Veteran legislator accused of offending the Muslim community in the East End of London by walking out of a wedding because men and women were segregated.
Labour dissidents take aim at MP over 'slap in face' to Muslims
LONDON // At just about the same moment in the closing stages of the British general election, two of the forces ranged against the troubled Labour government made their voices heard. An open-topped campaign bus carrying the socialist rebel George Galloway made its noisy progress along Cable Street, the scene 74 years ago of a famous battle from the history of British protest.
Around one corner, tea and croissants were being served in an internet cafe called Watney Enterprise as another Labour dissident, Kabir Mahmud, and supporters explained why they, too, are aiming to deepen the electoral gloom engulfing the prime minister, Gordon Brown. In ordinary times, Mr Galloway and Mr Mahmud would have been urging voters to put their faith in Jim Fitzpatrick, an outspoken former firefighter who has not only served the area as Labour MP for 13 years but risen through government ranks to the position of farming minister. But both are standing against him: Mr Galloway for the left-wing Respect Party and Mr Mahmud as an independent.
Mr Fitzpatrick's position is under threat for reasons that go beyond Labour's struggle to persuade the electorate as a whole to grant it a fourth successive term in power. For the new constituency of Poplar and Limehouse, based on the seat previously won by Mr Fitzpatrick but affected by boundary changes, is one where the large Muslim vote can make a real difference. And Mr Fitzpatrick's opponents say he is about to pay for two offences caused to many of those Muslim voters: support for the war in Iraq and a highly publicised gesture in walking out of a Muslim wedding because the men and women present were segregated.
Poplar and Limehouse stretches from Tower Hill in the west towards the 2012 Olympics site in the east. It includes some of the UK's most deprived neighbourhoods but also, along the banks of the Thames and, on the Isle of Dogs, pockets of prosperity. An estimated 35 per cent of the electorate is Muslim, most with roots in Bangladesh. "Everyday issues affecting ordinary people are the real reason Jim Fitzpatrick could lose," said Mr Mahmud, 42, who arrived in London from Bangladesh as a teenager. "But the way he dealt with the wedding felt like a slap in the face to a lot of Muslims."
Mr Fitzpatrick, 58, admits he handled the controversy "clumsily" but insists that fair-minded voters will prefer to judge him on his record of fighting for London Eastenders' interests, in the case of Muslims by "working for every mosque in planning applications, combating antisocial behaviour and graffiti and giving support on car parking for Friday prayers". When polling ends tomorrow, Mr Mahmud has no chance of being the victor, though he laughs off Mr Fitzpatrick's suggestion that he would do well to hang on to his deposit of £500 (Dh8,400), forfeited by any candidate failing to secure five per cent of the vote.
However, Mr Galloway, 55, who was expelled by Labour in 2003 after being accused of inciting "foreign forces to rise up against British troops", does claim to sense victory. He argues that Labour refuses to see that while British involvement in the war in Iraq is no longer a "toxic" issue nationally, it remains so for Muslims. Of the wedding row, he said "all the perfume in Arabia" could not expunge the harm Mr Fitzpatrick had caused. "Clumsy is the least one could say of someone who, invited to a wedding, does not just walk out but walks into the pages of The Sun and Daily Telegraph."
In the old constituency of Poplar and Canning Town, Mr Fitzpatrick had a majority of more than 7,000 in 2005, giving him 41 per cent of the total 38,000 turnout, almost double the support for the second-placed Conservatives. He concedes that his fellow Glaswegian, Mr Galloway, is an effective "international grandstander", has charisma and speaks powerfully. "You can never underestimate him," he said. "But I think the Muslim voters have seen through him."
In the streets of Poplar, the minister clearly still commands some support. "He's a good MP and works for everyone, not just for himself," said Suleman Ali, 54, a partner in a Bangladeshi clothes shop. "Whenever you have a problem, Mr Jim is ready to try to solve it." But leaving aside matters that Muslims feel most strongly about, Mr Fitzpatrick's government has not solved the scourges of youth unemployment, underachievement at school and insufficient housing.
"I have lost count of the jobs I've applied for," said Soyful Alom, 19, a part-time business student who will cast his first general election vote for Mr Mahmud. "I do feel British and the country's good, but I want change. The politicians don't know what they are doing." With the Liberal Democrats relatively weak in the constituency, the greatest beneficiary of a divided Labour vote could be the Conservatives.
Tim Archer, 35, is one of the modern breed of Conservatives. A former bank area director, he lives in the constituency and is his party's deputy leader in opposition on the local council. Poplar and Limehouse is on the Conservatives' list of 117 target seats notionally needed to gain an overall majority. "No one can win here without a great deal of support from Muslims," he said. "I am not doing anything to court that vote especially, but a lot of what we campaign on chimes well with Muslims: our support for traditional family values, small businesses and respect for law and order."