People & society

UK Election Day: A view from Barking

Updated Jun 09, 2017 02:19pm


One of Barking borough’s polling stations | Ritu Prasad
One of Barking borough’s polling stations | Ritu Prasad

It’s Election Day in London and the streets of the eastern borough of Barking are close to empty. There are very few customers at the usually crowded stalls in the open market, with most stall owners sitting idle. Two men at the entrance of the market are conversing about how people are now scared to come to Barking after one of the London Bridge attackers, Khuram Butt of Pakistani descent, was identified as a resident of the area.

Butt and two others ploughed a van into pedestrians on London Bridge on the night of June 3, killing eight people and injuring dozens of others.

“People are afraid,” says Mohammed Yaqoob, who owns a clothing stall in Barking Market. “Particularly the poor community – mostly Muslims – are afraid to come out.” This is the first day Yaqoob has returned to the area since the London Bridge attack, and says things are certainly different. The middle-aged man from Azad Kashmir has faced some racial harassment in the 30 years he’s lived in London, describing how people would risk being beaten up when alone, or the verbal abuse he’d hear in the streets. Now, even though he’s put his vote in for the Labour Party, he’s not so sure things will change.

“Both parties [are the same],” Yaqoob says. “Labour is just a little bit favour[able] to us, otherwise they are the same. The policies are all [the] same.”

The main road in Barking, leading to the market | Ritu Prasad
The main road in Barking, leading to the market | Ritu Prasad

In another nearby market stall, Adeel, a young man in his twenties, sits waiting for customers that don’t seem to be coming. Though hesitant to share personal details, he echoes the idea that Barking Market has changed since the attack.

“[It’s] the first day after the attack and it’s not a bit quiet, it’s very quiet,” Adeel says. “Business is carrying on today slowly.”

Shehnaz Akhtar, 62, is standing outside a fruit shop. She migrated to London 30 years ago, but can only speak a few broken sentences in English and prefers to converse in Urdu.

She says she voted for the Labour party because it cares for the elderly and the disabled. "How can those who have one leg or one hand work? This is not fair. The government needs to think about them, not just about the rich," she says, complaining of back ache and shortness of breath.

"I used to work a lot in the past, but now I stay at home. One needs to rest too, don't they?"

In the 2015 general Election, 57.7 per cent of Barking’s votes went to the Labour party. The Conservative party received only 16.3 per cent in comparison. The borough has been a Labour stronghold for years, even giving as many as 72 per cent of votes to the party in 1994.

After the London bridge attack, the mother of four – three sons and a daughter – says people will start viewing Pakistanis and Muslims differently.

"They think all of us are the same,” Shehnaz says. “But if the five fingers on our hand are not the same, how can different people be the same? [The terrorists] have no faith, no religion. No one will say they are doing a good thing by killing children and innocent people. Everyone has their own way of thinking, and maybe [the terrorists] have some mental illness. In this country, everyone has the freedom to think and do as they please."

Twenty-seven-year-old Mohammad Noman cannot speak English either. He came to London from Sargodha in Punjab around seven or eight years ago and sells fidget spinners outside an electronics and convenience store in the neighbourhood. His broken English suggests he hasn't found assimilation easy and he wishes Muslims were not all painted in the same light.

"Muslims care about the government, they don't like to kill people," he jumps right in, adding the government, too, cares for them. "They provide us with all the facilities."

But Barking's image has been tainted, says Noman. "In the last two or three days, 12 or 13 people were arrested by the police. They then came again later and arrested another two or three men. People are scared of coming here now."

He hesitates before answering if he voted, but then says yes. “I voted for the Labour party because it is good for the Asians. “They will win, of course.”

This story is part of a reporting project with the Centre of Excellence in Journalism at IBA and the Medill School of Journalism at Northwestern University, USA.