says. “But it seems whenever the ordinary working person needs a pay rise, or a vital service that those people rely on needs funding, we can’t afford it as a nation, we need to tighten our belts.”
Which brings us back to the current situation. Workers across the public and private sector have been striking for months to get a pay rise in the face of inflation, with limited success. The government is refusing to budge when it comes to doctors and nurses in the NHS, some of whom haven’t had a real-terms pay rise in over a decade. But the health service remains at or near the top of priorities for voters, including in Beales’ prospective constituency.
“I met a lifelong Conservative voter very much like my grandfather a couple of weeks ago,” he says. The man had always voted Conservative but his wife needed a new hip. Faced with a two-year waiting list for an operation, the couple felt they had little choice but to pay for private medical care out of their own pocket.
“He said: ‘It doesn’t seem right that we paid all our life and we believe in the NHS but we couldn’t live like that for two years’,” he continues.
“You can’t expect people to live years on waiting lists suffering in pain and agony. And I think that’s a case in point, people generally feel that things have been driven down, services are being driven down and the NHS has been appallingly managed by the government.”
Staff at the local Hillingdon Hospital are doing a brilliant job in terrible circumstances, he stresses. It’s one of the “phantom” 40 new hospitals Johnson promised to build in his 2019 election manifesto which turned out to be largely a redevelopment of some existing buildings. Four years on, the work still hasn’t started.
Johnson is “more of a celebrity than a politician” and a “completely Marmite” character.. Having recently quit his day job to commit full time to the Labour Party, be it as a councillor in Camden or canvassing public opinion in Uxbridge and South Ruislip, he senses change in the air.
“It comes up quite a lot of [Johnson] being quite an absentee local MP,” he says. “The previous Conservative MP, John Randall, was very well respected by all sides locally, many Labour voters would say he’s a good constituency MP. You just don’t get that at the moment with Boris Johnson. And I think everyone admits locally, he doesn’t deliver for the community. He hasn’t got any tangible success.”
It’s hard to avoid seeing the parallels with the rest of the country, as Beales is only too keen to point out.
“Even on the things that they’re judging themselves by, they’re failing,” he says. “They’re not controlling inflation, they’re not growing the economy. They’re not stopping small boats. Anything that even they say are the real issues we need to solve immediately are getting worse, not better.”
But, of course, a week is a long time in politics. The 18 months until the next general election could feel like a lifetime. Until then, Beales will continue knocking on doors, listening to voters and making his case for a pragmatic social support system that works for everyone.
He’s under no illusions it will be easy. The economy could rally and prove the Conservative Party right, despite its years of undermining public services. The Labour Party could continue to tear itself apart, caught between the need to attract a voting public that has shifted to the right while staying true to its roots on the left. But he’s here for the challenge.
“If you want to do things, if you want to make progress, you have to find a way of making that work financially, practically,” he says. “And in terms of getting support from people, that requires flexibility. And that’s not a bad thing. That’s a good thing.”
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