Leaning casually against a squat rack, professional fighter Pablo Benn shakes his head before telling me that the “Conservatives had their chance and they messed up. They’ve been messing up for years now. It’s lies, it’s all based on lies.” Standing up to his full height, and adjusting the back of his sleeveless T-shirt, Benn seems remarkably confident as he declares that “Corbyn is the answer.”
Talking to the young men and women who train within the KO Gym, located beneath the arches of Globe Road Railway Bridge, it isn’t hard to find other people living within the Labour strong seat of Bethnal Green and Bow who share Benn’s opinion. “Theresa May doesn’t give a damn about me – you know, some working-class guy from Bethnal Green,” Muay Thai boxer Nigel Owen tells me. “She really doesn’t care.”
Owen, now 35, has been training at the gym for the last ten years and has had a number of amateur fights in that time. “There’s nothing like getting punched in the face in front of a couple thousand people,” he tells me with a laugh. “I like getting kicked in the head too,” he adds. In contrast to his opinion of May, Owen is entirely in favour of Jeremy Corbyn and what he calls Labour’s “manifesto for the people”. Supportive of an equitable welfare system, and even prepared to pay more in taxes through his own business to help support it, Owen is ready to vote Labour in the belief that they will help deliver the social changes which he can see his local community needs.
You get a clear picture of a community crying out for change and greater support when talking to local fighters taking a break from hitting one of the gym’s heavy bags or towelling off before walking home. However, it is when you discuss the issues with 57-year-old founder and owner of KO Gym Bill Judd that you get the clearest understanding of the challenges facing the area.
Pointing to the devastating effects of drink, drugs, and gambling on the local community, Judd tells me that he has lived in the area long enough to see “one generation leave the street corners” – only to be replaced by “the next one that comes along”. Shaking his head while ruffling his short silver hair with the palm of his left hand, Judd adds that “they are lost.”
Briefly running through the various programmes aimed at troubled youths, addicts, and other vulnerable members of the local community which he has had to cancel as a result of a lack of funding, Judd confides in me that “you get disillusioned, you get cynical about it, you know.” However, when pressed on who he will be voting for, Judd doesn’t hesitate before telling me that “Labour is the only option for here.”
A striking feature of the gym is the impressive array of accents and languages being spoken by members of the club as they leave training together before going their separate ways as they enter the dense maze of adjoining streets and paths which criss-cross the area. In this way, the club bears testament to the successive waves of immigration which have helped transform the area over the centuries.
Today, the East London constituency of Bethnal Green and Bow is among the most ethnically diverse in the UK, and boasts the largest Bangladeshi community in the country. Indeed, the incumbent Labour candidate, Rushanara Ali, is one of the many local residents to have been born in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh before emigrating to Tower Hamlets at a young age. Among the many cultural and social imprints that this wave of immigration has made on the local area can be found on Brick Lane, in the form of its world famous “Indian” restaurants.
When discussing the most pressing issues facing these curry houses with their owners and managers, one is invariably greeted by the same two responses; immigration and Brexit. While the tightening of immigration laws is seen to have resulted in a lack of staff willing to work the long and anti-social hours demanded by the hospitality industry, Brexit has forced up the prices of vital ingredients along with other indispensable products, resulting in a significant reduction in profit margins.
In the opinion of 66 year old Rashid Quadi, the owner and manager of Brick Lane’s Bengal Cuisine, it is the former which is the most serious. “Immigration is very, very important,” he told me as we sat together at the back of his restaurant, “because the immigrant […] used to be a major part of the workforce here.”
Explaining that immigrants from Bangladesh, and especially students attending local universities and colleges, once constituted an indispensable source of labour, Quadi explained that he is no longer able to fill vital job vacancies as British workers lack relevant experience, demand too high a wage, and are less flexible. “Immigrants work for their future,” he told me. “I mean they haven’t got a future, so they are trying to make their future – so we want people like that.”
Blaming the Conservative Government for the tightening of immigration laws, Quadi insists that he must vote Labour – as “it is a matter of survival”. Without a change in immigration policy, he explains, “our business goes down, our living goes away. So, what to say about staying here with some dignity? No job, no business, no dignity.”
However, while Quadi is certain that Labour is the party most likely to ease the immigration laws which are damaging his business, he is entirely more confident in Theresa May’s abilities to negotiate with the European Union to ensure that Britain gets the best possible deal. “Theresa May […] is a confident lady […] so in one sense she is good for the UK in the negotiations with Europe.” However, as Quadi quickly asserts, “she may be good somewhere but she is not good for us, because she is not looking after us,” (as she will not enable greater immigration).
Remarkably, it was necessary to travel to Spitalfields City Farm to find a person who was considering voting for a party other than Labour in Bethnal Green and Bow. Thinking over her options, and weighing her long-term support of the Green Party against what she sees as the appeal of Jeremy Corbyn’s politics and the advantages of “tactical voting”, Emily Hegarty is yet to reach a conclusion.
Tending to an area of overgrown grass which separates a polytunnel from a small field housing a menagerie of noisy chickens, energetic goats and greedy pigs, Hegarty told me that she is extremely critical of the press, who she believes has misrepresented Corbyn. “I think he is quite honest and open. People are misrepresenting him and he is just sticking to his principles and I agree with his views on the way forward.”
Similarly, Amanda, a volunteer working on the other side of the farm whom I encountered as she was leaving an animal enclosure, told me that she thinks that “Jeremy Corbyn is great” and that “the way that he kept fighting when he was effectively being bullied out of office shows that he is actually pretty tenacious, and I think he’s a good thing definitely.”
While Rushanara Ali and the Labour Party have certainly attracted a strong support base in the constituency, they are likely to face stiff competition on 8th June from candidates representing a range of other parties – including popular local figure Ajmal Masroor, who will be standing as an independent candidate next month.
Another candidate born in the Sylhet region of Bangladesh before moving to Britain as a young child, Masroor stood for the Liberal Democrats in 2010, attracting over 20% of the vote and finishing as the runner-up to Ali. Seven years on and, as we shall see in the second article in this series, Masroor has succeeded in gaining a significant following, especially within the Bangladeshi community, and is being tipped by many to represent the most significant challenge to Ali.
•Sebastian Pender is a resident of Bethnal Green and Bow and is not a member of, or associated with, any political party. This is the first of four articles Sebastian will be writing about the General Election in Bethnal Green & Bow, based on interviews with local people.
•Photographs: Sebastian Pender
•General Election candidates standing in Bethnal Green & Bow are:
Rushanara Ali, Labour Party
Charlotte Chirico, The Conservative Party Candidate
Ian de Wulverton, UK Independence Party (UKIP)
William Peter Henry Dyer, Liberal Democrat
Ajmal Masroor, Independent
Alistair Polson, Green Party