Sir Keir Starmer, UK Labour’s new leader, opposes foreign “interference” in UK elections and has strongly berated the prime minister, Boris Johnson, for failing to act more quickly over concerns about Russian influence. Why, then, has he failed to act against Tulip Siddiq, the MP in his neighbouring constituency of Hampstead and Kilburn, for the sustained support she received from Bangladesh’s ruling Awami League in the 2019 election campaign, which took place just over a year ago, first revealed by Channel Four News?
While Bangladesh is no Russia, and its involvement in an election certainly does not have the same national security implications for the UK, the South Asian country most likely does exceed the former super power in terms of its authoritarian nature — the quashing of the opposition, silencing of dissent, extra judicial killings, enforced disappearances and holding of sham elections. As a result, there should be real concern in the UK about the role of Bangladesh’s ruling party in UK politics.
Not only has Starmer said and done nothing, he has actually rewarded Siddiq by appointing her to his first shadow cabinet. Indeed, as the first anniversary of the election passes, it is all the more apparent how Tulip Siddiq — the Bangladesh prime minister’s niece — has suffered no consequences from obtaining the benefit of foreign election interference.
The United Kingdom wing of the Awami League (UK AL) is part of the Bangladesh Awami League, set up under the Bangladesh party’s constitution (“The Central Executive council of the Bangladesh Awami League shall approve all Immigrant Branches”, the Bangladesh party constitution states, with the UK Branch having the same status as a Bangladesh District branch). Whilst technically, the UK Branch could elect its own leaders, in practice they are appointed by Bangladesh Awami League political leaders. In 2011, Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina herself presided over a meeting at the Hilton Hotel in London where she announced the names of the current UK AL leaders and their positions.
It is clear why the Awami League would want to support Siddiq. Sheikh Hasina, the prime minister of Bangladesh, is Siddiq’s aunt; her uncle, Tarique Ahmed Siddique and cousin Sajeeb Wazed are minister-equivalent advisers to the prime minister; her brother, Radwan Mujib Siddiq has been a key propagandist on behalf of the ruling party and Siddiq’s mother, Sheikh Rehana is sometimes talked about as a future prime minister, succeeding her sister, Sheikh Hasina.
Indeed, Siddiq herself — before she became a UK councillor and member of parliament — used to act as an Awami League “spokesperson”. The linkages between her and the Awami League are, therefore, abundantly clear.
After she became an MP in 2015, Siddiq has argued that she no longer had any connection with Bangladesh’s ruling party, and even claimed that she does not “talk politics” with her family. That claim was shown to be highly questionable when Channel Four News uncovered two videos where the Labour MP spoke at Awami League political rallies in the UK, one of which was in the presence of her aunt, the prime minister of Bangladesh, also the head of the Awami League.
Apart from exposing Siddiq’s inaccurate attempts to conceal or downplay her continuing connections with the Awami League, these videos are highly relevant in setting the background for the systemic support Siddiq received from the UK AL in the most recent national election in December 2019.
In one of these UK AL rallies, which took place immediately after the June 2015 election, when Siddiq first became a member of parliament, she said (in Bengali) to the cheering Awami Leaguers, “Had it not been for your help, I would never have been standing as a British MP.” And in 2017, after the second national election, Siddiq told another crowd of Awami Leaguers, “I want to thank you because without your support, I would not have been able to win my seat.”
Further clues to the support which the UK AL gave her in these two elections are found in the speeches Siddiq had given following these two election successes (see 2015 and 2017 elections). In the speeches, she specifically thanked the senior UK Awami League leader Anwaruzzman Chowdhury, referring to him as “Anwar Mama”. The term “mama” means “uncle” and is used by Bangladeshis to refer to family friends known through one’s mother.
Her gratitude to Anwaruzzman, the UK AL’s joint-secretary, was significant as he was reported at the time to have been in charge of organising the UK AL’s support for Siddiq in both these two earlier elections.
Though little is known about the nature and mechanics of the Awami League support in these elections, photographs from the 2017 election do show UK Awami League party activists and supporters using the Ruchi restaurant in Tulip’s constituency as a base for organising leaflet distribution. In her speech after her election victory, Tulip also specifically thanked the restaurant, which at the time was owned by a strong Awami League supporter.
Much more, though, is known about the UK AL’s sustained support for Siddiq in the most recent national elections.
On November 5th 2019, the day before the formal start of the national election campaign, some leaders of the UK AL met in a restaurant. “The oldest daughter of Sheikh Rehana, who is the younger sister of the Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina, is fighting for re-election from the labour party for the third time in the upcoming British Parliamentary election,” a UK AL activist wrote in Bengali on his Facebook page with a photo of the meeting. “As before, to make her victorious, brother Sultan Sharif, the respected president of the UK Awami League will provide direction, and our well-wishing friends gathered in this scheduled meeting will be under the leadership of OSM Misbah, the secretary of industry and commerce, who will provide the strategy for action at ground level! Inshallah, we will be victorious!” The person he was referring to was Tulip Siddiq.
