After presiding over years of cuts to services, attacks on workers, and rising inequality, the Tower Hamlets Labour council has been dealt a blow by local residents, who have voted out the incumbent Labour Mayor.

After presiding over years of cuts to services, attacks on workers, and rising inequality, the Tower Hamlets Labour council has been dealt a blow by local residents, who have voted out the incumbent Labour Mayor.

Tower Hamlets residents decided to give Labour a bloody nose in Thursday’s local elections, as they returned Lutfur Rahman to office. This is a decisive rejection of the Labour council’s shameful policies over the past seven years.

Gaining 39,533 first preferences against incumbent Labour mayor John Biggs’ 27,894, Rahman almost managed to get an absolute majority of the vote.

Labour lost 10,000 votes since 2018, whilst Rahman gained 3,000 votes compared to his 2014 results. Rahman was disbarred from standing in the 2015 and 2018 mayoral elections. His party had split by the time of the 2018 election, where the candidates of the two factions only got 24,000 votes between them.

Council cuts

This year’s result cannot be considered as anything but a disaster for the local Labour Party, which has managed to alienate a huge section of its core voters.

It is not hard to see why this has happened. The council has dutifully carried out cuts on behalf of the Tory government. Lutfur Rahman also carried out some cuts in his term, but they were tiny in comparison.

Many residents will have compared the two administrations, and found the Labour administration wanting. Of course, the Labour council did have to contend with bigger cuts in their funding from central government – but they passed them on without so much as a squeak of resistance.

In fact, Labour councillors in Tower Hamlets conducted themselves with an arrogance that grated immensely on residents. The first thing Mayor Biggs did in 2018 was to grant himself and his cabinet a big pay increase. The leading unelected council bureaucrats are paid far more: back in 2019, 19 earned over £100,000, with chief executive Will Tuckley paid £237,900.

Then followed a string of cuts: to child care provision; to community language services (teaching of mother tongues); to social care, and so on.

Cosy relationship

Canary WharfDevelopers – particularly those building around Canary Wharf – forged a close relationship with the council, with the Mayor and his cabinet approving one massive scheme after another.

Tower Hamlets has had more construction than any other borough in London: 30,000 homes in 10 years – around 50% more than the runner-up. But very little of that has benefited the people who live in Tower Hamlets.

Fittingly, perhaps, the Thursday’s vote count was hosted by the Canary Wharf Group, the original developer of Canary Wharf, and one of the biggest developers in the borough. 

The figures about how many council homes have been built are disputed, but campaigners put the number at around 200 – compared to the 2,000 that Biggs promised back in his 2018 campaign.

These homes are often expensive, as house prices in Tower Hamlets have skyrocketed in recent decades; and they are overwhelmingly one- or two-bedroom houses, suitable for young couples without families, but not really anyone else.

Fire and rehire

Uniosn tower hamletsAt the start of the pandemic, the council launched a brutal attack on its workforce. They fired council employees en masse, and rehired them on worse terms and conditions. In particular, they attacked severance pay, in order to make it cheaper to make further cuts.

What followed was a bitter dispute with Unison, which still hasn’t been resolved. This exposed the hypocrisy of the Labour right wing, who try to court the support of the unions, but then use the most draconian anti-union measures when it suits them.

Many Labour-affiliated union members will undoubtedly have cast their votes for Rahman to give the Labour council a good kick.

These policies were opposed by grassroots members in the local Labour Party, with resolutions passed in both CLPs against Tower Rewards (the attacks on the conditions of council workers), and against the cuts in childcare provision, community language provision, etc.

But the Labour councillors and the Mayor paid no attention whatsoever to members’ feelings. The truth is that these ladies and gentlemen thought they were unassailable, with their crushing majority in the council, and in the Labour group.

They held the local Labour Party hostage, packing the Labour group with careerists who have refused to listen to the membership. Now they have paid the price.

Attack on Apsana

apsana begum at rallyLast year was dominated by the council’s attempt to take one of the local Labour MPs, Apsana Begum, to court over her social housing, which she acquired after leaving an abusive relationship.

