Local hustings in the Walthamstow constituency have been lively affairs, but none perhaps as interesting as the Grove Road mosque meeting on Friday evening April 30. After all, this is a constituency with the third largest Muslim community in London, where Muslims are a major component of the estimated one third of the borough who are non-white. The packed audience largely consisted, unsurprisingly, of male Asians, and a few of their wives seated the other side of the aisle.
Among the four "honoured" guests was, to my surprise, Jonathan Steele, the former foreign correspondent of "The Guardian", who was presumably there to add gravitas. Of the candidates of the three main parties, the only woman was Stella Creasy, the Labour candidate, who, notably, had her head uncovered. The rather genial Walthamstow Council of Mosques leader introduced proceedings, or rather introduced Mr Steele (at some, almost obsequious, length). Why the mosque leader wasn't the one chairing a meeting aimed at the local Muslim community, can only be guessed at.
In the manner of the televised Leaders' debates, the questions had been approved in advance, and were mostly safe and sensible, albeit reflecting the understandable specific concerns of the local Muslim community. Creasy, a former local mayor, and the favourite to win what should be a firm Labour seat, and her main challenger, the Lib-Dem parliamentary candidate and local councillor Farid Ahmad, clashed over specifics concerning their individual and/or party records on issues like outlawing religious discrimination and health care. In the manner for which his campaign has become somewhat renowned, Ahmed made unsubstantiated accusations against Creasy and her party and showed a disturbing lack of familiarity with his own party's stance in the Lords on legislation tackling religious hatred. However it was when the meeting turned to foreign policy that things really came alive and audience members began to voice their opinions in an unscripted fashion. The three candidates adopted a mostly faithful rendition of their national parties' approach to Middle East matters - there were no questions about China and Russia. Andy Hemsted, a rather tired retread of a 1980s Tory Essex Boy caricature, found himself in fairly deep water as his rather unsophisticated take on terror and nukes made him sound a tad too close to Israel for this audience's particular delectation.
Overall, Creasy stole the show, in part because she was quicker on her feet than the other contenders, but also because she has plainly been working this particular community who warmed to her reminders of her past community work. Ahmed, whose campaign has sometimes cynically courted the vote of fellow Muslims against Labour on religious grounds, was not as well received as might have been expected. I left the meeting feeling that perhaps Labour's 7,000 majority, which was slashed from 15,000 in the 2005 "Iraq" poll, will in fact hold up pretty well.