Labour slumped to a shocking defeat yesterday in a by-election for the Tower Hamlets ward of Weavers, which came about as a result of the sudden death in June of councillor John Pierce at the age of only 40. The winners were Aspire, a local party based on the political movement associated with former Mayor Lutfur Rahman, who was removed from office in 2015 after an election court ruled he had won office the previous year with the help of “corrupt and illegal practices”. There was a tangled web of factors at work in a ward where practicing to deceive has been part of its recent electoral history.
Weavers is based on the western section of Bethnal Green. The name “Weavers”, which has been used for the ward in this area since 1978, is a tribute to the ever-changing nature of the East End. The area was a centre of the weaving trade for many years and the place where generations of migrants and refugees, particularly Huguenots and Irish, found homes and jobs. It is a densely populated residential and post-industrial area. One of its few local open spaces, located just outside the Weavers ward, is Weavers Fields, which opened as a result of wartime bombing and the post-war demolition of the weavers’ cottages that had previously stood there.
The inner East End is still an area of recent migration, with the largest community being of Bangladeshi origin. There is also, of course, a long-standing white population. The ward boundary runs down the middle of the Kray brothers’ former fiefdom of Vallance Road. A more pleasant East End institution within the ward is the Columbia Road flower market. The western edge of the ward comes close to Shoreditch High Street. The peculiar raised concrete tunnel station of that name spans the boundary between Tower Hamlets and Hackney.
There are some Shoreditch artists and City professionals to be found at this end of Weavers. Part of the area was the Old Nichol, a fearsome slum in Victorian times until it was replaced by a very early piece of public housing, the Boundary Estate. The 1890s blocks radiate out from the bandstand at Arnold Circus, through quiet residential streets, which are part of the reason why the by-election was so acrid and its outcome so surprising.
The East End is sometimes thought of as being a solid Labour heartland, but although Labour does normally win elections here there are enough exceptions to prove that it is not quite that simple. It took until 1945 for Labour to win the Bethnal Green South West parliamentary constituency for the first time, when Percy Holman defeated Liberal MP Sir Percy Harris.
The parties that formed the Liberal Democrats revived as a force in local elections in the late 1970s, and from 1982 until 2010 they represented Weavers ward on the council more often than not (though Labour prevailed in 1994 and 1998). They controlled Tower Hamlets from 1986 until 1994, aided in the early 1990s by shady tactics that attracted an investigation by the Lib Dems at national level.
More recently, the threat to Labour has come from parties espousing a more left-wing or communalist form of politics. The first shock was in 2005, when George Galloway won the Bethnal Green & Bow constituency at that year’s general election, followed in 2006 by local election gains for Galloway’s Respect Party. Labour won the May 2010 borough elections, but split badly over the issue of Rahman being their candidate for the first mayoral election, held later that year. He was eventually stopped from being the candidate, but ran as an Independent and won.
However, his re-election in 2014 was declared void by the election court. Labour’s John Biggs won the fresh mayoral election held the following year and was re-elected in 2018. Labour council colleagues won a sweeping victory in seats in the same year, but cannier observers noted that although the by then divided forces of Lutfurism had been defeated, their electoral base had not been destroyed.
Throughout all this turbulence, Weavers stuck with Labour. Boundary changes reduced the ward from three members to two in 2014. Pierce and his Labour colleague Abdul Mukit won the seats in that year, defeating Kabir Ahmed, who had been elected for Labour in 2010, but contested the ward for Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party, falling just nine votes short of Pierce’s total.
The election court that brought about Rahman’s removal as Mayor also looked at the Weavers ward election of 2014. The judgment was that Ahmed was not a resident of the address in Bethnal Green he was registered at and concluded: “It follows that Mr Ahmed’s registration was a false registration and that his votes were unlawful.” (paragraph 327). The Labour team had a healthier-looking majority in 2018, but secured only just over 50 per cent of the vote. The so-called Lutfurites, by then running as Aspire, led the rest of the pack.
