Why Labour failed in Tower Hamlets

Home Affairs ISo Lutfur Rahman has once again been re-elected as mayor of Tower Hamlets, a borough I have only recently moved to. Since moving from west Berkshire, I have had something of a culture shock, in a good way though. The borough is alive, bustling, young, ethnically diverse and highly politically charged. This feels a thousand miles away from the pleasant, but mundane world of the shire.

Tower Hamlets is tied to Labour’s roots, contributing to the party’s formation in the early 20th century, where it was and still remains a left-wing stronghold.  It has also historically been a place which new immigrants to the UK have called home, from Germans, Irish, Jews and today’s Bengalis – immigrants have always been welcomed here, although sometimes persecuted by extremists.

So, a party such as Labour, with a huge base and which prides itself on tolerance and diversity should have no problem winning a local election in this borough. But this is not the case. As I speak, not only has Rahman beaten Labour’s John Biggs, but Labour is trailing Rahman’s Tower Hamlets First party, by 6 councillors, with some wards having yet been counted. This is despite Labour’s huge resources and careful candidate selection process. Labour claimed to have learned from the mistakes, which led Rahman to leave the party in 2010, and this may actually be the case. In actual fact, I would argue Labour was not to blame for the loss of Tower Hamlets. And this is why.

32% of the population in Tower Hamlets is Bengali, and a vast majority of this population is Muslim, in a borough which is home to the largest Mosque in the country, the East London Mosque in Whitechapel. The Bengali community is highly politically engaged and rightfully feel threatened after a number of EDL rallies and a number of so called Christian patrols in the area, which have caused violence. This has echoes of the past , when Oswald Mosley’s  Black Shirts targeted the Jewish population in the 1930s. This follows a historic pattern of communities being largely welcome, but also targeted by elements of racist bigotry. And Labour for its part has always stood up for minority groups in Tower Hamlets, including against the EDL.

Minority groups rightfully feel threatened in this environment, and are very sensitive and now overly defensive to outside criticism of a candidate in Lutfur Rahman, who is hugely popular amongst the Bengali and Muslim populations. There have been various allegations about the Mayor, which started before his term in office when he was linked to the alleged extremist organisation Islamic Forum of Europe (IFE), which subsequently led to him being de-selected as Labour’s mayoral candidate. This was a mistake, and Rahman stood as an independent and immediately played the victim of a Islamophobic driven plot to stop him from gaining power.

I stand by the opinion that Channel 4’s Dispatches, investigating links between Lutfur Rahman and the IFE and Labour’s decision to de-select him, won the election for Rahman. The Muslim community in the borough is very defensive and suspicious of those who attack Islam, and Rahman is in his element when playing the victim or scapegoat.

So, this year, months before the election took place, the media began an intense campaign to attack Rahman, driven largely by the likes of Andrew Gilligan and BBC Panorama. In addition, other bloggers and newspapers such the The Wharf and Docklands & East London Advertiser extended coverage to many of the allegations made in these attacks. It felt heavily one sided and in any other borough, such heavy criticism would have killed off his chances. But this was not the case.The allegations against Rahman made by BBC Panorama triggered a Government investigation into the council, and subsequently no evidence of criminality was found. After Rahman was vindicated his innocence, Rahman won the election, and there was not one thing Labour could do to prevent it.

Rahman, in an effective strategy allowed his allies, including one-time Biggs loyalist Alibor Choudhury tie attacks from the media to a wider racist conspiracy and tied this in with Biggs. Quotes were used, such as Biggs citing the fact that all of Rahman’s cabinet were Bengali and insinuating decisions made to funnel money into Bengali groups. This constant bombardment of attacks allowed Rahman to play on fears that the Bengali and Muslim communities were already experiencing. The only thing Rahman had to do before the election was to allow the attacks to keep coming to fuel his base.

And the media duely did this, before the election Andrew Gilligan published an article named ‘30 things you should know about the extremist linked mayor of Tower Hamlets’, this was retweeted throughout the twittosphere and included the old allegations of him being linked to extremism, which fuelled his 2010 victory. I actually thought it was an excellent piece and tend to agree with Gilligan’s views on Rahman. But what he, as many of Rahman’s opponents failed to learn is that these attacks do not work, this should have been the lesson from 2010 and in my opinion, it was madness to attack him in a similar style again.

This doomed Biggs, and there was not one thing he could do. Biggs had the experience, policies and ability on paper to win the race, what’s more, the party was behind him. But Rahman has become something of a hero for the Bengali and Muslim communities, and Biggs’ chances suffered due to the constant accusations thrown at Rahman, which played to his strategy to play the victim who speaks for them. At this point, the only option for a battered Labour party is to invite Rahman back into the party and begin to heal the wounds, before even deeper divisions harm the borough.

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  1. Not a lot on the flouting of Electoral Law
    The most visible sign being the ‘threatening’ crowds outside polling stations When there should be a max of two folk from any party. Who would want to run that gauntlet when voting is voluntary?

  2. Hi John, these are allegations and even if true, it would not have changed much. I’d point you towards former Cllr Carlo Gibbs’ article on Ted Jeory’s blog, in which he also admits this.