Wednesday, July 18, 2007

East is West, the parties try the Southall test

SOUTHALL is an outer west London district whose industries attracted waves of immigrants, notably South Asian, particularly Punjabis (though earlier in the last century locals had objected to Welshmen coming and "taking our jobs".) Nowadays the Asians who have established their businesses can look down on Somalis, and so on. But Southall is currently attracting a new crowd of incomers, political campaigners and media reporters temporarily interested by the byelection caused by the death at 82 of Labour MP Piara Singh Kabra.

As well as being the oldest serving MP, and the first Sikh elected to the House of Commons, Piara Khabra was the last person in the present parliament who had served in the forces in World War II. A one-time president of the Indian Workers Association and member of the Communist Party (which used to have separate white and Asian branches in Southall, each taking different lines on immigration), Khabra joined the Labour Party in 1972, became a JP, and was elected to Ealing borough council. He briefly quit Labour for the right-wing breakaway Social Democratic Party, but rejoined Labour in 1988, in time to inherit the safe Southall seat from onetime leftwinger Syd Bidwell who had been deselected.

Though claiming to champion his constituents and others against racism and injustice, he clashed with the Southall Asian Youth Movement in 1997 when they wanted to stage a unity march in Southall to mark the anniversary of India and Pakistan's independence. Apart from overcoming the legacy of partition, the youth had wanted to confront the more contemporary issue of rivalry between Muslim and Sikh youth gangs. But Khabra insisted a march would only cause trouble and interfere with shopkeepers' Saturday trade.

A couple of years before this he had welcomed the leader of India's right-wing Hindu BJP, L.K.Advani to the Houses of Parliament. This may have just been intended as a friendly gesture to the Hindu community - Khabra insisted they had not talked politics. Advani went on to be chief guest along with then Home Secretary Michael Howard, at the opening of the big Hindu temple in Neasden. Whatever Khabra's intentions, the BJP leader's visit has been followed by growing Hindu suprematist influence helping to divide Asian communities (and boost the Indian party's coffers).

In the run-up to the 2001 general election Piara Khabra suggested that Avtar Lit, the chairman of Sunrise Radio, who challenged him as an independent should be "sent back to India". As Tony Lit, the young entrepeneur is now standing as the Tory candidate, although to add to what some call the "Ealing comedy" aspect of this election, it has been revealed that he handed over a £4,800 cheque from Sunrise to Labour when he attended the fundraising dinner with Tony Blair just days before being selected by the Tories.,,2127157,00.html

In 2002, the Southall MP blamed Somali youth for a reported increase in street crime (which police confirmed was due to insurance claims for stolen mobile phones). But perhaps most controversial, Piara Khabra loyally supported Blair's Iraq war, in contradiction to the probable views of the majority of his constituents as of the British public as a whole. Then late last year he announced that he would be standing down.

From Tories through to George Galloway's Respect, the parties have issued glowing tributes to Khabra, after which the air has been thick with claims and counter-claims about which local councillors had defected from whom and to who. I also get the impression that politicians and reporters from outside are a bit hazy about the area's geography - Southall is part of the borough of Ealing nowadays and the constituency name is "Ealing Southall", but there's more than a bus ride between Southall and Ealing. Not to worry anyway as the constituency is due to disappear before the next general election

Meanwhile I received this cri du cour yesterday from Ted, a college lecturer who had just had an unpleasant experience:
" While on my walk to Ealing I was accosted by one David Cameron and had my hand shaken. I was surrounded by blue balloons. I suppose seeing an elderly white male carrying an FT and with dawning recognition in his rheumy eyes, he thought he was safe.
If this appears on TV or in the Press please denounce the disgraceful rumour that I am a renegade".

Hard luck, Ted, I have already e-mailed your picture to the Workers' Wallop in the 'States along with my 3,000 word denunciation "Renegade! No longer Ted-the-Red professor defects to True-Blue Tories!"

Only joking.

VOTING is tomorrow. Labour, with probably the best chance of winning. is standing Virendra Sharma, a local councillor, while schoolteacher Salvinder Dhillon is standing for Respect.

Caught on camera

TED's getting caught in that Tory trap reminded me that it isn't only at election times one has to be careful if one is easily embarassed. I still have my suspicions about who contrived to seat me next to a formidable Monday Club lady at a formal occasion many years ago, though I can't remember the occasion.
I do remember the night a few years later when, after a hard day's agitating on campus I went out to enjoy an excellent dinner with friends at the Fox and Goose up on t'moors behind Galgate. I was relaxing in their lounge with a large brandy and a fat cigar which someone had given me, when much to my surprise a charming and attractive young blonde who'd not previously betrayed any interest leapt on to my lap and clasped her arms round my neck lovingly. I was just taking in this apparent change in fortune when there was a bright flash in front of my eyes.
The photo - with black rectangles hiding our eyes and supposingly identities -appeared in the Lancaster students' paper John O'Gauntlet, supposedly depicting the bloated capitalist pseudonymous author of its satirical City business column, which some students had assumed was me anyway. Actually they paid me an undeserved compliment (which was more than the paper paid me). I could not have managed the column's authentic stock market jargon and accurate predictions ("Kaffirs will rise", after South African repression). It was written by a City accountant doing postgradute Financial Control studies. His dad was a former CBI chief (not the clownish one Gordon Brown has adopted). That he often agreed with me about British capitalism was merely fortuitous, and as he said, he might as well make his money while it lasted.
Any slight embarassment the photo might have aroused (I was a bit of a Puritan sometimes) was soon offset by the thought that it might have its uses. Along with eight others I was named in a report to the Director of Public Prosecutions, accused of "conspiracy to trespass". I figured that if it ever came to court I would produce the photo as evidence that, at the time I was supposedly leading a student sit-in in the univeristy admin block, I was miles away keeping a prior social engagement with friends, our snouts in the Trough of Bowland. It might not prove anything, but with a bit of luck the jury would be grateful for a laugh and I'd get off anyway. As it goes, the case never came to court and I've no idea what happened to the photograph (or the young lady, I regret to say).
Just to make up for boring you with that tale, here's another with more political point. Back in the 1960s, a chap called Cyril was on his way down a London street when he ran into a BBC Tonight programme crew interviewing people about the day's Budget. Cyril, it so happens an articulate Marxist and member of the Socialist Labour League, was clearing his throat to have his say when a man came hurtling out saying "Not him!" and steered the microphone and camera away before the comrade could say anything. It was Cyril's brother Tony, a Fabian and BBC Tonight producer.
Little did the nation know, as we sat down to tea in front of the telly that night, how narrowly we had been saved from hearing a Marxist analysis. I suppose it's safe enough now to tell this story.

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