Tense Campaign for Labour Party in One London Sector Campaigning for Thursday's national election in Britain has proven particularly contentious in areas such as East London's Bethnal Green and Bow constituency, where the Iraq war is a key issue.
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Tense Campaign for Labour Party in One London Sector

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Tense Campaign for Labour Party in One London Sector

Tense Campaign for Labour Party in One London Sector

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ROBERT SIEGEL, host:

The British tabloids are calling it the country's deadliest local election. One candidate has been threatened by angry mobs; another has been pelted with eggs and had her car tires slashed. It's all taking place in the parliamentary district, or constituency, in East London called Bethnal Green and Bow. NPR's Anthony Kuhn paid a visit.

ANTHONY KUHN reporting:

Brick Lane has taken in waves of immigrants over the centuries. The narrow street fully of curry restaurants and funky nightclubs is currently the heart of the Bangladeshi community, known here as Banglatown. Its working-class residents have supported the Labor Party for decades. The race to represent this area in Parliament pits the flamboyant Scotsman George Galloway against Labor Party incumbent Oona King. Galloway's Respect Party is fielding 35 candidates across the country. He himself was kicked out of the Labor Party in 2003 for his sharp anti-war rhetoric and actions. In 1999, Galloway drove a red double-decker London bus to Baghdad to protest United Nations sanctions on Iraq.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

KUHN: In 1994, he met and praised Saddam Hussein.

(Soundbite of 1994 speech)

Mr. GEORGE GALLOWAY (Respect Party): Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability, and I want you to know that we are with you (Arabic spoken).

(Soundbite of applause)

KUHN: That's Arabic for `Until victory, until victory, until Jerusalem.'

Galloway later insisted that he was praising the Iraqi people, not Saddam. But Labor incumbent Oona King has accused Galloway of supporting a dictator.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

KUHN: In most of Britain, the Iraq War is low on voters' list of concerns, but that's not the case in the 41 parliamentary constituencies with significant Muslim minorities.

Mr. MUNIR AHMED(ph) (Merchant): I personally feel that Tony Blair has betrayed the country by joining America in the war.

KUHN: Merchant Munir Ahmed runs a leather goods store in Brick Lane.

Mr. AHMED: All my friends, all my family, they live in this area, and they always voted Labor. And now--because it's all changed. I mean, you look up there, you see just a handful of people got Labor voters. Other than that, the community here of--is--I think they're divided, but they are going to stick with George Galloway and the Respect Party.

KUHN: Galloway has also capitalized on Muslim anger at Britain's anti-terror laws.

Mr. GALLOWAY: I say that the other side of the coin of making war against Muslims abroad is that you will make war against Muslims at home. And that's actually already happening in the sense that the so-called anti-terrorism measures that have been introduced, which are targeting Muslims virtually exclusively--in fact, to date absolutely exclusively--are, in themselves, instruments of terror.

KUHN: While Galloway says he's optimistic about beating his opponent, Oona King, Labor's deep roots here won't be easy to break.

(Soundbite of machinery)

KUHN: Labor enjoys the support of established residents like Abdu Salik(ph), a sweet shop owner and head of the Brick Lane Traders Association(ph).

Mr. ABDU SALIK (Brick Lane Traders Association): This Oona King MP is our MP. She's young. She's very good. My experience about her--'cause she's very good, very helpful for the community. She's bring in lots of job, money from the government because she's very close to the prime minister.

KUHN: Oona King's mother is Jewish, and her father is Preston King, a black American civil rights leader. Her loyalty to Tony Blair caused her to back the Iraq War against her constituents' wishes. She admits that this damaged local trust in her party.

Ms. OONA KING (Member of Parliament): I think you're right, that trust is a very big problem. The intelligence information about the weapons of mass destruction was completely wrong, and I accept that. But there's also trust about who can run the economy. There's also trust about who's going to put money into education. And so Iraq is not the only issue.

(Soundbite of vehicle)

KUHN: Brick Lane residents say this is one of the most divisive elections they've seen. They expect Muslim voter turnout and political participation to reach new highs. Disaffected Labor voters could help smaller parties like Galloway's. They could also help the anti-war Liberal Democrat Party pick up parliamentary seats tomorrow. On the other hand, Labor also stands to benefit if the rise of the Independents divides and weakens the opposition. Anthony Kuhn, NPR News, London.

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