12.04.10 – The London Evening Standard
The wedding of barrister Bodrul Islam to investment banker Mahbuba Kamali was meant to be a private affair.
The bride and groom had invited 800 guests to their £25,000 reception last August and — as both families were staunch Labour supporters — among them was to be local Labour MP Jim Fitzpatrick.
But when he and his wife arrived at the London Muslim Centre and were told that men and women would be seated separately, they walked out. Not even a call from the groom’s father promising a table for non-Muslims to sit together could entice him back.
Instead Mr Fitzpatrick called a local paper to complain about the growing influence of the hardline Muslim group, Islamic Forum of Europe, which he blamed for imposing segregation.
But Mr Fitzpatrick’s politicisation of this private affair — the groom does not support the IFE and says it was “our family’s choice to have a segregated wedding” — has not gone down well in the Bangladeshi community, which makes up 40 per cent of the local electorate.
Indeed, the subsequent decision by Mr Islam, 29, to defect from Labour and stand as a council candidate for George Galloway‘s Respect party, and that of his in-laws to switch their support to Tory candidate Tim Archer, is symptomatic of how the tectonic plates are shifting in Poplar & Limehouse.
Five years ago Mr Fitzpatrick, a former fireman whose working class roots play well here, won easily with a 7,129 majority.
But boundary changes, which took out Labour-supporting Canning Town and brought in the wealthy Tory-supporting wards of Wapping and St Katherine’s as well as Shadwell, a Respect stronghold, have cut his lead in half.
With the fallout from the wedding fiasco and the national rise of the Tories in the polls, this once-safe Labour seat has become a neck-and-neck three-horse race.
Ironically the biggest beneficiary of what Mr Fitzpatrick, the Farming Minister, now admits to the Standard was a “clumsily-handled affair” might not be Mr Galloway, but the Conservatives, a party that last won in the East End more than a century ago.
Muslim community activist Abu Mumin — who was thanked by Mr Galloway in his victory speech after taking Bethnal Green and Bow in the shock result of the 2005 election — believes that Mr Galloway is a “busted flush”.
“Fitzpatrick would have won easily, but his rant on the wedding has made him look anti-Bangladeshi. I’ve got staff who live on the Isle of Dogs where Archer is a councillor and they say he’s hard-working and that they’re voting for him. A number of mosques have come out in support of Archer, which is big news because they’ve never supported a Conservative before.”
Of all London‘s 73 parliamentary seats, Poplar and Limehouse is perhaps the most economically divided. It takes in Canary Wharf, which has generated 95,000 jobs and where the average man’s salary is more than £100,000, but it also suffers a 77 per cent child poverty rate, the fifth highest in the UK.
The crude calculus is that for David Cameron to win, he must take 117 marginal seats, of which Poplar and Limehouse is number 105 on his hit- list. Ladbrokes has it too close to call, with Labour and the Conservatives joint favourites and Mr Galloway on 7/1.
Last week, in an attempt to shore up support for Mr Fitzpatrick, Gordon Brown visited a community centre in Poplar and Limehouse.
But how do the candidates see the race? With all to play for, the Evening Standard joined each one on the doorstep to find out.
Mr Fitzpatrick, 58, meets me at his Westminster office. As we travel by Tube to Bromley-by-Bow in the northeast of his constituency, he asks: “Do you know why people take an instant dislike to George Galloway?”
He pauses. “It saves time.” He smiles at the joke, but there is clearly no love lost between the two Scotsmen, although any suggestion that he is not taking Mr Galloway seriously is waved away.
“I think we’ve got every chance of holding on to the seat with what we’ve achieved — the £1.3 billion new wing of the New London Hospital is just one example — but you can never underestimate Galloway. He’s a brilliant orator and with Respect winning 12 seats in the 2006 local elections, he’ll be confident he can take the Muslim vote.”
Demographically the electorate is split evenly between the white working class and Bangladeshi Muslims with affluent young professionals making up the remaining 20 per cent. But it’s the high turnout rate of Muslims — almost twice that of the white working class, says Mr Fitzpatrick — that makes their votes especially crucial.
Was it a mistake, then, to walk out of that wedding? “No, I’m opposed to forced segregation and I wanted to highlight the influence that the hardline IFE are exerting on the Muslim community. I admit that the way I did it was clumsy and I’ve apologised to the groom’s family for any offence caused, but a Dispatches programme which aired on Channel 4 last month vindicated my concern about the IFE.”
So has Mr Fitzpatrick made the blunder of his career? Mr Galloway, 55, who has arranged to meet me in a part of Bow known as “mugger’s alley”, believes so. Arriving in customary fashion an hour late, he pulls up in his Lexus, parks on a double-yellow line and emerges looking like an ageing rock-star in a shiny metallic-grey suit.
“Somebody said to me, God must really like you: it was Oona King voting for war last time, now its Fitzpatrick waging war on Muslims this time’. Labour will come third here,” he says, “I’ll put my house on it.”
Mr Galloway dismisses criticism that he’s yesterday’s man. “The boundary change is a big win for me: out went Canning Town and with it 6,000 votes for Jim, and in came Shadwell, where we hold all three council seats, and 6,000 votes for me.”
How does he rate Mr Archer’s chances? “There hasn’t been a Tory in the East End since they put children up chimneys,” he says. “Tory boy they call him round here. He reminds me of Michael Gove in his early days, but he’s a player in the election, no doubt about that.”
The 35-year-old councillor for Blackwall and Cubitt Town ward was made redundant from Barclays last year and has campaigned full time for the last six months.
Can the Conservatives really take the East End for the first time since 1895? “I’m optimistic,” says Mr Archer, meeting me on the St George’s Estate off Cable Street where resident Shelim Uddin invites him into his flat.
“Mr Archer, we share your views on family values — don’t worry, this time we will put you in, this time we are serious,” he says. It’s a strange sight watching a Tory candidate feted by a man watching Bangladeshi TV, but Mr Archer says his Muslim backing is growing.
“Bangladeshis traditionally voted Labour but Galloway unshackled that link last time and it could benefit us with voters no longer naïve about Respect. Jim created a problem for himself by walking out of that wedding. Most Muslim weddings are segregated, so why was Jim surprised? People wonder whether he was courting the white vote, whether he had another agenda.”
Poplar and Limehouse
Candidates: Jim Fitzpatrick MP (Lab), Tim Archer (Con), George Galloway MP (Respect), Jonathan Fryer (Lib-Dem), Jim Thornton (Ind), Andrew Osbourne (English Democrats)
2005 Result: 7,129 majority for Fitzpatrick, reduced to 3,823 by boundary changes
Swing needed for Conservatives to win: 5.6% (Number 105 on David Cameron’s list of 117 marginals he must take if he’s to win a majority)
Ladbrokes odds: Lab 10/11; Con 6/5; Respect 7/1; Lib-Dems 100/1
Demographics: The 75,000-strong electorate is roughly 40% Muslim Bangladeshi, 40% white working class, and 20% young professionals
Top three issues in order of importance:
Fitzpatrick: “Housing, the economy, crime and antisocial behaviour”
Archer: “Crime, overcrowded housing and education”
Galloway: “Social housing, Tower Hamlets‘ Labour council and attacks on Muslim community by Fitzpatrick”