Friday, 30 April 2010

Bethnal Green & Bow Constituency -Constituents, Candidates & Concerns

Bethnal Green & Bow Constituency:
Constituents, Candidates and Concerns

Dr. Mozammel Haque

The British-Bangladeshi community is going to make history on May 6. No matter who wins the race in Bethnal Green & Bow constituency, the elected Member will be the first British-Bangladeshi Muslim Member of the House of Commons. The simple reason is this that all the main political parties have selected the Prospective Parliamentary Candidates from the British-Bangladeshi background.

Bethnal Green & Bow Constituency
Bethnal Green & Bow constituency is one of the poorest constituencies in London, and also one of the most ethnically diverse with a large minority being Bangladesh
. Within this constituency, there is Tower Hamlets which has a proud history of taking in different people over the years. Huguenots, Irish, Jews, Bengalis and, more recently, Somalis have all found a welcome in the East End of London. Tower Hamlets is the third most deprived borough in the country, with 50% of children receiving free school meals, and it is the Bangladeshi community that experiences this most keenly.

Bangladeshis are more than 40% of the local population. Traditionally, throughout history, particularly, the last two/three decades, this area was Labour supporting area. The majority of Bangladeshis are what could be termed “natural Labour supporters.” But an unusual result took place in 1997 general election when there was a swing of 5% to the Conservative Party. This was happened over the selection of a Labour Party’s decision to “parachute” in Oona King to take the seat after Peter Shore retired. Many in the local area would have preferred a candidate from a Bangladeshi background.

The loyalty of Bangladeshis was again tested by the British participation in the invasion of Iraq and the Iraq War, an action deeply unpopular with the Muslim community in the constituency but supported by Oona King. The former Labour MP, George Galloway, who was expelled from the Labour Party for his strong opposition to the invasion of Iraq, won Bethnal Green & Bow seat for Respect in the May 2005 general election, beating the Labour black Jewish MP Oana King by a small majority of 823 votes. He received strong support from the constituency’s more than 39 per cent Muslim population, mostly from Bangladesh.

George Galloway promised that if elected, he will serve only one term and publicly pledged to put forward a Muslim candidate of Bangladeshi heritage to stand on the Respect platform next time round. Galloway kept his promise by selecting Abjol Miah as Respect candidate for the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency while himself is standing as a Respect candidate for the newly created constituency, Poplar and Limehouse constituency. He said I kept my promise by nominating a Bangladeshi candidate and now you keep your promise by electing him. The other mainstream parties failed for so many years to nominate Bangladeshi candidates. We are aware the Conservative Party previously put up a Bangladeshi candidate.

British-Bangladeshi Candidates
In the 2010 general election, George Galloway has selected a long-time youth worker and community activist, Abjol Miah, British Muslim of Bangladeshi origin, as a candidate for Respect Party and indirectly forced all the parties to put a candidate from the Bengali Muslim community. All the main political parties have selected Bangladeshi Muslim candidates, and the largest Bengali population in the country will finally have a voice in Parliament, and hopefully, one of those candidates will become the first British-Bangladeshi Member of Parliament.

The sitting MP George Galloway of the Respect Party has stepped aside to allow Respect councillor of Tower Hamlets, Abjol Miah to stand. The Conservative has chosen Zakir Khan, who has earned praise for his work on issues as poverty and the environment. The Conservatives have made concerted efforts to gain support in the local Bengali community by fielding a candidate from the Bangladeshi community in previous elections. Labour has selected Rushanara Ali as its candidate and she has been given serious political support by her party which arranged former leader Neil Kinnock and the Energy Secretary Ed Miliband to attend her campaign launch.

So, there are seven candidates from different parties for the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency and all of them are British-Bangladeshi Muslim. It is not unusual to find Muslims standing against each other as candidates for different parties. A striking example is the East London constituency of Bethnal Green & Bow where seven Muslim candidates are standing: Rushanara Ali from Labour, Zakir Khan from Conservative, Ajmal Masroor from the Liberal Democrat, Abjol Miah from Respect, Hasib Hikmat from the United Voice, Farid Bakht from the Green Party and Barrister Ahmed Malik as an Independent.

Rushanara Ali, born in Bangladesh in 1975, moved to the East End of London, United Kingdom with her family at the age of 7 and attended Mulberry School and Tower Hamlets College, is a British politician of Bangladeshi origin. Though a daughter of a manual worker, she is the first in her family to go to university. She is graduate of Oxford University studied Politics, Philosophy and Economics at the University of Oxford.

Rushanara Ali is the Trustee of the Paul Hamlyn Foundation, and Member of the Tate Britain Council and also Member of Labour Friends of Palestine and the Middle East. She was a Member of the Home Office Working Group on Preventing Extremism established after the 7/7 London bombings. She said, ‘Monday night’s ‘Dispatches’ programme emphasized the challenge that exists in uniting the community – but working together to tackle our common problems is what the people of Tower Hamlets truly want and desperately need. That is what my campaign for Parliament is all about.”

Currently working as an Associate Director at the Young Foundation, Ali has a strong provenance in Labour politics, having worked for Lord (Michael) Young, the author of Labour’s 1945 manifesto.

An ambitious young Labour activist who was listed by The Guardian as one of the most powerful Muslim women in Britain, Rushanara Ali aims to claim back the once Labour stronghold of Bethnal Green & Bow at the election.

