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UK election 2024: In Leicester South, independent Shockat Adam wants to lead anti-Labour revolt

Adam wants to unseat the incumbent Labour MP Jonathan Ashworth, as the party designates Leicester South a 'battleground area'
Independent candidate Shockat Adam, 51 (Imran Mulla/MEE)
By Imran Mulla in Leicester

Leicester South has been a safe seat for the Labour Party for decades. Apart from a brief Liberal Democrat interlude in 2004 and 2005, widely seen as a protest against the Iraq war, the East Midlands constituency has had a Labour MP since 1987. 

For the first time in decades, that could change. Last week a report revealed that Labour has designated Leicester South a “battleground” area and is encouraging its activists to campaign there.

The likely reason is an independent candidate with no previous involvement in politics: Shockat Adam, a 51-year-old local.

Adam, who like many in the city has Indian roots, has lived in Leicester since the age of three, when his family moved from Malawi to England. “Being British is one of the things that makes me more proud than anything else,” he told MEE.

An optician by training, he has directed multiple optical practices in the region and has also been involved for years in local Muslim community activism.

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Often seen in the city smartly dressed in a suit and tie, Adam is well-spoken and jovial on the campaign trail, regularly stopping to greet passersby who recognise him. 

It was Israel’s war on Gaza that encouraged him to move into politics. 

The siege and bombardment of Gaza after the Hamas-led attack on Israel on 7 October last year has clearly had a significant impact in Leicester South.

Around 30 percent of the population are Muslim - over 30,000 people. And they come from diverse backgrounds, though mainly Gujarati Indian. Palestinian flags are everywhere. On multiple roads in the area, they’re hanging from the upstairs window of nearly every house. 

Palestine flags hang from nearly every house on Evington Valley Road
Palestine flags hang from nearly every house on Evington Valley Road (MEE/Imran Mulla)

One large mosque in the constituency, Masjid Umar, has a Palestinian flag displayed at the front of its prayer hall. Street stalls raising money for Gaza are a common sight.

And in the last few weeks, Adam’s face has become exceedingly prominent. On Evington Road, the site of a dizzying array of takeaways and dessert parlours, nearly every establishment displays his campaign poster. 

The Leicester South constituency also includes the University of Leicester main campus and is home to a large student population, which is largely sympathetic to the Palestinian cause.

It’s not hard to see why the Labour high command is concerned.

'Like a kick in the teeth'

In Leicester, Britain's most multicultural city, concern for the suffering in Gaza - and an accompanying fury with Britain’s political class - is palpable.

When it comes to Labour, there’s a distinct feeling of betrayal. 

“I never have been into politics and always voted Labour, and I think that was because we follow the community and we follow the crowd like sheep,” said local resident Rahima Dakri, who has lived in Leicester all her life.

'I never have been into politics and always voted Labour, and I think that was because we follow the community and we follow the crowd like sheep'

- Rahima Dakri, local resident

It was Gaza that politicised her. “I felt sick to my stomach,” she said, that “even if the people that we voted for didn’t have the power to stop certain things, to learn that they weren’t saying no.”

Since 2011, the constituency’s MP has been Jon Ashworth, elected four times into the role. Since 2015 he has been a shadow minister; from 2016 to 2021 he was shadow health secretary and most recently, until the election was called, Ashworth has been shadow paymaster general.

MEE asked Ashworth for an interview but didn’t receive a response by the time of publication.

Many people MEE spoke to in Stoneygate, an area in Leicester South, said they voted for Ashworth in past elections. Some even campaigned for Labour. 

Now they’re supporting Adam. 

“I always voted for Labour Party and I’m a paid member,” Mohammed Arif, general secretary of the British Pakistani Association Leicestershire, told MEE.

“To see how Labour Party reacted when Muslims requested, and not only Muslims but actually the public at large, through marches in London and at a local level - when we begged the Labour Party to support a ceasefire,” the party didn’t.

“That really hurt. It’s almost like a kick in the teeth from your own brother and family. Labour Party was our family, and unfortunately they didn’t support us at the time when we needed them.” 

Mohammed Arif, General Secretary of the British Pakistani Association Leicestershire (third from left) talks to candidate Shockat Adam in a meeting of the local British Pakistani community
Mohammed Arif, general secretary of the British Pakistani Association Leicestershire (third from left) talks to candidate Shockat Adam (MEE/Imran Mulla)

Arif said he spoke to Ashworth about Gaza last last year. Ashworth abstained on a vote on a ceasefire in Gaza called by the Scottish National Party in parliament in November. Starmer had ordered MPs not to vote for the ceasefire, although 56 Labour MPs defied him. 

