Kemi Adegoke: A trailblazer in United Kingdom politics

Tuesday, May 4, 2010

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Kemi Adegoke

It’s a sunny Saturday afternoon in Brixton and Kemi Adegoke, the would-be Conservative MP, is preparing for one of the biggest challenges of her campaign so far: convincing traditionally Labour-supporting Nigerians to vote for her.

Ms. Adegoke, the feisty, outspoken Conservative candidate for Dulwich and West Norwood in south London, has decided to target a part of her constituency that has a high concentration of Nigerians, an area where her party rarely ventures.

“People say Conservatives never come here and I’m trying to prove them wrong,” she says. “No one campaigns in Brixton because Labour thinks it’s so safe they don’t do anything and we don’t have the resources.” The Dulwich and West Norwood constituency is currently held by the Labour Party and Adegoke will have to defeat Tessa Jowell, a government minister, if she is to achieve her goal of becoming an MP. Comparing her chances with those of Chuka Umunna and Chi Onwurah, the other candidates of Nigerian descent who are running for the House of Commons and are inheriting safe Labour seats, Adegoke says she has a tougher job.

“I have a much harder task because I’m trying to get rid of a Labour MP,” she says. “They’re not fighting a campaign. They’re just doing publicity. I’m actually fighting.” On the day NEXT catches up with her, Adegoke has bolstered her regular campaign team, drafting in a few of her Nigerian friends and members of her family, including her father, Femi, who recently flew in from Lagos. “They will be able to talk to Nigerians in a way that nobody else will,” says Adegoke who was born in the UK but lived in Nigeria until the age of 16.

Many of the Nigerians in this part of Brixton are recent migrants who tend to live in council flats and rarely vote because they are unfamiliar with the political system, Adegoke explains. Those who are politically aware are most likely to vote for Labour, because they see the party as being the most friendly to immigrants.

“It’s the papers,” Adegoke says. “Many of them may not have come into the country legally. (They believe) Labour regularised them. It’s just fascinating. They don’t care about their standard of living or what the schools are offering their kids. It’s just ‘my immigration papers.’ This is the toughest place for us. The Nigerians who live in other areas are a lot more amenable because they’re wealthier.”

Ms Adegoke wants more Nigerians to give the Conservative Party a second look because she believes it is a party that encourages people to aim higher. “The Labour Party is not a party of aspiration. It’s a party of handouts,” she says. “There’s a left-wing ideology that pushes black people not to aim high. If you look at the range of jobs Nigerians are doing in this country, they almost always take a step or two steps down. Very few people come here and continue where they left off. The education system is where it starts.” The candidate tells of her own experience studying for A-levels in the British state school system. Although she wanted to study medicine at university, her teachers suggested she study nursing instead and she believes that many black children are limited in similar ways.

“There’s a problem with state education, especially with ethnic minorities,” she says. “I don’t feel they’re very aspirational when it comes to black kids.” As a black Conservative, her views sometimes come as a shock to those on the left. She says she was once slapped by a white lady at a charity event who couldn’t believe that a black African woman would choose to be a member of a party of white, middle-aged men.

“She came over to me and thought I was someone who was going to be aligned with her and I told her I disagreed fundamentally with so many things she said,” recalls Adegoke. “She said, ‘look at you, you’re not really black. You’re rich. I can tell by the way you’re dressed.’” Ms. Adegoke argues that those on the left are only interested in poor black people whom they think they can help. “The moment they feel you’re superior to them, they can be very hostile,” she says.

Ready to be convinced
Fortunately for her, the reactions of Nigerians on the streets and estates of Brixton are not as unfriendly and many are happy to speak to a fellow Nigerian. However, the word ‘Conservative’ is often enough to wipe the smile off people’s faces.

One of the first Nigerians Ms. Adegoke speaks to that day is a short, plump middle aged man who takes his time opening the door. As soon as she introduces herself as the local Conservative candidate, the man shakes his head in disgust and says: “Consa? No way. Never. Never. Ko possible.”

Adegoke responds confidently: “I have a very good chance of winning here.”

“E ba ti lo si party to favour foreigner,” the man says in a mixture of Yoruba and English, asking why she didn’t choose a party that was sympathetic to foreigners. “For 10 years, I suffered under Margaret Thatcher. I suffered a lot.” Undeterred, Ms. Adegoke appeals to his sense of patriotism as a fellow Nigerian.

“I’m working so hard. I don’t want Naijas to have no part in it,” she says passionately. “If I win without Naijas, it’s not good. Conservatives are most likely to win. They don’t need me to win but if they win, won’t it be good if I’m there rather than have no Naijas there?” By the end, she has not only convinced the man, whom she calls Uncle Sonny, to vote for her, but also to display a Conservative Party poster in his flat. In fact, when she gives him one he asks for more.

“E fun mi ni meji si. La ti fun awon eyan,” says Uncle Sonny, asking for two extra posters to give to his friends.

Adegoke is only too happy to oblige.


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