Wednesday, 12 May 2010

Rushanara Ali-First British Bangladesh-born Muslim MP

Rushanara Ali First British
Bangladesh born Muslim MP

Dr. Mozammel Haque

Rushanara Ali, British Bangladesh-born Muslim woman, becomes the first Member of the British Parliament (House of Common). The dream of British-Bangladeshi fulfilled. The dream comes true. 6th of May 2010 will remain the historic golden day in the life of the British Bangladeshi when Rushanara Ali was declared the Member of the Parliament (House of Common).

British-Bangladeshi in Britain
British-Bangladeshi is proud of her. Bangladeshis have been living in this country for a long time. It is their dream, desire, aspiration and target to be a Member of Parliament. Bengalis had been present in Britain as early as the 19th century. Throughout the 17th to early 20th centuries, the British East India Company brought over thousands of South Asian scholars, lashkars or seamen and workers, who were mainly Bengali Muslims to Britain. Naval cook also came, many of them from Sylhet, the north-eastern part of what is now Bangladesh. There are also records that people from Sylhet went onboard the sea-faring ships bound for the British Isles. Some of them jumped off ship in UK ended up settling in London, Liverpool and Bristol. These Sylheti seamen are identified as pioneer migrants of Bengal.

One of the most famous early Bengali Muslim migrants to Britain was sake Dean Mahomet (Shaikh Dean Mohammad), a captain of the British East India Company. In 1810, he founded London’s first Indian restaurant, the Hindoostane Coffee House. There are other records of Sylheti working in London restaurants since at least 1873. By the time World War 1 began, there were 51,616 South Asian Lashkars living in Britain, the majority of whom were of Bengali descent.

The early migrants came to find work; they were not educated and found their jobs as labourers in different industries. Most of these early migrants settled down and took local white British wives.

Large numbers of Bangladeshi men immigrated to London to search for employment during the 1950s and the 1960s. The majority of these people settled in Tower Hamlets, particularly around Spitalfields and Brick Lane. Many of them came from the Sylhet region. By the late 1970s the Brick Lane area had become predominantly Bengali, replacing the former Jewish community which had declined.

According to 2001 Census, 283,063 Bangladeshis lived in the UK, i.e. 0.5% of the total population. 54% of the Bangladeshi population lived in the Greater London area and a high proportion of these London inhabitants were located within the inner boroughs. Indeed, the ‘heartland’ of the London Bangladeshi community is to be found in Tower Hamlets, which contained 65,553 Bangladeshi residents or 22.8% of the UK Bangladeshi population.

The third generation of Tower Hamlets’ Bangladeshi population – those ‘born and bred’ in the area - constitutes approximately half of the community. Tower Hamlets can be seen as part of an inner ring of London boroughs running from Westminster, Islington and Camden round to Hackney, Newham and Southwark. In 2001, 118,346 Bangladeshis - 41.8% of the British Bangladeshi population - lived in this inner London ring.

The largest Bangladeshi population outside London is located in Oldham – 9,817 in 2001 or 4.5% of the city’s population, while 20,836 are scattered across Birmingham (2% of the city’s population), 7,642 in Luton (4%) and 4,967 in Bradford (1%). It is a very English urban population - very few live in Scotland or Wales.

Most of the British-Bangladeshi population, believe in one religion, Islam. Nearly all Bangladeshis in the UK are Sunni Muslims and mostly from Sylhet. Around 80% of “Indian Restaurants” in the UK are actually more accurately Bangladeshi restaurants – Bangladeshi owned, and selling food based on what’s eaten in the region.

Dream of Bangladeshi MP
Peter Shore was MP of the Bethnal Green & Stepney constituency during the period from 1964 to 1997. British-Bangladeshi was so much happy and satisfied that they did not think of any other person, not even from their own community, to represent them as Member of Parliament, because Peter Shore was their friend. But Peter Shore stood down from Parliament at the 1997 General Elections and took a life peerage as Baron Shore of Stepney. In the same year, this constituency was renamed Bethnal Green & Bow Constituency. British-Bangladeshi realised now that they should have their MP from their own community.

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 Bangladeshi. Within this constituen
cy, 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. As mentioned earlier, 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 decision of Labour Party 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 stood as a Respect candidate for the newly created constituency, Poplar and Limehouse constituency. 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 Elections, George Galloway selected, Abjol Miah, British Muslim of Bangladeshi origin, as a candidate for Respect Party and indirectly forced all other parties to put a candidate from the Bengali Muslim community. All the main political parties selected Bangladeshi Muslim candidates, and the largest Bengali population in the country was hoping finally to have a voice in Parliament.

There were seven candidates from different parties for the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency and all of them were British-Bangladeshi Muslim: 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 becomes first British-Bangladeshi MP
All the Parliamentary candidates in this constituency were from the British-Bangladeshi background and there was a tough three-prong contest between Labour candidate, Rushanara Ali, Respect Party candidate, Abjol Miah and Liberal Democrat candidate, Ajmal Masroor. Labour Party not only selected Rushanara Ali as its candidate but had given serious political support to regain the Labour seat in Bethnal Green & Bow constituency. Former Labour leader Neil Kinnock and the Energy Secretary Ed Miliband attended her campaign launch as well as campaign trail.

Roushanara won the election defeating Abjol Miah of the Respect Party by a majority of 11,000 votes. Rushanara, 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. 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 claimed back the once Labour stronghold of Bethnal Green & Bow at the election. Congratulation to Rushanara Ali for winning a Membership of the British Parliament as a British-Bangladeshi representative.

Poverty, unemployment and racial tensions are some of the key constituency issues in Bethnal Green and Bow. There are officially 23,000 on the council’s housing waiting list and officially over 15,500 families in overcrowded conditions and yet less than one in five homes being built in the largest building programme in London are earmarked to address this housing scandal. It is hoped that Rushanara’s experience will be useful to tackle these problems.