UK Politics

Why Afzal Amin is fighting for his political life in Dudley

Afzal Amin
Image caption The Conservative candidate has denied colluding with the EDL for his own political benefit

I met Afzal Amin for the first time on Friday, but I already knew who he was.

In Dudley North, the seat he was selected by the Conservatives to fight in the general election, Mr Amin had become hard to avoid.

When I first looked at the local newspaper online, the pages were surrounded by "Amin" logos in the preferred Tory shade of blue.

Not long after we met, he asked me to pose for a photo, snapped by one of his campaign team, and doubtless rapidly tweeted out to followers of the would-be MP.

Perhaps no surprise that the man running such a disciplined operation has served in the army and been to Sandhurst.

Combative

That was very much the message he delivered on Friday, as he addressed school and college pupils at a hustings in Dudley which I'd been invited to chair.

Image caption Afzal Amin with Shaun Ley after last week's candidates debate

There was combative debate, too, not least with his Labour rival, the MP Ian Austin. Both men knew the Dudley contest was critical for their respective parties; Ian Austin held the seat by just over 600 votes in 2010.

Just as David Cameron was denied a majority by failing to take seats like this one, so Ed Miliband is unlikely to be in No 10 if Labour loses Dudley North.

He was self-confident and fluent. The only obvious mis-step came right at the end, when he interrupted Vicky Duckworth, the Green candidate for the neighbouring seat.

She expressed the opinion that politics often seemed to be about men shouting at each other; Mr Amin complained she was engaging in gender bias.

Over-confidence

A few weeks ago, one Conservative MP who knows him well and respects his talents, said Afzal Amin had warned him of the risks of over-confidence. He thought he risked running before he could walk.

Well, he stumbled badly this weekend. Whatever the purpose of his contacts with the English Defence League - and he strongly disputes claims that he wanted them to hold a protest that would then be called off, for which he could then take the credit - the exposure has damaged him and, potentially, the prospects of his party re-taking the seat.

Image copyright Getty Images
Image caption Enoch Powell's Rivers of Blood speech in 1968 still casts a shadow in the region

In February, the EDL staged a rally against plans for a new mosque in the town.

As the Mail on Sunday story makes clear, Afzal Amin pleaded with them beforehand not to hold that demonstration; but it went ahead anyway. It's what happened subsequently which will feature in Tuesday's disciplinary hearing.

Over the weekend, I put his defence to a very senior Conservative source - that this was an attempt to broker a compromise in order to bring together a divided community. The arch response: Dudley isn't Kandahar.

Nor do I think from my visits to the town, where I'm going to be based for the general election, will people in Dudley appreciate being painted as somewhere riven by racial discord.

Historic baggage

True, Dudley was the scene of one of England's earliest race riots. But that was in 1962.

Although the controversy over replacing the mosque - currently in a converted school and inadequate for the numbers who want to worship there - has been running for a decade, community relations are generally good.

Even those who don't want a new mosque didn't want the EDL protestors - nor to be fair the anti-fascist counter-demonstrators who followed them.

As for the Conservative Party, the view of the national leadership is that you don't collaborate with the EDL.

Not least because the Tories are still struggling to bury some historic baggage in the Black Country: Enoch Powell was an MP in Wolverhampton when he delivered his Rivers of Blood speech about immigration in 1968.

Four years before that, there was the notorious election in Smethwick which the Conservatives were accused of winning by wooing white voters with an offensive rhyme suggesting who'd they'd get as a neighbour if they voted Labour.

Hopes of survival?

Afzal Amin grew up in Smethwick so he should be aware of that history.

He was, until his suspension on Saturday, one of about 17% of Conservative parliamentary candidates who are not white. The party is proud of that, but it's still struggling to translate that into votes.

Afzal Amin may believe that he can persuade the party to lift the suspension when he meets party officials on Tuesday. I have my doubts.

Even if they accept his defence, will the other parties be so charitable? The allegations would follow him on the campaign trail, and make planned visits by cabinet ministers next to impossible.

On Friday, just before the hustings in Dudley began, Afzal Amin gave me his business card. It introduces him as 'prospective member of Parliament Dudley North'.

I think I'll keep it; it could yet become a collector's item.

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