ELECTION '97 : Oona King may be black and Jewish but that cuts no ice i n the East End

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The Independent Online
She can, and probably will, become Britain's second black woman MP. And in a very short time her photogenic face will, no doubt, be one of the better known in the new Parliament. But the selection of Oona King as the Labour candidate for a very safe seat does not escape controversy.

Bethnal Green and Bow in east London was Peter Shore's seat for 32 years. Ms King will inherit his majority of 12,000. With the polls as they are, she should in theory canter through. But there is a little local difficulty; among Labour members in the East End there is a sense of wonder over how, talented and personable though she is, 29-year-old Ms King got this prize.

She has never contested a seat before and she is not a person with local roots - she and her Italian husband, Tiberio Santomarco, moved to the area in January. And she does not appear to have a particular power base. Furthermore, in an area with a large Bengali population, Labour is the only one of the main three parties not to field a Bengali Muslim candidate.

There is also, it is said, a "history" between her and the first black woman to be an MP, Diane Abbott, about whether or not Ms King tried to take Ms Abbott's seat in the neighbouring constituency, Hackney North. A Labour Party source described the relations between the two as "at best an armed neutrality".

The issue of race is very much alive in the East End. Black and Asian families have firebombs dropped through their letterboxes, and it was at Tower Hamlets Council that the far-right British National Party (BNP) won a seat not so long ago. Bethnal Green and Bow is one of the very few parliamentary seats the BNP is contesting.

Some of the Bengali Labour party members feel that they have been deprived of a rightful place in the Commons. The Conservative candidate Dr Kabir Choudhury, and the Liberal Democrat's Syed Nurul Islam may gain from this resentment.

Bengali party members say publicly that, now the selection has been made, Labour must pull together. However, there is still bitterness. One Bengali activist said: "About 28 per cent of the people here are Bengali, and this goes up to 50 per cent of the local party members.

"We have stood at Brick Lane week after week and fought the fascists who were rampaging around smashing our shops and homes. A lot of us feel we have won the right to a Bengali British candidate."

A self-styled "Campaign for a Bangladeshi MP" has been warning that unless Labour selects a Bengali candidate, voters would desert the party. Before Ms King was selected the group placed advertisements in all four local Bengali papers asking locals to lobby the party leadership.

Ms King' s father is a black American from Georgia, her mother is white and Jewish. A race officer with the GMB union, Ms King said: "Look, I know all about racism. Some white people call me a nigger, some black people call me a yid. Many of both races sometimes call me a mongrel. But I am proud of my heritage, and I think the bringing together of cultures is what we must aim at.

"The real issues are ones of poverty, and deprivation, housing and education, as well as racism. These are issues which affect us all.

"The fact that my mother is Jewish could symbolically be an issue if there really is a Muslim fundamentalist presence here. But again, in the context of the real problems people face, this should not matter."

It was, in fact, allegations of irregularities involving Bengali party members which allowed Labour's National Executive Committee to impose a shortlist for the seat. The near unanimous feeling in the party is that the Walworth Road's favoured son, Claude Moraes, director of the Joint Council for the Welfare of Immigrants, together with a number of potential challengers, had been left out.

When the selection meeting came, it was Ms King, a politics graduate who had worked in Brussels with Glenys Kinnock, who benefited from the single transferable vote, and who won on the second ballot. She was, she said, "surprised" to be chosen.

In l994, she was asked to stand at Diane Abbott's seat, which could have become vacant under rules of reselection. She did well, but did not get support from enough wards to activate the reselection mechanism. Diane Abbott's friends say the MP felt she had been " knifed in the back".

Ms King said she is perplexed by all this. "I thought you could only stab someone in the back if you had some kind of agreement with them, and had then betrayed them. I had no kind of agreement with Diane Abbott. She, like me, believes in the concept of reselection, and what we had there was simply the democratic process within the party in action. I have heard all these stories about her being annoyed with me, but she has never said anything to me. In fact I cannot recall ever speaking to her."