Respect, Religion, Race and the battle for Tower Hamlets

Jerome Taylor sees George Galloway renew his electoral grudge match with Labour in a different east London constituency
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Indy Politics

On a narrow side street in the heart of London's Banglatown, three Arabic-speaking men wait patiently for some personal time with one of Britain's most colourful and controversial politicians.

George Galloway is taking a quick break from the campaign trail to smoke his favourite cigar inside his car. Puffing on a Montecristo No 2 (recommended retail price £400 for a box of 25), he is dressed entirely in black and sports a pair of Rayban sunglasses. Eventually the men are ushered over and salaams are exchanged, followed by a prolonged discussion and photographs.

"They were here to talk about Gaza Cola," the Glasgow-born politician explains after the three men leave. "It's a new type of cola which will be sold around here and all the profits will be sent back to help our brothers and sisters in Palestine."

Ten minutes later he is back on board his gleaming, open-top battlebus. Four large speakers blast out a heady mixture of The Clash's "London Calling" and Mr Galloway's amped-up battle cries.

"Respect!" he shouts. "That's what we're fighting for. For the people of Tower Hamlets – wherever they came from, whatever colour they are, however they pray."

As the bus winds its way through the streets some passers-by cheer him on with waves and wolf whistles. Others are less diplomatic and flick him the Vs.

Mr Galloway has radically altered the way politics is done in this corner of the capital by deftly courting the Muslim vote. Depending on who you speak to, he is either a fearless politician who has dared to take on the political establishment by empowering local Muslims, or he's a dangerous demagogue who polarises opinion in an already fractured landscape.

The London Borough of Tower Hamlets is one of the most culturally varied places in Britain. Over the centuries French Huguenots, Irish Catholics, eastern European Jews and Bangladeshis have all flocked to the area to carve themselves a slice of life in the beating heart of London's East End. Somalis and Afghans are just the latest arrivals into one of the greatest ethnic melting pots in the world.

But until recently the political landscape of this area was overwhelmingly monolithic. East London was Labour through-and-through and remained so as each new immigrant community set up shop there.

All that changed in 2005 when Mr Galloway rode discontent over the Iraq war to seize the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow with his newly formed Respect party, a motley coalition of Bengali Muslims and traditional socialists who were united by their mutual loathing of what Labour had become.

Five years on, the Battle of Tower Hamlets is set to be more unpredictable than ever before – this time around there is even a good chance that the Tories could win their first seat in the borough for more than a century.

Following recent boundary changes, the borough is now divided into two seats covering an area of immense inequality. Bethnal Green and Bow lies in the shadow of the City's gleaming skyscrapers and fans out east into the sprawling and colourful markets of Banglatown and beyond.

In the new constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, meanwhile, the vast majority of inhabitants live in densely packed inner-city tower blocks – but there is a strip of enormous wealth running along the Thames.

That gives the Tories a potential foothold in Tower Hamlets that was never possible before – especially as Mr Galloway has decided to stand there and will take away largely Labour votes.

Mr Galloway has moved constituency because in 2005 he pledged to win Bethnal Green and Bow on behalf of the Bangladeshi community and then hand it over to a local candidate – a decision Labour activists routinely claim is "the only promise he's kept".

He intends to recreate his success by courting, largely, young Muslim voters to try to oust Labour's Farming minister, Jim Fitzpatrick, who voted for the war in Iraq.

Extraordinarily, the bookies' frontrunner is now the Conservatives' Tim Archer, followed by Mr Fitzpatrick and then Mr Galloway. But the 55-year-old Scot is undeterred.

"I don't think the bookies know much about what the Bengalis or Somalis are thinking," he says, lighting his second cigar of the day. "Forty per cent of the electorate are Muslims and they're much more likely to vote than others. That's a statistical truth here."

As Labour and Respect battle over the Muslim vote, Mr Archer is working the white residents of the borough, who are a mixture of working-class residents and City professionals. The Samuda Estate on the Isle of Dogs is just 10 minutes' walk from the glass and steel towers of Canary Wharf but in practical terms it is a world away.

Little of the billions made in the City finds its way down to these sorts of estates in a borough that, despite being surrounded by such phenomenal wealth, remains the third most impoverished local authority in England.

"Galloway's approach is divide and rule and I think people are starting to see through the rhetoric," says Mr Archer, a former high street banker and councillor, as he knocks on doors in the estate. "People want some meaningful change."

Asked whether he is concerned about Mr Galloway coming to Poplar, the Tory candidate is candid. "Not really, no," he says. "Ultimately, he's taking Labour's vote. We don't bump into very many people saying they used to vote Conservative but now vote Respect."

All of which means that Respect's best chance of holding on to a parliamentary seat rests in Bethnal Green and Bow, where Abjol Miah, a youth worker and local councillor with strong ties to east London's mosque network, is taking on Labour's Rushanara Ali in a contest that will finally provide British Bengalis with a representative in Parliament (Bangladeshis remain one of the only significant ethnic communities without an MP).

Ms Ali, 35, is politically rated, eloquent, beautiful and – crucially for this area of town – has Bangladeshi heritage. She's also clearly on something of a tight leash and was the only candidate to insist that The Independent's questions were emailed in advance of an interview.

But bring up Mr Galloway's voting record (he has one of the lowest parliamentary attendance records) and she soon speaks out.

"People didn't expect him to have such an appalling record," she says. "They didn't expect him to behave in the way he did and that's very obvious when you knock on street doors and talk to people. In the cold light of day, as people start analysing what a single issue party can do for them, they reach their own conclusions. And they're not going to be fooled by George Galloway's Respect party."

But Mr Miah is a very different kettle of fish from his party's founder. Where Mr Galloway favours oratory and showmanship, Mr Miah opts for quiet bridge building with religious networks and Bengali youths to deliver his votes.

At Friday prayers in Brick Lane mosque, Mr Miah appeals to the gathered worshippers to vote for him. "You know, me brothers," he says. "You know what I stand for."

The Brick Lane mosque – unlike its larger rival, the East London Mosque on the nearby Whitechapel Road – largely eschews politicking. It's a traditional Bangladeshi establishment that prefers to separate religion and politics. But ever since the election was announced it has been courted by candidates who jostle with each other on the street outside after Friday prayers.

It is a phenomenon that makes Mr Miah, who has been criticised for forging links with soft Islamist groups, chuckle.

"When they say the mosques are infiltrating the political parties I think that's totally outrageous," he says. "It's the politicians who go round to the mosque trying to poach voters. Which councillor hasn't gone round to the mosque to beg for votes? They all do, irrespective of whether they're Muslims or not."

The Respect party, he says, is simply doing what politicians have been asking the Muslim community to do: engage in the political process.

"For the last 15 years, politicians have been demanding that the Muslim community engages with the political process," Mr Miah says.

"For years we've been called isolationist, backward, separatist and ghettoist. But when we do engage we're labelled fundamentalists. We wanted to engage and get involved in electoral politics. And that's what we did. And now the old parties are terrified because we've broken their chains."

Bethnal Green and Bow: 2005 result

*Respect George Galloway 15,801 (35.9%)

*Labour Oona King 14,978 (34%)

*Conservative Shahagir Bakth Faruk 6,244 (14.2%)

*Liberal Democrat Syed Nurul Islam Dulu 4,928 (11.2%)

Maj 823 (1.9%); Turnout 44,007 (51.2%)

Respect gain from Labour, 26.2% Swing