Adam told MEE he decided to stand for parliament in an effort to disrupt the two-party system and represent people who feel they’re not being heard by the political class. 

“This is my home, this is my children’s home,” he told MEE. “I love Leicester. I love this country and that is why we have to make sure that we have a voice representing everybody.”

He said he’d previously canvassed for Labour but is now disenchanted with the party.

“The Palestinian cause is very close to the community’s heart yet when they needed a loud and clear and distinct voice it was lacking.

“How can we stand by when we are seeing massacre upon massacre?”

Seeking support 

It’s true that support for Adam seems to be particularly strong amongst people who care deeply about Gaza, who are mainly (though not exclusively) Muslims.

But Adam is keen not to be perceived as a one-issue candidate, talking to voters about the cost of living, housing issues and NHS waiting times - an issue he says is important to him, as someone who works as a healthcare professional.

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Muslim voters who spoke to MEE would regularly bring these issues up, alongside Gaza. 

Adam is also intent on winning support from across Leicester South’s diverse community, not just from Muslims.

In a popular Portuguese cafe he gave a speech to a crowd of mostly Portuguese punters. Most were drinking, and music was playing in the background. 

Adam talked about celebrating Leicester’s multiculturalism and opposing divisive politics. “We are living in a world now where people sometimes try to divide us,” he told the crowd, “and that’s why it’s so important that we all work together to make sure we all stay united.”

The cafe owner, George, who has lived in Leicester for 33 years, told MEE he plans to vote for Adam, echoing the candidate’s comments about unity and diversity.

“I grew up with people from the Hindu, Sikh, the white community, the Muslim community,” Adam told MEE.

“It will be an absolute honour for me, from Leicester, who understands the heartbeat of this city, to represent every facet of it.”

'We need a fresh change'

Close by, next to the popular shop Pak Foods, MEE followed Adam and a few volunteers as they went door-knocking.

“My team includes hundreds of people,” Adam said - all volunteers, some of them canvassing late into each evening. 

Some of the people the campaigners spoke to while door-knocking were adamant that they aren’t knowledgeable about politics at all, but seemed enthused by Adam’s policy platform. 

“We need a fresh change,” said one elderly man, Khaled. “Simple as that. We’ve got a chance and a brother that could represent us as a community. That’s what we need.”

He felt the community electing Adam would send a message to the country at large: “Let them know we are valuable as well.” 

At a fundraising event organised by local charity Humanity Without Borders, Adam received a particularly popular reception. “He’s out there to look out for us,” said one cheerful woman. “I think he would do something good for our community.”

A young man who introduced himself as Khalel at the event was dressed in a Spiderman mask, thobe and kuffiyeh to raise money for Gaza. “I made this suit, it’s an Arab spiderman,” he explained.

He said he had never voted in the past, but was planning to vote for Adam. “No one should suffer anymore, and the war, the genocide, is heartbreaking.”

A man dressed as "Arab Spiderman" poses next to Shockat Adam at a charity event
A man dressed as "Arab Spiderman" poses next to Shockat Adam at a charity event (Imran Mulla/MEE)

Arif of the British Pakistani Association Leicestershire suggested that most local Muslims he knew were planning to vote for Adam. 

“Whether you’re a Pakistani, you’re a Gujarati, you’re an Indian Muslim, you’re African Muslims, you’re Arab - that’s the feeling we’re getting here in Leicester.”

Adam has an uphill battle ahead. Jon Ashworth won the 2019 election with a thumping majority of over 26,000 and is likely to retain much of that support, even if he loses the votes of many Muslims and others unhappy with Labour’s direction under Keir Starmer. 

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The Green Party, which received 1,177 votes in 2019, is also fielding a parliamentary candidate against Ashworth, Sharmen Rahman - who was blocked from a parliamentary longlist by Labour in 2022 for liking tweets.

She’s vocally pro-Palestinian and also taps into concerns that many members of the local community have, including disappointment with Labour.

The party does have a support base in the city, reflected in its three council seats representing the inner city Castle ward. Nevertheless, the people MEE spoke to thought Adam would receive more votes.

Adam’s team insists he can win and his supporters are optimistic that they can at least dent Ashworth's majority.

The independent's ideal scenario is for thousands people who have never voted before to turn out for him. Turnout in 2019 was 67 percent.

MEE asked Adam why people should vote for an independent candidate rather than a party. Most politicians are restrained by their party leadership in what they say, he replied. “I’m only answerable to the constituency.”

He said he hopes independents can win seats across the country and put pressure on a Labour government in parliament. “If they enjoy a huge majority, we need people to hold them accountable.” 

Whatever the outcome in Leicester South on 4 July, this election feels distinctly different from previous years. Labour has a fight on its hands.

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