Blur drummer and Labour candidate Dave Rowntree picked a formidable political battle when he chose to stand for the Conservative safe seat of Cities of London and Westminster. Nick Duxbury joins him for a day on the campaign trail to find out if it’s a fight he can win. Photography by Tim Foster
Sipping a coffee in Tachbrook Market in London’s Pimlico, Dave Rowntree, Labour candidate for Cities of London and Westminster and drummer in Brit-pop band Blur, is ambushed by an angry man brandishing a copy of the Daily Mail.
Stabbing at an article in the paper, he explains exactly why he will not be voting for Labour on 6 May.
‘You lot call us “bloody coffin dodgers”’ he says, referring to comments made by sacked Labour candidate Stuart MacLennan in the day’s ‘Twitter scandal’ splash. ‘I may be over 65 but I still have a vote - and it ain’t going to you.’
His ensuing rant marks the beginning of Mr Rowntree’s first day on an uphill campaign trail since Gordon Brown called the election. He has just three years’ political experience since he made his first failed bid for the Conservative safe seat of Marylebone High Street on Westminster Council. But by joining him on the stump, Inside Housing is about to find out that by placing housing - a scarce resource in this constituency better known for its luxury flats and parliamentary pads - at the heart of his electoral bid, he has become used to regular grillings from angry residents on issues that would make most politicians squirm.
This particular stranger’s attack is not about housing though, but integrity - something Mr Rowntree has rarely had cause to defend in his career to date. The man, a UKIP supporter, ends his tirade, still utterly convinced that Mr MacLennan’s views about ‘coffin dodgers’ and ‘chavs’ are typical of all Labour politicians. As he turns round and trudges back across the road, Mr Rowntree is left pensive.
‘It’s incredible how if you are in politics everyone feels you should be held accountable for everything everyone in your party says or does,’ he says. ‘It’s like people think they have a licence to rant. When Blur were at their height, I never had anyone come up and hold me responsible for the state of UK pop music, or blame me for Simon Cowell.’
Source: Tim Foster
When it comes to the blame game on housing, however, Mr Rowntree is more than ready to listen. Thus, half an hour later, he is off to the Tachbrook estate actively seeking as many complaints as he can find doors to knock on. On the way there, he explains that housing is the single biggest issue in the constituency - a Tory safe seat occupied by Mark Field who he describes as ‘nice, but a policy lightweight’.
Certainly, there can be few other areas of London where the gulf between rich and poor is more extreme. This is evidenced by the walk down the Tachbrook Road which divides the Tachbrook estate from the row of pristine white million pound Victorian homes - the better known face of well-healed Pimlico. In the south the estates are suffering from chronic shortages of social homes - a legacy Mr Rowntree attributes to Dame Shirley Porter, the Tory council leader who sold off swathes of council housing in Westminster during the Thatcher years to more likely Tory voters in the ‘homes for votes scandal’.
Meanwhile, at the other extreme, in the affluent north are some of London’s most expensive homes. With an average house price of £611,000 - many of these second homes - accessing the housing ladder is all but impossible for most people.
Standing on a fourth floor balcony on the 375-home Peabody estate, the first resident we meet is a topless elderly man. He explains that he is unlikely to vote at all - there seems little point, he says, as he has lived here 15 years and nothing has changed in that time. Unperturbed, Mr Rowntree hands him a flyer. ‘Hopefully this will change your mind,’ he says. ‘I am trying to be a different type of politician.’
He does not have to try too hard to succeed on this front. His intriguing journey from drummer in one of the most successful UK pop acts to Labour candidate for a Tory safe seat began in an east end law firm. He decided to ‘give something back’ by studying full-time to become a criminal lawyer and entering politics. In his election pamphlets he candidly writes that for a period of his life he was homeless and that he fought a ‘long, and ultimately successful battle with alcohol and drugs’. On the back of these life experiences, he appeals to constituents who are ‘fed up with career politicians’ to let ‘real people have a go’.
Despite his famous past, Mr Rowntree really does look every bit a ‘real person’. With his Doc Martin boots, turn-up jeans and sensible v-neck sweatshirt, he is the model of understatement; more dad than reformed rock-star, and a world away from the starchy suits associated with Westminster politicians. Not that any of this matters on the Tachbrook estate. Here it is Mr Rowntree’s brand of wry humour that is winning hearts and minds.
‘I absolutely guarantee that I will cut off this man’s balls if I am elected,’ he jokes to one resident. His castration services are offered to a woman who is complaining that her brother will not stop his incessant procreating - despite already living with four children crammed in one room.
‘My kids can’t even get on a list to get a flat anywhere in 10 years’ time,’ explains another resident a few doors down.
Source: Tim Foster
Mr Rowntree responds with his most regularly expressed solution: the need for more social homes. ‘I agree - it is a real problem,’ he says. ‘There was a £2 billion promise for a massive house building programme last year, but even those kind of numbers is a drop in the ocean because the sector has been so under-funded for so long. It is a ridiculous situation; communities are being broken up and it’s not right.’
He wins her vote but her complaint is a common one: Westminster housing figures show that there are 1,112 overcrowded council homes. There are also 700 households on the housing register in priority groups and a further 5,200 registered but without priority for housing. Of these, there are 1,963 tenants awaiting a transfer.
From here, he moves to other issues he is vocal about; the Crown Estate has been trying to sell off the freehold of the neighbouring 280-home Millbank estate, and Mr Rowntree has thrown his weight behind a campaign to prevent this. Similarly, he is critical of most of the social landlords in the borough including arm’s-length management organisation Citywest Homes and housing associations which he says are too strapped for cash to carry out simple maintenance.
In the neighbouring block we meet a woman with a problem that Mr Rowntree pounces upon. The security lights that were installed above the entrance to each flat six months ago are suppo-sed to turn off with timers, but despite having made numerous complaints, the lights remain on 24 hours a day. ‘If these lights are out by 6 May then you have my vote and I will tell everyone I know to vote for you,’ she offers.
Leaving the estate, he explains these are the kind of deals he needs to strike to make a difference in a council which has 49 Conservative and just 11 Labour members. ‘The reality is that the Conservatives have such a stranglehold on the constituency that there is very little incentive for them to go out looking for problems to solve - so they don’t do it except in the weeks running up to the election,’ he says. Lots of problems are insoluble for someone like me because I can’t force a house building programme, but I can tackle problems like that woman’s lights being on.’
Peabody later says the lights will be fixed by next week.
If his campaign appears a bit vague on policy specifics, this might bely a realistic approach to his chances of actually winning. Bookmaker William Hill gives Rowntree odds of 25/1 to win compared with 1/200 for his opponent Mr Field.
To make a real difference on a policy level would the Blur drummer consider trying to take the New Labour main stage via a more challengeable seat?
‘Not long ago I would have said I would gnaw my own arm off before looking at becoming a government minister,’ he says. ‘But today, I think that could come back to haunt me. I have accidentally ended up here anyway so we will have to see what happens.’
Mark Field, Conservative, says he agrees with Mr Rowntree on a number of issues such as the need to provide more social homes for local people. ‘However, the reality is that this is expensive, and if we have rules that are too prescriptive regarding affordable housing, no developer will build here.’
Naomi Smith, Liberal Democrats, says she does not know what Mr Rowntree’s housing policies are so declined to comment. She is pledging to tackle the lack of housing by using the thousands of empty homes in the constituency.