London Bangladeshis aim for top job

UK set to elect its first Bangladeshi MP, but candidates say they won't stop there.

    Brick Lane in London's east end is home to thousands of Bangladeshis [GALLO/GETTY]

    It's something the Bangladeshi migrants who arrived in Britain in the 1960s and 1970s in search of a better life would not have dared to dream of - that one day their offspring would be important enough to walk the corridors of power and make decisions that would affect the entire country. 

    But that's exactly what's about to happen, as Rushanara Ali, Abjol Miah, Zakir Khan and Ajmal Masoor all compete to become the first ever British-Bangladeshi member of parliament for the east London district of Bethnal Green and Bow.

    It's the first time ever that all the candidates for the major political parties in one constituency are of Bangladeshi origin. 

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    They're all Muslim and they were all brought up in the council flats that dominate the area. Their parents even hail from the same northeast region of Bangladesh – Sylhet.

    Bethnal Green and Bow is home to the largest concentration of Bangladeshis outside Bangladesh.

    They make up a third of the district's population of 100,000 people and live alongside Somalis, Turks and a host of other ethnic groups.

    Rise of Respect

    The area around Whitechapel tube station and the famous Brick Lane is so densely populated with Bangladeshis that over the years it's come to be known as Bangla Town. Even the street signs are in both Bengali and English.

    It's also one of the poorest areas in the country, and until the last general election in 2005, had been a stronghold for the ruling Labour party.

    In video

    Until the last general election in 2005, the constituency had been a stronghold for Labour

    But the 2003 invasion of Iraq gave rise to strong anti-war sentiments, and many turned away from Labour, whose MP at the time, Oona King, had publically declared her support for the then-prime minister Tony Blair in his decision to go to war.

    The Respect party, with its anti-war stance, meanwhile, appealed to a lot of residents, especially Muslims, and this led to a victory for George Galloway with a majority of just 824 votes.

    Rushanara Ali, an Oxford graduate and Labour hopeful, was King's personal assistant at the time.

    Some believe her own chances of getting elected have been damaged by this close association, but she says she was never in favour of the Iraq war.

    "I was opposed to the war, like many loyal Labour supporters. Over 100 Labour MPs voted against the war," she says. 

    "I marched against the war and I think that it [the conflict] was a mistake."

    'Ethical foreign policy'

    Galloway promised he would not stand for a second term, but would instead step aside in favour of someone local.

    His successor, councillor Abjol Miah, is aware that for many people, the Iraq war is becoming a distant memory. His task now is to convince voters that Respect is not a single issue party.

    "Yes, the war is one of our main concerns," he says.

    "But it's not all we're about. We want Britain to adopt an ethical foreign policy, not one that invades other countries.

    "If black people have overcome prejudice and hundreds of years of slavery, and have now got a black president, if that's possible, tell me, what's not possible in the world?"

    Ajmal Masroor
    Liberal Democrat

    "We're spending £5bn ($7.6bn) which could be spent on hospitals, schools and other services that are vital in the UK."

    The only major party to have put up a Bangladeshi candidate in the past is the Conservative party, but despite this, it's never done well in the area.

    The party's candidate Zakir Khan, however, rejects the idea that there is no place for a Conservative MP in an area as poor as Bethnal Green and Bow.

    "All Asians are naturally conservative," he says.

    "We believe in the core values of the Conservative party; we believe in strong family ties, we also believe in supporting local businesses, and finally, naturally we want to be successful in life."

    High ambitions

    Bangladeshis have been involved in local politics ever since they first arrived in Britain, but Ajmal Masroor, the Liberal Democrat candidate, sees no reason why they can't set their sights even higher.

    He says: "If black people, in their fight for liberation, emancipation and freedom have overcome prejudice and hundreds of years of slavery, and have now got a black president, if that's possible, tell me, what's not possible in the world?

    "Why should Bangladeshis stop at becoming an MP? Why can't we one day have a Bangladeshi prime minister?"

    Why not indeed.

    Other candidates standing in the election for Bethnal Green and Bow are:
    Farid Bakht - Green Party, Patrick Brooks - Independent, Haji Choudhury - Independent, Hasib Hikmat - United Voice, Ahmed Malik - Independent, Jeffrey Marshall - British National Party, Alexander van Terheyden - Pirate Party UK.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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