Labour keeps 'coveted prize': Mary Braid follows an Asian woman councillor on the campaign trail

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Indy Politics
POLA Manzila Uddin is out, door-to-door, wooing the voters of Tower Hamlets in east London. One of a small band of Asian women to have held a council seat in Britain, Mrs Uddin, 35, has been on the receiving end of a little wooing herself lately.

With the large Asian vote so crucial in the racially- charged battle for Tower Hamlets, a popular political figure in the local Bangladeshi community is a much- coveted prize.

Mrs Uddin has been approached by the Liberal Democrats, who are contesting her Shadwell ward for the first time, but the social worker and mother-of-four, who fought and won her first council seat four years ago, says her heart belongs firmly to Labour.

She blames the Liberal Democrats for the 'disgraceful' deterioration in race relations in the borough, which culminated in the election last October of a member of the British National Party to the Millwall ward of Tower Hamlets council. An internal investigation by the Liberal Democrat Party concluded that some local activists had pandered to racism in election material.

'In years to come the Liberal Democrats will never be able to live down the shame,' Mrs Uddin said. 'It makes me sick to see Bengalis voting for them.'

But Bangladeshis are doing just that. In nearby Bethnal Green, Liberal Democrat membership has increased by 350 to almost 500. Mass signing up by Bengalis is claimed to be largely responsible for the rise.

The idea of Shadwell being anything other than Labour was once inconceivable. But then so was the idea of Tower Hamlets not controlled by Labour, before it fell to the Liberal Democrats eight years ago. In Shadwell, Bangladeshis make up 35 per cent of the population, compared to 23 per cent for Tower Hamlets as a whole. According to local residents, shops, jobs and money for particular projects are all on offer in return for political support.

Mrs Uddin claims she was warned that she might be deselected if she did not make the round of powerful community groups, but she claims not to approve of the method of politics.

She believes it undermines democracy and offers her blistered feet as proof that she prefers the old door-to- door persuasion.

In a small cul-de-sac of 20 houses, build by the London Docklands Development Corporation for families evicted to make way for the Limehouse link road, all but one family is Bangladeshi. From the front of the new homes only one gives a hint of political allegiance. A Liberal Democrat poster is stuck to an upstairs window.

Mrs Uddin tells the woman inside that she is the only female Asian candidate and that she hopes the voter will reconsider. She chuckles at her 'cheek' as she walks down the path. But on most doorsteps, this time out at least, Asian voters seem to still agree with Mrs Uddin that Labour is the natural home for Tower Hamlets Bangladeshis.

Their natural disinterest in the Liberal Democrats has, in some cases, become active dislike. Alleged racism in the party, the rise of the BNP and discrimination in general dominate choice.

On the doorstep Mrs Uddin says she gets a generally favourable reception from white voters - 53 per cent of her local electorate. 'You occasionally get people who say 'I won't vote for a Paki',' she admits. But the last two election results show that Labour's appeal with white voters in Tower Hamlets has weakened.

Despite the statistics, too many still believe Asians are getting an unfair advantage, particularly in housing. It is they Mrs Uddin must hope do not defect to the Liberal Democrats next Thursday.