Tower Hamlets: Like it or not, Lutfur Rahman is a popular politician. But what kind of Mayor will he be this time?

Tower Hamlets: Like it or not, Lutfur Rahman is a popular politician. But what kind of Mayor will he be this time?

It was nothing if not decisive. Lutfur Rahman almost clinched his recapture of the Tower Hamlets mayoralty with his 39,533 first preference votes alone. Although, as expected, Labour incumbent John Biggs took the lion’s share of second preferences, he still finished well short of getting re-elected.

And almost as striking as Rahman’s victory has been the largely muted media response to it. You could be forgiven for concluding – at least so far – that the herd has reluctantly conceded that his triumph might be explained by his popularity with local voters, rather than by massive election fraud as routinely proclaimed in the past. No “story” there, then.

How did he do it? Labour took Rahman and his Aspire party seriously, but never foresaw such a comprehensive defeat – “a thrashing” one source calls it – which included Aspire candidates winning a majority of council seats. Another Labour local speaks ruefully of Rahman’s effective self-promotion, combining claims that he was innocent of the “corrupt and illegal practices” famously found in an election court judgement – which in 2015 declared his apparent 2014 mayoral win void – with large boasts about his past and future achievements into a potent populist message aimed directly at the Bengali east Londoners who form his core support.

The Biggs administration was portrayed as craven, too willing to make spending cuts, Tory-lite and out of touch with local need. There was heavy canvassing of Bengali voters, apparently often by women working in pairs, which, if so, makes an interesting contrast with the overwhelmingly male Aspire councillor intake – 24 men, all of them of Bengali heritage. Rahman and some supporters on the left contend that he won because he is a proper socialist. The reality has rather more to do with his understanding of long-standing local community politics.

Labour was also hampered in some eyes by its post-Corbyn loss of support to the Greens (who won their first ever Tower Hamlets Council seat) and, perhaps paradoxically given Green support for them, the Biggs administration’s introduction of new low traffic neighbourhoods – liveable streets as it called them – which attracted energetic opposition and may have strengthened perceptions that Labour has become a party of middle-class enthusiasms, notably cycling, and indifferent to if not downright disapproving of the daily lives of, say, minicab or delivery drivers or families with several children. A heavy by-election defeat by Aspire last summer hinted at writing on the wall.

It was difficult too for Biggs, a solid social democrat white male who understands only too well the unforgiving facts of local authority budgets, to compete with Rahman’s “charismatic victim” and wronged outsider allure – an appeal made stronger by his ability to depict himself to fellow local Bengali Londoners as one of their own. His insurgency has characteristics unique to Tower Hamlets but also similar to other revolts against political establishments, such as the EU referendum or the destruction of Labour’s parliamentary “red wall”. The council puts turnout for the mayoral vote at a hefty 49.1% – a sign of Rahman’s success with enthusing his base.

One voice of opposition points also to the bread-and-butter issue of bin collection, arguing that Biggs moving it in-house has been a failure. But there seems to be a consensus, even among some who raised concerns about the 2014 election outcome, that Rahman’s comeback, having served a five-year ban against seeking public office, is authentic: “He did what we all do – he found his voters and he got them out.”

It is useful when evaluating Rahman’s comeback to recall that he won the inaugural Tower Hamlets mayoral election held in 2010 without even needing second preference votes after Labour threw him out as their candidate, and that he finished far ahead of Biggs on first preferences in 2014 before the election court intervened. This year, his first preference total and percentage lead was even higher than in that scrubbed-out election and his final victory clearer.

What the election court did and did not say are also worth reflecting on, especially in light of the wretched revisionism being engaged in from both far right and far left. Never once does Richard Mawrey’s judgment use the word “gangster” to describe Rahman, as the Daily Mail appears to claim, and Rahman’s recent lionisation in Red Pepper by, remarkably, a Birkbeck academic, is a case study of spin and denial. As if enough rubbish of various kinds hasn’t been written about Rahman already.

Rather, the election court judgment, a thorough and readable document, says (paragraph 345): “Even if voter fraud is established, neither the parties nor the court have any idea whether it is the tip of a large iceberg or the few rogue items in an otherwise impeccable poll – or somewhere in between.”

In other words, the court did not and did not need to establish how many dodgy votes were cast in all but that there were some and whether “agents” of a particular candidate were responsible for them. That of itself allows for doubt about the widespread belief that Rahman has only topped mayoral polls because of voter fraud on a gigantic scale. Moreover, no criminal charges were even brought let alone proved, as Twitterworld widely assumes.

There’s a discussion to be had – some other time, maybe – about whether provisions of the Representation of the People Act (1983) could be brought damningly to bear on many other recent elections and, indeed, if some of those provisions are absurd. But Mawrey’s interpretations of it are robustly set out, and he makes a criticism of Rahman (paragraph 296) with which many who’ve dealt with him would concur: “Faced with a straight question, he proved himself almost pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer.”

Whatever the virtues or failings of his past or future policies, whatever the justification or otherwise for national government’s interventions in Tower Hamlets affairs as a result of the controversies around him, Rahman needs to be seen to lead an impeccably straight and effective administration this time. We’ll know soon enough if he is up to it.

Image from Lutfur Rahman’s Twitter feed.

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Categories: Analysis

3 Comments

  1. Kyle Harrison says:

    If Labour want to win in Tower Hamlets they would probably need to play Rahman at his own game and mobilise the communities in Tower Hamlets that have more reason to be concerned about him running the council (i.e. all the non- Bangladeshi people) but I doubt Labour has the stomach to do that.

    If Labour campaigned on the message that voting Labour was a vote against corruption in power then they maybe have the opportunity to get people that aren’t natural Labour to vote for them, or to engage non- voters. You would think “gentrification” of Tower Hamlets would boost Labour, if they utilised it to their advantage.

  2. JohnC says:

    “Faced with a straight question, he proved himself almost pathologically incapable of giving a straight answer.” Who does that remind you of?

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