The reaction of worshippers arriving at Dudley Central mosque on Sunday suggested Afzal Amin’s attempt to strike a secret deal with the English Defence League (EDL) may prove an enduring headache for the Conservative party.
Amin, the Tory candidate who has now been suspended, had become a well-known figure among Dudley’s Muslim community, attending Friday prayers and religious festivals.
And with a Labour majority of just 649 his high-profile campaign looked likely to push incumbent Ian Austin all the way in May’s election.
But on Sunday the Conservatives’ credibility in the West Midlands town appeared badly dented.
“People are bruised,” Amjid Raza, spokesman for the Dudley Central mosque said as locals arrived for a family celebration. “He was really good with the community … We are completely politically neutral as a mosque but it is unfortunate that this has come to light. Now it is up to the Conservatives to decide what happens.”
According to the Mail on Sunday, Amin floated a plan for the far right EDL to stage a march against a proposal for a new mosque in the Dudley constituency that would then be called off. In a video he is recorded as saying that he would take the credit for persuading the EDL to call off the march on the eve of the general election. He also pledged to act as the EDL’s “unshakeable ally” in parliament if they were able to help him.
In the town’s pedestrianised area 70-year-old Fred Birch was clear that the revelations about Amin will not just hurt his standing with Muslim voters.
“He was saying one thing and doing another behind the backs of the voters, wasn’t he? Politicians did not used to be this bad … How can you trust him after that?”
In a statement on his website, Amin said the footage had been “grossly misrepresented and present an inaccurate picture of the reality of what was happening”.
Although Labour has long held the seat it has faced a growing challenge in recent years, including from rightwing groups. Ukip managed one of its strongest performances at the last election with 8.5% of the vote in Dudley North. And in 2005, the British National party took 10% of the vote.
It has also been targeted by the EDL with three demonstrations bringing disruption and violence to the town, the latest in February this year.
On Sunday Austin said many people would be shocked that Amin had appeared to have tried to strike a secret deal with the group. “I think it’s a shocking story – a really appalling turn of events – and I think most people will think his behaviour is inexplicable and irresponsible.
“I’m really shocked that someone would be prepared to behave in such a cynical and divisive way, just for the sake of personal and party political gain.”
The revelations could also cause problems for the Tories nationally as theyattempt to gain ground among black and minority ethnic voters – an increasingly important constituency – where they have struggled to win widespread support.
But for Raza, speaking as people gathered for prayers in the afternoon sunshine, the episode was just the latest example of politicians hijacking the local community’s efforts to build a new mosque for their own ends.
“We have been here since 1976 and have simply outgrown it. But people do not want to accept that.”
He said the existing mosque on the site of an old primary school did not have proper facilities for women and young people and could not house the numbers wanting to worship there. At a funeral earlier this year there was so little room some worshippers were forced to pray on the pavement.
Raza said the new mosque – which opponents are calling the “mega mosque” – was first proposed in 2001 and was eventually granted planning permission last year, although there is an ongoing dispute over the ownership of the land.
He said if it goes ahead it will have community, enterprise and sports facilities for Muslims and non-Muslims as well as a management board drawn from across the community.
“The ordinary person who is struggling to make ends meet reads all these stories and they think, ‘Hang on, the government is paying for an £18m mega mosque when I am struggling – that is not on’ But of course that is not the case. We are funding it ourselves and it is for the entire community to use. It is just that no one ever bothers to come and ask us what the truth is.”