With video and ridicule, the poor seize power

Jack O'Sullivan sits in on a new grassroots political movement
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The Independent Online
So you've helped put someone into Downing Street and maybe elected a new council. What next, come Friday morning? Return to that apathetic impotence from which you were barely roused these past six weeks?

Not if you live in east London. Here the election is just the beginning. You can feel the bristle of political power being reclaimed. It's Monday evening at a run-down, pre-war civic hall, with a huge stage that looks in urgent need of a rollocking Pirates of Penzance. For a moment, however, the building's ambitious name, the "People's Palace", seems not quite so ridiculous. Local imams, schools, the students' union, tenants' organisations and Christian parishes are all there, missing John Major and David Dimbleby slugging it out on Panorama.

All members of Telco - The East London Communities Association - they are calling would-be local MPs to account. And the farewell to retiring members shows they mean business. Mildred Gordon, leaving the Commons after 10 years, is cheered and clapped. Like a feted Hawaiian matriarch, she is garlanded with flowers, before rising to say a few words. Then, just as she hits her stride, a bell rings time. Sorry, Mildred, your two minutes are up. Only the crowd's politeness lets her finish her story. Busy people have to move on.

And so to the bemused looking candidates. Will they make the behaviour of immigration officers more accountable, demands Dilwar Khan, representing the humiliations experienced by members of the East London mosque. Would you make sure every child in the area has access to a homework centre with 12 months, requests a boy from Stepney Green Secondary School. The candidates have one minute to reply and the answers to the questions - agreed during weeks of house meetings - are marked. "Was that wishy- washy?" the chairman prods the audience. "Yes," they roar. "W" is chalked on the scoreboard beside Syed Islam, Liberal Democrat candidate. Minutes later, Mr Islam storms out of the hall with all the bluster of a Gilbert and Sullivan caricature, his election chances up in smoke.

This is people power. Telco is still in its infancy, but attracts people who normally would not be involved in politics. It is one of the "broad- based community" organisations that have grown up in many cities since the last election. In Bristol, they have closed drugs dens and forced a building society to making large donations to relieve homelessness. In Liverpool, they have used the courts against fly-tipping mafias.

The main faiths play a big role. Not because this is a front for religious power - discussion of religion itself is banned - but because they are the key institutions left in the inner-cities. They pay their dues for sharing power - one church in east London's Canning Town, with a congregation of 900, pays pounds 1,800 a year (a sizeable addition to the overdraft) to be in Telco, which refuses all commercial or government sponsorship. Schools pay hundreds of pounds to join an organisation that just might improve the blighted employment prospects of their pupils.

I searched our database of newspapers for mention of such broad-based organisations during the past few weeks. All over the country, they have been questioning politicians, pushing them into making long-term commitments. Nothing came up on screen. These people remain invisible to the national media and largely ignored by the local press, wary of giving them space when the nationals aren't bothered.

But the election candidates soon realise that these people matter - or will matter soon. After Mr Islam's ill-advised walk-out, the Tory and Labour candidates sound as sweet as Miss World describing her plans to help the world's unfortunates.

The final questions are the important ones. Will they promise to meet Telco's leaders every six months? Yes. Will they back Telco's campaign for a pounds 5 minimum wage in the area and for local developers to recruit 20 per cent local labour? Yes, again. The papers might have missed it. But it is all on video and may be used in evidence. Telco will still be going on Friday, after the carpetbagger politicians pack up for another five years.

All of this is just a beginning. Telco, and its sister groups in other cities, realise that boardrooms are as important as politicians. This evening, the grey-haired director of ABN Amro bank, rebuilding its headquarters nearby, is invited to speak to the crowd. Looking slightly threatened, he finds himself applauded and garlanded.

Here, some of Britain's poorest people live in what will soon be Europe's biggest building site, with development of the Royal Docks, the Millennium site at Greenwich, the Channel Tunnel rail link at Stratford. The smart- suited businessmen like to say: "Yes, we'd love to employ local people, but they don't have the skills." In the old days, that would have been the end of it. Local people would have collapsed into anger at broken promises. Businessmen would have shaken their heads at frustrated good intentions. Not now.

On Monday evening, when Telco had quizzed the Westminster wannabees, all the participants - the schools, the mosques, the churches - agreed to open their doors over the summer to register job hunters. They will then arrange their training through government agencies. Next time the businessmen shake their heads sadly at the inadequacies of local people, Telco will have a list of just who they need. And there will be people in Parliament, pledged to fight their cause. For these people, politics is just beginning.

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