Crowding in on Labour: from left, Lib Dem Rabina Khan, independent Sham Uddin, Green Party Phoebe Gill, and independent Ajmal Masroor @ Social Streets CIC
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Is this the end of Rushanara Ali? The rise of the independents and the battle to oust Labour from Tower Hamlets

With polling day looming next week, we break down the pro-Palestinian independent movement aiming to topple Labour’s majority and defeat Rushanara Ali.

It’s a bright afternoon and school’s out at Stepney Park Primary School. Rushanara Ali, the Labour candidate for Bethnal Green and Stepney, and the first British-Bangladeshi elected to parliament, is canvassing outside the school gates. 

As children flood out of the building to head home with their parents, a man approaches Ali with a camera recording her actions, asking repeatedly and increasingly aggressively ‘can I ask you a question?’. She turns to walk a few steps away. Her security gathers around her, but the man doesn’t relent, calling the security lapdogs and using profanities while continuing to film an increasingly uncomfortable Ali.

He’s angry that she’s not engaging with him, shouting ‘it’s my democratic right to ask you a question’. 

The man’s video circulated widely on Tower Hamlets neighbourhood WhatsApp groups, some of which have become breeding grounds of anti-Labour, anti-Ali sentiment.

In the video’s background, we hear why, as school girls say ‘no thank you, we’re not voting Labour,’ and ‘she doesn’t support a ceasefire’. 

With a Muslim population of 39.9% – higher than any other local authority in England – the Palestinian cause has weighed heavy on many in the borough since Israel began its military campaign following Hamas’ attack on October 7 last year. Though Tower Hamlets has always been a Labour stronghold, Gaza may change how people vote next week.

In local elections across the UK this May, Labour lost a lot of the Muslim vote over Gaza. In areas of England where more than a fifth are Muslim, there was an 18% drop in votes for the party. George Galloway’s byelection victory in Rochdale after running a pro-Palestinian campaign is more evidence of the problems Keir Starmer might encounter on July 4. 

Ali will be running against 10 other candidates, one being the independent Ajmal Masroor – who has made Ali his political raison d’etre.

Masroor’s campaign, endorsed by Galloway, is about Palestine, and his tagline is plain and simple: #getrushanaraout. 

His mission has lit the touch paper that has sparked a fire in the community. The movement to oust Labour has been dogged by heated spats on social media, community meetings descending into violent clashes, and intimidation tactics on the streets. Ali isn’t the only target. Rabina Khan, the Liberal Democrat candidate for the constituency, has also been subjected to hostility on the streets and online.

Marc Francis, Labour councillor in Tower Hamlets, said: ‘Rightly, people here in Tower Hamlets have strong views on what they want their political leaders to do. And it is their absolute right to express their support or opposition to prospective parliamentary candidates as well as policies. Yet again, however, instead of civilised debate and disagreement, the abuse and aggression which is common online is spilling over onto the streets with female candidates and canvassers bearing the brunt.

‘This behaviour has no place in our democracy and has to stop. Everyone seeking to become a Member of Parliament in Bethnal Green & Stepney must urgently make it clear that they will disown and report those attempting to intimidate their political opponents.’

Masroor, his supporters and those with strong pro-Palestinian politics turned against Ali after a decision she made on Wednesday 15 November 2023, when parliament voted on an SNP amendment to the King’s Speech calling for a ceasefire in Gaza.

The motion was rejected by parliament, with 294 voting against and 125 voting in favour. Ali, shadow minister for investment and small business, chose not to rebel from Keir Starmer’s three-line whip and abstained.

As a frontbench member, rebelling from Starmer to back an opponent party’s motion would have meant facing the sack, or being expected to resign. In a statement on X, formerly Twitter, Ali wrote she had ‘long supported a ceasefire,’ but crucially, voting for this motion wouldn’t have secured one.

‘I will not relent in my obligation to be a loud voice in the Shadow Government, simply in exchange for a symbolic measure, important as it is, when my conscience dictates I do much more right now,’ she wrote. Ali reasoned that by abstaining, she’d have more influence over Labour’s position on the war moving forward. Resigning would amount to an abdication of her political voice.

But some of her constituents didn’t see the vote as symbolic but as a black-and-white betrayal of the Palestinian cause. They saw how eight members of Starmer’s frontbench were willing to defy him and resign, and they expected the same from Ali.

A day after the vote in parliament, around 400 schoolchildren marched towards Ali’s constituency office on Cambridge Heath Road in a ‘School Strike for Palestine’, chanting ‘ceasefire now’, ‘free Palestine’, ‘Israel is a terrorist state’, and ‘from the river to the sea, Palestine will be free’. The tide had seemingly turned against her.

However, many of the marchers were below 18 and will be unable to vote on July 4. And while Ali still receives a barrage of online criticism over Palestine every day, it’s difficult to quantify the extent of anti-Labour sentiment among those who’ll vote on polling day.

