Interview: Tim Archer

The Tory candidate for Poplar and Limehouse explains what it’s like being caught between George Galloway and Labour.

By Ian Dunt

The Conservative candidate in Poplar and Limehouse is caught in the middle of an unholy dogfight between George Galloway’s Respect party and Labour. Galloway is running in the constituency himself, having given up on the neighbouring Bethnal Green and Bow and brought all the colour and trouble he usually brings to a political fight. Labour’s sitting MP, Jim Fitzpartick, is man scarcely less controversial than his renegade opponent, having walked out of a Muslim wedding in his constituency last year.

Tim Archer, however, is a very calm man. I meet him in Canary Wharf, whose Manhattan-lite skyscrapers contrast sharply with the deprivation of many of the constituents who can see them outside their bedroom windows. I put it to him that Galloway’s campaign might just let him in through the back door by dividing the left vote.

“There’s only one thing worse than Galloway standing and that’s Galloway not standing,” he replies, with a mild grin.

“The thing with Galloway is he’s going to attract a large number of left wing votes so I think that’s going to hurt Fitzpatrick. The trouble with Galloway is he also brings with him a certain brand of politics which can have a. not so nice side.

“Some of the bodies which normally organise hustings, for example, have said we’re not having a hustings because we don’t want Galloway. We don’t like what comes with him, which is often trouble. My fear is that when Galloway steps in you don’t have that debate because it all becomes about this side show. It’s Galloway, its Big Brother, it’s Islamic fundamentalism, it’s the fact he was attacked at the market last Saturday.”

Archer has a healthy respect for his opponent, but he recognises the weakness in the Respect movement now that the war is less of an issue. Galloway’s behaviour over the last five years served to discredit him in the eyes of many observers, he thinks.

“He’s very clever at what he does,” Archer says. “He’s very good at getting a crowd engaged. And what he did last time was overturn a 10,000 Labour majority to an 800 Respect majority, which was impressive for a new party. That has to be an achievement no matter what you think about his politics.

“But fast forward five years from the last election and for the majority of people in Bethnal Green and Bow he promised a lot, got in on a groundswell of support, and then has done nothing. He’s not here a lot. His voting record in the House of Commons is in the bottom three or four MPs and a number of those are quite seriously ill MPs.

“People feel very frustrated. It’s an interesting variable. A lot of his additional support, the Bangladeshi vote, one would almost assume from first blush they would be voting Galloway, but they don’t see it as clearly as that. There’s no war issue now, and they feel Galloway hasn’t delivered.”

As for the Labour incumbent, Fitzpatrick’s 13-year tenure as MP has now come down to one solitary incident in the summer of last year, when he stormed out of the wedding of a Muslim constituent in protest at the segregation of men and women. The bridegroom, needless to say, was unimpressed. Media reports indicated that the wedding party had invited him back to the wedding where he could sit at a mixed table of non-Muslims, but the farming minister instead decided to go to his local paper and say: “We are trying to build social cohesion in a community but this is not the way forward.” He then blamed a hardline group at the Mosque, the Islamic Forum of Europe, for imposing stricter rules than usual. Archer is unconvinced.

“I refused to believe that was the first segregated wedding he’d ever been to,” he says. “It just beggars belief. If you’re going to someone else’s wedding and it’s from another culture I think you have to respect people’s wishes. I think it was really crass, really insulting to the two people getting married, and very insensitive.

“His attempt to turn it into a political stance is quite weak. If that’s what you’re trying to do don’t do it through someone’s wedding. I felt it was an excuse after the event. I thought he’d retrofitted that to try to explain his knee-jerk moment of madness. I still don’t believe we quite know the whole story about what happened that day.”

The row acts like a half-finished symbolic drama of how the Labour party lost the confidence of many Muslims because of the Iraq war and its increasingly discredited Prevent anti-extremism programme, as well as the tensions between Fitzpatrick’s duties as a constituency MP and a minister engaged in the national conversation. But then, the image of Archer – white, bespectacled and Conservative – knocking on doors in this hugely diverse east London constituency does not necessarily fit easily in the mind either.

To his considerable credit, Archer adopts a thoughtful stance on most of the issues facing the Muslim community, both domestically and internationally, while always remaining inside the Conservative tent. His response to my queries about the Iraq war are of the standard ‘I wouldn’t have supported it if I’d known then what I know now’ variety so loved by the politicans who helped take us to war. But his views on Afghanistan are far more considered and sophisticated than that coming from the Tory front bench.

“I find Afghanistan the biggest muddle going,” he admits. “We are where we are and whilst a part of me says we should just pull out immediately, my fear is that we would leave a bigger mess than was there in the first place. The temptation is to say, pull everyone out, but actually I’m not convinced that’s the right thing to do.”

Would he still have supported Afghanistan if he’d known then what he knows now? I ask. The answer is honest and disarming.

“I think my view of it would have been different to what it was at the time,” he says. He cites two reasons: “The whole issue of the war on terror was hyped up at the time, but secondly the long-term damaging impact that it has had on some relations between the west and some of the rest of the world.”

He adds: “Therefore I think the ‘against’ have outweighed what we tried to achieve.”

In a volatile and emotional campaign, there are little nuggets of considered opinion to be found as Labour, Respect and the Conservatives go for each others’ throats. Tim Archer – calm, bespectacled, Conservative – goes off to knock on some more doors.