Election '97: All God's children slog it out in the East End

Hester Lacey fails to find support for the racist vote in Bethnal Green and Bow
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Indy Politics
Mrs Tuck, who is 73, lives in the East End and has brilliant flame-red hair, is looking forward to Thursday. "I can't wait," she said with relish. "Tony Blair'll get in, you bet your sweet life he will. I shall be having a little celebration."

Mrs Tuck had paused from her shopping to say hello to Oona King, the Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, in Bethnal Green's Roman Road market last Thursday. Bethnal Green and Bow is a new constituency created from parts of the loyal territories of long-standing Labour stalwarts the late Ian Mikardo and Peter Shore (who retired in 1995 after over 30 years). But Mrs Tuck thinks the notion of a young, black and female MP is fine. "It makes no difference if they're white, green, red or whatever, as long as they're Labour. They're all god's children, doll!"

Among god's other children standing for election in Bethnal Green and Bow are Syed Nurul Islam for the Lib Dems and Kabir Choudhury for the Conservatives; all three major parties are fielding ethnic-minority candidates in this constituency where around a third of the voters are Asian. The British National Party, with the only white candidate, has cunningly managed to dig up one with the same surname as Oona King; on the ballot papers "King, Oona" will be sixth on the list, below "King, David", so Oona and her team have learnt the Bengali for six ("soy") and are trying to impress on Asian voters that all Kings are not the same.

Oona King was happy with the way things were going. "Yesterday, four separate black women came up to me and said they hadn't been going to vote because they had felt locked out of the system, but now they would vote for me because they had something they could relate to. I'm so pleased to be able to bridge that gap. My father is black and my mother is Jewish, so my very existence is a bridge of two cultures."

Outside Safeway on Roman Road, she met Gwen Williams, 32, a computer support officer, who was impressed. "She's got a lot of personality, and she listens. I'm very concerned about immigration laws. I'm originally from Cameroon in west Africa, and I know people who want to come and study here and have been refused visas - it's not right. I've been here 18 years and I've never been unemployed, never claimed the dole, I believe in hard work - I've made a very positive contribution. I think it's very important to have black women in Parliament."

Barney Cohen, 47, "Vote Labour" sticker on his lapel, was doing a brisk trade in ladies' suits for pounds 35 from his stall. "Blair seems all right, straightforward and upfront, but old Paddy don't seem too bad either. I thought he conducted himself very well on the television last night. But you're stuck for choice in this country - it's always going to be Labour or Conservative. One of the biggest problems is that people aren't educated enough, they're not interested until it's too late, six months after the election. Then they start screaming. And if you say 'How did you vote?', they say 'Conservative' ... well, they can't complain, can they?"

"Where are they all going to get the money to pay for the things they're promising?" asked his neighbour Barry Kass, 57 (Spice Girls posters, ornamental clocks). "There's plenty of money, mate, don't you worry - it's just that it's all going into the wrong pockets," retorted Barney.

Not everyone was convinced by Oona King, however. "Peter Shore was a good man, and they've sent a schoolgirl with trendy ideas to take his place," said Tony, "in my forties", a local businessman.

A few miles up the road in his campaign headquarters, Syed Nurul Islam, the Bangladeshi Lib Dem candidate, was surrounded by his campaign team, talking 19 to the dozen in Bengali.

"I've spent 26 years working on community projects in this area," he said. "I'm the only local candidate. I know every street, every block, every community, Somalian, Chinese and white. It's clearly a two-horse race, between Labour and the Liberal Democrats, and people are fed up with Labour. I think 50 per cent of the Labour vote will change to Liberal Democrat.

"Labour were told to pick an ethnic-minority candidate; there's nothing wrong with ethnic-minority MPs but they must be able to represent the whole community, not just one section, and I can do that."

On paper, the Lib Dems have some way to go; the boundaries have changed since 1992, when they polled about half of Labour's notional vote of 24,000. But the new constituency has pulled in a number of wards where the Lib Dems are strong. Syed Nurul Islam believes that it could make the difference. "If I can't beat Labour, no one can."