We move south to Bethnal Green and Bow for this instalment of our constituency profiles series. The constituency lies in the borough of Tower Hamlets, which has seen its fair share of political turbulence in recent weeks. Incumbent MP Rushanara Ali of the Labour Party was elected with a majority of more than 20 per cent in 2010, but there are signs of a mounting challenge from the Greens, and the Liberal Democrats will be hoping to improve on their strong second-place finish in the last general election.
Bethnal Green and Bow incorporates the districts of Spitalfields, Banglatown, Whitechapel, Stepney, Bethnal Green and Bow. According to the 2011 census, it is home to the largest Bangladeshi community in the country, which includes the incumbent Labour candidate Rushanara Ali. Ali became one of the first three female Muslim MPs ever to be elected when she took office in 2010.
Although the west of the constituency has seen a wave of gentrification reflected in the rising house prices of Spitalfields and Whitechapel, the area remains one of the most deprived in the country: unemployment stands at 11.4 per cent and those “in bad health” at 6.6 per cent. Despite a large proportion of technical and professional occupations among the workforce, 2.5 per cent are long-term unemployed and 1.7 per cent claim never to have worked – more than twice the national average. Interestingly, the constituency also has the highest proportion of people in the country who have no cars or vans in their household.
The Asian British population accounts for 40 per cent of the constituency, with Muslims making up 35.4 per cent – the seventh highest proportion nationally. The area has a long history of hosting immigrant communities and the accompanying racial tension and radical politics. This came to the fore in 2005 in the aftermath of the Iraq war, when this traditionally Labour seat fell to the outspoken Respect Party MP George Galloway. At the local level, the area remains a shifting battleground between Labour, Respect and the supporters of the former Mayor of Tower Hamlets, Lutfur Rahman, who was recently removed from office after having been found guilty of electoral fraud. Party campaign spending was very high in 2010, with £1.97 spent per vote – 2.3 times as much as the average parliamentary seat.
Ali was elected with a 22.8 per cent (11,574 votes) majority in 2010 and is very unlikely not to be returned as the Member of Parliament on May 8. She has been outspoken against the coalition government’s spending cuts, telling the Mirror in 2012: “The coalition’s policies are turning the clock back.” She has risen to prominence in the party since her election, serving first as Shadow Minister for International Development and then Shadow Minister for Education. In September 2014, Ali resigned from the front bench in order to abstain from the commons vote on renewed military action against Islamic State forces in Iraq, as she did not believe air strikes would be effective in “targeting terrorists and not harming innocent civilians.” In her letter of resignation to Ed Miliband, she said: “There is a genuine belief in Muslim and non-Muslim communities that military action will only create further bloodshed and further pain for the people of Iraq.”
Although the Liberal Democrats finished second in the constituency in 2010, the Green Party has since made significant gains, winning 13.2 per cent of the vote at the last European election in 2014. The constituency looks set to remain an ultra-safe seat for Labour.
The current bookies’ odds to win are: Labour (1/41), Respect (16), Conservatives (100).
Rushanara Ali – Labour
Ali has been very active at the community level. In 2015, she started a leaseholders’ campaign to help those who had been issued refurbishment bills of up to £40,000 and given only one year to pay.
Bethnal Green resident and leasehold campaigner Amy Hutchings said: “Rushanara bothered to call me personally. She arranged for myself and the leaders of other leaseholder associations to meet, and asked me to lead this.” She added: “Rushanara is pro hard-working people getting a fair deal. She’s trying to tackle corruption in the borough so she deserves more time.”
Matthew Smith – Conservative
“The east end of London and Bethnal Green and Bow has benefited from an economic renaissance in the last few decades. I want to see a social and political fresh start for all of our communities in Bethnal Green. There’s a real desire for a stronger local democracy, integration and social mobility here, and those will be my guiding priorities.”
Teena Lashmore – Liberal Democrats
“I accept the Lib Dems are on a redemption journey, so I’m asking people to recognise this and allow us to redeem ourselves. Look at our achievements: raising income before tax, parental leave for new births, two million apprenticeships and five Green Laws to set the vision for our future development. The manifesto online sets that vision for a fairer society, which builds a stronger economy.”
Alistair Polson – Green
“Housing is the number one issue on the doorstep by quite a way. There is a real lack of affordable housing and a desperate need for social housing. The Green Party wants a major upgrade of the housing stock, improved insulation to create jobs, making cold homes warmer and cheaper to heat whilst reducing energy use. We want an NHS which is properly publicly funded with no privatisation, and we want a living wage of £10 an hour by 2020.
The Green Party is the party for those sick and tired of the old parties” – Alistair Polson
Locally, we will challenge the unwanted development at Bishopsgate Goodsyard, support small and medium-sized businesses and invest in youth services. The Green Party is the party for those sick and tired of the old parties. The only wasted vote in this election is a vote for a party you do not believe in.”
Pauline McQueen – UKIP
M. Rowshan Ali – Communities United
Elliot Ball – 30-50 Coalition
Jonathan Dewey – Cannabis Is Safer than Alcohol
Alasdair Henderson – Whig Party
Jason Pavlou – Red Flag Anti-Corruption
Glyn Robbins – Trade Unionists and Socialists Coalition
Additional reporting by David Blood.