Bengalis defend race tactics by Lib Dems: Mary Braid explores east London's complex political terrain where nothing is as it appears to be

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The Independent Online
'THERE'S no problem,' Syed Nurul Islam, chairman of the Bethnal Green Liberal Democrats, soothingly reassured journalists over coffee in his east London home yesterday. 'Bengalis don't see this as racism or discrimination.'

Bad news for journalists seeking a simple tale. But in east London the complexity of local politics guarantees little is ever as you expect it to be.

Last year, an inquiry into allegations of racism in the local Liberal Democrat party recommended the expulsion of three party members. Privately national officials admit the local party is still out of control.

Suprisingly, Mr Islam says there is nothing racist or undemocratic about the executive of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats attempting to replace six Bengalis elected to fight two Bethnal Green wards with white candidates.

Mr Islam, one of three Bengali members on the 14-strong executive, said: 'All Bengalis believe in a balance of candidates for the St Peter's and Weavers wards to reflect the complexion of local communities.'

'Some of the successful Bengali candidates are already offering to withdraw.'

So all is well in the kingdom of Tower Hamlets. No need for Paddy Ashdown to fret. Obliging Bengali candidates are queueing up to resign.

Not everyone paints such a happy picture. But those with misgivings usually prefer to remain anonymous. One long- serving Liberal Democrat councillor said: 'I know about the complaint about ballot- rigging in the recent Bethnal Green election. But the complainer, a Bengali member of the branch, would be too terrified to speak. It may sound dramatic but things can happen to your family back in Bangladesh.

'Certain factions of the Bengali community are responsible for the huge increase in Lib Dem membership in Bethnal Green. This isn't the first time there have been complaints of Bengali men threatening Bengali families to hand over their ballot papers.

'Here, local politics is all about winning the votes of certain community groups by promising money for their special projects. The way Bangladeshis are selected for the approved Lib Dem candidate list is completely arbitrary. To join Tower Hamlets Lib Dems the subscription is pounds 3. For pounds 1,500 you can control the whole community.'

Liberal Democrat membership across the borough has gone from 200 to 800 in three years. By far the greatest increase has been among Bengalis in Bethnal Green. Jonathan Matthews, secretary of Tower Hamlets Liberal Democrats and among those recommended for expulsion last year, puts it down to a heavy recruitment campaign. 'We have a lot of active members there really keen to sign Bengalis up.'

Kumar Murshid, a local community worker, claims the Liberal Democrats run the borough by 'intimidation and bribery'. He sees an irony in the latest 'disgraceful' row to engulf the local Liberal Democrats. Of the 350 members eligible to vote for candidates in the Bethnal Green election, 300 are now Bengali.

'The local party does not embrace the spirit of liberal democracy. They recruited Bengalis to shake off the racist tag and then they refuse to accept their democratic vote although all the successful candidates were on their own approved list.'

Mr Islam was dismissed as a housing officer by Tower Hamlets council for 'gross misconduct' after a disciplinary hearing 18 months ago. He is appealing to an industrial tribunal against the sacking. Last night, he confirmed that Abdul Ali, Syed Shamsul Islam and Mohammed Sharif Ahmed, three candidates in the St Peter's ward election, were his former business partner, brother-in-law and nephew respectively.

The Bethnal Green party chairman said he had heard nothing about the ballot- rigging claims concerning the election at his branch. But Mr Matthews, who was helping Mr Islam field press inquiries, said later he knew a complaint had been made.