LONDON -- For Britain's ruling Labor Party there are few more loyal strongholds than the Bethnal Green and Bow district in London's East End, a blue-collar enclave of public housing complexes, small shops and recent immigrants. But this time around the party's candidate is in trouble here, and the reason is simple: the war in Iraq.
Two years ago, Oona King, the Labor incumbent and one of only two black women in Parliament, backed Prime Minister Tony Blair in supporting the war. King, who is Jewish, survived a subsequent attempt by her constituents in the party to depose her as their candidate, but now she faces a stiff challenge from a Labor heretic who has come to Bethnal Green for the express purpose of evicting her from office.
George Galloway was kicked out of Labor Party after denouncing Blair.
George Galloway, a colorful dissident who sports impeccable left-wing credentials, tailored suits and the nickname "Gorgeous George," was drummed out of the party two years ago after vituperatively denouncing Blair over the war. He helped found a splinter party called Respect, which has decided its best chance to win a House of Commons seat in the May 5 general elections is here in Labor's urban heartland, where more than 40 percent of the population is Muslim.
The result has been an increasingly nasty contest. Galloway has branded King "a new Labor stooge" and claimed at a recent debate that "100,000 people lie dead as a result of the decisions she made." King responded by citing Galloway's two trips to Baghdad to meet with Saddam Hussein, the Iraqi president, in the years before the war led to his ouster. "When I come across someone who is guilty of genocide I do not get on a plane and go to Baghdad and grovel at his feet," she said.
Analysts say the contest is too close to call -- in marked contrast to 2001, when King took 51 percent in a six-candidate field. But they say King's problems in Bethnal Green and Bow, while potentially more lethal than those faced by many Labor candidates, reflect the basic fact that the war remains a burden on the back of the prime minister and his party.
Virtually every nationwide poll shows Blair and Labor winning the election, but with a reduced parliamentary majority. The numbers indicate the war has hurt Blair's personal approval ratings and boosted the prospects of the third-party Liberal Democrats, the only major party to have opposed it.
For some Britons the war has become the defining act of Blair's eight-year premiership. He staked his support for military action largely on the claim that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction. Subsequent disclosures that there were none and that Blair exaggerated intelligence data to make the claim have fueled popular concerns that he cannot be trusted.
Blair has acknowledged the damage but defends his decision to go to war as prudent and refuses to promise he would not do so again. "I had a decision to make and I made it," he said at a news conference last week.
A recent YouGov poll for the Daily Telegraph newspaper found that only 31 percent of voters among the respondents supported the war while 54 percent were opposed and the rest were undecided. Seventy percent said they believe Blair and his government have been too close to the Bush administration.
At the same time, the war has not been a big plus for the Conservatives, the main opposition, nicknamed the Tories, because they too supported it. "This would be a different ballgame if the Tories had opposed the war," said Robert Worcester, chairman of the Market & Opinion Research International (MORI) polling group. "Then it would be a protest vote and it would gather like flypaper all of the disparate voices around saying, 'I don't trust Blair, I can't stomach Blair.' "
For many disenchanted Laborites, the choices are unsatisfactory. Trevor May, a retired town councilman in Hastings in southeast England, quit Labor after 26 years because of his opposition to the war. He said he was considering voting for his local Liberal Democrat candidate, even though the likely effect would be to help the Conservatives recapture the seat, which Labor has held for eight years. "People believe that the prime minister lied to us, and he will probably suffer for it," May said.
Back in Bethnal Green, both the Conservatives and the Liberal Democrats have nominated Muslims as their candidates in hopes of appealing to the district's growing immigrant population. But neither appears to be gaining much traction, because of the war over the war between Galloway and King.
Galloway, 50, is a former Michelin tire factory worker who represented a parliamentary district in Glasgow, Scotland, for 18 years. He was a stalwart of the Stop the War campaign and a featured speaker at the February 2003 rally that drew more than a million protesters to London.
The Daily Telegraph branded Galloway "Saddam's Useful Idiot" after he declared to the Iraqi leader, during a 1994 visit to Baghdad, "Sir, I salute your courage, your strength, your indefatigability." He later said he had meant those words as praise of the Iraqi people, not Hussein.
After the war, the Telegraph reported that Galloway had received more than $600,000 from Iraq through the U.N. oil-for-food program, based upon documents a reporter found in the wreckage of the Iraqi Foreign Ministry. But the paper failed to authenticate the documents and Galloway, who vigorously denied the allegation, won a $280,000 libel judgment.
While Muslims make up less than 4 percent of the United Kingdom's population, they are heavily concentrated in urban areas such as Bethnal Green and Bow, which has the country's second-largest Muslim population. The vast majority are from Bangladesh. Galloway deftly played to the community during a nine-day fact-finding mission to Bangladesh that received widespread coverage in the Bengali media here.
At a meeting at a community center on Wednesday, Galloway told an enthusiastic crowd that his campaign was "a dagger at the heart of the whole new Labor project." He said Blair and the government "told lie after lie about this war. The real issue is, are you going to reward them or not? It's your call. If they don't pay a political price for what they've done so far, why should they stop?"
One of those listening was M.B.A. Shahid, a local clothing manufacturer and community activist who came to the area 20 years ago from Bangladesh. He said 60 percent of the Bengali community would vote for Galloway. "You go to any mosque or any market and the main issue is Iraq, especially with the young people," he said.
The Blair government is waging an uphill battle. Six cabinet ministers and the prime minister's wife have trooped to the East End in recent weeks to support Oona King. Cherie Blair, who appeared at a fundraiser at a local Bangladeshi restaurant, called on supporters to "give George Galloway a bloody nose."
King, 37, is the daughter of Preston King, a Georgia-born, black political scientist who fled the United States in 1961 after being convicted of draft evasion (he returned only after he was pardoned by President Bill Clinton in 2000). Her mother is of Hungarian Jewish background.
Last Sunday, King was pelted with eggs and vegetables when she attended a commemoration for Jewish civilians killed in 1945 by the last V-2 missile to hit London, and King said Galloway supporters were telling Muslim residents not to vote for her because she is Jewish. Galloway calls her claim "a despicable slur."
Later in the day, she attended the debate in which she and Galloway went at each other in great detail. One of her supporters, Sybil Yates, a 73-year-old community activist, said she noticed in the crowd of 200 a group of about 40 young Muslim men who sat together and applauded only when Galloway spoke.
Yates said King and the Labor government have improved housing and lowered unemployment in Bethnal Green and Bow and that Galloway, if elected, would be a one-man band: noisy but ineffective.
"They just don't see they'll lose so much," Yates said of the young Muslims. "But they don't care. They've only got one issue."