The immigration issue, at the center of Britain’s election campaign, is apparent in all its complexity in East London’s Brick Lane. The narrow, vibrant street boasts stores selling secondhand clothes and leather jackets, Bangladeshi restaurants and unassuming coffee shops. It’s one of the most charming tourist attractions in the city, thanks to the immigrants, mostly from India and Bangladesh, who live and work here. But it is also an area blighted by crime, violence, and a lively drug trade.
Brick Lane is adjacent to the main street of Bethnal Green, in the heart of one of this campaign’s most raucous voting districts, Bethnal Green and Bow. Labour MP Oona King, the second black woman in parliament (who is also half Jewish), is running for a seat here against a former colleague, George Galloway, a Scottish member of parliament who was ejected from the Labour Party for calling on British soldiers in Iraq to disobey immoral orders. Galloway launched the anti-war Respect party.
The Tories, meanwhile, are counting on the influx of well-paid young voters into Bethnal Green and are fielding a candidate of Bangladeshi origin.
Most people walking through the center of Bethnal Green yesterday morning were devout Muslim men—sporting robes, white skullcaps, and beards—and women wearing veils or saris. They passed by stores with names like Al Baraka, Spice of India, Bangla Plaza and the Yassin barbershop. Halal butcher shops abut stores selling Indian bridal clothes, and numerous grocery stores.
As the local MP for a heavily Muslim constituency, King may have demonstrated great courage in her support for the Iraq offensive. She is considered a Blair loyalist, but on the stump, she focuses on local issues, vowing to beef up police presence in the neighborhood, get youth gangs off the streets, improve the physical condition of terraced houses and lower rates (the local property taxes). King is also promising to work for a more efficient method of handling immigrants and asylum seekers.
Galloway, in his direct appeal to the Muslim constituents, is relying on its hatred for Blair and the war. He gets points for being married to a Palestinian, Dr. Amineh Abu-Zayyad, a 39-year-old scientist. Except that yesterday, with wretched timing, it was reported that Abu-Zayyad wants a divorce. “When I heard he called his party ‘Respect’ I began crying. How dare he, when he doesn’t even respect his wife,” she told reporters.
“I’ll vote for Oona King, because she’s kept her promises,” Jean Start, 59, said yesterday. Dressed in a red sweatsuit and energetically striding toward her apartment block a hundred meters from Brick Lane, Start added, “Galloway doesn’t deserve respect because he plays on the race issue.”
Born and raised in East London, Start has lived in Bethnal Green for 32 years. On her floor of a large gray apartment building live 10 families, mostly immigrants. “Let’s see,” she thinks, “across from me live Somalis, at the end are Pakistanis, next door lives an African, and next to him is Colin, he’s white, and me, and Betty, she’s white, and another two Pakistanis.” No, she doesn’t know them by name, “but we say hello on the stairs.”
Start says that in recent years, thanks to King, the drug situation in the neighborhood has improved somewhat, but she still has to shoo away young people on the estate, passing “joints, and foil papers and all that.” When she raised her five children here, in the 1970s, “the neighborhood was much whiter. Now I pity whoever raises children here, because of the drugs and the gangs.” She’s not racist, she says. “There’s good and bad in every race, only sometimes I think we educate out children better. But I’m not sure.”
Rafik Patel, a salesman at a nearby grocery store, is still making up his mind. He trusts Labour, but also likes Galloway. “There’s nobody in British politics who speaks from the Muslims’ point of view,” he says.
In any event, it’s difficult to imagine London without its immigrants. Today, nearly 30 percent of Londoners are non-white (compared to 9 percent nationwide). Most are Indians, blacks from the Carribean and Africa, Pakistanis, Bangladeshis, and Chinese. Unemployment and poverty rates are high among the immigrants compared to the white population, and many immigrants work in low-paying jobs. Conservative Party leader Michael Howard repeatedly promised this week to limit immigration to Britain. Labour says Britain needs these people, at least in the workplace.