Greasy Pole:High Noon In Southall
Ealing was once known, by those who were adept at ignoring the large chunks of serious impoverishment there, as the Queen of the Suburbs. As might be expected of a place with so impressive a name, it regularly returned Conservative MPs to the Commons. It’s all changed now though; other bits of west London have been tacked on to the original area and all three of the recast constituencies elect Labour MPs. The safest of them is Ealing Southall, at the western end of the area, where the sitting MP is Piara Khabra.
Southall was a railway town and there is very little left from how it was before Brunel pushed through the line to the west. The railway brought immigrants from Wales and Ireland, to work in the factories which sprang up along the line. It was not the railways which brought the Asians, in the 1950s; the first of them were recruited by a rubber factory which had difficulty in persuading the locals to work in its sulphurous confines. Few of the Asians who came then thought they were making a lifetime commitment; they imagined making enough quick money to set themselves up to go back to the place they called home. It didn’t happen like that and the population of Southall is now about 50 per cent of Asian origin – the second largest in the country.
Piara Khabra has been the local MP since 1992. Before that it was Sydney Bidwell, who had emigrated from the Revolutionary Communist Party when they disbanded and advised their members to infiltrate the Labour Party. Towards the end of his time in the Commons Bidwell seemed to be not entirely in touch with reality, although that was not what caused him to be de-selected. Khabra had long been prominent and influential locally, through being chair of the Indian Workers’ Association (Southall is teeming with community support organisations), a local councillor and so on. There was a flood of new members into the local Labour Party, which simply washed Bidwell away. Miserably, hopelessly, he stood against Khabra as “True Labour” – there were rumours that he did this only to qualify for his ex-MP’s pension – but got only 4,665 votes against Khabra’s 23,476.
In 1997, in tune with the rest of the country, Khabra tightened his grip on the seat. By then there was no Bidwell, who had retired with his revolutionary delusions and his pension and Khabra benefitted from a 15.1 per cent swing against the Tories, racking up an astonishing 32,791votes and, at 21,423, the country’s second largest Labour majority. In some ways this was surprising because the constituency boundaries had been extended eastwards to include older, posher parts of Ealing more accustomed to voting Conservative. But of course that was an exceptional time, with widespread anger against the sleaze and complacency of the Tories, their in-fighting and arrogance. A lot of voters really thought that things could only get better. But in Southall that was not the whole story for there was disquiet, not about Khabra holding the seat but about him being the Labour candidate in the first place.
For some time Southall has claimed to be the largest constituency Labour Party in the country. Of course this could mean that it is populated by people who have carefully examined the party’s policies and decided that these are in tune with their own principles. If that were true the place would surely be unique. Before Khabra ousted Bidwell there was some restlessness in the party – and outside it – about all those new members and about how genuine many of them were – or even whether some opf them actually existed. At one stage Khabra faced a legal challenge from Valerie Vaz, sister of the embattled ex-minister Keith Vaz (who was rumoured to have tried to help rig the selection procedure against Khabra) but this came to nothing. Perhaps it is merely a coincidence that Valerie Vaz – who, as a forceful, articulate lawyer and media presenter could be expected to be picked out for a plum Labour seat – has only ever been nominated for more hopeless prospects such as Twickenham. Recently, for example, she was considered to be the front runner for the by-election in Betty Boothroyd’s old constituency of West Bromwich West but Labour headquarters had other ideas.
So far Khabra has shrugged off all the oppostion to him; “I have been misrepresented in the press,” he said just before the election “but that doesn’t bother me, nothing does”. But with the approach of this year’s election the opposition against him has gathered strength as an electable rival came on the scene with the resources to air popular criticisms about him. Khabra has an established reputation as one of the most inactive and ineffective MPs, who is reliably evident only when he sits behind Tony Blair at Prime Minister’s Questions, which gives him some valuable TV coverage. Occasionally he stirs into action, as he did in 1993 when he tabled a Ten Minute Bill to legalise voluntary euthenasia only to withdraw it at the last minute. In February this year he asked a question which conveniently enabled Paul Boateng, who was then a minister in the Home Office, to give some detail about the planned enquiry into the coroner system. In December 2000 he wrote to Foreign Secretary Robin Cook in support of the Hinduja brothers’ resistance to being extradited for investigation in India over an arms-sale scandal. In the light of recent events, this was not entirely wise of him. (Cook promised “full consular support” for the Hindujas).
Meanwhile there has been a burgeoning discontent in the constituency about local problems – traffic congestion, crime, decay and a massive heroin problem among young people. In face of this Khhabra has been hard put to detail any intervention on his part which has been to any degree effective. The local Socialist Labour Party (of course, hardly an objective observer) calls him “congenitally demented” and rages at his “self-seeking careerism…his inability to be even an effective bourgeoise politician…” One constituent old the AsianXpress newspaper : I’ve never seen Mr. Khabra but I know of him and all the scams he’s done over the years”. And on 15 February this year the Daily Telegraph put the boot in:
“Piara Khabra…confirmed himself as surely this Parliament’s weakest performer…His question was near inaudible and his delivery laughably weak. Perhaps because he is Indian, or perhaps because he is old, the House listened to him with a straight face. How patronising. Mr Khabra deserved a loud and long raspberry. If he cannot lift his game he should make way for someone better.”
And when it came to the elecetion there was someone who claimed to be better. Avtar Lit is a Labour supporter, the multi-millionnaire owner of Sunrise Radio whose personal fortune is put at £60 million. “Money,” he said recently, “to me isn’t everything “…and then again “I am known as a man of the people”. Lit complained about Khabra’s “strangelehold” on the local selection process and the MP’s “dismal record…an insult to the people who elected him”. On the basis of a rather dubious opinion poll, which may not have been any more valid that all those Khabra recruits, Lit claimed that he was about to be elected, after which he would join the Labour Party.
But on the day he managed only a little less than 6,000 votes, to Khabra’s 22,239 which gave a comfortable majority of 13,683. As the evening wore on the bundles of votes for each candidate were in lines on the central table, with Khabra’s stretching far beyond all the others. There was little perceptible difference between Lit’s votes and those for the Tory, whose startlingly young face settled into a bewildered despondency as he contemplated the humiliation facing him. Towards the end a group of Khabra supporters filtered into the room. They were large, groomed men wearing immaculate turbans, exuding influence and privilege and the expectation of always getting their own way. They cheered dutifully – but restrainedly – when Khabra was announced as the winner but it was a fair bet that at the same time they were calculating how best they could do to him what he did to Bidwell – and what advantage they would get from it. These are probably the men Lit will have to best if he is to get the seat.
So Piara Khabra, who says he is 76 years old but who may be 80 or more, is back in the Commons for another spell – four years or maybe five – to hang on to his posltion and to “represent” the people of Ealing Southall. This is the very essence of capitalism’s politics -the politicians denying the truth of their impotence while they cynically manoeuvre to keep themselves in power and so the system in being.