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UK election: The battle to uproot Labour's Rushanara Ali in east London over Gaza

Late-night dealmaking between an imam and a lawyer, a pro-Palestinian Batman, and a 'Bengali Tiger' back from the dead
'No-Face' has been a regular feature in pro-Palestine protests across the East London borough of Tower Hamlets since October 2023 (MEE/Areeb Ullah)
By Areeb Ullah in London

It's late on Sunday afternoon as a small crowd slowly gathers inside a school hall in Tower Hamlets, east London.

As people trickle in, a figure, dressed entirely in black and wearing a Batman-style mask painted with the red, green, white and black colours of the Palestinian flag, makes a striking entrance.

Walking to the front of the crowd, he sets up a Palestine flag on the table placed facing the audience. Sitting in the front row, the man gets his phone out and starts recording, broadcasting live on social media, as journalists set up their cameras and gimbals. 

He calls himself No Face - and he is here, he says, for one reason. 

“I am here to make sure these politicians and people who want to represent us support Gaza,” No Face told Middle East Eye.

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Alongside the journalists and others gathered from the local community, No Face has come to find out whether a “unity” candidate will emerge to challenge Rushanara Ali, the local Labour MP, in the upcoming general election on 4 July.

Ali, the first British Bangladeshi woman elected to parliament, has represented the seat of Bethnal Green and Bow - set to be renamed Bethnal Green and Stepney following changes to the constituency's boundaries - since 2010.

The day before, at 1am on Saturday, lawyer Tasnime Akunjee had posted a grainy video alongside the imam and broadcaster, Ajmal Masroor. 

Both men looked bleary-eyed and tired with Akunjee awkwardly shaking Masroor's hand and announcing that they were holding talks to discuss which of them would step down.

Best known for representing the family of Shamima Begum, the Bethnal Green teenager who fled to Syria to join the Islamic State group at the age of 14, Akunjee declared his decision to stand against Ali back in January, before the election was announced.

Tasnime Akunjee and Ajmal Masroor both hold a press conference announcing who will step down in the race to beat Rushanara Ali (MEE/Areeb Ullah)
Tasnime Akunjee (centre) and Ajmal Masroor, right, both hold a press conference announcing who will step down in the race to beat Rushanara Ali (MEE/Areeb Ullah)

Masroor, who in 2010 stood unsuccessfully as a Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, announced his plan to stand last month, just days after UK Prime Minister Rishi Sunak called an election, after being chosen by a newly formed group called the Tower Hamlets Community Coalition.

Activists close to the conversations said both men had met for several days, with some meetings lasting for several hours into the night and only concluding at 5am.

Moments before Sunday’s press conference was due to start, the pair were ushered into a classroom to iron out final details with the crowd still unsure who would be standing down.

In the end, it was Akunjee who stepped aside, saying that the end goal was clear: "Get Rushanara out." 

But could that happen?

Epicentre of Palestine activism

Over the past eight months, the borough of Tower Hamlets has been the epicentre for Palestine activism in London, from activists making headlines when they hoisted dozens of Palestine flags on lamp posts to fighting back against Israeli activists who defaced murals supporting Palestinian journalists in Gaza by covering their faces with the Star of David

During that time, calls have grown to vote out Ali, Labour’s shadow business secretary in Keir Starmer’s frontbench team, after she abstained on a vote last November calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

Since then, Ali has called for a ceasefire in parliament, despite abstaining on votes for one, and demanded Israel let NGOs deliver aid to Palestinians in Gaza.

Unlike her neighbouring Labour MP, Apsana Begum, who represents Poplar and Limehouse, Ali has not attended any of a number of pro-Palestinian rallies organised in the borough.

Nor has she put her name to emergency parliamentary motions calling for an arms embargo on Israel, instead supporting the Labour Party leadership’s position which promises only to review arms sales to Israel if elected into government.

Pro-Palestine murals have cropped up across Tower Hamlets in support of
Pro-Palestine murals have cropped up across Tower Hamlets in support of Palestinian journalists in Gaza (MEE/Areeb Ullah)

At the last election in 2019, Ali won with a majority of 37,000, winning more than 70 percent of the vote.

Yet Bethnal Green was the scene of an election night humbling for Labour in 2005 when George Galloway defeated Oona King in a contest shaped by local opposition to the Iraq war.

“The fact that [the Labour Party's] system is sending [volunteers] to Rushanara’s seat shows that they are worried'

- former Labour member

Now Labour, which is facing a wave of insurgent independent candidates around the country inspired by Galloway’s recent by-election victory in Rochdale and discontent at the party’s stance on Israel and Gaza, has again identified the constituency as a "battleground seat".

A former Labour Party member who wished to remain anonymous told Middle East Eye that when Labour identifies a constituency it already holds as a "battleground seat," it is because the party is worried about losing.

“Since 2017, Labour has identified Thurrock as a key battleground area for volunteers wishing to canvas for the party from east London,” said the former staffer.

“But the fact that their system is sending them to Rushanara’s seat shows that they are worried.”

At the time of writing, Labour had directed more than 400 volunteers to knock on doors for Ali in Bethnal Green and Stepney, the new name for the constituency following following changes to its boundaries.

History of electoral upsets

Ebadul Haque, the general secretary of the London Bangla Press Club, has covered local politics in Tower Hamlets for nearly 40 years.

