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Last Updated: Friday, 28 April 2006, 14:02 GMT 15:02 UK
The battle for Tower Hamlets
By Brian Wheeler
BBC News political reporter in Shadwell, East London

Cable Street, in London's East End, has seen its share of political conflict.

Cable Street sign
The scene of political battles through the years

It was the scene in 1936 of clashes between communists and Oswald Mosley's British Union of Fascists, who tried to stage a march through the area.

The political tussle going on there now is less bloody certainly, but probably no less bitter.

Local MP George Galloway won a spectacular victory in the 2005 general election on an anti Iraq war ticket, unseating Labour's Oona King by the slenderest of margins.

The controversial backbencher and reality TV star now has his sights set on the town hall, and is characteristically bullish about his Respect party's prospects in Tower Hamlets.

The party has just one council member at the moment, gained in a by-election shortly after its formation in 2004, but says it expects to be the largest party on the council on 5 May - or even to take overall control.


But just as in the general election, the campaign in Tower Hamlets has been a brutal one, characterised by allegations of "dirty tricks" from all sides and claims of massive vote fraud, with Respect submitting a dossier to the police containing "dozens" of alleged cases.

The 4 May local elections are a referendum on Tony Blair's war, his lies and his deceit
George Galloway

Mr Galloway's group is targeting its greatest canvassing effort on the Shadwell ward, in an effort to unseat Labour council leader Michael Keith.

The area is home to a large Asian population, who make up about 50% of the population.

Despite being wedged between the City and Canary Wharf, it is one of the most deprived wards the country. Poverty and overcrowding are rife.

But most people we spoke to in Cable Street and the surrounding area said they liked living there.

The Iraq war still provokes anger among the Muslim population, although most seemed able to divorce it from Labour's domestic record.

Sujen Ali, a 24-year-old sociology student, said: "I am thinking of voting Labour. They have given us a lot of things in our neighbourhood.

"I will discuss it with my family. We will be voting in a family group."

Iraq war

Mohamed Abdul, a local businessman who has stood as an independent candidate in the past, said he would not be voting for anybody.

Shanaz Begum
Miss Begum was not impressed by Galloway's Big Brother antics

"I am quite concerned about the changes in the area."

A lot of youth clubs had closed down, he said, and more police were needed on the streets. There was also a breakdown in communication between residents and the local council and a shortage of jobs for young people.

Like many Muslims we spoke to, he also felt threatened by the war in Iraq.

"I am planning to move from this country. Even though the war is happening in another country it affects my way of life. People are dying all over the Muslim world."

'Champagne socialists'

Labour is pinning its hopes on getting white voters to the polls, to compensate for loss of Muslim support to Respect.

But if the views of one man, who did not want to be named, are anything to go by, they may have a struggle on their hands.

"I am a Labour voter but I won't be voting this time. They are just a bunch of champagne socialists. They have lost touch with ordinary working people," said the 38-year-old window cleaner.

Shadwell street
About half of the population in Shadwell is Asian

"I also think there are too many immigrants coming in. I would never vote for the BNP. I wouldn't go down that route. I'm not into flag-waving and St George.

"Its for economic reasons. There aren't enough jobs to go round. I feel sorry for the Bengali families, who have to find work for their kids. There will soon be 10 people chasing one McJob."

'Middle-class leftie'

"You see too many Asian faces round here," said 21-year-old business studies student Mohamed Alamin. He said he wanted to see more "British white or British black people" living in the area.

Respect are appealing to divisions between the communities
Michael Keith, leader Tower Hamlets council

He said he was worried about the growing number of drug dealers in the area but he would not be voting on 4 May.

The only Respect supporter we could find was a teacher at a local girls' school, who said he did not live in the area.

Self-confessed "middle class leftie" Max Middleton, said: "I will be voting Respect because I am a socialist."

The vast majority of pupils at Mr Middleton's school were Muslim - and he said they all worshipped Mr Galloway during his appearance on Channel 4 reality show Big Brother.

"All my girls were saying he is wonderful. He is so popular among the girls."

'War on Muslims'

This was not a view shared by media studies student Shanaz Begum, who was not impressed by what she called the MP's "shenanigans".