But for over a decade, disaffection with the party has been growing in the borough and is most evident in the rise of Lutfur Rahman, the Mayor of Tower Hamlets and leader of the Aspire party.

Rahman, formerly the Labour leader of Tower Hamlets Council from 2008 to 2010, ran as an independent candidate for the mayoralty and won in 2010. In 2014, running for Tower Hamlets First, he was re-elected. Despite being removed from office in 2015 when the Election Court found him ‘personally guilty’ of electoral fraud, Rahman made a political comeback in 2022 after being banned from standing for five years. He won the mayoralty once again, beating Labour’s John Biggs and reducing the party’s seats to 19, the lowest amount Labour has ever held in the history of Tower Hamlets.

Beyond electoral fraud, Rahman’s time in office has been plagued with controversy. In 2014, the government sent inspectors to the council to examine allegations of ‘governance failure, poor financial management and fraud’. In February this year, it was announced that government inspectors would return, after renewed concerns about its running under Rahman.

As well as ousting Labour and supporting the Palestinian cause, one of the three pillars of Masroor’s campaign is about rallying behind Rahman. Masroor is calling for the government inspectors to be removed, saying they ‘undermine our mayor’.

The front and back of the campaign leaflet for independent candidate Ajmal Masroor outlining his pledges for Palestine,Immigration and supporting Mayor Lutfur Rahman.
Ajmal Masroor’s campaign leaflets, showing support for Lutfur Rahman during his government inspection

Despite Rahman’s history of controversy, his far-left politics appeals to many residents, Bengali or otherwise, who no longer feel Labour is capable of representing them, in a borough where gentrification, child poverty, housing shortages and homelessness are rampant.

While the Tower Hamlets’ parliamentary constituencies are Labour strongholds, the history of our local politics tells a different story – one of the party losing touch with the working class and ethic-minority communities, causing voters to look for alternatives.

It was under Labour’s Biggs that the controversial redevelopment of the Old Truman Brewery in the heart of Banglatown was approved, much to the dismay of local Bangladeshis who make up 40% of the population in Whitechapel. It was also under Biggs that Low Traffic Neighbourhoods (LTNs) were rolled out in Bethnal Green and Brick Lane – traffic calming measures also unpopular with the working classes, most Bangladeshi, living on ‘poorer’ cut-through roads. When Rahman was re-elected in 2022, he made it his mission to scrap the LTNs, satisfying his Bangladeshi voter base (94.1% of whom wanted the closures removed in a 2023 consultation).

But despite Rahman’s hold on local politics since 2010, when it comes to the general election, Labour reigns supreme in the borough. However, it would be salient to remember that 19 years ago, there was a break in that trend, showing that diversion from the party is far from unprecedented.

In 2005, Galloway overturned Labour’s Oona King’s 10,057 majority in Bethnal Green and Bow. At the time, he was part of the now-dissolved Respect Party, a far-left socialist party that arose in the aftermath of the 2003 invasion of Iraq. Galloway galvanised the anti-war spirit of the borough, beating the Labour MP by 15,801 to 14,978 votes.

In this general election, foreign war might once again be decisive in determining the new MP of Bethnal Green and Stepney. But who is Masroor, the Bangladeshi-born Imam and broadcaster hoping to overthrow Labour on July 4?

Before Masroor became the prime pro-Palestinian independent hoping to oust Ali in Bethnal Green and Stepney, there was Mohammed Akunjee, a defence lawyer who represented Shamima Begum. His campaign was similarly premised on defeating Labour, but on June 3 he announced he’d step down, realising going against Masroor would only fracture the pro-Palestinian vote, adding to Ali’s majority.

Running a campaign almost entirely about Gaza, Masroor has secured the endorsement of The Muslim Vote – an organisation which recommends candidates based on their position on a ceasefire, a Palestinian state, sanctions on Israel and commitment against Islamophobia.

Primarily an educator, Masroor, who we interviewed in December 2023, specialises in spiritual coaching and relationship counselling, which he provides at the Barefoot Institute.

He’s a travelling, unpaid Imam, leading Friday prayers at mosques across the UK, and is involved in the Muslim Council of Britain. A presenter on Islam Channel and Channel S, he’s also appeared on BBC, Channel 4 and LBC as a commentator on religious and political issues.

Since the Israel-Gaza war began, Masroor has made his support for the Palestinian cause unmistakable. He led the Tower Hamlets Palestine Information Centre, set up in the months following October 7, whose X bio reads: ‘The people of Tower Hamlets in London, UK, have organised to empower their neighbours to fight Zionist propaganda.’

In February, Masroor appeared in a video on the group’s X, encouraging the public to sign a petition calling on Tower Hamlets Council to officially recognise the state of Palestine. He also hosted community events to promote local pro-Palestinian action.

