Lib Dems in fresh row over 'racist leaflet'

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The Independent Online
LIBERAL Democrats faced fresh accusations of racism last night following the distribution of another leaflet by the party in Tower Hamlets, east London.

While Derek Beackon, the British National Party member, was attending his first council meeting since his by-election victory two months ago, the Liberal Democrats were fending off more embarrassing racism charges.

It was Liberal Democrat leaflets linking black and Asian people with the area's housing shortages, said critics, that pushed white voters towards the BNP. Paddy Ashdown, the Liberal Democrat leader, has ordered an inquiry into the racist accusations.

Headed 'Focus', the new leaflet was produced last month by party activists in the Labour-controlled Wapping ward. It describes the plight of an un-named 74-year-old woman living alone on the fifth floor of a block on possibly the 'most dangerous estate' in the area.

The woman, described as 'Mrs X', was decorated during the war. She is registered disabled and the lift in her block rarely works. 'Despite repeated pleas for help,' the local Labour-controlled ward has not given her a new lock on her front door - 'it can be pushed open with one hand,' it says. Her neighbours, also pensioners - one of them, the pamphlet claims, aged 90 - are also living in fear. They have asked for spyholes and latches on their doors but months later the work has yet to be done.

The article is illustrated with a drawing of an obviously black man, snarling with clenched fists. The piece ends with a plea: 'Is this any way to treat those who endured the Blitz, and risked their lives for our country? Is this the welcome fit for heroes?'

Jack Straw, Labour's environment spokesman, has written to Sir Nicholas Lyell, the Attorney General, demanding that the leaflet's authors be prosecuted under the Public Order Act, because 'the material is threatening, abusive and insulting' and is 'intended to stir up racial hatred or is likely to have that effect'.

Mr Straw claimed the leaflet had been approved by Liberal Democrat headquarters. Party spokesmen admitted this was so - since the BNP victory and ensuing row, all Tower Hamlets publicity had been cleared by them - but they pointed out that in the copy they approved the drawing was in outline. 'We couldn't determine if the figure was black or white,' said Graham Elson, the Liberal Democrat general secretary. In future, all artwork would be vetted separately.

He said that Mr Ashdown was 'extremely concerned and extremely cross' about the leaflet. However, the Liberal-Democrat leader would not be moving against its authors because he did not want to pre-judge the outcome of the inquiry. Any such action, Mr Elson said, might only lead to a challenge in the courts.

Last night members of the Labour group of Tower Hamlets council walked out of the first full council meeting to be attended by Mr Beackon.

The 20-strong group joined about 100 demonstrators outside Tower Hamlets town hall. Mr Beackon used a rear entrance to enter the building.

John Biggs, the Labour leader, said the group would attend future council meetings after their protest last night. Peter Hughes, leader of the controlling Liberal-Democrat group, dismissed Labour's protest as pointless.

(Photograph omitted)

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