Oona King, the Labour MP for Bethnal Green and Bow who lost her seat to George Galloway, dug her own grave. Forty per cent of her constituents were Bengalis originally from Sylhet, in Bangladesh. En masse, they were against the war in Iraq, and passionately so. Yet King disregarded this huge sentiment and voted for the war. Whether her support for the invasion was ideologically inspired, I do not know. Many alleged she waved the flag in order to attract Tony Blair, hoping he'd reward her unflinching loyalty with a job as a junior minister. But she paid the price for her failure to grasp the forces that have shaped the Bengali community over the past 30 years. And these have very little to do with Galloway or his party, Respect.
From 1975, a spontaneous movement of 200 Bengali families in Spitalfields resisted attempts by the old Greater London Council and the borough of Tower Hamlets to disperse them throughout the East End of London, where they were experiencing an onslaught of racial attacks. They squatted in their hundreds in the E1 area, having formed the Bengali Housing Action Group to organise the resistance. To put it simply, the Bengalis built their own community, as it exists today, through a mass movement.
Horace Cutler, the then Tory leader of the GLC, conceded openly: "This seems to be what Bengalis want. When 200 families say they want a particular thing we give it to them, or they will be out hanging me in the street." That was in 1978, after three years of intense campaigning.
If King had read those words, she would still be an MP. It is very easy to miscalculate who the Bengalis really are. Years of colonial hauteur have left many with the idea that they are a docile people. Surely that should now come to an end.
I was a founding member of the housing group. Last Sunday, I went back to the area. I met Sham, Gedhu and others, and we talked of old times, of mass movements and their impact on the status quo. Gedhu described it as "the Bengali way".
Not one of my old mates indicated any admiration for Galloway. According to them, he was simply in the right place at the right time. And still King does not get it. She described the uprising as a flash in the pan and said that Labour, as opposed to Respect and Galloway, will be there, in that part of the East End, for ever. No, Oona, the Bengalis are the ones who will be in the East End for ever.