Payroll politics and Labour’s London hope

The woman hoping to win Bethnal Green and Bow back for Labour and how the payroll vote has grown und

One of the few seats that Labour is confident it can win back at this year's election is Bethnal Green and Bow. The woman hoping to reclaim the seat - in which Respect's George Galloway famously overturned a Labour majority of 10,000 in 2005 on an anti-war ticket - is Rushanara Ali, currently an associate director at the Young Foundation. The 34-year-old grew up in Tower Hamlets, having emigrated from Bangladesh at the age of seven. A confident and articulate activist, Ali was radicalised by the "Greed is good" mantra of the 1980s. She promises to tackle homelessness and unemployment if elected.

Asked for her verdict on Galloway's performance as an MP, Ali says: "Talking to local people, the constant complaint that comes up is that he's never there; he's never responding to their concerns."

On Iraq, the issue that cost Oona King the seat, Ali's stance is unambiguous. "I was against the war and marched against it," she says, with some pride. Central to her campaign is regaining the trust of the area's 45,000 Muslims, most of whom abandoned Labour at the last election in protest over the war. A Muslim herself, she defends the government's record on religious issues as a progressive one.

“We have the most advanced legislation compared to any other country in Europe to protect religious groups. And that includes Muslims."
She describes the Muslims of Bethnal Green and Bow as "incredibly anxious" about the prospect of a Tory government. When recently David Cameron accused two Islamic schools of promoting extremism, she says, it sent "shock waves" through the community. In a constituency that feels threatened by the Tories and neglected by Respect, Ali is likely to prove a popular alternative.

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Often overlooked in analyses of Gordon Brown's survival is the remarkable growth of the payroll vote - the number of MPs who hold official positions and are obliged to support the government. Over the past 30 years, the payroll vote has swelled from 106 MPs to 157 today (see graph, above). It includes 23 cabinet ministers, nine others who can attend cabinet, 87 ministers, whips and law officers, 36 parliamentary private secretaries and two special envoys. With 349 Labour MPs in total, they make up 45 per cent of the Parliamentary Labour Party.

Some of these may be the sort of "minister for paper clips" posts mocked by the Labour MP Chris Mullin, but others see them as the essential first rung on the ministerial ladder. And given the unprecedented size of the present government, there are many MPs who will think twice before turning against Brown.

The extraordinary political upheaval in Northern Ireland could turn the six counties into a key election battleground. Following the revelation that Iris Robinson borrowed £50,000 from two property dealers to help her teenage lover launch a café, the Ulster Unionist/Conservative alliance is confident it can eclipse the Democratic Unionist Party to become Westminster's largest party in Northern Ireland.

Most of the DUP's nine Commons seats have majorities of between 4,000 and 5,000, leaving them vulnerable to a wave of protest votes against the party.

Following the alliance agreed between the UUP and the Tories in 2009, any MP elected under the joint banner will take the Conservative whip and could serve in a Cameron government. With a hung parliament still feasible, the alliance could give the Tory leader the edge.