Why anger over war gives Galloway chance of deposing King

Click to follow
Indy Politics

The East End is where cultures collide and the past is always present. Elements of modern, fashionable London, glitzy or grungy bars, and art galleries sit alongside remnants of an earlier era - rag-trade wholesalers, pie and eel shops, pubs offering "exotic dancers", the curry houses of Brick Lane, and the alleys where Jack the Ripper roamed. To say the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency has a rich cultural mix is an understatement.

The East End is where cultures collide and the past is always present. Elements of modern, fashionable London, glitzy or grungy bars, and art galleries sit alongside remnants of an earlier era - rag-trade wholesalers, pie and eel shops, pubs offering "exotic dancers", the curry houses of Brick Lane, and the alleys where Jack the Ripper roamed. To say the Bethnal Green and Bow constituency has a rich cultural mix is an understatement.

In Cable Street, a plaque mark the spot where the local Jewish community fought Oswald Mosley's Blackshirts in 1936. Now, the yarmulka has been replaced by the hijab, Blooms, the famous kosher restaurant, has closed and the Whitechapel Road is now dominated by the East London Mosque.

And caught between the City's old money and the new money of the Canary Wharf towers are around 55,000 Muslims, mostly Bangladeshis. They make up more than half the electorate, many of them living in overcrowded poverty.

They have become the focus for another clash, one in which the rights and wrongs of the Iraq conflict are being argued out on the streets of Bethnal Green. The contest has become increasingly bitter and, at times, violent.

It is being fought by Oona King, the black, Jewish, Labour parliamentary candidate and its MP during the previous parliament, a fully paid-up supporter of both Tony Blair and the war, and George Galloway, the combative Scottish former MP, sacked by Labour for opposing the war. He now leads the Respect coalition, which is putting up candidates in 35 constituencies and drawing support from a combination of traditional left wingers and the anti-war movement. The seat which he represented in the recent parliament, Glasgow Kelvin, is disappearing due to boundary changes.

The contest, which is being fought - in Mr Galloway's words - in the colours of Old and New Labour, has effectively become a local referendum on Mr Blair's decision to go to war and all of its many consequences, not least the extent to which we now trust our politicians. Although politicians elsewhere have mostly avoided talking about the war, Bethnal Green is one of a small number of constituencies where the conflict is an issue: others include the Prime Minister's Sedgefield constituency, where Reg Keys, the father of one of six military policemen who died in an ambush in Iraq, is standing as a candidate for Military Families Against the War, claiming it was based on a "deceit" over WMD; and in East Kilbride, near Glasgow, Adam Ingram, the Armed Forces minister, faces a challenge from Rose Gentle, the mother of another soldier killed in Iraq.

But in Bethnal Green, despite numerous other local issues clamouring for attention, such as housing, education, poverty and anti-social behaviour, the war dominates. Early in the contest, Ms King and Mr Galloway swapped Iraq-related insults at a public meeting, with the latter saying that 100,000 had died as a result of decisions made by Ms King. She in turn accused her opponent of flying to Baghdad to "grovel" at the feet of Saddam Hussein. She later pulled out - without clear explanation - from sharing a platform with Mr Galloway at a meeting on Palestine, despite the fact that, although she is Jewish, she supports the Palestinians' cause and could have won some Muslim votes. Inevitably, Mr Galloway used the opportunity to restate his opposition to the war.

Although the Respect leader claims to have the Islamic vote sewn up, he has come under attack from both liberal and militant Muslims. On Tuesday night, a gang of around 30 supporters of a radical Muslim group, al-Muhajiroun, who claim that voting is an unIslamic practice, broke into a meeting between Mr Galloway and some tenants on a council estate. They prevented him from leaving the room and said that anyone who voted for him would face a "sentence of death". He was only able to leave after two police officers arrived. Outside, scuffles broke out between the militants, who were banging on the roof of Mr Galloway's car as he tried to drive away, and local Muslim youths. Three people were arrested and one person was treated in hospital for a minor injury.

Although the Tuesday night incident means closer attention must be paid, say Respect, to Mr Galloway's personal security, he has vowed to continue a campaign which is drawing substantial support from both mainstream Muslims and newer residents. He is putting Ms King's majority of around 10,000 under severe threat.

Found by The Independent canvassing outside Wapping Tube station, he is so confident of the Muslim vote that he scraps a planned visit to a mosque and instead tears off to some tenement flats, a stone's throw from the gated enclaves of the City workers. He stops to shake hands with drivers at the office of Elite Cars, who greet him warmly. "I'm voting for him. He's stood up to Tony Blair over Iraq. The whole [war] thing is completely wrong," says a driver, Abdul Khalique, 37. His friend Nisar Ahmed, 36, agrees: "He's got 100 per cent of the vote around here."