Her opponent, again Bangladeshi, Respect Party candidate, Abjol Miah, an anti-war campaigner, seeks people’s votes in Bethnal Green and Bow Parliamentary election. Abjol Miah, born in Sylhet, Bangladesh in 1971, moved with his family to Tower Hamlets when he was six months old, studied at Goldsmiths College, University of London, where he received his degree in Social Anthropology and Sociology. At the age of 23, he represented Britain at the 1994 World Stick Fighting Championships in the Philippines and he is a UK Silver medallist in the sport, as well as a black belt in Taekwondo.

Abjol has worked as a drug prevention education officer and at the Drug Action Team. He has long standing roles in voluntary sector community organisations in Bethnal Green and Bow. Abjol Miah has been a Councillor for the London Borough of Tower Hamlets since 2006; and from that time has led the Respect Opposition Group. Councillor Abjol was the founding chair of the Tower Hamlets Muslim Advisory Group to the Metropolitan Police Borough Commander. He is one of those first members of Respect Party as a British-Bangladeshi.

Her Liberal Democrat counterpart, Ajmal Masroor, a British imam, politician and television presenter, is perhaps the best known of the candidates – a large part of that is due to his being television presenter on political discussions and appearances on national and community television channels.

Ajmal Masroor, born in Bangladesh in 1970, came to Britain with his parents at the age of one, moved back to Bangladesh at the age of nine years and returned to East End of London again at the age of 13. He was brought up in Shadwell, attended the Bluegate Fields School on Cable Street and studied Politics and Arabic at School of Oriental and African Studies (SOAS), University of London, after his GCSEs and A Levels. He was very active in student unions and Islamic Societies.

At the age of 19, Ajmal challenged his father who attempted to force him into a marriage in Bangladesh, saying forced marriage is not acceptable in Islam. He then married a Hungarian, Henrietta Szovati (who had converted to Islam) and they now have two children.

Ajmal is well-known activist, associated with a variety of associations such as the Islamic Society of Britain, the Muslim Council of Britain and the ‘Forward Thinking’ network. His appearances on Islam Channel have also made him a Muslim household name. Ajmal is a local imam, who only leads Friday prayers weekly at four different mosques in London: Goodge Street Mosque, Palmsers Green Mosque, Weasr Easling Mosque and Wightman Road Mosque in Haringey.

Zakir Khan has been selected as Conservative Parliamentary candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow constituency. He has worked for Canary Wharf Group PLC in the Public Affairs Department for the past ten years and established and maintained a strong productive network of individuals and organisations both in the statutory and voluntary sectors.

There are other candidates in the Bethnal Green & Bow Constituency, Farid Bakht of the Green Party and Barrister Ahmed Malik, who is standing as an independent. They are also British Muslims of Bangladeshi heritage.

Barrister Ahmed Malik, Independent Candidate, “I am very disappointed that the Muslims along with other mainstream party candidates in this general election are very shy to talk about the problems faced by the British Muslims,” said Barrister Ahmed A. Malik, Chairman of the Muslim Weekly newspaper, who announced his candidacy as an Independent Member of Parliament for London’s Bethnal Green and Bow constituency. He pledges to raise your voice against Islamophobia, Anti-Muslim hatred and Discrimination and vows to fight for better housing, education, healthcare and reducing crime.

At a press conference recently, Mr. Malik said, “Islamophobia is still on the rise with BNP and English Defence League gaining popularity in various part of the country. There have been numerous attacks on Muslims on the street, in their businesses, women wearing hijab are frequently being abused, harassed, arson attacks and vandalisms are regular occurrences on the Mosques, Muslim graveyards. There are continuous discrimination against Muslims and other minority communities in areas like employment, education and housing.”

Constituents’ concerns and candidates
British-Bangladeshi Muslims are divisive across the secular versus religious, Sylheti versus non-Sylheti and above all, they are very much influenced by the back home politics, Awami League versus Jamaat-BNP. The major political parties of Bangladesh have their branches and supporters among the British-Bangladeshi community living in this constituency. Many people are articulating the concern voiced by many constituents, of other faiths and backgrounds that the intricacies of Bengali community politics – intimately connected as these are with the politics of Sylhet, the north-eastern region of Bangladesh from where the majority of Britain’s Bengali community originate.

The election contest in this constituency will be three-pronged between Labour, Respect and Liberal Democrat; it is essentially between the three candidates, Rushanara Ali from Labour, Abjol Miah from the Respect Party and Ajmal Masroor from the Liberal Democrats.

The British-Bangladeshi community is very much sensitive about the issues such as war in Iraq and Afghanistan, Palestine issue, Islamophobia and civil liberties. Poverty, unemployment and racial tensions are some of the key constituency issues in Bethnal Green & Bow which all candidates will have to engage with during the election. There are officially 23,000 on the council’s housing waiting list and officially over 15,500 families in overcrowded conditions in the area. So the key issues which need to be addressed in this constituency are the housing estates including crime and anti-social behaviour and other issues such as health, education, transport, community safety, housing, preventing extremism and the environment and creating jobs for local people.

There was a lively YouElect Hustings recently chaired by The Guardian’s Jonathan Steele and took place at Wapping’s Ensign Youth Centre where there were moments of controversy throughout the night. The husting revealed some key policy differences between the candidates: Ajmal Masroor called for a negotiated withdrawal of British troops from Afghanistan, while Abjol Miah called for an immediate withdrawal. Disagreement also emerged surrounding the sensitive issue of Palestine. While Abjol Miah was clear about his intention to pursue George Galloway’s policy of placing Palestine at the forefront of his agenda.

The feeling on the ground is that what Bethnal Green & Bow needs a man or woman prepared to take courageous stands and reflect the constituency’s views and aspirations.

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