The next day, UK AL activists and leaders started their campaign work for Siddiq in the basement of a rundown supermarket in Kilburn, which turned out to be a newly rented election campaign office. On the first day of the campaign a picture on Facebook shows numerous UK AL leaders including Syed Shazidur Rahman Faruk (general secretary); Anwaruzzaman Chowdhury (joint general secretary); Misbah Sadath (industry and commerce secretary;) Fakhrul Islam Modhu (Youth League president), Shah Shamim Ahmed (office secretary) and Jamal Khan (Youth League, assistant general secretary).
For each of the next 45 days, dozens of UK AL activists, the vast majority of them without any connection with Tulip’s Hampstead and Kilburn constituency, congregated at this office where Siddiq’s election campaign team gave them leaflets and election posters to be distributed at specific places throughout the constituency.
While some of these UK AL leaders and activists may also have been Labour Party members, their presence in her constituency (rather than their own constituencies) was as a result of the UK AL campaign in support of Siddiq.
The UK AL asked ten of its key leaders to organise its activists to attend the Kilburn office. “There are ten teams over there [in Kilburn]. You will need to get into one of the teams. Do you have any communication with any of my leaders?” Sultan Sharif, the President of UK AL told one Bangladeshi man who rang up asking to take part. “The ten teams are, Hormuz has one team, Misbah got one team, Anwaruzzaman has a team. Jubo League Selim Khan has one team, umm … teams like this. I don’t know who you know among these?”
All the people mentioned by Sharif are UK Awami League leaders and post holders. Misbah is Misbah Sadath (sometimes referred to as OSM Misbah), also mentioned in the November 5th Facebook post as a key organiser. Anwaruzzaman is the senior UK AL leader referred to by Siddiq as “Anwar Mama” earlier, whereas Selim Khan is head of the UK AL’s youth group.
Secrecy was part of the UK AL operation — and only those people whom its leaders could vouch for were able to take part in the campaign. “I would like to interview you properly. This is all sensitive stuff, you understand?” Misbah, the industry and commerce secretary of the UK AL told the same man on the phone. “After the interview we will see how we can make use of you. People are reluctant to come out in the cold and here you are trying to volunteer, so definitely there is a question. […] There is a lot of sensitive stuff in election matters. You understand?” Sultan Sharif and Misbah Sadath did not respond to requests for comment.
The UK AL’s direct support to Tulip Siddiq’s election campaign could be tracked real time in Facebook posts which showed pictures of the UK AL leaders and activists outside and inside the Kilburn office. The filming undertaken by Channel Four News outside the office was similarly revealing — that UK AL activists were just about the only people attending the office. Missing, apparently, were ordinary Labour supporters from the constituency not linked to or organised by the UK Awami League.
Facebook posts confirmed that the men’s presence at the Kilburn office was due to their Awami League affiliation. On November 9th, one post stated with a photo: “Campaigning for Tulip Siddiq MP with Uk Awami League leaders and others!”
On December 1st, another activist posted a picture of a small group campaigning with this text (in Bengali): “The UK Awami League and leaders of associate organisations are campaigning daily in the constituency for the last few weeks to ensure that on 12th December, in the British general election, the Labour Party candidate Tulip Siddiq for the North London seat of Hampstead and Kilburn is returned with a landslide majority. We few are responsible for the campaigning in the constituency on Saturday, 30th November from morning till afternoon.”
Notably, Tulip Siddiq’s organisational campaign plan sent out to the Labour Party volunteers a week before the election does not refer at all to any campaign activity taking place at her Kilburn election campaign office — corroborating the appearance that this office was only used or overwhelmingly used by UK Awami League activists.
When Channel Four News first exposed the role of the Awami League in supporting Siddiq, both the Labour Party and the candidate said that it was “categorically untrue” that they were “aware” of the UK AL campaign in support of the candidate. However, while the central Labour Party may well have been kept in the dark, it is difficult to see how this can be the case for Siddiq and her senior election campaign staff.
How could Siddiq and her staff have been unaware when almost the only people who attended the party’s specially rented campaign office in a dilapidated supermarket in Kilburn on a daily basis were dozens of UK AL leaders and activists? Since these people were not local labour party supporters, who did Siddiq and her team think were the people attending this office and distributing all her leaflets and campaign literature – particularly when ordinary Labour Party supporters were not being informed about doing this?
Tulip Siddiq MP did not respond to emailed requests for comment for this article.
Tulip’s Siddiq’s apparent readiness to accept significant support from Bangladesh’s ruling party in the last election — which she has acknowledged in her speeches also happened in 2015 and 2017 — raises serious questions about her integrity and judgment. And if Sir Keir Starmer — who also did not respond to questions — is concerned about foreign interventions in elections, he should put to one side his friendship with Siddiq, and set up an inquiry.●
David Bergman (@TheDavidBergman) — a journalist based in Britain — is Editor, English of Netra News.
Channel Four News – Tulip Siddiq: UK wing of Bangladesh’s ruling party appear to be campaigning for Labour candidate
Bangladesh Politico – Pictures of Awami League UK’s support for Tulip Siddiq 2019 national election campaign