Dissent to this line comes when he tries to give a leaflet to a smart Mercedes containing Abdal Ullah and his wife Aysha Qureshi. Mr Ullah, 29, it turns out, is an independent member of the Metropolitan Police Authority for the area, active in the local community, and he represents a different strand of Muslim opinion. He accepts the leaflet politely, but after Mr Galloway has gone he says: "I won't be voting for him, because he has done nothing for our community, whereas Oona King has helped us do things like create a prayer room for the local people." Both accused Mr Galloway of fomenting unrest in the Bangledeshi community. Ms Qureshi, 26, a solicitor, adds: "Of course we did not support an illegal war, but that does not mean we support Mr Galloway, who has taken faith relations to their lowest level around here for years."

It is true that Ms King has also been the subject of Muslim anger, although Respect denies it has sanctioned incidents of intimidation. Yesterday, a crowd of banner-waving Respect supporters surrounded a restaurant where she and the London Mayor, Ken Livingstone, were meeting local Muslim leaders. She has had eggs thrown at her at least twice, the second time by young people of whom some were said to be wearing Respect badges. She has also had her car tyres slashed.

But it is clear she has little support among less angry elements. "We need a change," says Saleem Ullah, 47, a bus driver. "I worked for Labour last time. I'm still a member, but I'm voting for Mr Galloway. We should not have gone to war; it was really bad for the country. What have we gained from it? I'm not the only one - I've lived in the area since 1969, so I know a lot of people and they all feel like this."

As Ms King emerges from the aptly named Rich Mix, a largely public-funded £25m "creative space" still under construction, he watches unimpressed. "I don't like what happens to some politicians when they get into power," he says. "I'm not an idiot. I think Mr Galloway will be good for the constituency."

At the nearby Redchurch café and bar, the owner Will Beckett, 27, a typical "incomer", says the lack of trust engendered by the Iraq conflict will influence his vote: "I'll vote for either the Lib Dems or Galloway. I'm a traditional Labour voter, but I can't bring myself to vote for Blair because of the war. I'd rather vote for someone with genuine left-wing credentials than for King." Behind the bar, Nancy Waters, 23, adds: "I'm not voting Labour. I feel ill at the thought of what has happened in Iraq, particularly the way we went in without United Nations backing."

They are not the only ones to think that Mr Galloway's campaign has put Ms King, first elected in 1997 as one of the infamous "Blair babes", in a precarious position come 5 May. Several Labour big-hitters like Tessa Jowell and John Prescott have been trotted out to boost her chances; even Cherie Blair spoke in her support at a fund-raising dinner in a Brick Lane restaurant last week. Billy Bragg, the singer, was also dragooned into helping, risking criticism from fellow anti-war campaigners

But Ms King is also surrounded by a phalanx of party minders who carefully manage her contacts with the media. She has a reputation for loose talk: last month, she was forced to issue an apology to Mr Galloway and make a £1,000 donation to charity over allegations she made about sexually improper behaviour. A few months ago she claimed she had been offered £10,000 for sex by a Labour MEP when she worked as a researcher in Europe; she also denied suggestions of an affair with a cabinet minister. Ms King, seen by some as a lightweight, narrowly survived a reselection fight last year.

After her next stop, at the Museum of Childhood on Cambridge Heath Road, Ms King is allowed 10 minutes with The Independent. She is frank: "I have always known there was a chance my support for the war could cost me my job." But she hopes her constituents realise her support for overthrowing Saddam Hussein was not a matter of blind backing for Mr Blair, but part of a long-standing belief that something had to be done about a dictator killing many of his own countrymen.

"Of course, I think many aspects of the conflict have been disastrous," concedes Ms King, "but I do believe it is vitally important the Iraqi people should elect their own government."

She argues that a vote for Mr Galloway will gift the constituency to the Tories. Although they came second in 2001, it seems a long shot given their support for the Iraq conflict. A better indicator of how the vote may go is the European elections last year when Respect polled 30 per cent in the wards within the parliamentary boundary, six per cent more than Labour.

Mr Galloway may be correct in saying it is a two-horse race but the real problem both parties face is apathy - just 50.2 per cent of voters turned out in 2001. Many people spoken to by The Independent seemed disinclined to vote, put off by cynical distrust of all politicians.

Nowhere was this more evident than at E Pellicci, a famed Italian café on Bethnal Green Road recently given a Grade 11 listing and once favoured by the Krays, who lived near by on Vallance Road. It is a world away from the Redchurch. Here, the mere suggestion of politicians and elections is greeted with hoots of derision all round.

Nevio Pellicci, 29, grandson of the Italian immigrant founders, says he has not yet decided who to vote for: "We 'ad that George Galloway in 'ere the other day. 'E's OK." He shrugs: "I don't know what to make of it, you know, it's so much of a cover-up over Iraq. I think its about oil."

Mostly, the concerns of the café's inhabitants are more prosaic: parking, vandalism and freeloading asylum-seekers. They are coupled with a complete lack of expectation that anything will be done about them.

Perhaps the last word should belong to Jimmy Rankin, 62, a former furniture dealer, whose substantial figure bulges across the table. He is clearly a man prepared to hold forth on such matters. Who will he be voting for? A scornful chuckle: "None of 'em. They're all a bunch of crooks, legal crooks, aren't they?"

