Luton South: Election 2010


Inside Luton's indoor market, between a party shop and a drycleaners, is an office with dusted windows trimmed in a purple border.

Seated at an antique desk, next to a white sofa with plumped cushions, a tray of biscuits and a huge bunch of roses in a crystal vase, is Luton's most glamorous parliamentary candidate, Esther Rantzen.

The former host of That's Life! and founder of ChildLine is standing as an independent parliamentary candidate for Luton South.

Her campaign has brought the constituency into the spotlight since the Jewish 69-year-old mother of three from Hampstead was catapulted into political life last May when she threatened to stand against Labour's Margaret Moran, whose expenses claim, for dry rot in her second home in Southampton, outraged voters.

After half an hour of small talk with her campaign staff, I am eventually greeted by Esther, wearing her orange (for Luton Town) and purple (for passion) rosette, who emerges from a 30-minute telephone call, elated. She has been given permission from the council to hang two huge banners on two office buildings in the city centre.

She tells me she has two chores to do today: a tour of the sites and a trip to Debenhams to buy clip-on earrings (she has never had her ears pierced).

By 11am, we leave the indoor market and head towards the city centre, Esther canvassing support from bystanders along the way.

"I came to Luton because I was angry and when I arrived I saw the people were angry too," she tells me. "And then I fell in love with it here."

She spots a group of young men on benches outside the station, one with a takeaway curry, another puffing a rolled-up cigarette, and sits between them. They greet her with roars of "Esther" and here she illustrates to me the friendliness of her Lutonians.

"A real strength in Luton is its diversity," she tells me. "I'm immensely inspired by the focus on family, which I recognise from my own background."

She taks to me about the refusal by hustings organisers to allow the BNP candidate into local hustings.

"I'm not comfortable about this," she said. "As a Jew, I know very well where racism leads, but the BNP told me it's undemocratic, and I agree."

With most of Luton's inhabitants being Muslim, I'm curious to see how locals have responded to her.

"When I address a Muslim or Hindu community I tend to say: 'My great-great-grandfather came to England from Warsaw. He wore different clothes, ate different foods, worshipped in a different place and spoke a different language - and I am British'.

"So I understand what it is like to come to a new country and to feel a great loyalty to that country.

"I've sat on the carpet in a mosque and said: 'I'm 69, female and Jewish and I will represent you'. They respond to me and what I do, not my background."

She tells me that her religious background or views on Israel had never cropped up during canvassing. "I make it clear I am a Jew, but my political views are British. Israel has the right to existence, but not to deny other people human rights.

"I don't like to feel ashamed of what they are doing, and sometimes I do."

She is hesitant when I ask her if she is proud of her Jewish identity and says: "It teaches about tolerance."

But she is shocked to hear that Rabbi Yossi Schwei, of Luton Hebrew Congregation, is sometimes accompanied by police as a safety precaution.

"I've never come across hostility," she says. "Quite the reverse. It's a very harmonious community."

And to demonstrate she begins hunting for an "ethnic group" to ask if they sense racial tensions in Luton. After a few rejections, a group of Asian students give a positive response before asking to pose for photos.

We are joined by three journalists from a Japanese trade magazine and as we turn a corner, faced with another towering office block, Esther's eyes light up.

"That's where my poster is going," she tells her growing entourage. "And it's going to look fabulous."

Nigel Huddleston is standing for Conservative, Gavin Shuker for Labour, Qurban Hussain for Lib Dems, as well as Green, UKIP, BNP, Workers Revolutionary and five other Independents.

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