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Gary Younge
Politics, race and the fight to inherit

"They're thirsting for a figurehead," added Sharon.

More than a decade later, following Grant's sudden death in March, Tottenham is once again looking for a "figurehead" to send to Westminster. And once again race is high on the agenda.

Of the four candidates shortlisted for the Labour ticket there are two frontrunners. On one side stands Grant's widow, Sharon - a white woman with whom he worked closely and who wishes to continue and build on her husband's legacy.

On the other is one of the "young blacks" to which Bernie Grant was referring - a 27-year-old barrister called David Lammy who grew up in Tottenham and went to Harvard, via a boarding school.

The ramifications go far beyond north London. At stake is the shape of any future debate on black representation in parliament and arguably the political legacy of one of the nation's most popular MPs.

Supporters of both camps say the decision, which will be made by Labour party members in Tottenham this evening, will be close. Transfers from the other two candidates - Shahid Malik, a Haringey council policy officer, and Sabena Khan, who comes from outside the borough - could prove crucial.

Mr Lammy, who was elected to the Greater London Authority earlier this month, is expected to emphasise his youth, his roots in the area and argue that it is time for change. Ms Grant will stress her track record in working alongside Bernie Grant and her ability to follow through on the work he started.

Mr Lammy's detractors have attempted to brand him a "Millbank stooge" - a slick, media-friendly candidate who will represent the interests of the Labour party leadership rather than the people of Tottenham. But while he is certainly the candidate favoured by the Labour party hierarchy, they have been keen not to be seen to interfere.

"There's no doubt that they want Lammy to win," said one senior Labour source. "But they know that if they make their support too obvious or look heavy-handed that it will be counter-productive. They've learned their lesson with Frank Dobson."

Ms Grant's critics say she is too leftwing and lacks the personal following that Bernie Grant built up over many years. "We do not inherit seats in the Labour party, we fight for them," said one local member.

Track record

"Bernie Grant had a lot of fine qualities and was very popular but we still have the bad housing and high unemployment here that we've always had. We need someone that ministers are going to listen to."

But despite her left-leanings, Ms Grant reportedly outshone the other candidates at the interview stage. "She's been in the party long enough to know how to play the game," said one Labour insider. "She was well-rehearsed and they couldn't point to any disloyalty in her track record."

While the votes will not divide on strictly racial lines, anecdotal evidence suggests that Ms Grant has attracted considerable backing from black and Asian members of the party, while Mr Lammy is expected to receive the support of a large section of white members.

Stafford Scott, a black community worker who was heavily involved in the Broadwater Farm Defence Campaign, says he is supporting Ms Grant "after a lot of soul searching".

"We've argued the need for black representation but many of the arguments being put forward in favour of Lammy are tokenistic," he said. "We're more worried about the quality of representation than the colour of it. Lammy's a nice bloke but he's as different to me as any white, middle class candidate."

But others insist that to elect Ms Grant would be to dwell on the past rather than look to the future. "Bernie was a great MP but we should not be trying to find a new Bernie," said Alan Stanton, a local councillor and former constituency secretary who is white and supporting Mr Lammy.

"David is bright, determined, energetic. We do need a black MP. They don't just have to be black, they have to be good as well. But we do need someone who is going to represent the multicultural nature of our community and provide role models for kids."

With almost 40% of the population belonging to ethnic minorities, Tottenham remains one of the most racially diverse constituencies in the country. It is home to a large Cypriot community as well as a significant proportion of people of West African origin.

The Broadwater Farm estate, notorious after the uprisings of 1985, shows just how much has changed and how much remains the same. The estate, which houses 3,500 people from 39 different nations, is enjoying a £33m facelift and was recently singled out in a government report on neighbourhood management. A huge mural of a waterfall greets you as you enter and concierges on many of the blocks.

It used to be branded the "estate of death"; last year the News of the World hailed its "astonishing turnaround" as a "miracle". But unemployment, at 40%, remains high and buses refuse to go there, preferring to stop at the top of the road.

Representative

Pastor Kweku Frimpong-Mason, the chairman of the tenants' association, says the race of the MP who follows Bernie Grant is irrelevant. "We don't talk about black and white here," he said. "We talk about people who can serve the people. We need someone who can represent the whole community."

Elsewhere in the constituency racial tensions remain acute. "Bernie represented us because he was black and he knew how we felt," said Nigel Taylor. "I don't know anything about his wife but if she's white then she doesn't know what it's like being black in London."

Those who back Mr Lammy say that the failure to replace Bernie Grant with another black candidate in a constituency like Tottenham would represent a significant setback in the Labour party's professed desire to see more black MPs.

There are only nine black and Asian MPs (eight Labour and one Tory) - a quarter of what there should be if the Commons were to be truly representative. And in the newly devolved bodies the story is even bleaker, with no ethnic minorities in the Scottish and Welsh assemblies and only two in London, where a quarter of the electorate is black or Asian.

"Our new democracies have been ethnically cleansed," wrote the Labour chairman of the GLA, Trevor Phillips, in the Observer this week.

But even these small numbers represent a significant improvement on 1987 when Bernie Grant, Diane Abbot, Keith Vaz and Paul Boateng became the first black MPs in Britain for more than 60 years.

Bernie Grant inherited a majority of 9,936 and doubled it in 10 years. He is referred to simply as "Bernie" and all, white and black, say he stood up for Tottenham. "What we need," said one resident of Broadwater Farm who refused to be named, "is someone who will put their career on the line if necessary. Bernie stuck his neck out for us."

Bernie Grant shot to prominence two years before his election in the wake of the murder of PC Blakelock. Famously mis quoted as saying "the police got a bloody good hiding" (he actually said "the youth think they gave the police a bloody good hiding"), he immediately became tabloid fodder: Barmie Bernie of the loony left.

In the last interview that he gave he described his struggle to be nominated MP for Tottenham as the "most stressful part of my life. My biggest problem was that the white structures in the Labour party didn't consider me to be a serious enough candidate even though I was leader of the council. They considered a black candidate as an anathema. Once I was selected, getting elected was a piece of cake."

The battle to replace him has been no less fraught although the battle lines could not be more different. This time the Labour leadership wants a black candidate and the Left is supporting a white one.

The constituency

•Population: 45.5% black and minority ethnic; 54.5% white

•Multicultural community numbers about 110,000

•45.8% of residents own their homes

•Unemployment: 13.5%

•Most famous landmark: White Hart Lane stadium, home of Tottenham Hotspur football team

•Covers approximately six square miles of north London

•1997 election result

Labour 25,309

Conservative 13,341

Lib Dem 5,120

Majority 11,968

The Tottenham rivals

David Lammy

Age 27

Born Haringey, north London

Education A Haringey primary school, then King's school in Peterborough. Law degree from University of London, masters from Harvard law school

Work Barrister in London

Strengths Young, gifted and black. Favoured by the Millbank machine. Able public speaker and skilled campaigner with strong roots in the area

Weaknesses Favoured by the Millbank machine. Flown too high too fast - within a month of being elected to the GLA he wants to be MP for Tottenham. Born in the area but moved away at a young age

Sharon Grant

Age 47

Born Kent

Education School in Tonbridge, Kent, degree in social administration from Birmingham University, masters in comparative social administration

Work Lecturer until 1987, then personal assistant to Bernie Grant. A Haringey councillor 1984 to 1990

Strengths History of campaigning alongside Bernie Grant in Tottenham and is best placed to claim her husband's mantle. Proven credentials of standing up against Millbank

Weaknesses A white candidate replacing a black MP in an ethnically diverse seat. Represents more of the same, a leftwinger who might be alienated from ministers

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