Rushanara Ali On Bethnal Green, Ken Livingstone And The English Defence League
Oona King knew Rushnara Ali would be the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow before she did.
On her first day working for King as a parliamentary assistant Ali was introduced as the future MP for the area.
“She was very keen for me to do it. I remember my first day when I came back in 1997, she kept introducing me to people saying, ‘You know, one she’s day going to be the MP for Bethnal Green and Bow’, to which my heart used to sink,” Ali says.
The 36-year-old’s story isn’t as simple as working for King and taking over her seat 13 years later. Along the way there was time spent at the Young foundation, the IPPR and the Home Office - as well as the small matter of George Galloway.
Ali retook the seat for Labour from Respect MP Galloway in May 2010, turning his 823 majority into a Labour one of 11,574.
It was an impressive victory for Ali, who became one of Britain’s three Muslim female MPs and was quickly given the international development brief to shadow.
But despite always being Labour (she grew up in Tower Hamlets in the 1980s and said by 1992 she was “desperate for a Labour government”) Ali didn’t always want to MP.
“I grew up thinking that there are so many different ways in which you could make a difference. And I was always interested in doing that in some way but politics is one route – front line politics is one way of doing that,” she says.
So 18 months on, how’s she finding it? “I love this brief. It’s absolutely fascinating and so important that we make the case domestically, when international development support is under attack. Particularly within sections of the media and also there’s obviously public disquiet about why aid is provided. And it’s very important on a number of fronts like that.”
Outside of her work as a shadow minister, Ali has plenty to keep her busy. Her constituency, Bethnal Green and Bow, has the highest child poverty rate in the country and one of the highest rates of youth unemployment.
Then there are outside threats; the English Defence League attempted to march through her East London constituency last September, and more recently sparked a clash outside the East London mosque.
Ali, who has been an outspoken critic of the EDL, hints that the group have also targeted her with Isamophobic hate-mail, although stresses “I’d rather not focus on these things”.
“Like anybody in my position you get some hate-mail, yes,” she says.
“We had a few things during that period in September [when the EDL march was banned].”
Aside from the EDL, Ali has also had to focus on the increasingly complicated internal politics of Tower Hamlets. And when Ken Livingstone, Labour’s candidate for London mayor, came into her constituency in 2010 to support Lutfur Rahman, who Labour had de-selected, for mayor of Tower Hamlets she wasn’t happy.
“It was completely unacceptable, Ed Miliband said that, the entire national executive and the Labour party, nobody was happy about his behaviour,” she says.
“He should know better. He is a leading member of the Labour party with a high profile and coming into my constituency and the borough of Tower Hamlets and playing divisive politics, essentially and not backing up your party at a very difficult time was a low point in his recent political activity.”
But Ali, who is still “desperate for a Labour government” is loyal to the last. Whatever frustration she may have with him, she still backs Ken.
“As far as we’re concerned as a local party we will support Ken Livingstone in his bid to become the mayor of London because he stands for a set of ideas to improve people’s lives in London that’s better than what Boris Johnson’s about. That’s what we’re focused on.”