Wednesday, 20 October 2010

Rules are there to be broken – Preview of the Tower Hamlets Mayoral election.

In amongst all the ballots held on May 6th this year was one for the creation of an executive Mayor in Tower Hamlets, and the referendum passed with a 60% yes vote. The creation of this post has resulted in an incredible Local Government saga is supposed to reach a conclusion on Thursday, although I wouldn't bet on it!.

An extraordinary election race in Tower Hamlets is hardly surprising given this is no ordinary Borough. It is one of the poorest in the country and has by far the biggest proportion of ethnically Asian residents, of which the vast majority are Bengali. Indeed, TH contains the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency which George Galloway sensationally, and somewhat controversially, won as the Respect candidate in 2005, defeating the incumbent Labour MP Oona King. Galloway was accused of choosing that seat specifically to 'whip up racial tensions' by prominent Labour politicians David Lammy and Tony Banks. If anyone hasn't seen the spectacular interview between Paxman and Galloway, conducted immediately after his victory, then follow this link. If you have already seen it…well, it's definitely worth five minutes! There were also allegations of electoral fraud for good measure.

So fast forward five years, and things are a little different. Galloway's gone. His result TH's other constituency, Poplar & Limehouse, was so poor he didn't even bother showing up for the count. At the local level Respect lost 7 of their 8 Councillors in TH, and the party looked decidedly uncompetitive without Iraq as a salient issue. With this in mind whoever won the selection to be the Labour candidate for this Mayoral election was sure to be shoe in. The actual election would be a mere formality…but this is Tower Hamlets.

The role of Mayor will replace the current Council Leader and Cabinet system and so it's not surprising the Labour candidacy was sought by a number of men with executive experience in Tower Hamlets. Lutfur Rahman was the leader of the Labour administration in TH from 2008 until this May, when he was ousted in favour of Helal Uddin Abbas. Rahman is a somewhat controversial figure and has been the subject of a Dispatches investigation into his links with the Islamic Forum for Europe; an organisation frequently accused of being extremist. Initially Labour sought to bar Rahman from seeking the candidacy, but following a legal appeal he appeared on the ballot.

Lutfur Rahman won the Labour members ballot and was installed as their official candidate on 6th September. As David Hill noted:

'The voting figures show the wide margin of his victory but also give a clue to the extent to which he divides opinion among party members…as the field narrowed, he gathered only a further 39 votes while his nearest challenger picked up 69.'

Having seemingly done the difficult bit of securing the Labour nomination Rahman looked set to become the first elected Mayor of Tower Hamlets. However, barely two weeks later, and just three days before nominations for the election were due, Rahman was removed as Labour's candidate as a result of electoral fraud allegations. Predictably, more legal action ensued, but with such a short time frame things weren't looking good for Rahman. He managed to get his case heard very quickly but he was unsuccessful in his bid to block the NEC's controversial decision. This lead to a frantic few days which culminated in Rahman's taking his own controversial decision to run as an Independent candidate.

Curiously, Labour didn't replace him with London Assembly Member, and former TH Council Leader, John Biggs, who finished second behind Rahman in the ballot. Instead they opted for the third placed, and noticeably more Bengali, candidate Helal Uddin Abbas (who you may remember replace Rahman as the Council leader in May). It's also entirely possible Labour won't actually follow up the allegations which resulted in Rahman's de-selection as by running as an Independent he's no longer their problem.

If you're wondering where Respect disappeared to in all this, they actually endorsed Rahman when he was the Labour candidate. His subsequent de-selection lead to the bizarre suggestion that Gorgeous George would drop everything and run as their candidate. As Andrew Gilligan articulates, there were two very good reasons why this would never have happened. The first is he'd almost certainly have lost, and the second is that he might have won! Neither would have interested Galloway, or more importantly – his ego. Respect's decision was made for them when Rahman announced he was running as an Independent, so they re-endorsed him.

If the NEC thought removing Rahman as the official candidate would be the end of the matter they were sorely mistaken. Given Rahman did win the Labour ballot it would be fair to assume that, even if the allegations are true, he had a few supporters within the party. Therefore, it was hardly a fall of a chair moment when a few of them turned up to a campaign meeting for his Independent candidacy. As a result, they were all expelled from the Labour party, whose rules on members publicly supporting opposition candidates are pretty clear. Of those who were automatically expelled from Labour, 8 were Councillors in Tower Hamlets. They have now formed a group, Independent Supporters of Lutfur Rahman, on the Council and with nine members (Lutfur himself, obviously!) are the second largest group, ahead of the Conservatives.

But wait, there's more. For the most part all this has slipped under the radar. There are a few in the blogosphere who have been regularly following the story (Andrew Gilligan and David Hill most notably), but given the imminent spending review dominating all platforms its minimal coverage is hardly a surprise it's not exactly national news. This all changed on Monday when Red Ken got involved…

The recently anointed Official Labour Party Candidate for London Mayor Ken Livingstone is backing Independent Candidate for Tower Hamlets Mayor Lutfur Rahman. Not content with a private 'I hope he wins' Livingstone was actually filmed on the campaign trail! Notable verbatim quotes from the clip are:

'It took five years to put the Labour party back together after George Galloway defeated Oona King down here. All that was blown away in a moment of madness by Labour's NEC'

And (my personal favourite):

'The stupidity…If they were going to get rid of you and they'd gone for John [Biggs] at least there was a credible, competent candidate.'

It's almost as if Ken's trying to get automatically expelled. A Labour spokesman humorously suggested Livingstone 'supported all Labour Party candidates everywhere; including Tower Hamlets.' Indeed, Ken himself has backtracked, suggesting he was merely campaigning to get second preferences for Rahman. Given the Labour party candidate is 99.9% certain to be in the top two (the election is employing the – ridiculous – Supplementary Vote system) this is an extremely weak excuse. To complicate matters further, Livingstone was elected to the NEC last month; the very body which is supposed to automatically expel him. [Un]Surprisingly, Livingstone is still a Labour party member, and their Mayoral candidate, at the time of writing.

So there you have it. You've got the Official Labour candidate Helal Uddin Abbas, who finished third in their ballot, against the former Labour leader of Tower Hamlets Council Lutfur Rahman, who is (definitely, maybe) backed by Ken Livingstone and (definitely) backed by Respect. There's even the remote possibility that the Conservative candidate Neil King could sneak it with Labour's vote split two ways. However, as the Tories only managed 27% and 13% in the two Parliamentary seats here in May it would take a significant protest against the Labour shenanigans to deliver such a result.


Helal Uddin Abbas (LAB)

Alan Duffell (GRN)

John Griffiths (LD)

Neil King (CON)

Lutfur Rahman (IND)

I'll be around on Thursday night for the regular live result tweeting. There are a lot of by-elections taking place on Thursday as well, and they'll be (a little more briefly) previewed later on today.


  1. A Rahman win.

    I live in Tower hamlets and about noon yesterday I received an extraordinary leaflet. Entirely unattributable and imprint-less, it accused the Labour candidate of:

    Being a Bengali supremacist

    Being backed by Respect

    Being a bankrupt who had changed his name to escape charges

    Being a misogynist

    Being a wife beater whose ex-wife was hiding from him in terror.

    Being an associate of known criminals.

    And those are just the bits I can remember. Needless to say these allegations were not substantiated by anything more concrete than innuendo. It really was staggering.

  2. Interesting stuff. Yet another layer in this bizarre election.