Six candidates stood in yesterday’s by-election. Trade unionist Hugo Pierre of the Socialist Party (Militant) ran under the Trade Union and Socialist Coalition banner, polling 30 votes. Entrepreneur Emanuel Andjelic won 50 votes for the Lib Dems. The next two candidates tested the limits of nominative determinism: the Greens’ Nathalie Bienfait didn’t do all that well, polling 205 votes (9.7 per cent, more or less what the party won in 2018); the Conservative candidate Elliott Weaver, on the other hand, significantly improved his standing compared with when he fought the seat in 2018, winning 360 votes (13.9 per cent) and more than doubling the Tory share.
Instead of going through the motions, the Conservatives actually campaigned in the by-election and were duly rewarded for their efforts, which seemed largely inspired by the young Mr Weaver. However, his literature downplayed his party allegiance – voters were coyly invited to support the party whose emblem was a tree, with the name of the party somewhat hard to find.
But the serious battle was always going to be between the two parties who led the field in 2018. Labour’s defence did not start well. The eventual winner of a disputatious selection process, young activist Nasrin Khan, was supported by the borough leadership, but both the process and its outcome were opposed by some within the Weavers party, who regarded her as inexperienced and not local enough. Inexperience wasn’t something the Aspire candidate could be accused of. It was none other than Kabir Ahmed, who this time gave an address in Redbridge.
The campaign was waged with the vitriol that one has come to expect from elections in Tower Hamlets. There was a lot going on. Local council administrations, particularly in complex inner city boroughs like Tower Hamlets, attract a lot of criticism, and there are always complaints of remoteness, inefficiency and not listening. There is a legacy of the sort of communalism practised by the Rahman administration, in which resources were directed towards particular sections of the Bangladeshi population. The borough’s cohesion, always frayed, has never really been the same since Galloway’s win in 2005. There is distrust of the electoral process, born of the borough’s recent experiences, as well as general paranoia.
However, the issue that really galvanised the campaign was a London-wide concern: Low Traffic Neighbourhoods. In Bethnal Green, through routes run along fairly narrow streets (except when these have been cleared and widened in redevelopments). Weavers has two LTNs, one in the Boundary Estate and one around Columbia Road.
This area is no stranger to traffic calming – there have been markets in and around Columbia Road for a century and a half. But the election campaign revealed a lot of local ill-feeling around the issue – the general principle, the complaint that consultation was inadequate, and the specific design of the LTNs. The Conservative and Aspire campaigns reinforced each other’s anti-LTN messages. Labour failed to get a hearing for its position on the issue, and the other pro-traffic calming parties (Green and Lib Dem) saw their votes stagnate or fall.
When the votes were counted, Aspire had won a big victory. Ahmed polled 1,204 votes (46.5 per cent) and Khan was a long way behind (742 votes, 28.6 per cent). Turnout was 27.9 per cent, significantly lower than in 2018 (40.7 per cent) let alone the somewhat fictional figure for 2014 (46.2 per cent).
I get the feeling we have not heard the last of this by-election. The result was an upset in a borough with bitter politics and a history of electoral irregularity, and will no doubt fuel even more ill-will between Labour and Aspire – which had previously picked up a seat in Shadwell at a by-election in February 2019 – as the May 2022 borough and mayoral elections approach.
It will also disturb Labour people across London. Tower Hamlets is undoubtedly peculiar, but it still raises the question of how well the Muslim Labour vote is holding up more generally and whether the LTN dispute is a powerful wedge issue with the potential to split London Labour’s strong electoral coalition. As manifestos start to be prepared and borough Labour leaderships define their stance on their local LTNs, the Weavers result will be on people’s minds.
Photograph from Tower Hamlets Council. This piece was updated on 14 August 2021 to specify that Weavers Fields park is just outside the Weavers ward.
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