Lunch with... Rushanara Ali

Written by Anoosh Chakelian on 3 March 2014 in Culture
Over an old-school lunch in Bermondsey, Anoosh Chakelian asks shadow education minister Rushanara Ali about schooling, London’s East End, and life as the first Bangladeshi MP. Photo by Louise Haywood-Schiefer

This article is from the February 2014 issue.

Rushanara Ali won Bethnal Green and Bow back for Labour from George Galloway in 2010. She is the first MP of Bangladeshi origin and served as shadow international development minister before taking up her current role – shadow education minister.

The restaurant

Tanner & Co

This industrial space on Bermondsey Street is a school gymnasium-theatre hybrid. Wooden wall frames are interlaced with vibrant light filters and stage lights, ropes hang lights from the ceiling, and pommel horses act as benches in the restaurant’s eclectic interior.

The menu

Main Rock bass, roast fennel, orange hollandaise; Onglet steak, shallots and parsley, chips.

We drank

Elderflower grapefruit non-alcoholic cocktail.

We discussed

Arriving I was born in Bangladesh and lived there until I was seven, then we settled in the East End of London and I’ve lived there most of my life. When I first arrived at Heathrow airport, I just remember it being very grey and sterile. As a seven-year-old, I just have this image fixed in my head of this English lady in a short, grey skirt, flat shoes, very white legs. Everything was very clean and pristine. A complete contrast to where I was brought up – lots of people, lots of colour, lush, green countryside, and chaotic cities.

School days I went to the local secondary school and carried on at the Further Education college. I’m now shadow minister covering Further Education, so they [the sector] are very pleased about that because I went to an FE college. I worked very hard to get to Oxford, as I know a lot of people do, and it did feel like you were climbing a mountain to get through your A Levels, and then apply to university. At the time I was going to university in the early ‘90s, school performance was terrible in Tower Hamlets, but my school was brilliant.

Civilly serving [Before politics], I did a stint in the Foreign Office and three years in the Home Office; I felt it was really important to learn how policy is made in Whitehall, how you can make change happen within government and I’m really glad I did that, because I learnt how the civil service worked. I think it’s really valuable if you go into politics to have that insight.

Background bonuses What I bring by virtue of being a ‘first’ [Bangladeshi MP] is that my country of birth is much more significant than it would’ve been. That’s something I’m really proud of, but I’d like to see some more people from diverse backgrounds, including from the British Bangladeshi community, in parliament, so I’m not the only one. That I grew up in the East End and represent my home seat is important – that applies to lots of colleagues, they bring an authenticity because they know their patch, they’re part of their community.

Iraq anger [2005 in Bethnal Green and Bow] was a very difficult election, for understandable reasons in terms of the public’s sentiment about the war in Iraq. It wasn’t just the Muslim community, it was constituents from white middle-class, white working-class backgrounds – a range of people in what is now my constituency. It was a very difficult time for the community. I didn’t support the war, and the party lost a lot of seats because of the war, and I think we have to rebuild trust, particularly with those voters in the Muslim community, but well beyond within the Labour movement. My constituency synthesised that particular issue… I think for all politicians it’s an on-going activity to [rebuild trust].

Perfect for Fans of old-school kitsch.

Not suitable for PE shirkers.

The cost Most mains around £12-£15.

To book a table at Tanner & Co, call 0207 357 0244

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