Haque notes Tower Hamlets' strong tradition of voting for independent candidates regardless of their background.

"You have to remember, this is the same area that voted in George Galloway's Respect Party in 2005 after the last Labour MP, Oona King, ignored the local community and voted for the Iraq war," said Haque.

"And then they voted in Lutfur Rahman again - despite him being previously kicked out of office."

Rahman is the controversial mayor of Tower Hamlets who was first elected in 2010 shortly after being expelled by the Labour Party.

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He was re-elected in 2014, but forced out in 2015 and banned from running for public office for five years after being found guilty of electoral malpractice.

In 2022, Rahman was once again elected mayor, this time representing his own Aspire Party.

Haque believes too that the boundary changes could change the character of politics in Bethnal Green and Stepney and impact Ali's chances.

"The demographics have changed because of the boundary changes. This means there are more Muslim voters who will be voting in the next election, and they are not happy with how the main political parties have behaved around Gaza," said Haque.

"Labour has lost 10,000 blind votes with the new boundary changes, and there is a concern within Ali's team that she will need to work for them."

"Tower Hamlets is a very young borough that has seen the emergence of independent candidates prevail, and we are talking about a generation of voters who have grown up benefiting from policies brought in by independent candidates like free school meals and the education maintenance allowance."

The new wards added to Bethnal Green and Stepney include Shadwell and Whitechapel from Poplar and Limehouse, who both voted for Rahman's Aspire Party in the last local elections.

Nazrul Islam, a former journalist and local Labour Party activist in Poplar, echoed Haque's assessment, and said the local Bengali community had often gone against the national tide.

'We will always support Rushanara [Ali], but she is not helping herself by being so quiet on the issue of Palestine'

- Nazrul Islam, Labour activist

"We will always support Rushanara, but she is not helping herself by being so quiet on the issue of Palestine. Apsana [Begum] is active - why can't Rushanara?" asks Islam.

"But who will stand against Rushanara? There are too many candidates standing that will inevitably split the vote." 

Others set to stand alongside Ali include Rabina Khan, a former councillor now representing the Liberal Democrats, and another independent candidate, Sham Uddin, a barrister from Birmingham who styles himself as the "Bengal Tiger".

In an interview after announcing his intention to stand in December, Uddin revealed he had been motivated to do so after suffering a near-fatal heart attack while visiting the area.

"In June 2023, I had a ventricular fibrillation arrest and actually ‘died’ for a few seconds before being resuscitated by doctors at the Royal London Hospital in the constituency," he said.

Like Akunjee, Khan declared her intention to stand as a Liberal Democrat in January.

A veteran in Tower Hamlets politics, Khan has been a councillor since 2010, after she initially represented the Shadwell ward as a member of the Labour Party.

She left Labour after being suspended for supporting Lutfur Rahman and was subsequently re-elected as a councillor under Rahman's party. After falling out with Rahman, she stood to be mayor of Tower Hamlets in both 2015 and 2018, finishing third each time.

Whitechapel market
Crowd gather outside Whitechapel Market in East London as candidates battle it out for a seat in Bethnal Green and Stepney (MEE/Areeb Ullah)

When asked why he had stepped down, Akunjee said that he and Masroor represented different demographics within the constituency that would inevitably split the vote.

"When a snap election is called, you have to be strategic and toppling a 37,000 vote majority is no joke. Every constituency has young and older people. The older people have had more chances to organise themselves over the years and tend to be the ones that vote with a much higher degree of regularity and consistency," Akunjee told MEE.

"The younger demographic, anyone under 40, they tend to be less likely to vote. But they're also much more active and they're much more numerous in the older demographic.

"We have been speaking and it's clear that we both represent two different demographics. In my case, I have a younger demographic standing behind me."

In a later post on X, Akunjee did not explicitly endorse Masroor, saying that even a "turnip" could defeat Ali and suggesting that further deals should be cut among the remaining candidates to avoid further diluting the anti-Labour vote.

'We've had big parties try and come and do their thing but at the end of the day, the local voice is most important - and an independent is the way to go'

- 'No Face', pro-Palestine activist

"It would be beyond criminal if it is ego that causes the vote to split between these candidates at this moment in time when even a turnip can win as long as it is only one turnip standing for election," said Akunjee.

"I strongly urge Rabina Khan, Ajmal Masroor and Shams Uddin to submit to an urgent community hustings so to reduce the candidates standing against Rushanara Ali to just one unity candidate."

The deadline for candidates to register, or to withdraw from the race, is Friday. 

When MEE asked Masroor if he would be willing to talk to Khan, the independent candidate said he "was open and willing to talk to anybody if they are willing to listen."

Ali did not respond to MEE's requests for comment. 

When speaking to the local Bengali media, Ali has repeated her claims that she has been calling for a ceasefire since October last year, and focused her messaging on the chance for voters to get rid of the Conservative government by voting Labour.  

For No-Face, who describes himself as "limited edition", Akunjee's decision is the "right decision for the community”.

"I don't do politics and never done politics. Labour, Tory, all the same to me," he said. 

"But we have to accept that this government is making it harder to stand for Palestine.

"We need something fresh [here in Tower Hamlets]. We've had big parties try and come and do their thing but at the end of the day, the local voice is most important - and an independent is the way to go."

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