Bethnal Green and Bow

MP during previous parliament: Oona King, Labour

Labour majority, 10,057

RESULT 2001

Lab 19,380 (50.5%)

Con 9,323 (24.3%)

Lib Dem 5,946 (15.5%)

Green 1,666 (4.3%)

Others 2,099 (5.5%)

EUROPE 1999

Lab 37.3%

Con 26.3%

Lib Dem 11.3%

HISTORY

Traditionally a working-class Labour stronghold. Labour have had five-figure majorities in several elections since 1945.

In 1997, when Oona King replaced Peter Shore as Labour candidate, the dip in the Labour majority from 12,385 in 1992 to 11,285 went against the general trend in the country. Ms King - the youngest female ethnic-minority candidate in parliament and the daughter of one Jewish and one black parent - faced difficulty in winning support from a largely Asian and Muslim ethnic minority. But in 2001 her vote increased by 4.06 per cent.

SOCIAL PROFILE

For centuries, the inner East End has been the home of immigrant communities, leading to ethnic tension. The British National Party won local elections at ward level in the 1990s and achieved 7.5 per cent in the 1997 election. This declined in 2001 when they lost their deposit. There is a large Bangladeshi community.

EMPLOYMENT

Claimant-based unemployment in December 2003 was 10.4% - England's fourth-worst constituency for joblessness. The relocation of print media companies to Wapping has brought employment to the area and Docklands development has led to a rise in people working in finance, the media and services.

With ethnic diversity came the Whitechapel and Spitalfields areas famed for Asian culture and cuisine.

ISSUES

The proportion of people in rented accommodation is 70.66 per cent, nearly triple the UK average. Two-thirds of these are council tenants.

Locals have complained about the congestion charge, the boundary of which is on the western edge of the constituency. Projects such as extending the Tube's East London line and creating an international rail link through Stratford will improve transport links for future years. Education is improving, but more than half of pupils have English as an additional language, higher than any other LEA. In 2001, only 40 per cent of children in the constituency achieved five or more good passes at GCSE - 10 per cent below that year's national average.

Flashpoints

SATURDAY

Oona King and Labour canvassers harassed and pelted with eggs by Respect supporters during a walkabout on estate near Spitalfields. The tyres on her car are slashed.

TUESDAY

George Galloway meeting with tenants on Osier estate is disrupted by Islamic militants, who prevent him from leaving and deliver death threats. Large numbers of police attend to keep order.

YESTERDAY

Protesters surround restaurant in Spitalfields where Oona King and Ken Livingstone are meeting Muslim leaders.

Young voters on Iraq

Samantha Routley, 23, from Newport

Vote: Undecided

Blair let the country down on Iraq. Until the war he seemed in control on issues like health care and education, but now I don't trust him. I don't trust his judgement because the war was a bad plan, badly executed, and I don't trust what he says, because he lied about WMD. I might have voted Labour before the Iraq war, but I don't think I will now. I'd like to vote Lib Dem but am worried it will let the Conservatives in.

Colin Shardlow, 22, from Hemel Hempstead

Vote: Won't vote

Iraq was a good idea for some reasons, getting rid of a guy who tested chemical weapons on his own people. But everyone was against it and they went ahead anyway. It didn't make me trust Blair. I never thought he was trustworthy - he's a politician! But the war did confirm people think he's Bush's lapdog. I voted Labour in 2001 and I'm not voting this time it's because the parties are all the same.

Simon Jones, 21, from Sheffield

Vote: Probably Conservative

I was in agreement with the war and still support it. But they should have advertised it as a war to get rid of a bastard - and not have coerced government agencies into selectively releasing intelligence.

The Tories are a mess on Iraq: they agreed with it and then tried to go back afterwards. But I'll vote for them because they have a strong message on crime, immigration and taxes.

Beth Ward, 18, from north London

Vote: Undecided

The war in Iraq hasn't changed my trust in Blair: I've never trusted him, he's always been a smarmy git. I disagreed with the war but it raised issues of faith rather than trust; it changed my faith in Blair's ability to lead the country. He blindly followed Bush, the world's most famous moron. I consider England the 51st state of America. I can't stand living in a country run by another Labour administration.

Ed Douglass, 18, from Leamington

Vote: Conservative

The war in Iraq was wrong - a big ploy for Tony to say 'I'm best mates with George Bush', almost a publicity stunt. It was based on a lie too. If they had found WMD it would have been worth it, but they didn't.

The war isn't the biggest factor which has moved me to the Conservatives. They have got it right in their manifesto with getting rid of some of the government pen-pushers, stopping top-up fees and lowering tax.

Harriet Walker, 19, from Sheffield

Vote: Probably Lib Dem

Iraq is the main issue which makes me hesitate from voting for Labour. I thought it was wrong to go off with America and break away from Europe. He embellished the facts but I'm not sure he lied. He's not as much of a villain as he's made out to be but I trust him a lot less.

The main thing which would make me vote against Labour is that our MP [Anne Campbell, Cambridge] voted for top-up fees.

Comments