Go east for a great photo opportunity

In their efforts to woo London's ethnic voters, Ken, Frank, Steven and Susan have got all pally with the Asian press and TV. But have they done themselves any favours?
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Indy Politics

They may have bickered and squabbled over everything else, but one issue has united all of the candidates for London mayor. The Asian vote is a much sought after commodity. Almost a third of the electorate on 4 May is going to be of ethnic origin. With a history of democratic struggle during the British Raj, Asians tend to treat elections as an event, a forceful demonstration of their political relevance. They love to vote.

However, they also love to be taken seriously. The latter point did seem to be lost on the media spin-doctors at the beginning of the mayoral candidates' campaigns. For them, the East End of London was the place to be, preferably with a clutch of cameramen in attendance. The first in the stampede to Brick Lane and its surrounding photo opportunities was Jeffrey Archer. As far back as October last year, he stood on the steps of an East End mosque on a Friday afternoon.

The timing, as all the candidates now realise, is vitally important. Since Friday (Jumma) prayers are among the most important to devout Muslims, it is one of the best attended. Therefore the candidate who stands on the doorstep can expect to be surrounded by a sea of emerging brown faces and can shake hands with hundreds of "Asian well-wishers". Click!

In the last month, Frank Dobson, Susan Kramer and Ken Livingstone have also beaten a path to the mosques and the surrounding photo-yielding facilities. Does the picture tell the whole story? Not if you ask the residents of "Banglatown". "I think it's all a show-off," Mousa Hussain told me. "You don't see them other than when there is a vote on, when they need us. Then they remember where Brick Lane is. When they get what they want they go, and that's it." Haroun Miah added: "It's just a vote-winning exercise, that's it." Khalid Miah was more graphic. "They're a bloody nuisance - and they never buy anything round here either."

Some residents are more than capable of playing the candidates at their own game. For the last six years I have been covering political visits to the Jamma Masjid, and on almost every occasion I have caught one particular Bangladeshi man in the frame. He has vowed to give his vote to every single one of the candidates who asks for it.

Poor Frank Dobson had a terrible East End experience. A group of Muslim protesters noisily jeered him as local MP Oona King hurriedly ushered him into the mosque. Sadly photographs don't carry the sound effects so vital for the big picture.

Steven Norris singled out Southall and Ealing (a traditional Labour fortress) for his own "some-of-my-best-friends-are-Asian" photograph. We were treated to an operational note for the attention of all newsdesks/photodesks. Under the rather breathless title of "Norris: Action for Southall", we were informed that the "mayoral candidate Steve Norris will visit Southall to meet residents to discuss issues of concern to them and ways that, as mayor, he will act to meet their needs".

As part of the visit, a photocall opportunity would be available. Now, I am not one to split hairs, or postal codes, but the photocall was in Hanwell's leafy suburbia and not in Southall (which looks a lot like a suburb of the Punjab). Not only that, but the resident at whose home Mr Norris was to be photographed discussing "issues of concern" just happened to belong to a long-term supporter and activist for the Conservative Party. Of course I am sure that Norris's team just forgot to mention that Mrs Anita Kapoor has regularly gone canvassing for Mr Norris's party in the past.

About a month ago Zee TV (the largest satellite Asian station in the world) offered all the main candidates a chance to make a special party election broadcast for the Asian electorate. All of them were very keen to do so, but sadly Mr Norris's campaign team declined at the 11th hour due to "lack of funds". The others came up with the goods. Ken Livingstone's broadcast was a grand affair, presented to us in cinemascope. To undulating music we heard how he would ensure his staff would represent the diversity of London, and that he would make firms operating in London enforce an equal opportunities policy.

We are then taken on a tour of London by night and some nifty time-lapse imagery as Livingstone tells us how the conduct of the police in relation to race crimes would be a priority. Cutting to images of Brick Lane, we are told that Mr Livingstone wants to ensure that ethnic events such as the Notting Hill carnival, Eid festivals and Indian melas are promoted.

Susan Kramer's PEB is like a home video in comparison to the jiggery pokery of the Livingstone offering. One camera reveals Asian peer Lord Navneet Dholakia acting as reporter. He tells us that he wants to introduce us to a "very special person", and then leads a slightly wobbly cameraman over to a window, against which Ms Kramer is framed. We then watch a chat between the two. Susan Kramer tells us local policing is her priority because she wants to stop families being harassed and shopkeepers "having problems".

Kramer shares her initiatives for the small-business owner. Corner shops are the "backbone to the capital". As the camera shivers for the last time, we are told that, as a successful businesswoman, Susan Kramer is the right woman to raise money for the Tube system.

Frank Dobson's PEB is perhaps the slickest of the lot. We see Frank with Nelson Mandela, we hear endorsements from Amin Ali, a prominent Bangladeshi restaurateur. A graphic of Frank's signature then appears on screen and we are treated to a whistlestop tour of Dobbo's life. Dobson tells us about the days he won back the Millwall seat from fascists in 1993. After a bout of "Frank about Leadership" and "Frank fighting for Londoners", we get to the most appealing part of this little film. A high-profile endorsement from G K Noon, Britain's Curry King (he provides ready-made Indian food to Sainsbury's), and messages in English, Hindi, Urdu, and Punjabi tell us to vote for Frank.

Bobby Syed is the director of Hearsay Communications - a PR firm that sponsors the EMMA awards (Ethnic Minorities in the Media Awards). After seeing the PEBs, he said: "Frank Dobson is trying so hard to be accepted. By going on about how he came to London as an outsider and fought racists, it is almost as if he wants us to think he is one of us. Livingstone concentrates on law and order, which is good, but he tries so hard to make us think he is a loveable rogue. Susan Kramer's tape is simple and tries to put forward a commonsense approach, but isn't as slick as the others in production values. Steve Norris made a big mistake by simply not bothering."

As head of news and current affairs for Zee TV in Europe, I have been covering the relationship between British politicians and the Asian community for more than six years. In that time I have seen an Asian electorate develop from starry-eyed gratitude for any political crumb thrown in their direction, to a sophisticated, cynical bunch of electors. Proof of that comes in the shape of prominent members of the Asian glitterati who seamlessly change political sides to ensure they are on the winning ticket. I have also interviewed all of the party leaders and much of their front-bench representation. Sadly, British politicians have not developed at the same rate as the Asian vote bank they wish to pocket.

I am constantly astonished by their spluttering indignation when politicos are pulled up for superficial acts of minority media manipulation. (The prize for chief spluttering this time goes to the Norris campaign, who were outraged that Zee TV commented that they had been the only party not to do an election broadcast for the community, and that we had the temerity to question their man about his party's asylum and immigration policy).

I don't know how effective these broadcasts will be, but they will certainly have more of an impact on a much-neglected section of society than the usual circus which pounds the brown beat as long as the cameras are rolling.

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