Does the 'bossy, condescending Hampstead socialist' still exist?

Andy McSmith tours the London district demonised by the PM – and finds the locals bemused by his attack

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The Independent Online

“Don’t come here and say we’re condescending. I’ll show you condescending!” Margaret Kabba-Sei exclaimed. “My goodness! Did he say that? We’re going to kick him out!”

The person thus condemned is David Cameron, who delivered a venomous tirade against Ed Miliband earlier in the week, characterising his attitude as “the same old condescending, bossy, interfering, we-know-best attitude of the Hampstead socialist down the ages”.

The phrase “Hampstead socialist” is shorthand for a social type. The Hampstead socialist is middle class, expensively educated, lives in a large house in a desirable crime-free neighbourhood, rarely comes into contact with the working class, but knows what is best for them.

Hampstead is singled out in this way because it is where a number of eminent middle-class socialists lived, including the founders of the Fabian Society, Sidney and Beatrice Webb, the former Labour leader Michael Foot, and the Miliband family, who lived on Primrose Hill. Ed Miliband later moved to Dartmouth Park, nearby.

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Hampstead resident Margaret Kabba-Sei (Teri Pengilley)

Margaret Kabba-Sei does not quite fit the bill as the typical effete Hampstead socialist, though she was to be seen yesterday marching along one of its shopping streets, clad in a Labour Party T-shirt with a collection bucket in her hand. A devout Christian, with an immense respect for the British monarchy – she was named after the Queen’s sister – she is undyingly grateful to Tony Blair for sending in troops 15 years ago to restore order in Sierra Leone, the land of her birth. She is repaying the debt by campaigning to help Labour hold Hampstead and Kilburn next month.

The reaction of other Hampstead residents to David Cameron’s comments, when quizzed about them by The Independent, was more laughter than indignation.

A young couple has recently moved into the basement flat of a house in Primrose Hill which was once the home of Friedrich Engels, who co-wrote The Communist Manifesto with Karl Marx. They did not want to be identified, and a brief conversation left me wondering if they even knew or even cared who Engels was – in contrast to the elderly Italian Marxist on the pavement outside, who had come a long way to gaze reverently at the building and photograph its blue plaque. Anyway, I asked the young couple whether they recognised the description of themselves as “condescending, bossy socialists”. It was the wife’s mother who replied: “Not socialist, not condescending, but the mother-in-law’s bossy.”

The palatial house in Netherhall Gardens that Sidney and Beatrice Webb called home is now divided into 10 flats and covered in scaffolding. The man who came to the door was a retired dentist, who expressed surprise that Mr Cameron should insult Hampstead when so many of its residents are from the same social class as the Prime Minister, and in the same income bracket, and have the same worldview.

 

I put to him that the Webbs were the very essence of condescending, bossy, interfering and “we-know-best” socialism. “So is Ed Miliband,” he snorted. “What’s the difference? Nothing’s changed.”

There are about 60 blue plaques on buildings around Hampstead, but the number that commemorate socialists such as Engels or the Webbs could be counted on the fingers of one hand. This is much more a gathering place for artists and performers than for political agitators.

It is of course possible to be both, like Richard Wilson, best known for playing the ageing curmudgeon Victor Meldrew, who has posed for photographs with the Labour candidate, Tulip Siddiq, and told the Camden New Journal: “I’m happy to be called a socialist.”

Even with celebrity support and with the polls suggesting that the Labour national vote will improve on 2010, it is by no means certain that Siddiq will hold this seat. Last time, the sitting Labour MP, Glenda Jackson, scraped back by just 42 votes, making her the only MP in Britain whose age exceeded her majority. This time, Hampstead’s growing population of homeowners may be more worried about Labour’s mansion tax than about anything Cameron has said.

“You find people here with protected tenancies and next door they will be someone who owns a £5m house and isn’t satisfied with it, and wants to put a swimming pool in the basement,” one resident, Frank Vazquez, said.

Another, better-known resident, Alastair Campbell, also commented: “You’ll find the same mix here as anywhere else, though maybe more retired and more middle-class professionals, and a lot of French and German, and a lot of psychotherapists, a lot of runners on Hampstead Heath. Dave [Cameron] should ask why – if it is full of socialists – he thinks he can win it.”

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