New Statesman & Society, 2 September 1994

A year after the BNP’s Millwall by-election win, it is standing in nearby Shadwell. But this time the Labour Party is confident of victory, writes Paul Anderson

“This isn’t going to be another Millwall,” says Shadwell Labour councillor and Tower Hamlets council deputy leader Pola Manzila Uddin. “We’re going to keep control of Shadwell on 15 September. If people round here were going to vote BNP this time, they’d have voted Liberal in May.”

Her confidence is shared by other Labour activists in Shadwell, the ward in the east London borough of Tower Hamlets where the death of veteran Labour councillor Albert Lilley has necessitated a by-election. The fascist British National Party is standing a candidate, Gordon Callow, in the hope of emulating its success a year ago in nearby Millwall, the Isle of Dogs ward where Derek Beackon won its first-ever council seat, after a rancourous campaign in which both Labour and the Liberal Democrats shamelessly pandered to white working-class racism. But this time Labour does not feel vulnerable.

“It would be stupid to be over-confident,” says Labour candidate Michael Keith, a 34-year-old urban geography lecturer at Goldsmith’s College who lives in the area. “But the campaign’s not going too badly, and if things continue as they have done we should be alright on 15 September.” Labour ward organiser David Kershaw is more emphatic. “It’s going absolutely superbly,” he says. ‘The canvassing has been more thorough than in the local elections in May. We had 25 people out last Thursday – unheard of in a council by-election. We reckon we can increase our majority.”

It is not difficult to see the reasons for the optimism. Most obviously, Labour is starting from a far stronger position than it did in Millwall last year. Whereas in Millwall the party ran a shambolic campaign, even though it had barely scraped a victory against the Liberals in a by-election there a year before (in which the BNP took 20 per cent of the vote), in Shadwell it has a highly professional machine in place even though it appears to be a safe Labour ward and even though the BNP has no electoral base.

In May’s council elections Labour swept away the Liberal Democrat administration that had ruled Tower Hamlets since 1986. Shadwell returned three Labour councillors for its three seats – just as it had in 1990. The late Albert Lilley topped the poll with 1,870 votes, with Uddin second on 1,652 and their colleague Abdur Shukur third on 1,635. The three Liberal Democrat contenders took 889, 776 and 730 votes, with the best-placed Tory on just 367 votes, behind a Bengali “Inde¬pendent Labour” candidate who had fallen out with Labour. The BNP didn’t stand.

Given that Labour is riding high in the national opinion polls and that the new Tower Hamlets Labour council has not yet had enough time to make itself unpopular, it might at first sight seem odd for Labour to expend much effort in the run-up to the Shad-well vote. Yet the party is leaving nothing to chance.

The London regional Labour Party has made Shadwell its number one priority, and, for the past fortnight, teams of Labour canvassers have been tramping round the ward every weekend and most weekday nights drumming up support. The several hundred activists from all over the south-east who turned out to help Labour’s succesful campaign to defeat Beackon in Millwall in May have been contacted again with a plea for help – and the response has been good. Any worries that Labour might have had about its Shadwell branch being a typically small and inactive inner-city party have been easily banished. Meanwhile, the Liberal Democrats, still reeling after their drubbing in May following the row over their racist propaganda, are fighting an extremely low-key campaign, as indeed are the Tories.

So has Labour over-reacted? Not really. Despite the party’s apparent strength, the belt-and-braces approach makes a lot of sense. Many if not all of the underlying social factors that gave the BNP its breakthrough in Millwall last year are present in Shadwell too – and it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Like Millwall, from which it is separated only by the gleaming postmodern office blocks of the Canary Wharf complex, Shad-well is a place where the rapid development of London’s derelict docklands in the past decade has created dramatic social polarisation. The ward is split in two by the Highway, one of two main roads running east from the City to Canary Wharf. To the north, towards Commercial Road (the other main east-west artery), is some of the most run-down council housing in London, much of it dating back to the 1930s, with unemployment running at more than 50 per cent in some places. To the south, between the Highway and the ward’s southern boundary, the Thames riverbank between Wapping and Limehouse is a stretch of affluence: gentrified terraced houses (one David Owen’s), converted-warehouse offices and yuppie flats built during the 1980s boom, with surveillance cameras outside and BMWs parked in their gated courtyards.

Many of the offices and flats are empty, but, just as in Millwall, the presence of con-spicuous riches right next to inner-city squalor has created massive resentment among local people, who feel – with reason – that they have not benefited from all the development and that they have been ignored by politicians of all parties. The turnout in May’s local elections was just 40 per cent. There’s plenty of potential here for a protest vote against the established political parties, even if it’s more likely that disaffection expresses itself in still higher levels of abstention.

And then there’s race. Shadwell has a far larger ethnic minority population than Millwall – 47 per cent, most Bangladeshi, as against 20 per cent in Millwall. But, because of the young age profile of the Bangladeshi population, only 30 per cent of voters are from ethnic minorities – so Labour cannot simply rely on mobilising the ethnic minority vote on 15 September. As in Millwall in May, to beat the BNP Labour will have to construct a multi-racial coalition.

And that cannot be taken for granted. There are real racial tensions in the ward. The Bangladeshi community is concentrated in the north west, the white working class in the north east. And, although police statistics show that, overall, Shadwell has nothing like the level of “racial incidents” found in Mill-wall and other parts of Tower Hamlets, the estates where the two ethnic communities meet have a reputation for racial violence. The worst single incident in the area came last September when a 17-year-old Bengali boy, Quddus Ali, was almost beaten to death by a gang of white men outside the Dean Swift pub in Commercial Road, Shadwell’s north¬ern boundary. The Dean Swift subsequently gained a reputation as a BNP hangout.

For all this, there is little in Shadwell of the siege mentality among working-class whites that is so characteristic of the Isle of Dogs – and little evidence of far-right activity in the area. Unlike the Isle of Dogs, it was something of a stronghold for Oswald Mosley both in the 1930s (Cable Street, where anti-fascists famously stopped Mosley’s attempt to march through the then Jewish East End in 1936, runs through the ward) and when he tried to make his comeback in the 1950s. But it was not one of the areas where the National Front did particularly well in the 1970s, again unlike the Isle of Dogs. In recent years, by comparison with much of the rest of the East End, the BNP has for the most part been noticeable by its absence – with the exception of the immediate aftermath of the attack on Quddus Ali – and in the past couple of weeks it has been invisible. “We’ve not seen anything of them,” says Labour organiser David Kershaw. “I’m sure they’ll get a few votes, but I think this could be a real humiliation for them.” Let’s hope he’s right.

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