Outside the La Salette Roman Catholic Primary School in Hornchurch, John Cryer’s helpers are frantically inflating red balloons. While the kids crowd round the helium cylinder, the candidate chats with their parents. As one volunteer explains, “Young mothers are a key demographic for us. Labour has done a lot for women in terms of childcare, flexible working, increased child benefits, etc. But women don’t seem to be liking Tony Blair.” Cryer was first elected to Parliament in Labour’s 1997 landslide; most of his constituents have moved to this white suburb from London’s East End. Those who are not retired work clerical jobs or at the Ford plant in nearby Dagenham, one of Britain’s last surviving car manufacturers. Their parents, says Cryer, voted Labour, or Communist. Judging by the response when he knocks on their doors, he knows a startling number of them personally. And yet he’s struggling to retain a fragile 1,500-vote majority over the Conservatives.
A few miles west, in Bethnal Green, where Jews and Communists fought Oswald Moseley’s Blackshirts in 1936, Labour’s Oona King is also struggling to hold her seat–this time against Respect, the party born of the Stop the War Coalition. More than half the voters here are Muslim, mostly from Bangladesh, living in overcrowded poverty among a scatter of chic new wine bars. Aiming to turn the election into a referendum on the Iraq War, Respect has parachuted in its flamboyant leader, George Galloway–a former MP sacked from Labour for allegedly inciting British troops to disobey their orders. Bitterness has bred violence: King, who is black and Jewish and voted for the war, has been pelted with eggs by Galloway supporters, and Galloway was menaced by a radical Muslim group that says voting is a sin. At an assembly organized by the East London Communities Organization, Galloway’s attacks on New Labour brought roars of approval from the large Muslim contingent in the audience; union delegates cheered as King rehearsed the benefits she’s won in Westminster for the community. The Liberal Democrat and Tory candidates, both Asian men with decades of local experience, struggled to make themselves heard.
The “Big Tent” vote, which first brought Blair to power in 1997, is shrinking from both sides. In Hornchurch, voters fret about immigrants (though few are in evidence) in the blunt language favored by the tabloids and the Tories. Lynton Crosby, the Tory spin doctor who harnessed resentment of foreigners to devastating effect in his native Australia, calls it his “dog whistle” strategy, designed to reach the instincts, not the brain. The insecurity produced by rapid change in people’s working lives–outsourcing, New Labour’s support for a more “flexible” labor force, and the decline of union power–makes fertile ground for such tactics. In Bethnal Green the issue is the war, the Prevention of Terrorism Act, respect for Muslim communities; Galloway’s rhetoric, too, plays on fear as well as rage. Labour’s effort to turn the campaign into a celebration of its achievements in the economy and public services–“If you value it, vote for it”–has met with some success but limited enthusiasm. Across the country, voters feel disenfranchised–and betrayed.