Well, hustings are alive and well and living with the Irish in Britain. Last week, I chaired a hustings meeting in the new key marginal of Hammersmith. The entire election could hinge on this constituency.
In Irish Votes Count, the manifesto of the Federation of Irish societies, a key demand is to ensure the Irish in multicultural England retain their separate identity for independent assessment in the census and other social categories. This is an ageing community whom the Celtic tiger passed by and whose social needs are great. With the pressures of the Troubles receding, they’re as keen as ever not to merge into undifferentiated Britishness.
Hammersmith is high in their list of 70 constituencies where an identifiable Irish vote of over 670,000 can make a difference. The list enumerates the number of Irish votes which is greater than the previous majority. I would guess that the Irish lobby members at the meeting are as naturally pro-Labour as ever and certainly anti Tory.
The council has become a Tory laboratory of greater efficiency which to angry speakers at the hustings means cuts in services like sheltered dwellings for the elderly.
The Conservative candidate is iconically black British and a classic Big Society charity worker. He was ferociously attacked by the former MP and Labour candidate for dubious financial practice. The Lib Dem is ethnically Chinese, a City solicitor and mother of two. Labour’s man was long ago a Troops Out activist, now strongly in favour of the GFA and as keen as you like on a big NI block grant, even though spending per head is greater there than in Hammersmith. Not himself ethnically Irish he is typical of a strain of moderate left.
As we were talking in the well-appointed Irish Cultural Centre paid for entirely by the former Labour council in 1995, I would say that the Irish vote still tilts towards Labour. Whether it remains as cohesive as it once was remains to be seen. The election helps Irish Societies focus on keeping the identity a living reality and prevent it from lapsing into sentimentality memory.
Adds Suzanne Breen reports on the scene