"An MP should not behave like that," she told the BBC News Website.

She said many Muslims felt the government was waging a "war on Muslims", particularly with proposed legislation on the "glorification" of terror, but she said she would still "probably" vote Labour.

Respect's opponents characterise it as a shaky, and unlikely, marriage of convenience between members of the Socialist Workers Party and Islamic groups, which will break apart the moment it ceases to be of use to either side.

They also accuse it of, in the words of one political opponent who did not want to be named, running "a nasty, faith-based campaign" in the East End.

Labour 'collapse'

Respect firmly denies it is a single issue group - or that it is cynically exploiting the fears of Muslims who feel threatened by the Iraq war.

"There is no strategy to take on a particular demographic," said Respect spokesman Ron McKay, who predicted Labour's vote would "collapse" on 4 May.

Conscious of the East End's history as cradle of the Labour movement, Respect's leaders like to portray it as the voice of working class people abandoned by New Labour.

The East End is always changing

Mr McKay said a Respect victory in Tower Hamlets, one of only two boroughs in the country where it is running a full slate of candidates, would send a powerful signal to Mr Blair that his time was up.

Launching the party's campaign, Mr Galloway, a former Labour MP expelled from the party, said: "The 4 May local elections are a referendum on Tony Blair's war, his lies and his deceit. Even Labour Party supporters want Blair to go."

If elected in Tower Hamlets, he says the party would call a halt to Labour's "privatisation" of council housing - its transfer of ownership to housing associations - and use cash in council reserves to build new homes, a policy derided as unrealistic by Labour.

Mr McKay said there were members of the Socialist Workers Party in Respect - unlike other parties Respect members are allowed to belong to other groups - but he insisted it was more broad-based than that.

Most of its candidates in Tower Hamlets come from ethnic minorities, including Kurds, Turks and Bangladeshis.


On the Big Brother issue, Mr McKay said: "I wouldn't say it doesn't come up on the doorstep but it is not a huge issue."

The reply canvassers have been told to give if Mr Galloway's appearance on the show comes up is that it raised a lot of money for charity, like Red Nose day.

Respect claims it has New Labour government on the run over Cross Rail, after plans for a construction site for the planned new underground line in the borough were scaled back.

But Mr McKay said the biggest issue on the doorstep was Labour "sleaze", which he claimed was rife in Tower Hamlets.

Labour activists, for their part, mutter darkly about underhand tactics and misinformation from Respect.

Lib Dem hopes

Labour's Michael Keith said: "Respect are appealing to divisions between the communities and are threatening community cohesion by the nature of their campaign."

They could cancel each other out and let us in
Tim O'Flaherty, Lib Dem councillor

But he added: "I think anybody would be foolish to take the election for granted or underestimate the residual fallout from the war, which had a very obvious effect in the 2005 general election."

The biggest beneficiary of the bitter war of words between Respect and Labour in Tower Hamlets could be the Liberal Democrats.

The party came fourth in the general election, but it was an under-resourced campaign in a seat that was not on its target list.

The Liberal Democrats ran Tower Hamlets in the late 1980s and is currently the second largest group on the council.

Explosive situation

Tim O'Flaherty, a Lib Dem councillor in the Weavers ward, said he believes the party had a realistic chance of taking overall control in Tower Hamlets.

"It is possible because of the Respect factor, along with Labour. They could cancel each other out and let us in," he said.

The Conservatives have made much of their efforts to regain a foothold in the inner cities and the party scored a small but significant victory in Tower Hamlets in 2004 when it won a council by-election.

The party's sole councillor, Simon Rouse, is in Millwall, a ward which briefly elected a BNP councillor, Derek Beacon in the 1990s.

A Tory spokesman said the party had trebled its membership in Tower Hamlets since its victory and it was capitalising on disenchantment with what he said was seen as a remote and profligate Labour administration.

In Millwall, it had managed to convince former Labour voters, who were turning to the BNP, to vote Tory, he said.

But he was realistic about the Tories' prospects on 4 May, saying its first objective was to hang on the seat it gained two years ago.

The BNP is concentrating most of its efforts elsewhere in the East End, removing one element from an already explosive mix.

But whatever happens in Tower Hamlets on 4 May, it will not be boring.


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