Saturday, 31 May 2014

As the Tower Hamlets disaster enters a new phase, it remains an object lesson to Labour

Last weekend, Lutfur Rahman was re-elected as Mayor of Tower Hamlets, after easily the most contentious polling day and count in recent UK electoral history. Even though the mayoral result was announced on the Friday night after recounts, thousands of spoiled ballots, accusations of intimidation and a count venue lock-in, the council result, extraordinarily, did not get announced until the following Tuesday

And thus an administration, already notorious for incompetence, links to extremism and allegations of misuse of council funds, secured further national notoriety, this time over complaints about electoral practices.

For reasons regular readers will be aware of, it would be a gross understatement to say that I find it difficult to summon any enthusiasm for Rahman's win, but at least the events of polling day and the preceding Panorama exposé have given the borough's desperate predicament a national profile.

We will await the results of the investigation announced by the Electoral Commission to judge whether or not electoral law was broken, but there were certainly widespread allegations of intimidation, coercion, large crowds gathering in the streets outside polling stations and the count, and so on.

I am happy to be corrected on this, but I also remember a tweet on the night pointing out that the highest level of postal voting in London, by some margin, was to be found in Tower Hamlets (it is fast becoming abundantly clear that recent governments' marked expansion in postal voting has been a double-edged sword in some areas where there are doubts over electoral practices).

However, let us suppose, giving the benefit of the doubt to Mr Rahman, that no significant gain was afforded to his party by any actions which might fall outside electoral law, i.e. that anything which did occur would not have changed the result, a win by about 3,000 votes. If that turns out to be the case, it presents us with an even more uncomfortable truth: that Labour has not managed to convince sufficient voters that it would do a better job than the current mayor.

I think John Biggs fought a decent campaign and could have made a very good mayor. However, given the list of pressing questions which the mayor has no satisfactory answer to (helpfully provided by the good Nick Cohen), and the fact that his administration is under investigation by both police and government auditors, this is a pretty poor state of affairs (although there is clearly always the possibility that both will give him a clean bill of health). 

There is also the choice that Labour made, which I argued here (and Andrew Gilligan did here) might not be the right one, to fight on "the issues" rather than fitness to govern. Which meant that a lot of points regarding fitness to govern never got raised with the electorate.

And in the end, such a loss surely must stem from the fact that, outside of the bloc voting for Rahman, largely but not wholly comprised of the Bengali community, the remaining Tower Hamlets voters still do not believe that Labour has changed enough.

As the recent investigation by the Department of Communities and Local Government has indicated, the London Borough of Tower Hamlets is now a much bigger problem than just the Labour Party's, but it is still an object lesson for us. And that is because, when the Rahman administration finally implodes, it seems pretty likely that everyone will remember who created this monster, even if the "Tower Hamlets First" political group no longer wears Labour badges.

The real lesson for Labour is this: the likelihood is that it is now too late to turn Tower Hamlets around through the normal democratic process. It will probably, frankly, not be turned around at all without the direct and wholesale intervention of central government, as eventually happened with Liverpool City Council in the 1980s. But the seeds of Tower Hamlets' demise have also been sown in a bunch of other Labour-controlled inner cities. 

There are other boroughs in London and the South East. There is the West Midlands. The M62 corridor. Pockets in all of these areas have long suffered from the dubious politics that Labour plays with ethnic communities, mostly Pakistani and Bangladeshi but not restricted to them. So it is blindingly obvious that there will be other Tower Hamlets. This is not a one-off. 

No, the reality that no-one wants to accept is that, as Panorama's John Ware put it yesterday, "race politics has poisoned Tower Hamlets". And if we want to know which party is most responsible for that poisoning, we should take a long, hard look in the mirror.

Many of us are too young to remember what happened in Liverpool, and for many more the memory has dimmed over the intervening thirty years. But it behoves us to remember: because this problem will not go away while Labour resolutely refuses to face its role as part of the problem, rather than the solution. The politics have changed since then; the painful result has not.

I know these words may sound harsh to the long-suffering Labour activists of Tower Hamlets, trying hard to get a Labour administration elected in seemingly impossible circumstances.

But it is no longer a local problem, it affects all of us in the party nationally. And, once it finally explodes, in the East End and quite probably elsewhere as well, the Tories will understandably use this as a convenient stick to beat us with for many, many years to come.

A response from Tower Hamlets posted by the excellent @judoker here

6 comments:

  1. 1. There may be incompetence but it was only recently we were celebrating all secondary schools being good or outstanding. And, much as I loathe him, he did build dwellings. 2. IMHO if Labour had selected Sirajul Islam they would have won. So the problem may not be as structural as implied here. 3. If those supporting lesser candidates had indicated second preferences, Labour would have won. So maybe education is an issue. 4. What this election does show is the complete unsustainability of the mayoral model. There is just no system of adequate accountability. The government should get its head round this instead of considering, Thai style, overthrowing the ballot. 5. In any event, I expect sanctions to follow the auditors' report so there may be some hope of a rational outcome

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    1. @Michael:

      1. I am not sure that compensates, and indeed not even sure if the second is good or bad.

      2. Perhaps, but then similar things would happen to the unreformed party, only this time within Labour not outside it. Papering over the cracks does not solve the problem.

      3. But many Rahman voters didn't even make 2nd prefs either. And again, this is not the way to solve the problem.

      4. There is an argument for the checks and balances not being strong enough, I agree. It should not be possible for a mayor to sit in silence in Scrutiny committee, or fail to attend.

      5. I hope so too, however the only rational outcome any good for Tower Hamlets will be that Lutfur Rahman leaves office. Slaps on the wrist will not do.

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  2. "We will await the results of the investigation announced by the Electoral Commission to judge whether or not electoral law was broken,"Thats what was said about the "Trogan Horse"but people,media bloggers don t wait they smear, judge and project a certain narrative.I think to influrence,nurse hate and cause devision.When like with the "trogan Horse"alegations come to nothing they remain silent they don t care the damage is done.No wonder we are slipping into fascism.

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    1. What a lot of terrible old tripe. I am rather surprised that you think Britain is "slipping into fascism".

      I also really do wonder if your name is Charlotte and if you were sent to post here as part of a campaign team, but please do us all a favour and go and troll somewhere else.

      Thank you.

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    2. A campaign team lol ,no i am a fully grown women a mother who has geniune concerns for my children.You i think are a stooge with ambition i bet you cheer and nod along to Obama speechs.

      Delete
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