One member, who votes?: A row is brewing in Manchester, where Asian challengers threaten to deselect the sitting MP. John Torode investigates

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The Independent Online
THIS is a tale of two cultures, one city, and three ambitious men. The city is Manchester and the culture clash involves an increasingly bitter conflict between the substantial and increasingly confident Asian minority, and old, mainly white politicians who have kept a tight grip on the city Labour Party.

Up for grabs is the run-down, inner-city parliamentary seat of Gorton, held these past 22 years by Gerald Kaufman, one of Labour's elder statesmen. Mr Kaufman is the child of an earlier, Jewish immigration and has a reputation as a fighter against discrimination and in favour of the rights of ethnic minorities. But over the next month - unless the High Court or Labour's national headquarters intervene - systematic efforts will be made to 'deselect' him in favour of an Asian candidate.

This week the constituency reselection procedure gets under way. Usually, where a well regarded and long-serving MP is involved, reselection is a formality. But here an ugly conflict is brewing. Eileen Murfin, Labour's regional organiser, says: 'It is apparent that moves are afoot to remove the Member.' Nasrullah Khan Moghal, a Manchester city councillor and one of the three Asian potential challengers for Mr Kaufman's job, predicts: 'It is going to be very nasty.'

The constituency of Gorton clusters round Belle Vue greyhound and speedway stadium, but it also embraces Rusholme and Fallowfield, once among the city's more prosperous suburbs. Today many of the big houses are ill- maintained and sub-let. White faces are being replaced by brown. It is estimated that well over 10 per cent of Gorton's electorate is non- white - the overwhelming majority being Muslims of Pakistani origin. But the composition of the local Labour Party does not yet reflect this change.

At the last election Mr Kaufman, now 64, had a majority of 16,279. He is determined to fight at least one more general election. If he survives, it will be in good part because of the rivalry between the three Asian contenders.

Already dirt is flying. The Asian community is convinced that the local Labour Party has been obstructing hundreds of applications for membership from their ranks in order to protect Mr Kaufman's seat. Recently, in a test case, two of them instructed Jane Deighton, a solicitor with a reputation in race relations litigation, to proceed against the party, using the Race Relations Act.

The two men were seeking damages for alleged discrimination on racial grounds, because the failure to issue cards affected applicants with Asian names. They also sought a declaration that they were members of the party. Last Friday, the national office of the Labour Party apparently conceded their case. Now a flood of similar actions is expected.

Is there a conspiracy here, or simply a muddle? Two years ago, the local Labour Party received more than 300 applications, in batches, from people with Asian names. The old guard feared entryism. Their concerns grew as several hundred more Asian applications were received in subsequent months. They suspected some godfather was attempting to buy votes in order to influence the new one-member one-vote procedure used to select (or deselect) parliamentary candidates.

At that time, the entire constituency party membership amounted to no more than 900 members. A few hundred newcomers could, in theory, 'swamp' the Gorton party and impose their own candidate and agenda.

Bowing to this concern, national party headquarters suspended all recruitment and organised an investigation. No evidence of conspiracy was found: all but a handful of applications were in order. A year ago, the party ordered that the applicants be admitted and issued membership cards.

But Asian representatives insist that few, if any, cards have been received. And because the cards sent from head office were backdated to the date of application, many will now be in arrears. If the Asian recruits wish to play their part in the selection procedure, they will need to pay further subscriptions.

At the regional office, Ms Murfin is not sure what has gone wrong but she makes a valiant guess: 'To a new member, a card which looks valueless because it is out of date could easily be thrown away.' Here, pending further litigation, the Mysterious Affair of the Missing Cards must rest.

A key player in the long campaign to recruit Asians to the Gorton party has been Ahmed Shazad, a businessman and former councillor in Brent, north London. Mr Shazad retains strong ties with Jhelum in Pakistan's northern Punjab, where he was born. This links him to the large numbers of immigrants living in Manchester who come from Jhelum.

His support is drawn mainly from the traditionally minded among those who attend local mosques. They identify with Mr Shazad as one of their own who has made good in Britain and who supports his home town through charitable donations.

But why has Mr Shazad been cultivating Gorton? Last week he confirmed his candidature for Mr Kaufman's seat, explaining that 'people' in the constituency had asked him to let his name go forward. He refused to name these people, but put me in touch with Dr Iqbal Sram, whom he described as 'a spokesman'.

Surprisingly, Dr Sram said of Mr Shadaz: 'I have never met the guy.' He refused to comment on the case for fear, he said, of being disciplined by the Labour Party. But Dr Sram, chairman of Gorton's Rusholme ward party and a former Manchester city councillor, is a shrewd and sophisticated politician. Many think he, too, would like Mr Kaufman's seat.

Dr Sram identifies with hard- left inner-city London MPs such as Ken Livingstone and Jeremy Corbyn; he is chair of the Gorton Black Socialist Society and a leader of the city-wide Anti-Racist Alliance. He organised opposition to the Gulf war and earlier this year was quoted as saying the Labour leadership on the city council 'could even be accused of a racist attitude' after they had cut funding to black groups. This insubordination cost him his council seat but enhanced his credibility.

So Dr Sram's strength in the Asian community is that he has the confidence of those who attend the mosque but who feel uneasy about Mr Shazad because he is not local; who want to support a tough Asian candidate who knows how to play the British political system. Dr Sram appeals to the more militant, secular, younger generation. His links with the hard left, still a significant force in Manchester, mean its machine would be thrown behind him. If he decides to enter the fray, he would present a formidable challenge to Mr Kaufman.

Finally there is Councillor Nasrullah Khan Moghal, a moderate and a party loyalist who is employed as head of the city's official Community Relations Council. If there is to be an Asian MP in Gorton, Mr Moghal would be the most acceptable to the party elite.

Mr Moghal says he is deeply unimpressed with Mr Shazad and argues that there are good local potential candidates among the Asian community. 'When Gerald stands down I would be interested in the seat,' he says.

But Mr Moghal's closeness to Mr Kaufman and the Manchester party establishment, symbolised by his support for the funding cuts that Dr Sram opposed, renders Mr Moghal less acceptable both to the traditionalists in the mosques and the younger, secular reformers.

Assuming that the hundreds of Asian applicants are declared eligible to vote, they will have a large say in Mr Kaufman's future. Whether they succeed in unseating him will depend on whether they vote as a block. And that depends on whether Messrs Shazad, Moghal and Sram can reach an accommodation.

Whatever the outcome of the row in Gorton, similar conflicts are bound to erupt in other constituency parties as people of Asian origin come to realise their collective strength. These conflicts will present a challenge to the type of Labour Party Tony Blair is attempting to create. The combination of mass membership, attracted by large-scale recruitment drives, and one-member one- vote democracy, revives an old problem with a new twist. The fear is that of 'takeover bids' by groups whose first loyalty is, perhaps, not to the Labour Party. But the very fear may be fuelled by racism, a resistance to ethnic groups staking what they regard as an overdue claim to participation and power within mainstream British politics.

(Photograph omitted)

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