This was a thinly veiled attempt to get rid of a popular, Bangladeshi left-wing MP.

The fact that the council lost the case caused no small amount of celebration. Parallels were immediately drawn with the case of Lutfur Rahman. Except here was a case where the establishment tried to remove an elected politician – and failed.

To this day, we don't know who was responsible for that prosecution. The Mayor refused to hold an inquiry, in spite of both constituency Labour parties passing a motion demanding it.

Discrimination

To top it all off, they ran roughshod over residents regarding low-traffic neighbourhoods (‘liveable streets’). And then they approved a new development in the vicinity of Brick Lane, adding further pressure on existing Bangladeshi businesses in the area, including the famous curry houses.

The borough has seen an influx of young professionals with different tastes and wallets than the people who have lived there for longer. Along with rising rents of housing and commercial property, many working-class residents – particularly those of Bangladeshi background – feel that they are being pushed out.

In the 70s and 80s, Bangladeshis were faced with racist attacks from the National Front. But they also faced discrimination from the Labour Party, which refused to accept them as members, and the council, which introduced policies that discriminated against them.

All these memories are being stirred up by the actions of the council over the past seven years: from abolishing community language services; to their cosy relations with developers; to the ‘liveable streets’; and the prosecution of Apsana Begum MP.

No wonder they have deserted Labour for an alternative.

Campaign of slander

Lutfur Rahman was disbarred seven years ago for electoral fraud, after a trial that was marred with controversy. The judge made a number of irregular statements about people from Bangladesh and what could be expected of them. Rahman himself ran out of money and couldn’t appeal.

The trial followed a concerted campaign of slander by the Evening Standard, the local Labour Party, and the Tory government – in particular, then-communities minister Eric Pickles.

Whatever the truth regarding the specific allegations, it is abundantly clear that the Tories (who frequently break electoral laws themselves) were after Rahman, and were just looking for a way of removing him, after they had failed to do so at the ballot box.

The election of Lutfur Rahman will no doubt cause uproar in the establishment. There will be accusations of fraud, just like before. Racists have already started making such denunciations on Twitter. Apparently, the fact that Lutfur Rahman got elected is sufficient evidence for these people that fraud has been committed.

But, as defeated Tory mayoral candidate Andrew Wood (running as an independent) pointed out, it’s very hard to commit fraud on such a scale, with so many people watching the process.

If the Tory government or the courts move against Rahman, it will merely be another attempt to remove an elected leader from a position because the electorate voted for the ‘wrong’ candidate.

Struggles ahead

At the time of writing, we don’t know whether Rahman will gain a majority in the council [update below: Rahman's party, Aspire, has won a majority of three on the council – another embarrassing blow to Labour). But he and his party will have a tough time implementing their programme. They will face fierce resistance from the tops of the council, who have done very well out of the past seven years. 

They will also face further cuts to their budget from central government. And they will face the hostility of the developers who are investing billions in various construction schemes in the area.

The truth is that Rahman will not be able to deliver on his promises without a serious struggle with the Tory government and local developers.

In these battles, the labour movement and Labour Party members must side with the working-class residents of the borough, and against the Tories and the developers.

At the same time, a battle must be waged against the majority in the Labour Group, which is determined to side with the rich and powerful. 

From our point of view, Socialist Appeal will support any attempt to resist the cuts, defend services, and fight for more – better – affordable housing. But only a determined struggle that mobilises the whole working class in the borough and beyond will yield the desired results.


Update: Rahman’s party Aspire gains council majority

The results of the councillor elections have now been announced. Labour got an absolute hammering by the electorate, losing around 20% of its votes and more than half of its councillors.

Aspire’s predecessor, Tower Hamlets First, won 18 council positions in 2014 (the last time Lutfur Rahman stood as their candidate) with 35% of the vote. Aspire has now improved on that result, winning 37% of votes and 24 seats on the council. Turnout remained at 42%, as in 2018.