This isn’t Masroor’s first dip into politics. In the 2005 general election, he was selected as the Liberal Democrat candidate for West Ham, but he pulled out of the race after receiving criticism for his posts on the Muslim Public Affairs Committee – a website which has been linked to anti-Semitic leafleting

He tried again in 2010, as the Liberal Dem candidate for Bethnal Green and Bow, but Ali won the seat back for Labour with 21,784 votes (42.9% of the vote). Masroor came second place with 10,210 votes (20.1%), and now he’s back for a re-match, 14 years later.

The question remains how residents in Bethnal Green and Stepney will choose to vote come July 4. Will Labour retain its stronghold, or is Tower Hamlets on the brink of a political shift? And how decisive will the question of Gaza be to the outcome?

Patrick Diamond is a professor of public policy at Queen Mary University of London. He thinks that while many people are concerned about Gaza, when it comes to the general election, voters have other concerns.

‘It will be an issue, but for the vast majority of voters, it’ll be national issues,’ he said. ‘In London, the state of public services, particularly the NHS, and the cost of living crisis. People are really badly squeezed, and over the last 16 years since the financial crisis, real incomes have barely risen.’

For Diamond, pressures such as the lack of housing supply will be more decisive in determining how people vote. ‘The conflict in Gaza will be background, but what influences voters will be national concerns.’

Crucially, people vote differently in local and national elections. Labour may have lost its grip locally in the borough, but when it comes to winning parliamentary seats, the party can still rely on voters showing support on polling day.

‘In very particular places around England, we’ve seen independent candidates making some headway. In Birmingham, the independent mayoral candidate pulled over 70,000 votes. In some of the local authorities in the north-west, independents did well in Labour areas,’ Diamond said.

In a local election, you’re voting for a variety of local issues, but in a general election, ‘you’re voting on government,’ Diamond said. ‘For many voters, it’s framed as Labour v.s. Conservative, which prevents haemorrhaging to independents. It is a national election, and people are thinking about choosing a government and a Prime Minister, which limits the degree of fracturing to independent candidates.’

For Andrew Wood, a former Conservative councillor for Canary Wharf, Ali’s defeat, while unlikely, isn’t entirely off the cards. ‘When people are discussing the election on local social media and WhatsApp, they’re not talking about the economy or defence, they’re talking about Israel, Gaza, and the conflict,’ he said.

‘There is enough of a pro-Palestinian vote to stop Labour from winning. But that assumes they can coalesce around one candidate.’

Ali’s pro-Palestinian opposition is not united, hampering their campaign. Disaffected voters looking to abandon Labour for a candidate they view as more supportive of Palestine have four choices to pick from: Masroor, independent candidate Sham Uddin, Lib Dem Khan, and Green Party candidate Phoebe Gill.

‘In Bethnal Green and Stepney, if there was one [pro-Palestinian] figure running without anyone competing, it’s possible to imagine Rushanara will lose her seat, in the same way Oona King lost the seat in 2005,’ Wood said.

But there are ‘quite a few people standing as independents, campaigning on the Gaza vote, and the pro-Palestinian vote might be diluted,’ he said. ‘People might vote Green, or for another independent [apart from Masroor], or for Rabina Khan, who is very well-known locally, and the opposition to Labour over Palestine might be diluted.’

While Labour might retain its stronghold in Bethnal Green and Stepney due to the workings of first-past-the-post, it’s clear that many here feel the party no longer speaks for them.

The situation only got worse on Monday, when Starmer used the example of Bangladesh as a country where illegal migrants are not being returned to during a debate hosted by The Sun. His comment caused Councillor Sabina Akhtar, deputy leader of the Tower Hamlets Labour group, to resign today, writing on X: ‘I can not be proud of the party any more when the leader of the party singles out my community and insults my Bangladeshi identity.’

Following Starmer’s comments, it seems Labour faces an uphill battle in winning back the trust and loyalty of local residents in Tower Hamlets.

For more of our general election coverage, read On the hunt for the elusive Tower Hamlets hustings

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4 thoughts on “Is this the end of Rushanara Ali? The rise of the independents and the battle to oust Labour from Tower Hamlets

  • Perhaps the writer forgot to mention Ali had 67% share of the vote in 2019. Although constituency limits have changed, it will be a struggle to overturn that majority. Ali is very engaged herself with the Palestinian cause. And to deny us the possibility to have our MP part of the Cabinet and get a Luftur Rahman-backed spiritual coach instead? Please, no way !

    • Quite. This is a notably gentle write-up for a campaign built on hate and disinformation and with the backing of people who are anything but ‘far-left’.

  • Rushanara and local Labour have also overlooked Peter Sceats of Reform and the split vote and infighting on the left currently between Labour and the independents in Bethnal Green & Stepney. Reform has awoken and most likely be replacing Conservatives support base in Tower Hamlets completely shortly

  • For me it’s simply, I have to vote for humanity. No ceasefire = no vote therefore Galloway’s man gets the vote!
    Bye, Bye Rushnara and shame on you!!


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