Bangladesh is the 8th most populous country in the world, predominantly Muslim, and historically part of the British Empire from 1757-1947 when it became part of Pakistan and from who it gained independence after a bloody struggle in 1971. There are some 450,000 Bengalis in the UK today (0.7% of the population) and 95% of them are Labour voters. So it was with this background that a ‘Labour Friends of Bangladesh’ was formed from among the 300 strong Bangladeshi community in Somerset, with a launch meeting at the Spice Club Restaurant in Bridgwater.
40 people attended the event, drawn 50-50 from the local Bengali community and the Bridgwater and Taunton Labour Parties and were welcomed to the popular Eastover restaurant by President Karim Mia who introduced his committee.
Labour Leader of Bridgwater Town Council, Cllr Brian Smedley, introduced the Labour members saying “Bridgwater is a Labour town with 14 out of 16 Labour councillors and we are also the main opposition on Sedgemoor District Council. Internationalism is at the core of Labour values and ‘Friends groups’ such as this are crucial to developing that ethos and bringing it to the heart of our communities”. He explained that most of the work of Labour parties is done at branch level and introduced several key activists.
Increase in Membership
Gary Tucker, the Bridgwater Branch secretary, explained about the large increase in membership since the election of Jeremy Corbyn as Labour leader and how people have been inspired by the simple phrase ‘for the many not the few’. He spoke of the many popular social events we were holding which were helping bond activists together, political discussion sessions, door knocking, street stalls and crucially engagement in elections, for which we were now building up a pool of candidates and would urge everyone to consider the option of standing.
Cllr Diogo Rodrigues, at 28 now too old to be the Youth Officer, is this year going to become the Mayor of Bridgwater from May. Diogo explained that he moved to Bridgwater from Southend in Essex where it was the norm for the different communities to organise themselves and to get involved in local politics and this was a new thing for Bridgwater but was a welcome development. Diogo, also a restauranteur and from the Portuguese community, has been active in setting up a local youth forum and increasing the Town Councils focus on youth funding.
For the Many not the Few
Subha Khan, at 19 the youngest of the Bengali group present, said she was on a gap year after finishing at Richard Huish College and was now planning to go to Exeter University to study Law. She was angry at the Tory hiking of University Fees and wanted to see a Labour Government that could put an end to this and restore parity in educational opportunity for all. For ‘the many not the few’.
Neil Guild, Chair of the Taunton Branch Labour Party, said there was more work to do in his town as the Tories were firmly in control and Labour needed to rebuild it’s vote and displace the Lib Dems to be back within striking distance of control. They had a few Labour councillors but couldn’t compare themselves to the Labour strognhold that Bridgwater was. However, they wanted to work with the Bangladeshi community to help spread the Labour message together.
Meraz Aziz, the Secretary-General, spoke of the many ways his organisation was planning to and had already devoted itself to engaging with important causes. He spoke of support for a campaign in the field of autism and emphasised the ideals of ‘mercy and kindness’ that his people approached the Syrian refugee crisis with. In Somerset the County Council had started to take in a limited number of refugees from the Syrian conflict and this had deep echoes in Bangladesh which is currently taking in vast numbers of Rohingya refugees from the oppression in Burma. Many of the members in Somerset were from the city of Chittagong which is close to the area of refugee displacement.
Karim Mia thanked everybody for coming and vowed to work together to fight any apathy that might exist amongst the community against engaging in voting and cited the fact that in London there were now 3 Labour MP’s from the Bengali community. There was no reason that they couldn’t organise amongst the 300 strong Somerset Bengali community and then amongst the 1,000+ wider community across the West Country. The Bridgwater meeting had launched this process.