Together with the mayoral victory, this is a decisive win for Aspire, who will now have a majority of three on the council.

Right-wingers deposed

Tower Hamlets is one of the poorest and most unequal boroughs in London. And although all wards have above average levels of poverty, some also have a significantly more middle-class demographic.

Overall, the densely populated, poorest wards tended to go to Aspire: Lansbury; Bromley North; Shadwell; and Bethnal Green West. The more affluent went to Labour: Island Gardens; St. Katherine’s and Wapping; Limehouse; Bow East. There were of course exceptions to this rule.

Some of the results are worth looking at more closely. Mile End, one of the poorer wards, went to Labour. But the candidates there were all new, and had won against the right wing in the selection. They weren’t tainted by their affiliation to Biggs. As a consequence they were shunned by the official Labour campaign, which seems to have done them well.

Blackwall & Cubitt Town went to Aspire, but with a very low turnout. This is also the ward where Apsana Begum’s ex-husband, Ethasham Hoque, was a councillor; and where one of the candidates was the renowned right-winger Chris Worral.

Worrall became chair of Poplar & Limehouse CLP last June, with the help of London Region Labour Party full-timers, and by the right wing promising lots of favours to all and sundry. He is renowned for his abrasive behaviour (including accusations of racism), as well as his support for private housing developers, NATO, and Trident. He lost the selection in Mile End, and was then parachuted into Blackwall & Cubitt Town, with the help of Hoque.

Another interesting ward is Bethnal Green West, which used to be known as St. Peter’s. The two last Labour whips were based in this ward.

One, Tarik Khan, is on the payroll of a Canary Wharf Group subsidiary. He lost out in the selection. The other, Kevin Brady, is renowned for his support for ‘liveable streets’, and for voting in favour of the Brick Lane development.

With the result in Bethnal Green West, the Labour Group has lost two of its most prominent members.

The other councillor that voted for the new development on Brick Lane, Abdul Kahar Chowdry, also lost his seat in Lansbury ward, along with the other candidates. The campaign there was run by a well-known right-winger. 

In Poplar & Limehouse, there used to be a trio of members that would constantly disrupt CLP meetings: Worrall; the aforementioned campaign leader in Lansbury; and Adam Alnutt, who was elected vice chair at the same time as Worrell.

Adam Alnutt himself lost the seat he was standing for in Canary Wharf to Aspire. This particular ward, which is one of the less deprived in the constituency, had a crowded field of right-wing candidates, with three conservatives (one standing as an independent), two Lib Dems, and of course Alnutt, who, just like his friend Worrall, is known for being on the far-right of the local party. The Aspire candidates got elected with 15 and 18 percent of the vote.

Many prominent Labour councillors decided to jump before they got pushed. They could see the writing on the wall, and didn’t stand for re-election. Along with the loss of the mayor, the Labour group will find itself in turmoil.

A decisive victory

The other parties, as expected, got nowhere. The sole remaining Conservative Party councillor retained his seat in the most affluent ward in the borough. Rabina Khan, Lutfur Rahman’s former deputy – now turned Lib Dem – lost her seat. The Greens increased their share of the vote and managed to grab one seat in the comparatively affluent Bow West.

The former Conservative Party – now independent – councillor Andrew Wood, who runs a particularly nasty ‘community’ group (where racism is always very thinly concealed) lost his seat, again to Aspire.

So, the only serious forces in the council will be Aspire and Labour, with Labour very much divided.

The results of the council elections show that it was in working-class areas that Aspire got its vote. Labour set itself up to be the anti-Rahman party. And although this probably had a certain impact among middle-class voters, it didn’t make a dent in Rahman/Aspire’s vote. 

In the referendum on the mayor last year, the Labour group turned it into a referendum on Lutfur Rahman – and they lost, badly.

Now they asked the same question again, and the result was predictably the same. The working-class electorate of Tower Hamlets compared the conduct of the two mayors; they looked at the cuts and attacks carried out by Biggs and the Labour group; and they decided: no more of this.

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