From Dollis Hill to Kilburn, Labour is on the defensive

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Indy Politics

Tony Blair may still be talking about a "magnificent" victory in Iraq, yet there is no mention of the war in the campaign literature distributed to households by the Labour candidate in Thursday's Brent East by-election in north-west London. In spite of its 13,000-plus majority at the 2001 general election, Labour realises that this is a constituency that has not taken kindly to the war, and that it is a subject best not referred to.

Brent East extends from the much satirised suburban streets of Dollis Hill, Neasden and Cricklewood in the north of the constituency through bustling Willesden in the middle and down to an area in the south comprising Queen's Park and Kilburn where the growing presence of media professionals led one newspaper to dub it "Notting Hill for grown-ups". The constituency is one of the most ethnically diverse in the country, with large Muslim, Hindu and Afro-Caribbean populations and something of a pioneering spirit when it comes to social and education policy. The Islamia school in Brondesbury is a state-run Muslim primary school; nearby Salusbury primary has a centre for children of refugee families.

An area in which many people dependent on welfare rub shoulders with home-owning members of the chattering classes, Brent East is much less the Labour of Mr Blair than it is of Ken Livingstone, who was MP for the constituency before he stood successfully as Mayor of London and was expelled from the party.

The overwhelming victory enjoyed by Mr Livingstone's successor, Paul Daisley, two years ago, was virtually automatic. But a lot has changed since then, and following Mr Daisley's death earlier this year, the Labour candidate Robert Evans is fighting a by-election in which the challenge from the Lib-Dem candidate, Sarah Teather, a 29-year-old policy analyst with a cancer charity, has to be taken very seriously.

The Independent Labour candidate, Harold Immanuel, is playing to traditional Labour voters' dismay over the war, and can be expected to pick up many more votes than independents usually muster. The Tories, second in 2001, could well be pushed into third. Their candidate, Uma Fernandes, 55, a community nurse, can boast of living in the constituency.

But that may not be enough to prevent her being overhauled by Ms Teather, which would only increase the pressure on Iain Duncan Smith. The remaining 12 candidates include the "comedy terrorist" Aaron Barschak.

With Labour bracing itself at the very least for a significantly reduced majority, the support that Mr Livingstone has given Mr Evans ­ a 47-year-old former teacher who is currently a London MEP ­ has been warmly received. The arrangement is seen as mutually beneficial as Mr Livingstone seeks a rapprochement with the party. The Mayor is sufficiently engaged in the campaign to have written an open letter accusing the Lib-Dems of making false claims about Labour.

The party has good cause to feel defensive. On the streets of Brent East last week, there was almost unanimous condemnation of the Government's conduct over Iraq, which seemed to matter much more to people than any local issues. Even one Labour Party member said she had not been able to bring herself to put a Labour poster up in her front window. "I think I'm like a lot of people round here," she said. "I would normally vote Labour, but now I'm not sure I can."