Image: Natalie Campbell

Natalie Campbell: Labour doesn’t promote black women

An independent candidate on her journey to London’s mayoral elections and the Diane Abbott furore  
June 5, 2024

In late March, The Shade Borough, a British celebrity news Instagram page with more than 800,000 followers, announced that Natalie Campbell was running as an independent to be mayor of London. The co-CEO of sustainable beverage company Belu Water had, The Shade Borough added, previously applied to be the Conservatives’ mayoral candidate.

The post provoked immediate fury. Floods of commenters accused Campbell of having betrayed the black community by attempting to join the Tories. “The backlash was insane,” Campbell, poised and immaculately dressed, tells me from Belu’s open-plan office above Borough market. She scrolls through the comments on her phone. “I don’t trust her,” wrote one user. “To even attempt to run as a Tory, her mindset must be completely off,” wrote another. “Really sick of the sellout behaviour. Next!!”

This took Campbell by surprise. She’d just got back to her home in Wembley, feeling excited that she’d made it onto the ballot. She hadn’t yet checked social media. Then her friends started messaging her.

“They were like, ‘you need to address the Conservative thing,’” she recalls. “I looked at my phone and basically my notifications had gone wild on Instagram. Lots of people in the black community saying that I was a devil incarnate, because I was a Conservative or I was an evil Tory.” She sighs. “I was just like, oh wow.

Campbell, who grew up in Willesden, north London had not initially planned to run for the Conservatives. She had worked in the past with London’s mayor, Sadiq Khan—as a member of the London Economic Action Partnership—although she doubts his commitment to diversity, equity and inclusion. “I know it’s performative because I’ve sat next to him. And when we’ve had these conversations, his thinking isn’t progressive—it’s: ‘what’s going to give me the best PR headlines?’”

She points to Khan’s £6m plans to rename the London Overground network, with lines including “the Windrush” and “the Lioness”, as superfluous and costly. She wanted to see more of the mayor’s focus going on more urgent matters, such as banning strip-searches of children in schools or ending homelessness.

So Campbell thought about challenging the incumbent mayor for the Labour candidacy, and approached a senior figure in the party about running. The response was hardly encouraging. A black female entrepreneur wouldn’t get the requisite backing, Campbell recalls the message being: “‘Not gonna happen’”.

The Labour party doesn’t promote black MPs, Campbell says. Diane Abbott, she points out, became Britain’s first black female MP in 1987, “and she didn’t get a portfolio until 2010… Her politics aside, she was the most high-profile black woman in politics, and she did not have a portfolio in all of that time.” It’s difficult to be a successful black MP in the party, she says. “Connecting the dots, Labour has a problem.”

Next, Campbell tried the Liberal Democrats. She says she spoke to some very senior people in the party—“the most senior you can get other than the leader”—and asked if she had a chance of being their candidate. She also understood that they had no interest in winning the mayoralty, as their focus was on bolstering their presence in the southwest. 

It was suggested she join the Lib Dems’ women’s group and race network, which frustrated her. “Automatically that just othered me.”

 Eventually, Campbell met with a Conservative party donor. She confessed to them that she didn’t meet the criteria necessary to run as the Tory mayoral candidate, as she hadn’t been a party member for three months. But they said it didn’t matter—“if you think you’re good enough, run.” So she did. “I thought, ‘I’ve got nothing to lose.’”

 After failing to make it onto the Conservative shortlist, she went to Ibiza for her 40th birthday. Refreshed, Campbell returned home and decided to invest £25,000 of her own money and run as an independent. She held fundraising events for London’s Air Ambulance Charity and New Horizons Youth Centre. She held a few rallies—sometimes three people came, sometimes 40.

It’s hard to tell exactly which party Campbell’s politics are truly aligned with. Much of her criticism of Khan comes from the left—but she describes herself as low tax, because she’s an entrepreneur. She’d like to run for mayor again, one day, but she’d need a lot more money to do it properly, she says. Funding a campaign as an independent was tough.

But come polling day, she got 47,815 votes—1.9 per cent of the London mayoral vote. She was the highest-polling independent candidate. Without a party machine behind her, that’s not bad at all.